Excerpt on “The Social Gospel”

The Social Gospel, 1908
Walter Rauschenbusch:
from the Modern History Sourcebook

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918 ) was a Baptist minister among the poor and the industrial workers of New York city. From CHRISTIANITY AND THE SOCIAL CRISIS (New York, The MacMillan Company, 1908): 230-86.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. In what ways is an industrial worker more vulnerable than a farmer?

2. Why is it logical that workingmen lack pride in their work, according to Rauschenbusch? What truth of capitalism do businessmen overlook when they don’t pay their laborers a decent wage?

In the agricultural stage of society the chief means of enrichment was to gain control of large landed wealth; the chief danger to the people lay in losing control of the great agricultural means of production, the land. Since the industrial revolution the man-made machinery of production has assumed an importance formerly unknown. The factories, the machines, the means of transportation, the money to finance great undertakings, are fully as important in the modern process of production as the land from which the raw material is drawn. Consequently the chief way to enrichment in an industrial community will be the control of these factors of production; the chief danger to the people will be to lose control of the instruments of industry.

That danger, as we saw in our brief sketch of the industrial revolution, was immediately realized in the most sweeping measure. The people lost control of the tools of industry more completely than they ever lost control of the land. Under the old system the workman owned the simple tools of his trade. To-day the working people have no part nor lot in the machines with which they work. In capitalistic production there is a cooperation between two distinct groups: a small group which owns all the material factors of land and machinery; a large group which owns nothing but the personal factor of human labor power. In this process of cooperation the propertyless group is at a fearful disadvantage.
No attempt is made to allot to each workman his share in the profits of the joint work Instead he is paid a fixed wage. The upward movement of this wage is limited by the productiveness of his work; the downward movement of it is limited only by the willingness of the workman to work at so low a return. His willingness will be determined by his needs. If he is poor or if he has a large family, he can be induced to take less. If he is devoted to his family, and if they are sick, he may take still less. The less he needs, the more he can get; the more he needs, the less he will get. This is the exact opposite of the principle that prevails in family life, Where the child that needs most care gets most. In our family life we have solidarity and happiness; in our business life we have individualism and-well, not exactly happiness.
The statistics of wages come with a shock to any one reading them with an active imagination. In my city of Rochester the average wage for males over sixteen reported by the United States Census of 1900 was $480.50 a year and for females $267.10. I do not know how accurate that was. It hardly matters. Fifty dollars one way or the other would mean a great deal to the families affected, but it would not change the total impression of pitiable inadequacy.
But the real wages are not measured by dollars and cents, but by the purchasing power of the money. That the necessaries of life have risen in price in recent years is familiar enough to every housekeeper. Wages, too, have risen in some trades. Very earnest efforts have been made by experts to prove that the rise in wages has kept pace with the rise in prices, but with dubious results. Dun’s Review some time ago compared the prices of 350 staple commodities in July 1, 1897, and December 1, 1901, and found that $1013 in 1901 would buy no more than $724 in 1897. Hence if wages had remained apparently stationary, they had actually declined.
The purchasing power of the wages determines the health and comfort of the workingman and his family. It does not decide on the justice of his wage. That is determined by comparing the total product of his work with the share paid to him. The effectiveness of labor has increased immensely since the advent of the machine. The wealth of the industrial nations consequently has grown in a degree unparalleled in history. The laborer has doubtless profited by this in common with all others. He enjoys luxuries that were beyond the reach of the richest in former times. But the justice of our system will be proved only if we can show that the wealth, comfort, and security of the average workingman in 1906 is as much greater than that of the average workingman in 1760 as the wealth of civilized humanity is now greater than it was in 1760. No one will be bold enough to assert it. The bulk of the increase in wealth has gone to a limited class who in various ways have been strong enough to take it. Wages have advanced on foot; profits have taken the Limited Express. For instance, the report of the Interstate Commerce Commission of June, 1902, stated that from 1896-1902 the average wages and salaries of the railway employees of our country, 1,200,000 men, had increased from $550 to $580, or five per cent. During the same period the net earnings of the owners had increased from $377,000,000 to $610,000,000, or sixty-two per cent. Thorold Rogers, in his great work “Six Centuries of Work and Wages,” says: “It may well be the case, and there is every reason to fear it is the case, that there is collected a population in our great towns which equals in amount the whole of those who lived in England and Wales six centuries ago; but whose condition is more destitute, whose homes are more squalid, whose means are more uncertain, whose prospects are more hopeless, than those of the peasant serfs of the Middle Ages or the meanest drudges of the mediaeval cities.” If the celebrated saying of John Stuart Will is true, that ” it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being,” it means that the achievements of the human mind have been thwarted by human injustice. Our blessings have failed to bless us because they were not based on justice and solidarity.
The existence of a large class of population without property rights in the material they work upon and the tools they work with, and without claim to the profits resulting from their work, must have subtle and far-reaching effects on the character of this class and on the moral tone of the people at large.
