The Social Gospel on the Great Plains

The Social Gospel on the Great Plains

A century ago, Daniel McCorkle and Robert Lynd advocated for workers in the western mining communities where they lived and preached. Two of their contemporary descendants examine their relationship in struggle against the Rockefeller empire.

United Mine Workers of America strikers in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914 (Survey Associates/Wikimedia Commons)

This essay tells the story of two idealistic Presbyterian missionaries in Wyoming and Montana in the 1920s who looked for God, if there was one, not only in churches but in the mines and oil fields of the West—some of the most remote and desolate outposts of industrialization on the American continent.

One was Daniel S. McCorkle, well-known and widely respected locally in his lifetime as a circuit preacher and social reformer. The other was Robert S. Lynd, who was a visiting minister in the Elk Basin, Wyoming, oil field in 1921. Together with his wife Helen, Lynd went on to write the sociological classics Middletown (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937). Both McCorkle and Lynd were graduates of Union Theological Seminary (UTS), though McCorkle, born in 1880, was twelve years older than Lynd, born in 1892.

Both men espoused the ideals of the Social Gospel, condemning a Western work week that often meant seven twelve-hour days and advocating modest reforms such as construction of community centers and recognition of the right to form and join a trade union. With a good deal of success, they confronted John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Standard Oil.

Between the two world wars, McCorkle and Lynd helped to link the vision of figures such as Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, W.E.B. DuBois, and A.J. Muste with the activity in the early 1960s of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

The authors of this essay represent a coalition of young and old. Ben Morgan is a seventeen-year-old native of Youngstown, Ohio, and a recent high school graduate. He is the great-grandson of Daniel S. McCorkle. Ben initiated this essay after he came upon a collection of documents that included correspondence between Reverend McCorkle and Robert Lynd. Ben’s co-author, Staughton Lynd, is the son of Robert and Helen Lynd. He is an historian and a lawyer who was a conscientious objector to the Korean War and a leading figure in the New Left of the early 1960s. He is ninety years old.

 

Daniel McCorkle’s Life of Service (by Ben Morgan)

In an era when most men of the cloth were reluctant to criticize the robber barons and preach about the plight (and potential power) of the working class, Daniel McCorkle risked his livelihood and sometimes his life for his beliefs. His commitment to labor activism and social justice seems to have stemmed from a family heritage of faith; he was in the sixth generation of a staunchly Presbyterian Scottish-American family. McCorkle’s life was centered on religion and service from an early age. In a message to fellow students at Missouri Valley College in 1909, he wrote, “What are you going to do here that is worthwhile tomorrow?”

It was around this time that McCorkle began to seek out a wider movement that he could devote himself to. He found that movement while working at a railway depot in Raton, New Mexico, where he talked with coworkers about the push to unionize the mines of that region. That section of the country had been largely transformed from the territory of cowboys and homesteaders into a realm of monopolies, where the railroads fought for dominance over transport and Rockefeller companies overshadowed all others.

After returning to New York to earn his master’s degree at Columbia and a degree from UTS, McCorkle went west again and found his first official pulpit in Sunrise, Wyoming, in 1912. Like many similar sites in the West, Sunrise was a company town devoted to extracting mineral reserves, in this case coal. The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), which owned the site, was one of the most powerful corporations in the region, controlling every step in the steel-making process from the mines to the mills.

After two years of fighting to reform Sunrise and bring hope to the beleaguered, largely foreign-born community, an event occurred that tested McCorkle’s devotion to the cause of labor: the Ludlow Massacre. On April 20, 1914, in the company town of Ludlow, Colorado, twenty civilians, many of them unarmed women and children, were gunned down by the Colorado National Guard, which had been summoned by CF&I following months of labor unrest. Over the next ten days, dozens more workers would die in violent confrontations with guards. Shortly after these events, McCorkle gave a sermon condemning the action of the company against the workers. Due to his public statements denouncing the massacre and personal experience with CF&I towns, McCorkle was called upon by Frank Walsh, chairman of the Commission on Industrial Relations, to testify in congressional hearings on Ludlow.

His testimony led the company to issue threats about removing him from Sunrise. The community responded by saying, in no uncertain terms, that the company would have to get through them to reach their minister. Writing about McCorkle to one of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s lawyers, Jesse Welborn, president of CF&I, stated, “He has socialistic tendencies . . . and I have been informed that his wife is a Greek, yet they may both be perfectly honest.”

In 1918, the McCorkles moved of their own volition from Sunrise to the nearby mining town of Bearcreek, Montana, where McCorkle had previously worked as a miner. In the 1920s, McCorkle organized the farmers of Carbon County, Montana, within the Nonpartisan League and supported the local coal miners while continuing to preach. Even as the Interchurch World Movement set out to destroy what they called “radicalism,” he remained a busy man. On top of his work to support his family and the workers in their struggles, both McCorkle and his wife Panayiota worked as teachers at the local schools.

