Labor Day may be one of the holidays from which we are most disconnected. I have to admit to a typical indifference toward it myself. For most of us, it marks the end of summer, cooler weather, the return of college football and a day off from work. But the basic fact is that this special day, set aside to honor American workers’ contribution to our society, emerged from a long struggle in the nineteenth century to reform the exploitive practices that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.
The labor movement formed unions and organized protests and strikes in order to negotiate for better working conditions and pay. In the late 1800s, the conditions of American workers in factories, mills and mines were typically dismal. In some places young children were even employed at lower wages that adults. In the 1880s, many state legislatures honored the American worker with an official holiday. Eventually, the movement among state governments resulted in the federal government declaring in 1894 the first Monday of September an official holiday to honor America’s laborers.
No doubt, Labor Day represents one of the difficulties in our country’s history. The half-century following the Civil War was a challenging time on many fronts, and Christians were deeply involved in the social reform that was taking place. In the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening of the first half of the nineteenth century, Christians marshalled movements to address many social problems, beginning with the abolition of slavery before the Civil War.
In response to industrialization’s exploitation of children, churches introduced Sunday School. First appearing in England in the 1780s, this outreach ministry to children came to the United States, and American churches eagerly embraced it. Sunday School helped to educate poor children who were not going to school because they worked in factories six days a week. Of course, it was also a method to share the gospel while teaching reading and writing with the Bible as a key textbook.
Christians also led the charge against the devastating impact of alcohol on American families. It’s hard for us to conceptualize a popular movement so strong against alcohol. However, the problem was so bad that Congress amended the U.S. Constitution in 1919 to outlaw “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” This was accomplished primarily through the influence of Christian activists. This amendment remained in effect until it was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933.
Labor Day reminds me that Christians can have a potent, positive impact on culture. The nineteenth century in America saw a lot of change for the good by the time it was over. Certainly, not everyone advocating for change was conspicuously Christian, but we know many were. God used them to bring awakening and to create a more just society.
American history is full of examples of sinful behaviors, exploitive systems, and corrupt practices by individuals, government and systemic social arrangements. In the nineteenth century many Christians ran the missions in the urban settings, started Sunday Schools for underprivileged and exploited children, went to war against the destructive consequences of alcohol abuse, and raised a nation’s conscience to the evils of racism. Where else would we expect true followers of Christ to be found but on the side of the oppressed and exploited?
This historical awareness of the context of the birth of Labor Day causes me to be grateful and reflective. I am grateful for many Christians who went before me, navigating incredible social change and courageously challenging major evils of their time.
I reflect on my own historical context and ask myself some questions. What are the injustices and evil that should grieve my soul and compel me to action? What is on my spiritual radar that is a clear and present danger to the souls of men and certainly displeasing to their Creator? Or, do I have it so good that I choose to ignore the evil in my own time? Micah the prophet declared, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” On what fronts do we see evil raging in the early twenty-first century?
Pondering the origins of Labor Day makes me realize that many nineteenth-century Christians saw it their duty to impact their country for the sake of forging a more kind, just, and God-honoring culture. This is certainly always a work in progress, but work that the church can’t forget about. God has given us his Word as a prophetic voice, not just to the church, but also to the society of which we are part.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Dr. Daryl Cornett is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Aberdeen, N.C.)