A man’s work is not only the price he pays for the right to fill his stomach. In his work he expresses himself. It is the output of his creative energy and his main contribution to the common life of mankind. The pride which an artist or professional man takes in his work, the pleasure which a housewife takes in adorning her home, afford a satisfaction that ranks next to human love in delightsomeness.
One of the gravest accusations against our industrial system is that it does not produce in the common man the pride and joy of good work. In many cases the surroundings are ugly, depressing, and coarsening. Much of the stuff manufactured ‘is dishonest in quality, made to sell and not to serve, and the making of such cotton or wooden lies must react on the morals of every man that handles them. There is little opportunity for a man to put his personal stamp on his work. The mediaeval craftsman could rise to be an artist by working well at his craft. The modern factory hand is not like to develop artistic gifts as he tends his machine.
It is a common and true complaint of employers that their men take no interest in their work. But why should they? What motive have they for putting love and care into their work? It is not theirs. Christ spoke of the difference between the hireling shepherd who flees and the owner who loves the sheep. Our system has made the immense majority of industrial workers mere hirelings. If they do conscientious work nevertheless, it is a splendid tribute to human rectitude. Slavery was cheap labor; it was also dear labor. In ancient Rome the slaves on the country estates were so wasteful that only the strongest and crudest tools could be given them. The more the wage worker approaches their condition, the more will the employer confront the same problem. The finest work is done only by free minds who put love into their work because it is their own. When a workman becomes a partner, he ” hustles ” in a new spirit. Even the small bonus distributed in profit-sharing experiments has been found to increase the carefulness and willingness of the men to such an extent that the bonus did not diminish the profits of the employers. The lowest motives for work are the desire for wages and the fear of losing them. Yet these are almost the only motives to which our system appeals. It does not even hold out the hope of promotion, unless a man unites managing ability to his workmanship. The economic loss to the community by this paralysis of the finer springs of human action is beyond computation. But the moral loss is vastly more threatening.
The fear of losing his job is the workman’s chief incentive to work. Our entire industrial life, for employer and employee, is a reign of fear. The average workingman’s family is only a few weeks removed from destitution. The dread of want is always over them, and that is worse than brief times of actual want. It is often said in defence of the wages system that while the workman does not share in the hope of profit, neither is he troubled by the danger of loss; he gets his wage even if the shop is running at a loss. Not for any length of time. His form of risk is the danger of being out of work when work grows slack, and when his job is gone, all his resources are gone. In times of depression the misery and anxiety among the working people are appalling; yet periodical crises hitherto have been an unavoidable accompaniment of our speculative industry. The introduction of new machinery, the reorganization of an industry by a trust, the speeding of machinery which makes fewer men necessary, the competition of cheap immigrant labor, all combine to make the hold of the working classes on the means of life insecure. That workingmen ever dare to strike work is remarkable testimony to the economic pressure that impels them and to the capacity of sacrifice for common ends among them.
While a workman is in his prime, he is always in danger of losing his job. When he gets older, he is almost certain to lose it. The pace is so rapid that only supple limbs can keep up. Once out of a job, it is hard for an elderly man to get another. Men shave clean to conceal gray hairs. They are no longer a crown of honor, but an industrial handicap. A man may have put years of his life into a business, but he has no claim on it at the end, except the feeble claim of sympathetic pity. President Eliot thinks that he has a just but unrecognized claim because he has helped to build up the goodwill of the business. There is a stronger claim in the fact that the result of his work has never been paid to him in full. If, for instance, a man has produced a net value of $800 a year and has received $500 a year, $300 annually stand to his credit in the sight of God. These dividends with compound interest would amount to a tidy sum at the end of a term of years and ought to suffice to employ him at his old wages even if his productive capacity declines. But at present, unless his employer is able and willing to show him charity, or unless by unusual thrift he has managed to save something, he becomes dependent on the faithfulness of his children or the charity of the public. In England a very large proportion of the aged working people finally “go on the parish.” In Germany they have a socialist system of insurance for old age. The fact that so few Germans have emigrated in recent years is probably due in part to the hope held out by this slight capitalization of their life’s labor. We are not even thinking of such an institution in America. Fear and insecurity weigh upon our people increasingly, and break down their nerves, their mental buoyancy, and their character.
This constant insecurity and fear pervading the entire condition of the working people is like a corrosive chemical that disintegrates their self-respect. For an old man to be able to look about him on the farm or business he has built up by the toil of his life, is a profound satisfaction, an antidote to the sense of declining strength and gradual failure. For an old man after a lifetime of honest work to have nothing, to amount to nothing, to be turned off as useless, and to eat the bread of dependence, is a pitiable humiliation. I can conceive of nothing so crushing to all proper pride as for a workingman to be out of work for weeks, offering his work and his body and soul at one place after the other, and to be told again and again that nobody has any use for such a man as he. It is no wonder that men take to drink when they are out of work; for drink, at least for a while, creates illusions of contentment and worth.

