Do They Know It’s Labor Sunday?
The century-old observance is scarcely observed, but its concerns remain current.
Unless you are part of the United Church of Christ, you likely do not know that Labor Sunday is coming up September 6, 2009. I’ve never encountered this observance in a lifetime of attending assorted denominational and non-denominational churches. The UCC website suggests ways to bring the concerns of workers before the congregation, but Web searches on “Labor Sunday” plus the names of other denominations bring up only very old documents like a 1907 Assembly Herald (Presbyterian) and a 1911 Herald of Gospel Liberty (General Convention of the Christian Church). The latter declared, “This day stands for the united action of the churches in the field of industrial life, a fact of supreme importance in the history of religion. … And yet how many preachers, and how many church members are familiar with the ‘Social Creed of the Churches,’ and its requirements[?]”
Though Labor Sunday precedes Labor Day on the calendar, Labor Day is the older holiday. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, either Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, or Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, proposed the holiday in the early 1880s. In the middle of that decade, municipalities across the country declared a “workingman’s holiday” on the first Monday of September. Congress recognized the date in 1894. Typical celebrations included a parade, intended to demonstrate “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,” speeches, and amusements for workers and their families.
Churches organized alongside labor interests in the first decade of the twentieth century.
In 1907, the (Northern) Presbyterian Department of Church and Labor asked ministers to preach on workers’ problems the day before Labor Day. The Rev. Charles Stelzle, Presbyterian minister and author of The Social Application of Religion, reported that the effort was a great success. Some labor unions gathered members in their halls and marched together to church to hear the special messages. Newspapers reprinted the sermons the next day, and ministers were invited to address workers at their shops. These events brought together people who did not often mingle. “Both sides discovered that each had been misunderstanding the other,” Stelzle wrote. “Many a preacher, in his study, preparatory to the service, got a new vision of what the labor movement stands for; and many a workingman, listening to his Labor Day address, caught a glimpse of the purpose of the Church, which he had never dreamed of.”
When the Federal Council of Churches formed the next year, one of its first important moves was to endorse a “Social Creed of the Churches,” affirming principles sketched by Methodist activist Harry F. Ward. The creed called for “equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life,” a living wage, abatement of poverty, and numerous worker protections, including arbitration, shortened workdays, safer conditions, the abolition of child labor, regulation of women’s labor, and assistance to elderly and incapacitated workers. Like all decisions of the Federal Council, this one was both weighty and ephemeral. The Social Creed articulated, in 14 succinct points, ideas that would become policy in the Progressive Era, but, as The Herald of Gospel Liberty sighed, many ministers and church members paid little attention to the document. The Federal Council could not enforce its decisions, and the denominational representatives that attended its meetings tended to be more urban, more educated, and more liberal than their churches’ rank and file, meaning that they were, demographically at least, not really very representative.
All of which brings us to Labor Sunday, adopted by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor in 1909. This observance added educational and spiritual heft to Labor Day while also giving the Federal Council an opportunity to convey social messages to congregations through suggested sermons. Media attention to the sermons amplified the messages.
For example, the Labor Sunday sermon for 1931 caught the attention of Time magazine, which ran a short feature on its content and context. Back in 1929, before the market crash, the council had warned, “[The churches] have called attention to serious and persistent unemployment, to the economic insecurity of old age among the workers, and to low standards of income and therefore of living in large sections of the population.” And then, of course, everything got much worse. After the Depression hit, the council pled for relief (remember, welfare did not yet exist) and condemned the greed and short-sightedness that had engendered economic collapse. In 1931 its annual statement lamented, “Our economic life now seems to be without a chart.” We all know how that feels.
I’m skeptical about pronouncements like the “Social Creed of the Churches.” Ancient creeds owed their authority to liturgical repetition across time and geography. They could be changed, through much deliberation, in response to major theological questions (most often, heresies), but they were never topical or occasional, never directly political. On the other hand, I’m drawn to the idea of Labor Sunday, albeit minus the prescribed sermons and marching trade unionists. Why not take a week off from the latest sermon series to consider the challenges facing the working and jobless poor? Heaven knows these concerns weigh on many hearts this year, and since heaven already knows, the subject is certainly something we can talk about in church.