Austin Lewis

The Church and the Proletarian

(February 1903)


Source: From International Socialist Review, Vol. 3 No. 8, February 1903, pp. 465–472.
Transcription: Matthew Siegfried.
HTML mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists Internet Archive (2022).
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2022). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


THE problem of the relation of the Church to the working classes is entirely modern, and the reasons why this is so will, it is to be hoped, appear in the course of this article. The word Church is here used of organized Christianity in any form, but particularly of the Protestant Churches, for, as far as the Roman Catholic Church retains a hold upon the working classes it is outside the pale of our consideration, and where it has lost its hold, it is upon the same footing as the other churches, and no better.

Now, it will be generally admitted that the Church has no control over the mass of workingmen, that they do not attend its services, that they ignore its claims, that they find their ethical sanctions outside of religion, and that the teachings of the clergy, except as far as education has caused the members of the working class to retain certain concepts, which, after all are more social than religious in their nature, are inoperative with regard to the great majority of the toiling population. The Church periodicals are full of admissions of these facts, Church congresses discuss them, organizations are attempted to bring into greater harmony the masses and the Christian efforts put forward by the churches, and the alienation of the body of hard workers from the affairs of the Church is the cause of much grief to the sensitive humanitarians among the clergy, who find in the breach between the masses and religion one of the most disheartening facts of modern life.

In order to examine our problem with any chance of arriving at a satisfactory conclusion, we must first understand the present, and, therefore, the historic significance of the terms working classes or proletariat and Church.

The working class as a objective reality is a new class and dates only from about a century and a half ago. It is as modern as the age of machinery. In the Middle Ages artisans followed for the most part some additional occupation, chiefly farming, or if they were specialized were members of guild organizations, and either possessed small capital or expected to do so. They were on terms of social equality with the master – except in few rare in stances – married his daughter, and succeeded to the business. They were hence a part of the social structure and the religion which suited the social structure suited them. There was, therefore, no religious question; baron and retainer were part of the same religious system, the religious rite was also a social rite.

In the time mediate between the downfall of the feudal system and our own times, that is the time during which the domestic system had developed, the conflict of classes had been fought out on the religious as well as on the political and economic fields, and in those countries where the new system had made headway, the Protestant revolt had fixed the destinies of the hand workers, who still for the most part followed some other occupation as well as their regular trade. The Catholic Church was associated in their minds with the interests of the class for whose overthrow they had fought, and they were thus by inclination Protestants, in England, Protestant Dissenters, and in America members of the so-called “free” Churches.

All this time there had been growing up an independent class, that of the day laborers, and the advent of the machine industry at almost one swoop converted the mass of workers into this class, brought into being the modern working class, and established what has been called the proletarian. Now it will be observed that this class has, according to history, no part in society. It is not and never has been a recognized social factor; it has no fixed station; it never belonged to the guilds. It never took any part except so far as it was compelled to do so in the fight between bourgeois and the feudal lord, and consequently having no part in the social life, has no class interest in the manifestation of religious life representative of social and political interests. So, when this class became large enough to be an important factor in national affairs, the Church discovered that it had lost its hold upon it and thus had no control over a progressive and powerful element of society.

In losing its hold upon this class the Church has missed its final opportunity of being a permanent political and social force. The days of the statesmen-bishops are over, the political parson is a thing of the past. The declaration of the temporal power does not excite any enthusiasm in Catholic countries, and the cries of “Il Papa Ree” are only the meaningless utterances of perfervid pilgrims. On the other hand, the power of the parson is gone; his word is no longer of social import; the town-meeting can get along without him; he has lost his position as a social magnate. What power he retains is by virtue of his own personal dignity, of respect for his ethical teachings, of acceptance of his standards of life and conduct.

But the Church persists. In spite of the destruction of its dogmas by science and the loss of political prestige and social weight, it still appears to be sound and healthy. Still the new class, which is to be the victor on the field of economic and political warfare is outside of it, has nothing to do with it, and cannot be persuaded to take it seriously. Ecclesiastical effort, then, represents the efforts of a class other than the working class. What will happen when the working class has the control, when the wealth of the present possessing class is either cut off altogether will Christianity have passed the border which so many anterior creeds have crossed and gone down to their death?

In order to arrive at anything like an approximate view of Church prospects we have to understand the historical significance of ecclesiastical history up to the present. Here there need be no discussion as to the supernatural qualities of the Christian religion, the authenticity of its sacred books, the actual events in the life of its Founder. Here Christianity is simply regarded as a sociological fact. The Church, it is commonly said, represents a moral force. That is true.

The Church is an ethical teacher, but it is a teacher which has never given all its time to the teaching of ethics. It has nearly always been an enormous political and social power. At a very early period of Church history, only a little more than two hundred and fifty years after the death of its Founder, the Church vaulted into the saddle, not as an ethical teacher but as a political power. Constantine elevated it, or degraded it, as you please, into a state religion, the Council of Nice copper-riveted its doctrines; henceforward it was bound up with the destinies of empires that is with the destinies of the ruling classes of empires.

