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THE BIBLE AND THE PROLETARIAN 
MOVEMENT 



HARRY F. WARD 
Union Theological Seminary, New York City 



The proletarians were denned long before Marx gave them 
their classification in modern industrial society. In ancient 
Rome the proletarii, as the term clearly indicates, were those 
who had nothing to give to the state but their children. In 
a time when citizenship meant rendering service to the state 
they were without civic standing. Having no property, they 
could neither pay taxes nor make contributions. In early 
times they were exempt from military service, being considered 
unfit for such arduous duty — as they doubtless were. Their 
labor was not counted as a contribution to the state. Later 
they were given some slight representation in the parliamentary 
assembly and were called into military service, but they 
remained a propertyless class with practically no social or 
civic privilege. Their protest against their lot is registered in 
the record of successive slave revolts and labor wars. 

The modern proletariat cannot be so sharply defined despite 
the attempt of Marx and the scientific school of socialism to 
limit the classification to the wage-workers created by modern 
industrialism, most of whom have no property stake in the 
commonwealth, owning neither land, house, tools, nor a job. 
The proportion of the propertyless to the entire population in 
this country increasingly approaches the situation in Europe 
and increasingly includes others than the industrial wage- 
workers. In this classification the tenant farmer mostly 
belongs, and also that overwhelming proportion of farm own- 
ers whose net labor income averages around five hundred dol- 
lars a year. Moreover an increasing number of professional 

271 



272 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

workers have nothing to contribute to the state but their 
children, and not many of them, as the cost of living increas- 
ingly limits the realization of their ideals of life. The economic 
classification of the proletariat, however, cannot be limited 
to the propertyless. It must include all those who are unable 
to acquire sufficient property for family security or for the 
realization of any influence in the control of community life 
or the state. 

The real line between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat 
is not, however, economic but psychological and ethical. It 
marks the difference between those who possess a consciousness 
of needed social change and those who have none, being 
perfectly content with things as they are; between those who 
want power transferred from the few to the many and those 
who believe in the divine right of the select, self -chosen minority 
to rule; between those who are continually haunted by a sense 
of injustice because of the inequalities of life and those who 
enjoy them without compunction, though with much gratuitous 
compassion for the less fortunate; between those whose spirits 
constantly rebel against the social results of the capitalist 
mode of production and distribution and those who accept the 
present social order as ordained from the beginning of things 
and destined to continue while life remains upon this planet. 

In due course the proletariat has caused a proletarian 
movement, a movement seeking a better social order, struggling 
for more freedom, more justice, more fraternity, for all people 
and believing that this cannot be realized without a reordering 
of the economic affairs of the world. This movement is world- 
wide and constitutes the largest single grouping of beings 
upon this planet. Its different divisions are increasingly in 
contact with each other, and while they differ radically and 
violently concerning strategy and tactics, yet on the whole it 
moves steadily in one direction — toward the securing of 
increased welfare and power for the masses of humanity. 
Increasingly this movement draws into its service literature, 



THE BIBLE AND THE PROLETARIAN MOVEMENT 273 

art, religion, and science. For these, if they are true to 
themselves, must serve the many and not the few. They live 
and move and have their being only as they pass the barriers 
of class and nationality and race and become the servants of 
universal humanity. 

This proletarian movement constitutes a social phenomenon 
whose like the world has not yet seen. Other social orders 
have felt the strain of protest and sustained the shock of revolt 
from the suffering and oppressed, but never before has the 
age-long organization of society to give power and privilege 
to the few sustained the impact of an educated, enfranchised, 
proletariat, increasingly conscious of the causes of its situation, 
of the goal toward which it needs to travel, and of the means 
of social change. Already the proletarian movement is the 
deciding force in European affairs, and its day is only dawning. 
In the very nature of the case this movement will shape the 
society of tomorrow; it will determine the manner of living 
in the near future for the greater part of the world because it 
contains within itself the undeveloped forces of humanity. 

If this be the situation, or indeed anywhere near to it, then 
those who are studying, teaching, and preaching the Bible 
because they believe it contains the truths by which alone the 
feet of humanity can be guided into the way of life will need 
to inquire what relation, if any, there is between the principles 
taught in the Bible and those around which the proletarian 
movement is forming, and also what likelihood there is that 
the teaching of the Bible will influence a movement which has 
already become so powerful. 