…The human animal needs space, air, and light, just like any other highly developed organism. But the competitive necessities of industry crowd the people together in the cities. Land speculation and high car-fares hem them in even where the location of our cities permits easy expansion. High rents mean small rooms. Dear coal means lack of ventilation in winter. Coal-smoke means susceptibility to all throat and lung diseases. The tenement districts of our great cities are miasmic swamps of bad air, and just as swamps teem with fungous growths, so the bacilli of tuberculosis multiply on the rotting lungs of the underfed and densely housed multitudes. The decline in the death-rate with the advance in sanitary science, the sudden drop of the rate after the destruction and rebuilding of slum districts in English cities,2 prove clearly how preventable a great proportion of deaths are. The preventable decimation of the people is social murder.
The human animal needs good food to be healthy, just like a horse or cow. The artificial rise in food prices is at the expense of the vital force of the American people. The larger our cities, the wider are the areas from which their perishable food is drawn and the staler and less nourishing will be the food. Canned goods are a sorry substitute for fresh food. The ideal housewife can make a palatable and nourishing meal from almost anything. But the wives of the workingmen have been working girls, and they rarely have a chance to learn good housekeeping before they marry Scorching a steak diminishes its nutritive value and the appetite of the eater, and both are essential for nutrition.
Poor food and cramped rooms lower the vitality of the people. At the same time the output of vitality demanded from them grows ever greater. Life in a city, with the sights and sounds, the hurry for trains, the contagious rush, is itself a flaring consumer of nervous energy. The work at the machine is worse. That tireless worker of steel, driven by the stored energy of the sun in forgotten ages, sets the pace for the exhausted human organism that feeds it. The speeding of machines is greater in America than anywhere in the world. Unless the food and housing remain proportionately better, the American workman is drained faster. Immigrants who try to continue the kind of food that kept them in vigor at home, collapse under the strain.
Under such a combination of causes the health of the people inevitably breaks down. Improved medical science has counteracted the effects to a large extent, but in spite of all modern progress the physical breakdown is apparent in many directions. Diseases of the nerves, culminating in prostration and insanity; diseases of the heart through overstrain; diseases of the digestion through poor nutrition, haste in mastication, and anxiety; zymotic diseases due to crowding and dirt-all these things multiply and laugh at our curative efforts.