After the onset of the Depression, the family moved to Conrad, Montana, where Daniel was able to find work preaching and teaching. Farmers struggled and were being forced off their land, and he traveled great distances over rough terrain to bring them food, supplies, and money. In 1932, he ran for State Superintendent of Public Instruction with the Socialist Party, of which he’d been a member since 1909. Though he was not elected, he was later appointed by the Montana governor to sit on the State Welfare Board.

My great-grandfather died in 1956, forty-six years before I was born. Even though we never met, I have always felt a connection with him through our shared middle name, Spencer. When I was about seven, I asked my mom who he was and what he had done. After she told me about his fight for unions and for the right of miners to have adequate equipment, I was more proud than ever to bear his middle name, even if I didn’t quite know then what a “union” was.

 

Robert Lynd: Minister and Pick-and-Shovel Laborer (by Staughton Lynd)

Access to Robert Lynd’s personal pilgrimage is made easier by articles that he wrote in the 1920s. He left them for me in a manila envelope on which he wrote, “Stau [a nickname], Save These.” With the help of these documents and surviving correspondence between the two ministers, we can begin to trace the emerging comradeship between Daniel McCorkle and Robert Lynd.

“But Why Preach?” which was published in Harper’s in 1921, sought to explain why, at about the age of thirty, Lynd gave up employment in the publishing business and enrolled at UTS. At this point Lynd was hardly a radical. In the article he called for a “shift from business for profit only to business for service in which capital, labor . . . and society at large will benefit mutually.”

The second document, “Crude-Oil Religion,” was an account of Lynd’s summer in Elk Basin. This account is preceded by a preface from the sponsoring entity, the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, which states that Lynd, “with the enthusiasm, zeal and consecration of a Christian Crusader,” was one of a group of missionaries “who are blazing the trail toward a Christian America.”

Details from Lynd’s description of conditions in Elk Basin appear in Dorothy Floerchinger’s biography of Daniel McCorkle:

Even the drinking water was a constant source of protest among the men and their families at the Midwest (Standard Oil) camp. The only water in the basin was alkali water pumped from wells two miles away. Other companies were providing good water by condensing but Midwest was not even providing enough water for bathing. Any protest of these conditions brought on a threat of discharge.

Hard as the long day and seven day week was on the men, Lynd sympathized even more with the women and children. It was more than twenty miles over rutted roads to the nearest movie. The men at least had a rough pool hall but for the women, the days crawled endlessly by. In winter they were snowed in for weeks at a time. They lived in tarpaper shacks or tents which were no protection against the blistering sun and winter cold. A community hall would lend itself to many programs to relieve the awful monotony. When the companies had been petitioned for a simple building the plan fell through when one company failed to support the project.

Lynd, like McCorkle, practiced a style of ministerial work that today might be called “accompaniment.” The March 26, 1915 edition of the New York Tribune put it like this:

One conception of religion is to listen decorously to decorously worded advice, to love one’s neighbor as oneself, to give to missions and foundations, to teach Bible classes. Another conception is to go among the poor and lowly, the workers of the world—in Colorado, for instance—to understand them, to live through their troubles with them, to comfort them in sorrow and minister to them in ill health, to teach them the message of the Gospels and to aid them by striving with them . . . against wrongs and oppression and abuse.

In his writing, Lynd described blistering twelve-hour days digging ditches, his first Sunday evening service, and the formation of Boy and Girl Scout troops. We also learn that Lynd created “community sings.” One of the local favorites began: “We’re off for Montana, the land of the free / The home of the bed bug, the grayback and flea.” I recall my father singing the next lines: “So sing loud its praises and sing loud its fame / I’m starving to death on my government claim.”

“The work on the ditch had set the tide flowing in my direction,” Lynd remembered. He wrote of “the friendliness of the West,” as when money needed to be raised in response to some family emergency. Among visitors to the preacher’s room in the evening, there was some desire to address “the problem of interesting the State Federation of Labor in sending organizers to the Basin” to save men from “the admittedly unnecessary six-and-a-half and seven-day week.” Among the preacher’s sermons, “one on gossip, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ seemed to bite especially deep.”

“When the long-dreaded lay-off came,” Lynd wrote, “I fired myself rather than hold down a job when married men were out of work.” He got acquainted with dry-land farmers, “struggling to wrest a crop of scrawny corn from a quarter-section of cracked earth, and hoping each year that the government will put the water through their arid region.” He took the Boy Scouts hiking, camping, and fishing.