On the Continent of Europe the attitude of the proletarian 
movement toward the Bible ranges from indifferent cynicism 
to violent antipathy. This attitude is the product of the 
state churches, and in this respect there is little to choose 
between the Roman, Greek, or Lutheran organizations. As 
institutions they have been about equally successful in gener- 
ating hostility not only to themselves but to the religion they 



274 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

represent and the book they teach. The Tolstoian interpreta- 
tion of the gospel, the work of a few genuine Christian socialists 
in Central Europe — particularly in Switzerland — has scarcely 
dented the hostility or penetrated the suspicion which the 
ecclesiastical hierarchies of Europe have for centuries been 
breeding in the minds of the awakening proletariat. 

As usual, the church's sin of omission has been greater 
than its sin of commission. The attitude of European socialism 
toward the Bible is based upon ignorance, and for this ignorance 
of course the church is responsible. The intellectual leaders 
of the proletariat of Europe do not know the Bible as it is 
known to modern scholars nor even to children in modern 
American Sunday schools; but they do know how the Bible 
has been used in Europe — at its best to furnish a scheme of 
eternal insurance for the individual, and at its worst to provide 
a religious sanction for the existing order, to sustain alike the 
aristocracy of feudalism and the plutocracy of industrialism 
while urging the subjects of both to be content with that station 
in life in which it has pleased God to place them. From the 
day when Luther first turned against the peasants and 
encouraged the nobles to slaughter them, to the day when the 
Roman church organized labor and Christian socialist move- 
ments under its own control in order to prevent fundamental 
economic change, the main social function of the official 
teachers of the Bible in Europe has been in the eyes of the 
leaders of the proletarian movement nothing but the betrayal 
and defeat of the common people. It is due to this historic 
record and to their ignorance of any other meaning or use for 
the Bible that they are instilling the socialist movement of 
Europe with hostility toward it as a name and passing on a 
heritage of indifference toward its contents. 

In the English-speaking world the situation is somewhat 
different, due to the connection in England between the pre- 
reformation attempt to give the Bible to the common people 
and the proletarian struggle over the land question. The work 



THE BIBLE AND THE PROLETARIAN MOVEMENT 275 

of the Lollards and of Wycliffe was intimately associated with 
the successive protests and rebellions of sturdy English yeomen 
against the encroachments of a decadent feudalism and later a 
rising monarchism upon their ancient privileges and posses- 
sions, particularly the latter. The "poor preachers" both read 
the Bible in the villages and urged the people to take back 
the land which belonged to them. The slogan of that struggle 
was a scriptural allusion: "When Adam delved and Eve span, 
who was then the gentleman ?" It is on record that when one 
of the later attempts to seize the land was put down, scores 
of priests were hunted out and hanged as being the prime 
movers in the rebellion. 

From these historic beginnings a religious strain has always 
run deep through the English labor movement. The relation 
between the development of lay preaching in the evangelical 
revival and the subsequent leadership of the trade union and 
socialist movements in England is another link in the chain 
which binds together the proletarian movement in Great 
Britain and the teachings of the Bible. Save for a small 
secularist wing, whose influence is practically negligible, the 
literature of the labor movement in England continually 
appeals to biblical ideals, and the addresses of its leaders, 
like so much of the best public speaking in England, are 
saturated with the phraseology of the King James Version. 
It was therefore no accident that one of the counts in the 
indictment against one of the ministerial leaders of the general 
strike in Winnipeg was that on his desk were found leaflets 
containing a quotation from Isaiah— nothing else— and that 
when public meetings in the open air within the city limits 
were prohibited the working people gathered by hundreds 
outside the city limits and sang, "Faith of our Fathers living 
still, In spite of dungeon, fire and sword," and a Scotch 
workingman led in prayer, being "reminded of the cove- 
nanting days when they drove our fathers out on the 
moors." 



276 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

In the United States the attitude of the proletarian move- 
ment to the Bible, like the movement itself, is a conglomerate 
of all that is to be found in Great Britain and in Europe. The 
foreign-born section is mostly antagonistic. A Protestant 
preacher of Russian birth came before a large audience of 
Russian radicals with a Bible in his hand. When they found 
out what it was, they yelled, "Take it away, don't dare to 
come before us with that outworn Book." But they agreed 
to listen to one sentence and when they heard, "Ye shall know 
the truth and the truth shall make you free," most of them 
agreed to join with the preacher in a common search for the 
truth. Among the American-born proletarians most of the 
leaders were raised in church and Sunday school in the days 
when individualism and otherworldliness were dominant. 
They left in despair or disgust before historical or social science 
had touched the message of pulpit or Sunday-school teacher; 
and the kind of pulpit utterances that get into the Monday- 
morning papers have not changed their view. One of the 
theological students sent last summer by certain home-mission 
boards to work and observe in the lumber industry of the 
Northwest has recorded the attitude of his fellow-workers, 
mostly I.W.W.'s, toward those appointed to preach to them: 

The chief objection to the logging preachers was that they tried to 
make the loggers believe that the world was created 4004 B.C., that the 
sun stood still, that prophecies of the Bible have all come true, or will 
come true, and that God created the world. I heard many long discus- 
sions about what fools preachers were to believe such stuff, and then 
they would turn to me to see whether I was shocked, and try to get me 
to argue. Needless to say, it didn't take long to convince them that 
I had heard of the recent discoveries of modern science and also, before 
long, several of them came to me secretly and got me to read the Bible 
and explain it to them. 

