Reading Religious Belief as Working-Class Intellectual History
It seems somewhat curious in retrospect that I should find myself contributing to this roundtable on the importance of class in the study of southern religion. That is because I have spent most of the past ten years thinking and writing about how important it is that scholars take religious belief seriously in the study of labor and working-class history. In my work, most recently Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South(University of Illinois Press, 2010) and The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America, coauthored with Erik S. Gellman (University of Illinois Press, 2011), I have tried to straddle both fields by telling stories that track the wider political, cultural, and intellectual impact of religious change in the lives of poor people in the United States, particularly the South, in the first half of the twentieth century. To give a short version of the long answer that follows, I will say that an attention to class in the history of southern religion bids us to think more thoroughly and creatively about the wider role of faith as lived by believers, whether rich or poor, in all aspects of their existence, especially their intellectual lives.
The path that brought me to that conclusion began in what may seem like a strange place, the papers of the Appeal to Reason, the most popular socialist newspaper in the early twentieth century, published in Girard, Kansas. I had spent the summer of 2000 writing an index and finding aid for the collection at Pittsburg State University and decided, as a first-year graduate student, to write my initial research paper on the grassroots socialist movement in rural southeast Missouri in the two decades after 1900. I found that the tenant farmers and wage workers who gave their electoral support to the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs blended their democratic voice with a gendered, racist rhetorical assault on corporate power in the countryside that ultimately led to a series of violent attacks on African American farmers and local landowners. My most surprising finding, however, was that dynamic crosscurrents—social, cultural, ideological, and political—linked the rural socialist movement to the thriving Pentecostal tent revivals that were then attracting rural poor people throughout the area. Here were socialists praising, joining with, and using the same scripture as Pentecostals; there were Pentecostals preaching at revival meetings to groups of socialists and other workers, and then joining with them to threaten and beat up a despised plantation owner. Finally, there were socialists and Pentecostals in court together, and later in jail, as local elites worked to eliminate them as threats. Both sets of radicals—religious and political—were considered equally dangerous by the dominant classes. These findings confounded my understanding at the time on two counts, namely that socialists were uninterested in religion and that southern Christians, especially Pentecostals, were resolutely apolitical, if not outright antagonistic to worldly affairs. The evidence that I found demanded new thinking that considered stories about labor and stories about faith as parts of a larger whole separated, in many instances, by only the fuzziest of lines.
As I developed this approach while preparing what would become Spirit of Rebellion, it became clear that the strength of the boundary demarcating working-class religion from working-class politics depended on the sources that I was looking at. It is perhaps an obvious point, but in this case I think it merits emphasis: historians get to sources through the questions that they ask, but it is important that historians do not let their original questions restrict the way they read the sources that turn up. I did not find club-wielding, Debs-voting Pentecostal evangelists by reading Word and Witness or Christian Evangel or any other early Pentecostal newspaper. Rather, I found them in local circuit court proceedings and trial coverage in local newspapers as I tried to understand the demise of the socialist movement in the area. The discovery prompted me to go back and ask new questions of my evidence on socialism and to dig into the record of early Pentecostal revival in the rural South and ask new questions of the sources I found there, including revival reports in papers like Word and Witness. In short, I learned that I could not adequately tell the full story of working-class peoples’ thought and action without including the central role of their faith, particularly their attraction to Pentecostal revival, or understand the role of Pentecostal belief outside of the social and economic context of the people who held it.
It is easy, I think, to get stuck in institutional or organizational stories when writing the history of either southern religion or southern labor, mainly because institutions have provided the richest sources—in some cases the only sources—still available. Whether one is talking about unions or denominations, the records that we usually begin with are very similar: institutional correspondence, policy debates and pronouncements, newsletters and newspapers, membership files, financial records and so on. Such sources provide a basic narrative and chronology, they usually mirror an institution’s rise and fall, and they generally tell their own version of the story. It makes a very inviting mix for historians, especially those working within a context of source scarcity. The papers of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union are a good example. Copied on over sixty reels of microfilm, accompanied by a superb finding aid and widely available, the collection describes in remarkable detail the efforts of African American and white farmers in the rural South to organize in the 1930s to protest their poverty and lack of full citizenship. For any scholar interested in southern labor—particularly in the fields—the correspondence, minutes, membership rolls, and newspapers collected in the STFU papers are a godsend. By a long shot, they contain more information on the social, economic, and political lives of the rural poor than any other single source. But—and it took me some time to learn this fact—the collection does not tell us everything about working-class life in the South. It especially does not explain how the people who joined the STFU came to do so, where they came from, where they went after its demise, and, most importantly I think, how their union involvement fit within their worldview.
In older tellings of the history of the STFU—tellings that were over-reliant on the institutional source base—the fact that many meetings occurred in rural churches and that many locals were led by African American and white preachers was explained as a function of organizing strategies laid down by the union’s secular leadership: the best way to organize southerners, the union’s leaders and first generation of historians said, was to reach them through their preachers, who would bring in whole congregations of this naturally religious folk. Had I not already gone through the process of connecting socialist groups to Pentecostal revival, as discussed above, I might have left it at that too. But I noticed while reading local meeting reports that a large number of STFU members claimed Pentecostal, holiness, or Primitive Baptist affiliations, and that these churches were often the places where their union locals met.
