Heath Carter is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso University This interview is based on his latest book Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago
JF: What led you to write Union Made?
HC: While a master’s student at the University of Chicago Divinity School I stumbled upon an article in an old fundamentalist periodical about how the state of Wisconsin had quashed an attempt by a group of Christian ministers to form a union. I read on, expecting the editor to rail against the state. Much to my surprise, he instead reveled in the ministers’ misfortune, arguing that it served them right for associating with the devil (ie. the trade union movement). The piece left me wondering whether working-class evangelicals shared the editor’s animus toward unions. I had a hunch that their class experiences might have led them to different conclusions and was able to test my hypothesis during my first-ever graduate seminar at the University of Notre Dame. That semester I wrote the first draft of what is now Chapter 5 on the religious dimensions of the Pullman strike. One of the leading ministers in town had denounced the strikers and I was fortunate in that his still-active church, Pullman Presbyterian, had its membership records going all the way back into the 19th century. I’ll never forget the excitement that afternoon when I discovered that, sure enough, in the weeks following the minister’s criticism of the strike a working-class walkout had commenced. At that point I knew I had a story to tell.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Union Made?
HC: Working people keyed the rise of social Christianity in cities like Chicago. In the generation before Walter Rauschenbusch published Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), blacksmiths, seamstresses, and the like were already preaching and practicing social gospels; and their religious activism proved the single greater factor in a remarkable early-twentieth-century turnabout, as one by one the nation’s churches finally embraced organized labor.
JF: Why do we need to read Union Made?
HC: The answer depends on the audience. Historians should read the book because it recasts the story of social Christianity, one of the most significant reform movements in modern American history. But I hope that Union Madewill also attract non-specialist readers. The book does not pretend to offer contemporary Christians or labor organizers solutions for present-day problems. Nevertheless, these groups and others may find, as I have, that the voices of late-19th-century Chicago’s working-class prophets are still surprisingly resonant.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
HC: I did not take a single American history class in college, but my senior year at Georgetown I wrote an honor’s thesis on the Left Behind series that piqued my curiosity about the history of American evangelicalism. Before I knew it I was off to the University of Chicago Divinity School, where I had the privilege of working with Catherine Brekus. By the time I finished a lengthy research paper on the rise of an evangelical left in response to the Vietnam War – an experience which offered me my first extended exposure to the delights of historical detective work – I was hooked. I applied to a variety of PhD programs and two weeks before I was admitted to Notre Dame I received word that Mark Noll would be coming to replace a retiring George Marsden. When I got a phone call admitting me into the program, I jumped at the chance to work with Mark, whom I had so long admired.
JF: What is your next project?
HC: I am planning to write an ambitious new history of the Social Gospel in American life. Remarkably, the grand narratives of the 1940s and 1950s remain the closest thing we have to an overview of this important Christian tradition, which I will argue was born in the decades prior to the Civil War and extends all the way through the present day. The book will draw on original research but also on the insights of recent generations of historians, who have produced a wealth of excellent articles and monographs that now need to be synthesized.
JF: Thanks, Heath!