This study’s central argument is that social Christianity was in no small part “union made." In saying this, I advance two interrelated theses. The first is that wage earners cultivated a variety of social gospels well before the rise of the much-studied Social Gospel of Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, and other middle-class reformers. Throughout the Gilded Age dissenting strains of faith flourished in Chicago’s working-class communities, as socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists alike insisted that the city’s Christian leaders had forsaken the religion of Christ. Their championing of an alternative Christian gospel was not confined to the realm of ideas. By the turn of the century ordinary believers across the city were rising up against "scab" ministers. Collectively, these actions compounded the religious elite’s mounting anxiety that the churches might soon lose their foothold amongst the masses. Were the very institutions that had long been the nation’s cornerstone now threatened with irrelevance? Desperate to avoid this catastrophic outcome, fin-de-siecle church leaders began finally to take their working-class critics more seriously.
The second thesis is that working people played an integral role in the eventual mainstreaming of social Christianities. A select subset of the working classes – namely, white, skilled, native-born men – wielded disproportionate influence in this process, as the churches were especially intent upon retaining their loyalty. Through the industrial travails of the late nineteenth century, in fact, even as some religious leaders issued violent calls for the blood of the (foreign-born) "mob," they made sure to laud the dignity of (native-born) "labor." But such tactics by themselves did not succeed in meeting workers’ producerist demands. At the turn of the century a worried Christian elite repeatedly surveyed respectable workingmen and found that the churches’ opposition to trades unionism was at the root of their disenchantment. It was no coincidence that during these very same years leading Protestants’ and Catholics’ views on the labor question finally softened. In early twentieth-century Chicago, the Social Gospel was quite literally ascendant – from below.