There are many reasons for studying history both personal and social. For me it’s just fun, but more than that, it helps not to repeat the same mistakes again and again. Also it’s a good feeling to have the sense that history is progressive, and we are all part of the story. Sometimes it seems as Yogi Berra said, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” however the bigger story seems to show progress. But is history by necessity progressive? Dominican Theologian Gustavo Gutierrrez warns,
To falsify the memory of an oppressed people is to mutilate their ability to
rebel. Thereby an effective weapon is acquired for their continued subjugation.
The manipulation of history has always been a prime resource in the hands of
dominant groups for the maintenance of their power. (Gutierrez, Gustavo,
Las Casas, Orbis Books, New York 1993. p. 415)
The story of Sam Fielden has precisely this value; it is back to the roots of personal and community identity. Sam Fielden and his friends did the best they could do to achieve social justice; I would like to say the same of myself and those I accompany on the journey.
ADVICE FROM THE PRESIDENT’S FORMER PASTOR
Rev. Jeremiah Wright from Chicago gave the keynote speech at a recent M.I.C.A.H. (Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope) gathering in Milwaukee. Wright noted that the Prophet Micah said that we are required “to work for justice” (Micah, 6). Is that my personal mandate? Rev. Wright trashed enlightened individualism and noted that Descartes (1596-1650) was wrong in his effort to establish personal existence by saying, “I think, therefore I am.” Jeremiah Wright rephrased the cogito and said, “I am because I know I am part of a community.” Justice is a community mandate.
Samuel Fielden (1847-1922), of a Protestant background, worked for justice in the very cruel time of burgeoning industrialism and nascent capitalism. But Max Weber connected capitalism with the Protestant ethic. (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Reprinted in 1992, Routledge, London & New York)
Also capitalism and the Protestant reformation are part of the ‘age of enlightenment.’ How did Sam Fielden emerge as a labor activist? Weber conflated such diverse groups as Calvinists, Pietists, Methodists, Lutherans, Unitarians and Quakers with a smattering of Jesuits and Jews. It was beginning sociology so his work was researched and claimed the credibility of a scientific study. Of course there were problems and negative criticisms. Weber’s work was first published in German in 1904 -1905.
One of the first sociologists, Weber in his research discovered that in a sense capitalism had a long history, but modern capitalism is new. It is distinguished by, ‘the rationalization of labor,’ (Marx called it turning labor into a commodity) the continual acquisition of wealth for its own sake, and the constant quest for capital for renewal and growth. Workers must follow God’s calling and fulfill the required work ethic of duty and honesty.
Labour must… be performed as it were an absolute end in itself, a calling. But such an attitude is by no means a product of nature. It cannot be evoked by low wages or high ones alone, but can only be the product of a long and arduous process of education. (ibid. p.61-62)
Concern for families led to the condemnation of ‘liberalism’ or capitalism by Leo XIII in his 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum, the first of modern encyclicals on Catholic Social Teaching. The questioning and challenge to capitalism and advocacy for workers’ rights continues to this day by Pope Francis, but is the Pope now alone in his concern? (N.C.R. June 7-20, 2013, p.1&7) The Archdiocese of Milwaukee refuses to support the striking immigrant Palermo Pizza workers in Milwaukee . Clergy speaking for the workers have been Protestant.
SAMUEL FIELDEN THE CAPITALIST
But what about Samuel Fielden? He grew up as a Methodist and was a Methodist preacher as a young man. His family had ties to the Quakers and Unitarians, yet Sam was a social activist fighting for workers. Sam wrote in his autobiography that he had his own business at the time of the Haymarket incident.
…I invested what money I had in a team of horses, so that I became what
the Chicago Tribune calls a capitalist. I have earned my living by this
means, that is, hauling stone, from that time to the time of my arrest.
(The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, Phillip S. Foner, ed. Humanities Press, New York, 1969, p. 154)
As a ‘capitalist’ Sam had as a role model, Todmorden Mill founder Honest John Fielden who sided with the plug pullers protest. (blog posting, April 29, 2013)
THE METHODIST PREACHER
As a religious person, Samuel Fielden must have been influenced by the town of Todmorden’s religious non conformism. Sam, following his mother’s example, became a Methodist and a preacher both in England and for a short time in the U.S. Concern for the working class was a pillar of belief for John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists. Slavery was stopped in England by Parliament member William Wilberforce, a close friend of John Wesley. Wesley supported and advised Wilberforce in the successful abolition of the English slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in the British Empire in 1833.
Sam Fielden was a critical thinker. As a child he quickly learned to read, but he had very little formal schooling. In his early years, he was privileged to listen to his father and friends discuss politics. He knew about the struggle – the politics of the Chartists for universal voting rights. Sam attended lectures of the Free Thinkers in Chicago. His break with religion came in a discussion in Chicago with the Moody Bible Institute founder Dwight Moody. Moody defended the suppression of workers as biblical and moral.
COMPASSION – HUMAN DECENCY
The young Sam Fielden identified with those suffering, with child factory workers, the slaves in the U.S., the freed slaves turned into wage slaves. He commented on migrant Irish workers:
I used to manage to get off from the mill for a week in these hay fields with
the men who came from Ireland to earn, by the hardest labor and the most
abstemious living, the money to pay for their little holdings in their native
country and the thatch above the heads of their wives and little ones. …These
men are compelled to harvest crops in England for the privilege of living
in their own country, … the money they earn in the English harvest… the
English landlord compels them to give it up again and his lordship brings
It back again to England. (Ibid. p.137)
A MAN OF CONSCIENCE BECAME “CONSCIENTIZADO”
Judging from his autobiography Sam Fielden at an early age had an acute sense of right and wrong. His Methodist mother and critical thinking father were crucial in developing his social conscience. Travel and work experience and social action solidified his world view and his role in it. Gustavo Gutierrez explains Paulo Freire’s process of ‘conscientizacion’ and it is a fitting description of Samuel Fielden.
By means of an un-alienating and liberating “cultural action,” which links
theory with praxis, the oppressed person perceives-and modifies-his relationship
with the world and other people. He thus makes the transfer from a “naïve
awareness”- which does not deal with problems, tends to accept mythical
explanations, and tends toward debate- to a “critical awareness”- which
delves into problems, is open to new ideas, replaces magical explanations
with real causes and tends to dialogue. (Gutierrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, NewYork, 1973, p. 91)
Samuel Fielden was aware that the suffering of workers – the poor - is due to changeable economic and political structures. He did his part to effect change.
Pastor Jeremiah Wright said that it is a given for preachers to preach justice. Sam Fielden did just that not only from the pulpit but with his life. It is important to remember Sam and the Haymarket martyrs as an inspiration and lesson for participating in the progress of history.