Race, Religion, and Conflict in the Gilded Age

During times of significant change and upheaval, humans tend to retreat into a tribal mindset that seeks protection in groups and places special emphasis on developing closeness with other people with whom they seem to have some obvious natural affinity. For example, according to The Barna Group, a California-based research organization, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, church attendance in the United States “increased by perhaps 25%” before returning to “normal levels.”1 Similarly, according to Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has studied extremist groups extensively, involvement with racist organizations and ideologies tends to be tied to the lack of a stable home, family life, and career.2 The Gilded Age was undoubtedly a time of massive economic and social upheaval. With the advent of industrialization, rural Americans flocked to the new and increasingly large industrial centers in America’s major cities. While 19.8% of the population of the United States lived in urban areas (defined as any area with a population greater than 2500) and 80.2% lived in rural areas in 1860, 39.7% lived in urban areas and only 60.3% lived in rural areas by 1900.3 Simultaneously, these same growing urban areas experienced a massive influx of immigrants, including a total of 13 million from the end of the Civil War in 1866 to the dawn of the twentieth century in 1900.4 As a result of these and other drastic changes in the American landscape and way of life, race and religion exercised an important role in the lives of Americans of the Gilded Age.

Race and religion are often intimately linked as both tend to be inherited. Although the very idea of “race is biologically incoherent,” the sets of phenotypes generally identified under that heading are heritable and readily recognizable differences between groups of people.5 Similarly, as with other elements of culture, children generally adopt the religion of their parents. This link between race and religion was readily evident during the Gilded Age which saw a significant uptick in the number of people coming to the United States from places such as Ireland, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, whose populations differed both ethnically and religiously from the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant mainstream of the United States.6 These ethnic and religious differences in combination triggered a backlash on the part of many native-born Americans. Prescott F. Hall, for instance, a leader of a group which sought to limit immigration to the United States to only Anglo-Saxons, insisted that America should “be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive” peoples rather than “Slav, Latin and Asiatic races, historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”7 Similarly and simultaneously, many Protestants protested against the changing religious landscape of America caused by the Catholicism many of these immigrants were bringing with them.8

As a result, many Catholic immigrants to America retreated into ethnic and religious enclaves where they could be around those of the same or similar language, culture, and religion. Rather than send their children to American public schools, in many of which teachers still read frequently from the Protestant King James Version of the Bible and led classes in prayers that reflected Protestant beliefs and practices, for example, many communities of Catholic immigrants chose to create parochial schools based around their local parish churches. In addition to the use of a curriculum which reflected the contents of their Catholic faith, many of these schools also taught in the languages of the immigrant communities which populated them in the belief that “language saves faith.”9

For their part, Catholics, including both immigrants and the subsequent generations born to them in the United States, also developed and engaged in actions motivated by their own sets of prejudices. This is particularly evident in the leading role that Catholics of the working class played in excluding Chinese immigrants, whom they saw as a threat to their economic wellbeing, from unions and in supporting anti-Chinese legislation by the federal government. The Knights of Labor, for instance, was at one point the largest labor organization in the United States and was headed during its heyday by a Catholic, Terence Powderly.10 In spite of its relatively welcoming membership policies, which allowed blacks and women to join, a rarity among labor unions, the Chinese were explicitly targeted for exclusion from its ranks and, in fact, the Knights advocated banning further Chinese immigration.11 The anti-Chinese movement in the West was also led by Catholic workers such as Dennis Kearney, whose followers adopted the slogan “The Chinese Must GO!”12

Nearly all groups, Protestant or Catholic, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise, held prejudices and fostered discrimination against blacks. While the Knights of Labor allowed blacks to join their ranks, most labor unions did not. Blacks, most of whom were freed slaves from the American South, were seen by others not only as economic and social threats but even as existential threats to white dominance and to the white race itself. Historian Richard L. Hughes has pointed out, for example, that the development of a concept of “blackness” that attached to those of African descent and that more often than not consisted of little more than caricatures and stereotypes, “contributed to the growing sense of ‘whiteness’ among an ethnically diverse population in the urban North and … to a sense of a unique, albeit problematic, American national identity.”13 In comparison with the idea, mostly imaginary, of an existential “other” in the black who differed substantially, comically, and seemingly in over-the-top and essential ways from anyone of European descent, the differences between a person of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity and another of Italian or Polish ancestry seemed to recede into insignificance.

During the Gilded Age, people from all over the world converged in the new urban and industrial centers of the United States. The differences they encountered in others in both appearance and thought along with the separation from family, from traditional ways of life, and from homelands were often bewildering and frightening. As a result, many Americans entered into a defensive posture in which they clung fervently to their race and their religion as defining features of their selfhood, often going on the offensive against perceived threats. Only after the period of crisis and upheaval had passed did America finally begin to become comfortable with and embracing of its new diversity, a process that continues still today.

Notes1 The Barna Group, (26 November 2001) http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/63-how-americas-faith-has-changed-since-9-11 (accessed 23 March 2013).

2 Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 233.

 3 Robert G. Barrows, “Urbanizing America,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 102-3.  

4 Roger Daniels, “The Immigrant Experience in the Gilded Age,” in ibid., 76.

5 Atran, 246.  

6 From 1866 to 1900, Irish made up 13% of immigrants to the United States and Italians and Austro-Hungarians made up 7.7% each. (Daniels, 78-9).

7 Prescott F. Hall, quoted in Daniels, 93.  

8 Daniels, 89.  

9 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 172.  

10 Kevin Schmiesing, “Brothers and Sisters of Charity: The Catholic Response to a Transformed World,” Christian History 104, 2013, 17.  

11 Eric Arnesen, “American Workers and the Labor Movement in the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, 61.  

12 Daniels, 90.  

13 Richard L. Hughes, “Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America,” The History Teacher 40:1 (Nov. 2006): 29.

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