by Herbert S. Bigelow
Herbert S. Bigelow was the pastor of the Vine St. Congregational Church in Cincinnatti around the turn of the 20th century. Despite repeated warnings from superiors in the church, he persisted in giving outspoken single-tax sermons, and developed a strong following. His collection of sermons, The Religion of Revolution, was published in 1916, with an introduction by Mrs. Mary Fels.
Remove the mitre, and take off the crown; this shall be no more the same; exalt that which is low, and abase that which is high. I will overturn, overturn, overturn it: this also shall be no more, until he come whose right it is; and I will give it to him. — Ezekiel.
Wendell Phillips declared that churches were the great apologists for every powerful wrong. Nevertheless, Christianity is the religion of revolution.
Churches may not always be agencies of revolution, but Christianity is.
At the heart of all the Christian theologies is the doctrine of the supreme worth of the individual soul. There can be no peace between that doctrine and any form of slavery.
Jesus taught that in the humblest peasant of Judea there was that which is greater than the temple, an immortal soul. The souls of the lowliest of earth, in the sight of God, must be equal to the highest. That teaching is dynamite to every institution of human oppression.
Churches may make their peace with the world. Church people may condone conditions which lift a few into the light, while putting burdens upon many too grievous to be borne. But such people are not Christian. They are merely worldly people who have a superficial attachment to an established ecclesiastical institution.
Christianity is the faith that the souls of men are of supreme and equal worth to God. That is the central fire of the great gospel of the Galilean. Social injustice is the denial of that faith. If that faith has become a vital principle in a man’s life, if it has reconstructed him, if it has brought to him the reality of a new birth, he cannot be a defender of social injustice, he cannot be indifferent to social injustice, he cannot be silent because social injustice is profitable to him. He will recoil from conditions which give the lie to his faith. He will have to think in terms of his faith. He will have to act consistently with it.
To the degree that Christianity is genuine, it must be a revolutionary force in the world. If a church is not a revolutionary force, and to the degree that it is not, its Christianity is not genuine. The soul of the Christ is not in it.
According to Ezekiel, Jehovah said of the land which was given to the children of Israel: “Ye shall inherit it, one as well as another.” One as well as another. That is a sentiment worthy of the God of Jesus. That is the way a just and loving father would legislate for his children.
So, if we are members of a Christian church, we profess to believe that God loves all of His children, and that it is our first duty to Him to deal justly with one another. But is this profession anything more than a motion of the lips? Let us apply an acid test.
At the church door stands a limousine. There are two uniformed attendants. One is at the wheel. The other, with the faultless manner of a perfectly trained servant, is helping a lady into the machine. Do you know who the lady is? She is the owner of a fraction of an acre of ground at the most valuable corner of a great city, from which she receives an annual income of fifty thousand dollars a year.
A merchant had been paying her a ground rent of forty-five thousand dollars a year, but his lease expired, and she recently raised the rent five thousand dollars.
The merchant is thought to be prosperous. But times have been dull. For months, expenses have been greater than receipts. The banks have been crowding him. The man has fallen away under the strain as though he had been stricken by a mortal disease. Nevertheless he could not move. That would have been certain ruin. Therefore he agreed to the increase.
But how could he meet this extra charge? He could not add it to the price of goods. His customers would leave him if he did that. There was but one thing left to do. He had been paying generous wages. He could cut them.
This he did.
At first there was indignant talk of a strike, and some left. But others were easily found to take their places at reduced pay. There is in his employ a woman who is supporting an only child, a little girl. Her wage was reduced to eight dollars a week. She had been getting ten dollars. Two dollars a week were taken from her to help pay the increased rent to the owner of the site.
Now it happens that the rich woman also has an only child, a little girl. The children are about of the same age. Nature seems to have shown no partiality between them. They are beautiful children. They are not daughters of ancient Israel. They are daughters of America. But did not God give us the land of America? Has His justice degenerated since He gave Palestine to the Jews? If Palestine was given to the Jews, to one as well as another, was not America given to us, to one as well as to another?
Yet what is the economic status of these two little girls?
One will inherit the legal privilege to live without labor and to draw an income of fifty thousand dollars a year. The other will inherit the right to earn eight dollars a week, standing ten hours a day behind a counter, and after that she will have to go to some wretched little tenement house room to cook and scrub and mend.
Does God love one of these children more than the other? The one can hardly hope to earn as much as five hundred dollars a year. The other will receive, without working, a hundred times that. Does God love one of these children a hundred times more than the other? If not, then is it right for this government of yours and mine to permit such favoritism? Why should any be permitted to inherit the right to live in idle luxury when many inherit nothing but the right to drudge in poverty? Is that Christian?
If the advances in land value on that and every other lot of the city are due to the growth of the city and to the industry of all, why should not these sums be drawn into the public treasury to relieve industry of the burden of taxation and to protect the weak against destitution and despair?
How shall you know whether or not a man is a Christian? Do not ask him to recite his creed. Ask him what he thinks about a government which fails to do its utmost to secure to all of God’s children a fair start, an equal chance in life. If he is satisfied with such a government, if he is afraid to change it for fear he may lose a few dollars, then he is no Christian. He may be a church member. He may even be the preacher. But his Christianity is counterfeit. There is but one thing to say to such a man. It is what Jesus said to Nicodemus. His soul has not yet been born into the spirit of the Christ.