From this time on it was propagated by the civil and military resources of the State. The clergyman was thus practically an officer of state. But, if possible, still more important was the role which the Church played in education and the learned professions. Philosophy and jurisprudence were parts of the field to whose possession the Church claimed the exclusive right, and hence so tinged were these branches of human activity by ecclesiastical in fluence that the political revolt had to assume a theological guise; for the minds of the people were, as Engels somewhat harshly says, “stuffed with religion.” Even during the course of the Protestant revolution, the diverse interests of sections of the revolutionary party assumed diverse theological clothing; thus, there was a moderate party and one more extreme such as the Anabaptists representing a more radical political doctrine as well as a more radical interpretation of scriptures in accordance with that doctrine.

Calvin with his democratization of the Church and its republicanization set a fair pace for the triumph of the bourgeois in religious affairs, and by the infusion of this spirit into the Church of England in opposition to the absolutist theories of the Stuarts and the country gentry, succeeded in creating that institution which the Oxford movement endowed with a new lease of life, but which is now flickering out in mere formalism.

Precisely, as far as the broad marks are considered, the same course of ecclesiastical development is to be noted on the continent of Europe, where Protestantism in its various forms represented the interests of the trading part of the community, and where the proletariat merely acquiesced in the ecclesiastical forms set up by the economic superiors.

Religion in France, however, entered upon a new phase. The defeat of the Protestants and the consequent revocation of the Edict of Nantes killed all the aspirations of the trading classes for a new religion. They became subjected to a new and that an anti-religious movement, for their interests were represented by the pre-revolutionary philosophers who were atheistic in their tendencies. Hence, the French Revolution marked the entire absence of religion in the consideration of political ideals. Still, the non-religion of the French bourgeois class was just as much a purely class affair as was the Protestantism of the other European countries, and French atheism was as little representative of working-class sentiment as was English Protestantism.

But the French atheistic movement had a great, if indirect, influence upon the middle classes of other countries. Henceforward, the middle class was by no means thoroughly religious; in fact, a great and ever-increasing proportion of it became free thinkers of various shades. The development of modern science has more and more fascinated the middle-class intellect, and the last century has witnessed a constant alienation of culture and knowledge from all ecclesiastical effort.

In other words, the Church has lost its force as a political power, and it can no longer hope to wield an influence over the minds of men by virtue of its authority as an arm of the civil power.

The specialization of modern life has also tended to diminish the scope of its influence. Science, philosophy, law and other branches of human activity have become more and more independent of ecclesiastical interference, and the Church is driven closer and closer to the mere work of teaching ethics. The political and other offices thrust upon it since the time of Constantine, the assumption of political and social importance, are rap idly falling away from it, and the occupation of a preacher of righteousness in accordance with the teaching of the Founder appears to be the only duty left to the priest and the minister.

But the Protestant churches hold their own by virtue of certain other distinct functions. They are social clubs for the middle classes. The respectability of a member of society is gauged, more or less, by the standing of the Church to which he belongs; for there are churches fashionable and non-fashionable; churches which are attended solely by a certain class and churches again into which the persons attending the former class never set foot. They are meeting places for the young of both sexes who belong to a certain station in life, guarantees of social standing and in come, marriage bureaus of undoubted respectability, where Life partners are chosen, and they provide a certain amount of occupation for the restless and bewildered women of the middle classes, who, having abrogated the essentially feminine functions, are pursued by the demons of social ambition and eternal ennui.

None of these functions appeal to the working classes. The young of that class have their own way of becoming mutually acquainted; they have no social position; they have no fixed income; their women have too much to do in the ordinary round of domestic duties to find time for the mild dissipations of modern Protestantism; and as no provision is made for their ethical training, they receive none except such as the conditions of their life have imposed upon them.

What, then, is the condition of the problem which we set out to consider? We have a church which is shorn of all distinction and power, which rests fundamentally upon its force as a teacher of ethics, and we find that church confronted by a population, not hostile to it, but which does simply not regard it, does not trouble itself about it, and to whom it is more or less of a jest.

In other words, the Church of to-day is confronted by the same problem which it had to face at its first institution. It must go forth simply as the apostle of the religion of Christ, shorn of all power and social dignity, and by virtue of the power, of its message win for itself a place in the hearts and minds of the masses, literally convert them to its point of view and out of the masses of careless and semi-sarcastic proletarians build up the flock which the Master instructed his clergy to guard and feed, but which in their devotion to power and wealth and the pettiest of social influences they have betrayed and neglected.

There are certain other functions which remain to the Church and which will have to disappear before the latter really recognizes that the problem which it must face is simply ethical and religious. One of these has been practically solved already in this country, namely, the direction of education in whole or in part by the Church. In England at the present time the Church, Anglican and Roman, is fighting almost desperately to retain control of education. Should it win, the chances of England to retain her position in the commercial world may be considered as irretrievably lost.

