Labor Day is traditionally known for its links to unions and communist activists, but churches have had an oft-forgotten hand in its beginnings.
The anti-religious philosophy of communism is associated with Labor Day for good reason. Frederick Engels, co-author of the “Communist Manifesto,” hailed the pre-cursor to Labor Day, then known in the U.S. as May Day, for what he saw as its potential to unite the proletariats of America and Europe against capitalism, according to Forbes. America’s Labor Day, however, took on a decidedly religious element in its early days.
Here’s a flashback to the history of religious support for the movement that made Labor Day an American holiday.
Christian Inspiration In The Labor Movement
The Knights of Labor, led by Terence Vincent Powderly, facilitated the first Labor Day parade in New York City in 1882, 12 years before former President Grover Cleveland and Congress made it a federal holiday, according to In The Past Lane. The Knights of Labor was the most prominent and influential labor union in the U.S. at the time.
Powderly, a devout Catholic, claimed years later in 1893 that the labor movement was rooted in Christian beliefs, according to Religion News Service.
“Trades-unionists, members of guilds, leagues and other organizations of workingmen embraced Christianity and proclaimed its doctrines as being especially advantageous to the welfare of the toiling poor,” Powderly wrote.
Powderly imbued union rules with his idea of Christian sensibilities. He forbade smoking and cursing during meetings, meetings on Sundays, and union membership for anyone in the liquor business. Powderly even quoted the Christian gospels when he explained the intended message of Labor Day.
“If Labor Day is observed as it ought to be, the gospel of humanity will be understood by all men and women … ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’’ … [and] ‘Do unto your neighbor as you would have your neighbor do unto you’ will have a meaning not now understood as they should be this side of the portals where eternity begins and God rules in the presence of those He calls from the earth,” Powderly added.
Labor Day’s historical ties to religion, however, extended beyond the personal convictions of early labor movement leadership. Christian clergy also played a key role in the violent Pullman Strike of 1894, which proved instrumental in establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday.
Clergy Of The Pullman Strike
The Pullman Strike and boycott of 1894 pitted the American Railroad Union (ARU) against the Pullman Palace Car Company and the federal government, and completely shut down railroad operations across the nation.
Rev. William Carwadine, of Pullman, Il., mobilized the congregation of First Methodist Episcopal Church to bring food and supplies to striking railroad workers.
J.W. Jennings, a Methodist preacher, also waded into the fray in Billings, Mont., to support the ARU, according to author and historian Carroll Van West. Jennings delivered an impassioned sermon on the first day of the strike in which he lambasted the government for forsaking “the faith of the Jacksonian fathers.” Jennings decried the leaders of the National Democratic Party as “the pliant tools of the codfish monied aristocracy who seek to dominate this country.”
Heated rhetoric like Jennings’ sermon, delivered at an important rail center no less, helped conjure sympathy for the ARU and the striking workers, but also stirred up resentment that eventually devolved into violent riots among the strikers in several cities.
Then-President Cleveland ended the strike with an injunction, in which federal troops mobilized to end strikers’ obstruction of railway operations. The violence peaked July 7, when a mob of protestors assaulted national guardsmen, who then fired into the crowd and killed at least four people. The strike disbanded completely within 13 days after the shootings, and the government recalled federal troops July 20.
Cleveland and Congress established Labor Day as a federal holiday six days after the violent strike ended, in an effort to reconcile with labor unions.
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