In other words, the organizational history quickly broke down: something else, something bigger, was going on in those meetings that had to do with much more than a single labor union or a single denomination. The Christians who joined the STFU were, for the most part, not members of the mainstream denominations: the Southern Baptists, Southern Methodists, Southern Presbyterians, or even the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Rather, the politics of the STFU and its members were closely linked to the same explosive set of theological and eschatological beliefs I discovered while working on rural socialism. The people who joined the union as a way to reject earthly exercises of economic and political power also seemed to belong to rebellious churches that rejected the authority and control of church elites in the big, established denominations. What is more, many of these people challenged Jim Crow racial divisions as part of their labor and/or religious rebellion. Their sense of spiritual empowerment transcended institutional structures, union and church. What I aimed to do in Spirit of Rebellion was to capture this bigger picture by showing how rural southerners developed and deployed new spiritual power to resist the destruction of their way of life, as they knew it, amid the dramatic transformations that reshaped southern agriculture and rural communities in the first half of the twentieth century.
Although the history I set out to explore went well beyond any one organization, the sources usually did not. As a result I had to find a way to reconstruct the theological context of working-class mobilization as well as analyze the power dimensions within and between denominational churches, old and new. I began to wonder more consciously about scripture, especially the specific biblical references and exegetical passages I found in union and other political sources. Historians working on almost anything southern will know what I mean: records of meetings or gatherings frequently contain reference to scriptural passages, mostly read aloud either for group exposition or contemplation. Because they are so abbreviated, even cryptic, in appearance, these references are easy to pass over or attribute to a general religiosity with no specific significance; a favorite example is a brief 1932 report in the Negro World of a Garveyite meeting in Kinston, North Carolina, that tells in passing how participants read from the “gospel” of the 66th chapter of Isaiah. Once I cracked open my Bible and began reading the full passages mindful of the social and political context, I realized that these specific references could provide an abridged transcript to a system of thought and belief that might, with some care, be pieced back together. The Garveyite use of Isaiah 66 looks rather innocuous until you read the scripture, which reveals a history of explosive thought. Throughout the 1920s, rural Garveyites crafted a vision of deliverance that promised eventual earthly redemption for all black people through the diligent work of a few on behalf of the whole race. They used biblical scripture, for example, Exodus 3:16–17, to articulate and elaborate this gradualist vision. By the early 1930s, however, with their movement in disarray, Garveyites continued to work for racial redemption but increasingly imagined their deliverance as violent, immediate, and exclusive. Their reading of Isaiah 66 forecast salvation for a righteous remnant of true believers (those who remained loyal to Garvey) but promised the total destruction of the unjust, white enemies and black apostates alike.1 This is just one example from a body of theological and eschatological ideas that, when reconstructed and taken together, casts an entirely new critical light on the political and spiritual vision that motivated rural working people to challenge the status quo.
What I found in this working-class theological history was a surprising world of intellectual depth and innovation that has become the central focus of my work as a historian of southern labor and faith. In Spirit of Rebellion and most lately in The Gospel of the Working Class, I have aimed to reconstruct and track the ideas that cross the interpretative space normally occupied by more familiar categories of class and religion, especially as these ideas form or reflect larger systems of thought, what we might refer to as cosmologies. By cosmology I mean the intellectual constellation of beliefs, faiths, theologies, and eschatologies that structure and animate the way people think about God, work, justice, politics, and community and the ways people act (or not) according to those thoughts. In the New South period, the dominant cosmology among white southerners was a broad consensus that linked white supremacy, gendered respectability, and social and economic hierarchy in the function of both church and state. As my work on socialist Pentecostals showed, this cosmology was not without its ruptures and contradictions. For me, at least, those moments of cosmological weakening, when chaotic social conditions and new, rebellious ideas prompted people to challenge reigning authority, are the most fertile moments for exploring the surprising interactions between religious faith and the politics of class.
Historians of southern religion have produced a rich body of work that explores the role of power—economic, gendered, and racial—in the dynamics of faith. As a labor historian I have relied on these scholars—Paul Harvey, Adele Oltman, Harvey Cox, Donald G. Matthews, Randall J. Stephens, Vincent Harding, Joe Creech, Robert H. Craig, Wilson Jeremiah Moses, and Albert J. Raboteau, to name a few—as I tried to get a better grasp on the lives and minds of southern workers. My fellow contributors to this roundtable, with their excellent work, are already taking the field in fascinating new directions, deepening what we thought we knew and breaking new ground too. Rather than say that southern religionists should think harder about class, or emphasize it more, I will conclude by saying that by bringing discussions of class and religion together we can break outside the comfortable but narrow confines of organizations, be they churches or unions, and in the process open up the wonderful, heterodox world of ideas that inspired some southerners to challenge the status quo in a range of ways, some productive, some not. The southern intellectual tradition is diverse and deep and scholars have only just begun to understand its fullness. Historians of southern religion should be encouraged that they work in a field at the cutting edge of that endeavor.
For the full argument, see Jarod Roll, “Garveyism and the Eschatology of African Redemption in the Rural South, 1920-1936,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 20 (Winter 2010): 27–56.↩