The education question is vital to the Church, as may be seen from the efforts which the Catholics, even in this country, make to maintain some sort of supervision over the children of the working classes, even at the heaviest sacrifice. The Sunday school of the Protestant Churches is a very weak substitute for that ecclesiastical control of education. It serves a certain social purpose, but not that contemplated by the minister. It cannot escape no tice that while the numbers of scholars attending Sunday school are very imposing, the ratio of adults attending church is small in comparison. What, then, becomes of the Sunday school scholars? They evidently do not retain their connection with the Church when they have reached maturity? To such the school merely served as a means of enabling them to pass the tedious hours of Sunday, without encroaching upon the peace of the family. It carries but little lasting influence and as a vehicle of appeal to the working classes is an unmitigated failure.

The function of dispenser of charity is another which the Church has heretofore exercised to its own power and well-being. The distribution of charity, then, has always given the Church a great amount of indirect influence, even among those who do not profit by its largess. This charity has been used to a certain extent as a proselyting influence, and then again much of it has been purely altruistic, expended by the Church without any hope of direct return. But whether the object of such charitable work has been selfish or altruistic, there is little doubt that it has been for the most part exceedingly unwise. The pauperization which is always to be dreaded in matters of charity has followed directly in the wake of ecclesiastical charitable effort, and there is a general growing feeling on the part of social experts against the perpetuation of the Church method of alleviating the evils of poverty. Organized charities, managed on a purely secular basis, municipal schemes for the prevention or the alleviation of poverty, State societies for the scientific treatment of juvenile offenders, substitutes of a state nature for magdalene institutions, and similar efforts are ever more and more taking the place of ecclesiastical institutions.

It will be noted that all this does not reflect in any way upon the value of the Church as a social factor in the past; it is only evidence of the curtailment of its social value in the future. And this is precisely with what we have to deal – how is a Church, without any political power, any social power, any control over education, any management of charitable funds, going to exert an influence over that great and unwieldy body known as the proletariat?

Many of the clergy refuse even to consider the question. They make closer and closer friends with those in power, they attach themselves still more nearly to the side of wealth and privilege, and by associating the name of religion with the capitalistic function are simply storing up wrath against the day of wrath and are establishing in the mind of the worker the idea which is not yet there established, that religion and capitalism are but two sides of the same shield.

Such a result would be unfortunate for the Church. The minister warm with the compliments of enthusiastic followers, may not think that there is any such danger, but the thing is not only possible, but it has actually happened. In Berlin to-day five out of six people who are to be seen upon the streets going to some meeting or other, are going not to church but to hear addresses from the platforms of the Social Democrats upon the rights and duties of the working classes. When their children have acquired the habit of substituting the lecture hall for the church, the latter will no longer confront a careless proletariat with no religion, but a sturdy proletariat with a very definite, if materialistic, substitute for religion, with an organization, with speakers who are at least as able as the theological colleges can produce, and without any doubt as to their working-class sympathies. How long would it be before ecclesiastical authority could ever hope to reassert itself among such masses?

Still, the Church pays no attention to these warnings, and Mr. Baer, the slave-driver of the mining district, is allowed to utter his blasphemous declaration that he holds the power of life and death over his men by divine warrant, without an emphatic protest from those who claim to interpret the purposes of the Almighty.

The problem, then, of the relation of the Church to the working classes resolves itself into the simpler one of the relations of the Church to the individual workingman. But this may be still further simplified, thus. Bernard Shaw reminds us in the Quintessence of Ibsenism, that the Church is simply an ideal, an unreality, having no foundation in fact. All that really exists comprises the various congregations with their respective ministers. So that our problem is narrowed finally to the relations between the individual minister and the individual workingman.

Now, under what conditions does the minister enter upon his work? It will appear at first sight that his very training and what is left of his professional status are distinct obstacles to any unity of interest on the part of the clergyman and the laborer. For the purpose of propaganda among the working classes it is rather bad policy to open relations from a superior position, that is, a position socially superior, for the purely ecclesiastical powers claimed by some of the clergy are not subversive of their progress with the working people. On the other hand, however, an assumption of social superiority by those who are supposed to have consecrated their lives to the teaching of other than material truths has a very deadening effect. It has always been so. The clergy who have really been influential have actually lived the life of the flock to which they have ministered.

It must be remembered that the workingman is not a confirmed secularist, and has never been one. The secularist societies were not kept afloat by the efforts of the working class; hence it happened that Bradlaugh and Ingersoll were never in any sense champions of the working class, and that their opinions merely represented one side of middle-class philosophy.

If it were only the weak, the broken and the degraded who were lost to the Church, the latter might console herself even while she grieved, but, on the contrary, the strong, the vigorous and the pick of the working classes now avoid her portals, without whom she cannot expect or even deserve to perpetuate herself.

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