Then came September, time for the summer minister to go back to school. Lynd tells us that “an able minister forty miles away [had been] secured for one service a month throughout the winter.”

That able minister was Daniel McCorkle.

 

Comrades

The first letter between the two ministers that has been preserved was from Lynd while he was still at Elk Basin. The second paragraph reads:

Got a good letter from Fox and have sent him information he desired, including names of members of other unions (railway, firemen, and miners) here, possible places of meeting, etc. It looks like desperate work here to get these dry farmer oil worker [sic] organized. They’re all afraid to peep for obvious reasons. But I have been talking quietly with a number of them and there is a strong desire for organization among them.

Lynd went on: “Wednesday night we ‘organized’ the Community Church of Elk Basin. I had been going around among the men and a number of those especially interested in labor organization were on hand to start a demonstration as soon as I brought up the question of your coming in this winter.”

“I didn’t want to hamper a successor,” the handwritten letter continued, “so we haven’t incorporated, merely named ourselves and elected an executive committee. I am strongly in favor of a community church working under one of the [church] boards; otherwise the barrel has no hoops and may go to pieces at any time! But the only way to get such an affiliation will be by a slow campaign,” because of the many different denominations among the 500 inhabitants of Elk Basin. “My judgment is that the right man could get anything he wanted from these folks after 6 months.” The letter concluded: “I feel that I’ve put some of my life blood into this job and I would hate to see it all die. As it probably will unless you can come.”

McCorkle replied from Bearcreek on November 10. The focus of the correspondence had shifted to inducing Standard Oil to adopt a shorter work week. McCorkle believed that the chairman of the Standard Oil Board of Directors, one R.W. Stewart, wished to create the impression that “the Rockefeller companies [were] benevolently working toward a six day week for Wyoming and Montana oil workers.” Stewart was publicizing a letter he had written to John D. Rockefeller Jr., asserting that the only sites where the six-day week was not observed were “where the workers themselves have petitioned otherwise.”

McCorkle’s letter to Lynd asserted that “this letter is false. You have the right policy,” he advised his younger comrade. “Get the facts. Put yourself in a position to prove that his report on Elk Basin is not true. . . . You are getting material which will enable you to show the duplicity and unreliability of Mr. Rockefeller’s tools.” He cautioned him to “assume that Rockefeller’s agents have opened your mail and read what it contained.”

The exchange of letters ended in early 1922. On January 26, a letter from McCorkle started with a comparison of the tactical situation to that of a frontiersman who, while hunting a bear, has finally located his quarry “up a tree.” In McCorkle’s opinion, Stewart was up a tree, and Lynd, besieging the bear, “had little left to do save dispose of the hide.”

The upshot of this extended cat-and-mouse game is set forth in one of the articles Lynd asked his son to save. It ends on a note of restrained indignation:

When I came out of the Basin there was no question in my mind as to what should be done. These things are urgent:

First: A six day week, with Sunday work only in real emergencies.

Second: Abolition of the long twelve hour day and the substitution of three shifts instead of two.

Third: Provision of a simple community house for recreational purposes.

In addition to these, there is an unquestioned need for:

Fourth: Recognition as in the California agreement of the right to organize.

Fifth: Better housing for fifty to eighty per cent of the families.

Sixth: Extra pay for overtime work.

The two Christian crusaders—a veteran agitator and his younger sidekick—had produced, from below, a program that could serve a union as a basis for negotiations, a legislature as to the substance of needed laws, and decent human beings as an opportunity to do the right thing.

Both men also grappled with a disciple’s dilemma: Should I stay in one place, win the trust of the people, and see what a community thus inspirited can accomplish? It must have been especially painful for Lynd when, as he tells us, his departure from Elk Basin to complete his course of study at UTS coincided with layoff at the oil field.

In the UTS class letter of October 1921, McCorkle wrote to his former classmates:

Lately, at Elk Basin, Wyoming, I struck oil, though not in an ordinary sense. Robert Lynd of Union [Theological Seminary] last summer found the oil workers rankling under the oppression of a six-and-one-half day week. . . . [H]e appealed to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to grant them a full day of rest in seven . . . . I am particularly concerned because Lynd in returning to school leaves all the responsibility for the Elk Basin field in my hands.

 

Conclusion

The lives of these two men and their interaction give us an opportunity to observe relatively recent examples of two different styles of organizing. Both men went to UTS. Upon leaving it their practice diverged.

Robert Lynd’s stay in Elk Basin during the summer of 1921 offered a model for winning acceptance and trust in a community. He was Scout master, choral director, and prayer leader, but more than anything else he was a fellow laborer in “the ditch.” On the other hand, his stay in Elk Basin was brief, from some time in June until early September. And as a summer intern he was obliged to go back to New York City just at the moment when there was a layoff that had been feared throughout the summer.