There are some other elements whose strength cannot yet 
be determined. The farmers of this country are fast becoming 
proletarians in fact and in thought. They are now mostly in 
church and Sunday school and supposed to be getting Bible 



THE BIBLE AND THE PROLETARIAN MOVEMENT 277 

teaching. It remains to be seen whether this will affect their 
economic and social program, or whether, as it did with the 
industrial wage-workers, the church will let them drift away 
and work out their social salvation without any religious con- 
sciousness. There is also considerable strength going into the 
American proletarian movement from the ranks of applied 
science, because of the fact that science seeks the good of all 
and, to effect its program, must align itself with the many 
rather than with the few. It is likely that the American 
proletarian movement will be much more genuinely scientific 
than that of Europe, because its science will be less dogmatic 
and more specific. This wing is largely indifferent or hostile 
to what it believes to be Bible teaching, because of the mis- 
handling of the Bible to which it has been subjected. Its 
ideals and principles of life are, however, biblical in a large 
degree, though not recognized as such. 

There is yet another element to be reckoned with. There 
are a few preachers who have left the church and chosen the 
labor movement as a field for spiritual leadership. There are 
some others who have stayed in the pulpit and have gained 
the ear of the proletarians to a remarkable degree. These two 
groups of men have a common spirit and aim. They know 
the results of modern biblical criticism, they have read and 
weighed Rauschenbush, Kent, Peabody, Wallis, Soares, and 
Bouck White. If any connection is to be established between 
the proletarian movement in this country and the teachings 
of the Bible, it will be through the work of these men and their 
successors. Through them the social need and aspiration of 
the present may be nourished and guided by the ideals and 
experience of the past. 

The method by which alone this desirable result can be 
achieved is clearly indicated by the present situation. It will 
not be through the appropriation of scriptural language as in 
England, for the growing use of new and improved translations 
prevents it. It will not be the prooftext method, taking some 



278 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

particular teaching evoked by an ancient social condition and 
using it in a situation entirely different to sanctify some 
particular scheme, for the reason that most of the schemers 
have no biblical knowledge, and those proletarians who have it 
utterly repudiate such unhistoric and unscientific procedure, 
being quite content to leave that method to the expository 
preachers of the individualistic school. The method that is 
being used by those preachers who have acquired any influence 
over the proletarian movement is to ask what are the general 
social principles of the Bible, to trace their historic development 
in the scripture records, to analyze our modern society in the 
light of them, and to ask what kind of a social order they 
require us to seek. 

The result is not pattern or plan but movement and direc- 
tion. The study of the scripture record, compared with such 
otber records of the past as we have, shows us the main direc- 
tion in which the ideals and aspirations, the hopes and strivings, 
of humanity have pointed, shows us also some progress in fact. 
The goal is not clearly seen, "it doth not yet appear what we 
shall be," but not a few preachers have found that when the 
social principles of the Bible are revealed to the proletarians 
they recognize that these principles point to a way of life in 
which they want and need to go, and in which in the main the 
proletarian movement is trying to go. Witness the appropria- 
tion of Jesus by the English-speaking proletarian movement, 
despite all the materialistic propaganda of scientific socialism. 
This movement claims Jesus not for a scheme or a program, 
as the ecclesiasts and exegetes of all schools have constantly 
done, but as the voice of the needs, longings, and hopes of the 
common people, the embodiment of their ideals, the champion 
of an order of life which would bring more good to them and 
their children than they have ever had. 

Of course such a mass judgment is uncritical, of course it is 
based more on sympathy than on knowledge; but who shall 
say that it is farther from the truth concerning the human 



THE BIBLE AND THE PROLETARIAN MOVEMENT 279 

Jesus than the work of those who have turned a carpenter into 
a king to sanction imperialism in church and state ? Is it not 
considered an evidence of the spiritual authority of the Bible 
that the individual soul can turn to it for comfort in every 
experience? Why, then, should not the mass movement of 
humanity find similar comfort, and with less danger of mislead- 
ing, since the Bible is the record of the progressive experience 
of God in the life of a nation, a community, and a world-wide 
fellowship, since it discovers and emancipates the individual 
as a member of this fellowship, which a monarchical heritage 
insists upon calling "the Kingdom of God" ? 

