Christianity and the Labor Movement


William Monroe Balch

Former Sec. of the Methodist Federation for Social Service

          ​The Methodist Centre for Law & Justice, Inc. is an outgrowth of the professional law practice of its founder, Roderick O. Ford, Esq., including more than twenty years of labor and industrial management and law practice, together with continuing education at leading human resource and labor relations institutes. Although the list of professional interactions at these professional associations span more than a decade, the climax of these events occurred in 2009 at the University of Chicago Law School, where a conference was held on the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. There,  Mr. Ford met a leading historian Dr. Eric Foner, of Columbia University, and author of Free Soil,  Free Labor, Free Men. , which greatly influenced Mr. Ford's understanding of labor law and the labor movement.Dr. Foner introduced Mr. Ford to several publications  of his uncle Dr. Philip Foner, a renowned labor historian.  The result was twofold: first, Mr. Ford published a path-breaking book on race and labor history: Labor Matters: The African American Labor Crisis, 1861 to Present; and, secondly, Mr. Ford was introduced to the founding of the Methodist movement within England’s working classes. 

In addition, the idea of launching a "public interest" law firm was introduced to Mr. Ford in 2010 and 2011, respectively, from two renowned Alabama attorneys: Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, whom Mr. Ford met in 2010, and Fred Gray, former legal counsel to Martin Luther King, Jr. and author ofBus Ride to Justice.  Mr. Gray shared with Mr. Ford his thoughts on public interest law, the civil rights movement, and on his good friend Morris Dees' public interest law firm in Alabama.  The Methodist Law Centre's founding owes much to these two Alabama lawyers and their distinguished legal careers. Mr. Dees and Mr. Gray both claim their Christian heritage as the foundation of their law careers. And Mr. Gray, an ordained Baptist minister, has written and spoken to Mr. Ford about his dual career as both lawyer and pastor in Montgomery, Alabama.  All these examples, together with the history of the Methodist movement, served the establishment of the Methodist Law Centre.

          This introduction to the Methodist movement is highlighted here with the book
Christianity and the Labor Movement(published in 1912), written by William Monroe Balch, formerly the Secretary of the Methodist Federation of Social Service.

FOREWARD:  Mr. Balch stated that the relation of Christianity to the labor movement is “essentially ethical,” and by that I interpret this statement to mean that Christians have a duty to provide moral leadership; to educate the public; to petition local, state, and federal legislatures on behalf of the aggrieved and the oppressed; to alert the body politic of deficiencies in workplace health, safety, equity, compensation, and equality of opportunity; and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

CHAPTER I: PERSPECTIVE AND PROPORTIONS: Mr. Balch points out that “organized religion” and “organized labor” are the “chief dynamic factors in the progress of modern society.”  Christianity and labor unions are two sides of the same economic coin: both groups contend for the enforcement of the Golden Rule within labor and economic relations.  In fact, in the Bible, many of the ancient Hebrew prophets excoriated the judges, lawyers, and priests who tolerated economic injustices and exploitation. This theme is carried forward throughout the Book of Psalms, and within the New Testament Gospels.

Mr. Balch writes: “Again we have the Christian law of labor’s liberty. To an oppressed and revolutionary workingman the Christ declared that God being the Father of all, ‘then are the children free.’ And the labor movement, in making for equality of opportunity, is achieving that only sort of liberty which is consistent with good order and economic progress and so fulfills the law of Christ.”

CHAPTER II: THE ESTRANGEMENT OF THE CHURCH AND THE WAGE-EARNERS: the Christian church emerged two thousand years ago and was developed throughout the centuries under economic conditions that were agrarian and feudal. The Christian faith has always demanded that the elite and well-to-do classes of society treat the poor with dignity, equity, and humanity. The Christian Church has been given the charge to be the light of the world and to lead on issues that affect the poor. For this reason, Mr. Balch observed that one of the greatest tragedies of the modern era is the estrangement of the poor and “the wage-earning class” from the Church.

CHAPTER III: LABOR’S COMPLAINT AGAINST THE CHURCH:  Mr. Balch makes very valid observations that the labor movement does not view the Church as maintaining the competencies or the understanding of the labor problem. The labor movement considers most churches to be “other-worldly” or caterers to the rich, the powerful, and the well-to-do classes. Therefore, Mr. Balch says that it is the duty of the Church to know and understand the labor problem.  Mr. Balch writes: “No grave duty rests with Christian men than to understand the labor problem.”