Lynd’s Elk Basin model of brief but intensive involvement was one way of contributing to social change. Among other things it included patient preliminary conversation about forming a trade union. The seeds of Middletown were also planted at Elk Basin. Ironically, the study was funded by Rockefeller money through the Institute of Social and Religious Research of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller sponsors thought they were funding a study of the “religious life of a small town.” The Lynds proceeded to study every aspect of life in Muncie, most controversially a local economy dominated by a single company that made glass jars for preserving fruit and vegetables. They “wanted to do it more or less in the same way one would do an anthropological study of a small community.” They were “fascinated with whether this would work.”

Daniel McCorkle offered another model, of long-term presence in a variety of capacities. While both Lynd and McCorkle offered themselves as manual laborers among those whom they hoped to influence, and joined or helped to form trade unions, McCorkle had worked four summers in the harvest fields of Oklahoma, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Colorado, and New Mexico to support himself while in college. His master’s thesis was on “Newly Developed Communities in Montana.” His subjects included “the new coal mining town of Bear Creek,” where he spent the summer of 1911 working in the mines and gathering material for his thesis. A cousin remembers his grandfather saying that Daniel “tied his shoes with wire and ate canned beans, to be able to stay in college.” McCorkle, despite his journeys from one community to the next, worked in Sunrise for a period of time considerably longer than Lynd’s stay in Elk Basin.

There is no question that Robert Lynd considered his summer in Elk Basin one of the high points of his life. Yet when it was over, he returned to New York City and an address on Central Park West. McCorkle lived as a circuit preacher for a good part of his adult life. Years as a seasonal harvester, miner, casual farmhand, railroad and automotive mechanic, construction worker, and “gig” minister shaped him and gave him a range of experiences that taught him much about the lives of the American working class.

There is, on the one hand, the labor organizer who checks in at the motel, proceeds to follow the steps of a well-worn organizing strategy, and leaves town the day after the election, win or lose, to pursue the same strategy at another “hot spot.” In contrast are the young people known in the 1930s as “colonizers,” who before or after college graduation got a job at a coal mine, a steel mill, an automobile assembly plant, or a meatpacking plant, and stayed for the remainder of a lifetime.

Similarly, in the civil rights movement, as well remembered by one of the authors, there were at least three alternative life strategies at play among fellow activists. There were recruits from outside the South who for a summer or several years registered voters or took part in a Freedom School. There were long-term volunteers who, after high school or college and low-wage jobs for a span of years, went on to a professional life elsewhere in the United States. And finally, there are persons who have spent their entire lives in the Movement.

People who thought of themselves as “organizers” tended to move from one assignment to the next. Long-term activists were often practitioners of “accompaniment,” walking beside those who sought their help, and learning from one another and their neighbors. There seems to be no good reason why those dedicated to bringing about social change need to go about it in the same way.

Lynd and McCorkle have passed on the responsibility to address poverty and oppression, wherever they may exist, to us.


Staughton Lynd taught American history at Spelman College and Yale University. He was director of Freedom Schools in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. An early leader of the movement against the Vietnam War, he was blacklisted and unable to continue as an academic. He then became a lawyer and since the 1970s has assisted rank-and-file workers and prisoners. He has written, edited, or co-edited with his wife, Alice Lynd, more than a dozen books, including Rank & File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers (Haymarket Books, expanded edition 2011).

Ben Morgan is a Northeast Ohio native. He recently graduated from the Bio-Med Science Academy and is preparing to enter Vassar College in the fall of 2021.

This essay was written with the assistance of Alice Lynd.

 

Note on Sources

On the linkage between Social Gospel literature and 1960s radicalism, see Vaneesa Cook’s Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left.

Our principal source for the life of Daniel S. McCorkle is Dorothy Floerchinger’s To Speak of Love Was Not Enough: A Biography of Daniel and Panayiota McCorkle.

For McCorkle and the Ludlow Massacre, see G.B. Dobson’s “Sunrise, Wyoming Photos” at Wyoming Tales and Trails.

See Robert S. Lynd’s articles “But Why Preach?” (1921) and “Crude-Oil Religion” (1922) in Harper’s, and “Done in Oil” (1922) in Survey Graphic.

Edward L. Crain can be heard singing a slightly different version of “Starving to Death on a Government Claim” here.

Correspondence between Daniel McCorkle and Robert Lynd is available at the Montana State Historical Society.

For the Lynds’ belief that their study of Muncie was a work of anthropology, see Helen Merrell Lynd’s Possibilities (privately printed at Sarah Lawrence College).


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