Tuberculosis, which might be eradicated in ten years if we had sense, continues to cripple our children, to snuff out the life of our young men and women in their prime, and to leave the fatherless and motherless to struggle along in their feebleness. Alcoholism is both a cause and an effect of poverty. The poor take to drink because they are tired, discouraged, and flabby of will, and without more wholesome recreation. When the narcotic has once gained control over them, it works more rapidly with them than with the well fed who work in the open. Tuberculosis and alcoholism are social diseases, degenerating the stock of the people, fostered by the commercial interests of landowners and liquor dealers, thriving on the weak and creating the weak.
This condition of exhaustion tends to perpetuate itself. Children are begotten in a state of physical exhaustion. Underfed and overworked women in tenement and factory are nourishing the children in their prenatal life. During the years when a workingman’s family is bringing up young children, before their earnings become available, the family is submerged in poverty through these parental burdens, and neither the parents nor the growing children are likely to be well fed and well housed. Very early in life the children are hitched to the machine for life, and the vitality which ought to build their bodies during the crucial period of adolescence is used up to make goods a little cheaper, or, what is more likely, merely to make profits a little larger. Imagine that any breeder of live stock should breed horses or cows under such conditions, what would be the result in a few generations? Our apple orchards are planted in wide squares, so that every tree has the soil, the air, the sunshine, which it needs. If we planted a dense jungle of trees, we should have a dwarfed growth, scraggy and thorny, and only here and there a crabbed apple. What harvest of human kind will we have in the broad field of our republic if we plant men in that way?

The physical drain of which we have spoken is gradual and slow, and therefore escapes observation and sympathy. But it is the lot of the working people in addition to this to suffer frequent mangling and mutilation. A workman who tends one of our great machines is pitted against a monster of blind and crushing strength and has to be ever alert, like one who enters a cage of tigers. Yet human nature is so constituted that it grows careless of danger which is always near, and cheerfully plucks the beard of death. Unless the machines are surrounded with proper safeguards, they take a large toll of life and limb. The state accident insurance system in Germany has revealed a terrible frequency of industrial accidents. We have never yet dared to get the facts for our country, except in mining and railroading; but it is safe to say that no country is so reckless of accidents as our own. It is asserted that one in eight of our people dies a violent death. The Interstate Commerce Commission in October, 1904, stated that 78,152 persons had been killed on the railroads in the previous ten years, and 78,247 had been injured in the single preceding year. Any one who has ever been through a railway accident knows what a horrible total of bloody and groaning suffering these figures imply. Yet few railways voluntarily introduced automatic car-couplers to lessen one of the most frequent causes of accident. They resisted legislation as long as they could; introduced the automatic couplers as slowly as they could; and are now resisting the introduction of the block system in the same way. Yet automatic coupling reduced the number of men killed from 433 in 1893 to 167 in 1902, and the number injured from 11,277 to 2864, in spite of the fact that the total number of employees had greatly increased during these ten years. The same resistance met the efforts to guard the lives of sailors by the Plimsoll mark, and indeed almost every effort to compel owners to provide safety appliances, or to make them liable for accidents to their servants. It is dividends against human lives. All great corporations have agents whose sole business it is to look after accidents and see that the company suffers as little loss as possible through the claims of the injured. Yet many are injured in railway work and elsewhere because long hours in the service of those same corporations had so worn them down that their mind was numb and they were unable to look out for themselves.
I venture to give concreteness to these matters by telling a single case which I followed from beginning to end.
An elderly workingman, a good Christian man, was run down by a street car in New York City. His leg was badly bruised. He was taken to an excellent hospital near by. His wife and daughter visited him immediately. After that they had to wait to the regular visiting day. On that day they came to me in great distress and said that he had been sent forward to Bellevue Hospital. I went with them and we found that he had been there only one night, and had again been sent on to the Charity Hospital on Blackwell’s Island. At both hospitals they said the case was not serious and they had shifted him to make room for graver cases. The steamer connecting Bellevue and the Island had left on its last trip that day. If the two women had been alone, they would have been helpless in their anxiety till the next day. I got them across. After hours of fear, which almost prostrated them, we found the old man. He was fairly comfortable and reported that his night at Bellevue had been spent on the floor. A few days later gangrene set in the leg was twice amputated, and he died. I am not competent to say if this result was due to neglect or not. I know of other cases in which that first hospital shipped charity patients elsewhere without giving any notice whatever to the relatives.
The agent of the street-car company promptly called on the family and offered $100 in settlement of all damages. I saw the manager on their behalf. He explained courteously that since the case resulted in death, $5000 would be the maximum allowed by New York laws, and since the man’s earnings had been small and he had but few years of earning capacity before him, the amount of damage allowed by the courts in his case would be slight. The suffering to the affections of the family did not enter into the legal aspect of the matter. The company paid its counsel by the year. If the family sued and was successful in the lower court, the manager frankly said they would carry it to the higher courts and could wear out the resources of the family at slight expense to the corporation. The president, a benevolent and venerable- looking gentleman, explained to me that the combined distance traveled by their cars daily would reach from New York to the Rocky Mountains. People were constantly being run over, and the company could not afford to be more generous. The widow concluded to submit to the terms offered. The $100 was brought to her in the usual form of single dollar bills to make it look like vast wealth to a poor person. The daughter suffered very serious organic injury through the shock received when her father had disappeared from the hospital, and this was probably one cause for her death in child-birth several years later.
The officers of the hospitals and the officers of the street railway company were not bad men. Their point of view and their habits of mind are entirely comprehensible. I feel no certainty that I should not act in the same way if I had been in their place long enough. But the impression remained that our social machinery is almost as blindly cruel as its steel machinery, and that it runs over the life of a poor man with scarcely a quiver.

