Thoughts on faith and labor


“That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” Ecclesiastes 3:13

Monday is Labor Day, a federal holiday enacted by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, whose roots go back even to the days of the American Revolution, when guilds of carpenters, tailors and other craftsmen began organizing for better wages and less working hours.

The labor movement has brought us out of the dark days of child labor and horrific working conditions to paid benefits and an eight-hour work day. Along this path, people of faith have had a strong voice, despite today’s tendency by some Christian leaders to side against organized labor.

In 1866 Andrew Cameron helped found the National Labor Union. He was deeply religious, quoting the Bible and pointing out that Jesus himself was a working man. Two years later, the Knights of Labor was founded by Uriah Smith, a Baptist who had planned to become a preacher. Smith was later joined by Terence Powderly, a devoted Catholic who likewise was motivated by personal faith to organize for the betterment of workers in America.

Powderly wrote to Cleveland, “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…’”

By the 1890’s most Christian churches understood their part in a greater pursuit of the common social good.

Concerning the church’s approach to labor, the theologian Abraham Kuyper stated, “God has not willed that one should drudge hard and yet have no bread for himself and his family. Still less has God willed that any man with hands to work and a will to work should perish from hunger or be reduced to the beggar’s staff just because there is no work.”

Today, the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State continues the work of spiritual leadership in working with organized labor. Their website states their purpose:

“The Labor-Religion Coalition unites faith, labor and community in a statewide movement for social, racial, and economic justice, grounded in our deeply held moral and democratic values.”  

Most Americans are working-class citizens, meaning most Americans attending church today are likely working-class people. As Andrew Cameron pointed out, Jesus himself was a working man.

In theological terms, this would mean that God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, chose to be identified as a laborer. It bears remembering.


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