Last year, labour organizations and progressives in Canada celebrated the centenary of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, one of the peaks of labour power in this country. But conspicuously absent among the celebrants were the official channels of Canada’s institutional churches. This was surprising to me, because the Winnipeg strike is such an important part of our Christian history.
In fact, you can’t tell the story of the strike without including the radical Christians who helped to organize it, led their congregations to the front lines and even ended up in jail cells because of it. These strikers were among the many early 20th-century Christians who had begun not only to care for the poor, but also to ask what made them poor in the first place. The answer, they believed, was capitalism, and so labour organizing became for them an expression of the Gospel.
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About a year before the strike, a group of Winnipeggers had become fed up with the established church, which they saw siding with bosses and profits (either explicitly or through their silence at the pulpit). Deciding it was time for something new, they signed pledges “to support an independent and creedless Church,” and founded what they called a Labour Church, which came to be pastored by Rev. William Ivens. (Ivens had been removed from his ministerial post at McDougall Methodist Church after stirring up controversy by supporting conscientious objectors to the First World War.)
A congregation intentionally made up of members of the working class, the Labour Church became the gathering site of disaffected workers during the general strike. Ivens joined the strike committee. It was the beginning of a decades-long relationship between radical Christians and the labour movement.
“It soon became evident that the Labor Church was in reality a spontaneous movement of the people,” Ivens wrote in 1921, calling the church a transition from individual piety to social action. Soon, labour churches were popping up across Canada thanks to another wayward Methodist, and soon-to-be Communist, Rev. A.E. Smith.
In the Canadian labour press of the 1920s and ’30s, Jesus was recast as an agitating carpenter who would have been a union organizer in the Canadian Prairies, a labour leader in Quebec, and as much of a threat to the authorities of Winnipeg as he was to the authorities of Rome.
While Canadians are more skeptical than ever of organized religion, there are exciting horizons for organized labour.
Labour churches provided space for workers to talk freely about their struggles, preachers publicly named the people and processes that kept workers down, and Christian communities took up money for strike funds and relief kitchens. Living out their devotion to Jesus the worker, pastors met members of their congregations on picket lines, in jails, at socialist meetings and even occasionally within the Communist Party of Canada. They chose a side.
Today, working-class issues are again driving a large portion of the political discourse, in Canada and around the world. This presents an opportunity for the church to both pursue justice and grow its profile and membership. Because while Canadians are more skeptical than ever of organized religion, there are exciting horizons for organized labour.
As Canadians leave mainline churches in droves, Christians should look back to the time when many thought following Jesus meant loudly throwing in with workers. With the labour movement stirring again, we should take a page out of the social gospel and go find Canadian workers — or better, like Ivens, organize them. A century old, the Labour Church still feels like the church of tomorrow.
This column first appeared in Broadview‘s March 2020 issue with the title “Bring back the labour church.”
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