The affinity between biblical teaching and the proletarian 
movement and the possibility of relation between them in the 
future appear at once when we ask, What were the ruling 
principles, the chief features, the dynamic motives, of the kind 
of society that was sought by the law and the prophets; what 
kind of social order would follow from the teachings of Jesus, 
what kind has been aimed at by those who have definitely 
endeavored to put his teachings into practice ? If this question 
is put negatively biblical teaching and the proletarian move- 
ment cover more common ground than when it is put positively. 
Both of them are continually protesting against the world as 
it is, because of the amount of injustice and oppression, 
inequality and suffering, that is in it. The mint and anise 
and cummin of biblical criticism may now and again be tithed 
for the world as it is, but no one can make the prophets of 
Israel stand for the privileges and powers of kings, emperors, 
or plutocrats, turn the Hebrew codes into instruments for the 
perpetuation of slums and devitalized countrysides, or trans- 
form Jesus into a court chaplain of the rich and the powerful. 
Not all the softening of the Third Gospel because of its 
Ebionitic character (it is passing strange to hear trained 
scholars speak of the "socialism of Luke") can soften the 
impact of all the Gospels against the manner of life of the 
rich and powerful and against its consequences for the many. 



280 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

Was it instinctive or conscious self-preservation that so long 
made it a crime for the common people to read in the vernacu- 
lar "that he hath put down the mighty from their seat and 
exalted them of low degree," while it was constantly chanted 
to them in Latin ? 

On the positive side, the outstanding fact is that the 
biblical teaching makes for a fraternal organization of life, it 
conceives religion and social organization alike in family terms, 
it seeks to produce the fraternal individual in the fraternal 
community, finally on a world-wide scale and for endless time. 
Its goal is a divine society in which God dwells with all men 
as his children. This concept of social solidarity, this ideal 
of a fraternal community and a world-wide family, makes for 
equality. That it should be claimed in support of impossible 
schemes of equalitarian communism is not so important 
as that those who accept it are impelled to move against the 
inequalities of life and for the extension of privilege steadily 
in the direction of equality. At this point the biblical ideal 
has a clear and strong affinity for the proletarian movement 
which is seeking to bring great masses of men up from the 
bottom of society into a larger life. The whole missionary 
and educational program of modern Christianity is thrown 
in this direction, but here the biblical teaching brings the 
experience of the past to help the present, avoid an imminent 
danger — the danger of seeking a short cut to solidarity and 
universal well-being through class control sustained by force. 

The Hebrew law stands for the producer as against the 
possessor, because its ideal of life is production as against 
possession, creative service as against sensual enjoyment and 
power. The gospel teaching warns us that solidarity can no 
more be achieved by the dictatorship of any class than by the 
rule of the strong men of old; that the proletarian movement 
can succeed only in so far as it is for the interest of the whole, 
only as it can produce more creative service than any other 
movement. This is the wisdom of experience, because the 



THE BIBLE AND TEE PROLETARIAN MOVEMENT 281 

biblical ideal of solidarity is historically rooted in the unity 
of the patriarchal family, the clan and the tribe, whose ethic 
the Hebrew religious teachers kept alive in their nation through 
all submissions to ancient imperialism and its class-divided 
society, because they put behind it, "thus saith the Lord." 
From this background Jesus came to know that those who 
would unify society, instead of seeking to rule it must be 
willing to serve it and, if need be, die for it. He came also to 
know that a fraternal world cannot be secured by force and 
violence or any other form of external compulsion. From the 
ancient lex talionis the Bible teaching moves away until it 
reaches the New Testament principle of overcoming evil with 
good and subduing hate with love; but those who have been 
using the Bible to justify and sanctify the use of force for 
nationalistic ends are somewhat disqualified from proclaiming 
to the proletarian movement that the teaching of Jesus is 
against the use of force for social ends. 

Unless the central truths of the Bible can become the 
conscious principles of the proletarian movement, unless that 
movement can be made aware of the relationship, both historic 
and factual, between biblical teaching and its own aspirations 
and needs, it is likely to repeat the mistakes of the past and 
perhaps on such a scale as to make them irreparable. To do 
its part in averting such a disaster the church needs to train 
and set loose a body of men competent to carry the living 
word to a living movement, that both of them may make for a 
growing society.