CHAPTER IV: LABOR’S COMPLAINT AGAINST THE SOCIAL ORDER:  the labor movement also suspects that the organized Church is engrafted into powerful social institutions that cause “non-employment,” “over-employment,” “unjust distribution of wages,” and “unfair discrimination.” Mr. Balch writes: “At present there is a great outcry against any criticism of the courts at all.” “Such is labor’s complaint against the social order, with this added,-- the under-valuation of human life by a world that over-values gold and gain.”

The Church is uniquely positioned to go to elite social institutions: the local, state, and federal government agencies, the courts, the universities, and the corporations, to articulate fundamental demands of justice, just judgments, and equity.

CHAPTER V: THE CHEAPNESS OF HUMAN LIFE: The Church needs to lobby the government and private brokers of power to enact laws and programmes that acknowledge the human rights of the working classes. Church must proclaim from the hilltops and the rooftops that “Workers’ Rights are Human Rights.” Mr. Balch writes: "Labor’s gravest charge against our economic system is the under-appraisement of human life. Business proceeds too largely on the assumption that money is worth more than men.”

Thus referring to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37, Mr. Balch writes: “Christian men of to-day must remember the Priest and the Levite of old who passed by on the other side,-- possibly not so much heartless as busy men, probably engaged just then in ‘church-work.’ And while these church-men hurried on unheeding, the great work of the Church was left to a despised ‘outsider,’ who did it well. Today, humanity lies plundered and bleeding by the highway. God forbid that we should pass by on the other  side.”

CHAPTER VI: WHAT CHURCH-MEN SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE LABOR UNIONS: Mr. Balch states that the Church needs to stay abreast of the current problems challenging Labor and Management, and that the Church should attain a working knowledge of the contributions of labor unions to society. Mr. Balch cites the following examples of labor’s contributions, such as (1) the elevation of living standards; (2) the shortening of the work-day; (3) protections against child labor and gender discrimination; (4) safeguards against unemployment; (5) protections against old-age destitution; (6) strengthening of public education; (7) assimilation of immigrants; and (8) respect for law and order.

CHAPTER VII: WHAT WAGE-EARNERS SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE CHURCH: the working-man needs to know that the Bible and the Church (not Greek thought) are the true foundations of American democracy. Mr. Balch writes: “As Professor Ely writes: ‘Apart from Christ the natural tendency is to come back to the standpoint of the Greeks and despise the masses.’” The Church “though the course of history has always been a main factor in the uplift of the masses.”  The Church needs members; it welcomes members; its doors are open. Laboring men should join and embrace the Church. Does the Church not have a labor programme? Then working men and women should join the Church and create such a programme. There is nothing stopping the labor movement from joining the Church.

CHAPTER VIII: THE SOCIAL CREED OF THE CHURCH: Mr. Balch notes that the general social creed of the Christian Church in general, which was adopted by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1908, should be:

1.     “For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.”

2.     “For the right of all men to the opportunity of self-maintenance, a right ever to be wisely and strongly safe-guarded against encroachments of every kind. For the right of workers to some protection against the hardships often resulting from the swift crises of industrial change.”

3.     “For the principal of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.”

4.     “For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational disease, injuries and mortality.”

5.     “For the abolition of child-labor.”

6.     “For such regulation of the condition of labor for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.”

7.     “For the suppression of the sweating system.”

8.     “For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practical point, and for that degree of leisure for all which is the condition of the highest human life.”

9.     “For the release from employment one day in seven.”

10.   “For a living-wage as a minimum in every industry.”

11.   “For the highest wage that each industry can afford and for the most equitable division of products of industry that can ultimately be devised.”

12.   “For suitable provision for the old age of the workers and for those incapacitated by injury.”

13.   “For the abatement of poverty.”


For these reasons, the Methodist Law Centre’s commission is from the Social Creed of the Methodist Church. It includes the duty to ameliorate the plight of working men and women; to create a forum for the exchange of ideas between the Church and workers (or labor unions); and to engage the courts, administrative agencies, the legislatures, and private organizations to express the labor’s concerns and to promote justice, just judgments, and equity. This activity is through the Church, in the form of:

Workers’ Rights Clinics

a.     Lectures and Presentations

b.     Community Forums

c.     Legal Aid and Assistance

Exec. Director Roderick Ford meets Dr. Eric Foner at the University of Chicago Law School in 2009 to discuss American Labor History.