There is certainly a great and increasing body of chronic wretchedness in our wonderful country. It is greatest where our industrial system has worked out its conclusions most completely. Our national optimism and conceit ought not to blind us longer to the fact. Single cases of unhappiness are inevitable in our frail human life; but when there are millions of them, all running along well-defined grooves, reducible to certain laws, then this misery is not an individual, but a social matter, due to causes in the structure of our society and curable only by social reconstruction. We point with pride to the multitude of our charitable organizations. Our great cities have annual directories of their charitable organizations, which state the barest abstract of facts and yet make portly volumes. These institutions are the pride and the shame of Christian civilization; the pride because we so respond to the cry of suffering; the shame, because so much need exists. They are a heavy financial drag. The more humane our feeling is, the better we shall have to house our dependents and delinquents. But those who have had personal contact with the work, feel that they are beating back a swelling tide with feeble hands. With their best intentions they may be harming men more than helping them. And the misery grows. The incapables increase faster than the population. Moreover, beyond the charity cases lies the mass of wretchedness that spawns them. For every halfwitted pauper in the almshouse there may be ten misbegotten and muddle-headed individuals bungling their work and their life outside. For every person who is officially declared insane, there are a dozen whose nervous organization is impaired and who are centres of further trouble. For every thief in prison there are others outside, pilfering and defrauding, and rendering social life insecure and anxious. Mr. Hunter t estimates that about four million persons are dependent on public relief in the United States that an equal number are destitute, but bear their misery in silence; and that ten million have an income insufficient to maintain them even in a state of physical efficiency to do their work. The methods by which he arrives at these results seem careful and fair. But suppose that he were a million or two out of the way, does that affect the moral challenge of the figures much?
Sir Wilfred Lawson told of a test applied by the head of an insane asylum to distinguish the sane from the insane. He took them to a basin of water under a running faucet and asked them to dip out the water. The insane merely dipped and dipped. The sane turned off the faucet and dipped out the rest. Is our social order sane?

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by steve on January 16, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    I would agree with Carnigee on the matter. for the reason of the following Seven words- “Daddy can I have some more money?”

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