Early Catholic Labor Champions: Terence Powderly, Archbishop Gibbons, and Father Edward McGlynn

Maria Messenga

[Reprinted from GroundSwell, September-October 2007]

The following presentation was made at the July 24, 2007 Council of Georgist Organizations held at the University of Scranton. The CGO conference was cosponsored by the University of Scranton, which is a Catholic institution. This article was compiled from notes and an audio recording by the GroundSwell editor, Nadine Stoner.

Dan Sullivan, an advisor to the CGO Executive Committee and also the director of Saving Communities, based in Pittsburgh, PA, introduced the speaker Maria Mazzenga. Dan also commented that he had always heard among the Georgists that Archbishop Corrigan went after Father McGlynn because of Henry George. But Henry George was also seen as a fellow traveler of Terence Powderly. This whole thing is much more complicated. The story Georgists have heard is that the Knights of Labor was a small struggling organization and then they got hooked up with Henry George and went from 60,000 to 700,000 members. Prior to getting involved with Henry George, Terence Powderly was mayor of Scranton for three terms, winning on the Greenback Labor Party ticket. The other big issue of the Progressive movement was greenback dollars.

There were connections between Powderly and the Molly McGuires who were accused of violence; the Knights of Labor were accused of being a front group for the Molly McGuires. The Catholic church condemned secret organizations generally, and it condemned the Masons explicitly. Catholics in the Knights of Labor were not allowed in the church in Canada. Church enforcement is mostly a moral sanction. There was a big move to get Powderly sanctioned in Canada and the Knights of Labor condemned in the United States. All this preceded Henry George's involvement. Also, there was a big split in the Catholic church. Over there (Europe) they allied themselves with the aristocracy. In the United States the aristocracy was Protestant. And the working people who were agitating against the aristocracy were almost entirely Catholic. This is the context in which Terence Powderly, Archbishop Gibbons, Father McGlynn, and Henry George worked.

The Catholic University of America has the definitive collection of things related to Terence Powderly. I am putting at least one of Powderly’s books on the web, if you go to Saving Communities and click document library and you will find "Powderly.Terence". Right now his position on the Molly McGuires is on the web. He also has a long passage on land, railroads, and telegraphy, and a shorter passage on money. It is very compatible with what Henry George wrote. On free trade, Henry George said if we abolish land monopoly, free trade would work just fine. Powderly’s position was well shut up about free trade, abolish land monopoly, and we will all see the wisdom of what you have been saying about free trade. And I tend to agree that George got off on that free trade tangent to his detriment. He lost the support of Labor and he lost his message. He had a core message and he diverted from it. And it cost him politically.

MARIA MAZZENGA is the education outreach director for Catholic University of America’s Library system. She is a historian, and has a doctoral degree from Catholic University. She started her presentation with projecting a cartoon from Puck which was a famous magazine of the late 19th century. It is captioned benefit concert for the improvement of the labor condition and it is making fun of the labor movement. Shown playing musical instruments are Edward McGlynn, Terence Powderly, and Henry George. The fates of Powderly and George were very much interconnected. This is so illustrative of the late 19th century dominant Protestant views. In Italy in 1870, people’s lands were being taken away, and the Vatican controlled a lot of territory in Italy. The Papacy felt their territories were being taken away, and they tended to turn inward. So a lot of people who were training for the priesthood and involved in the church then began focusing on ecclesiastical and college studies and conversations within the church. They couldn't control the outside and they began to struggle a lot within the church. The convoluted nature of what Catholics in the Labor movement in the United States think of Powderly, etc. is tied to that fear of what outsiders think.

We are talking about three people, Terence Powderly, Cardinal James Gibbons, and Father Edward McGlynn and how they tied up with Henry George. Powderly, Gibbons, and McGlynn were different kinds of Catholics. Powderly was a Catholic but he was more of a nominal Catholic. He was very disenchanted with the Catholic Church by the end of his life. When you look at his autobiography, called The Path I Trod (it is in Google.com/books **), he says the church is a great institution, it does many good things, but many of its practitioners are evil. And there was lots of support for that in the late 19th century. He was very critical of the church. But he played a huge role in reconciling the Knights of Labor with the Catholic Church in the late 19th century. He is a nominal Catholic but he does respect the church’s role to influence labor. (** editor's note: you can also access libraries.cua.edu/achrcua/powderly/resource.html)

Cardinal James Gibbons was emphatically Catholic. He was a Cardinal after 1886. He was the head of the most influential archdiocese in the country in Baltimore. He was the father of the American Catholic Church in the late 19th century. He was sympathetic to labor. He would play a key role in reconciling the Knights of Labor and the Catholic Church.

Then we have Father Edward McGlynn who needs little introduction to Georgists. He has a rocky relationship with the Catholic Church, is an avid Catholic at first, gets into social theories, gets into Georgist theories, gets into trouble, is excommunicated, and then is reinstated by the late 19th century.

Powderly was a child of industrial America. He was in fact born in Carbondale nearby to Scranton. He was the 11th of 12 children born to immigrant Irish parents. At the time Carbondale was grimy and poor and the anthracite industry there was dying and moving further out toward Scranton. He was scrawny and sickly, not the typical working class hero that you might envision. He had lost his hearing in one ear as a result of scarlet fever. He had a variety of throat and respiratory ailments, so he was sick a lot as a young man. He was the target of local bullies which may have caused him to focus more on reading. His mother was an abolitionist; she was against slavery. He learned a lot of his tolerance and sympathy from his mother. His father had been a mine worker and then had been a superintendent of the mines before he became a skilled mechanic. Terence was charming and a very good debater, but his education was cut short. At the time the working class tended to go to school to maybe age 13 and then leave school to go to work to supplement the family income. That was very common at the time.

So he attended school until he was 13 and then went to work at a coal, canal, and railroad firm called D & H where he served as a switch tender, a car examiner, a car repairer, and a brakeman on the railroads. Despite his bookish nature he really enjoyed this work tending machines. Eventually he had an apprenticeship as a mechanic and he came to Scranton where things were booming and he started working at a locomotive shop. While he had ambitions to be a poet (he eventually did write non-fiction), he embraced his mechanics work wholeheartedly. To give you some idea of the change going on between Carbondale and Scranton in the late 19th century, Carbondale was declining as a town and Scranton was just growing enormously. Between 1850 and 1870 Scranton jumped from 1,000 people to 35,000 people, and a lot of this had to do with the arrival of the Scranton brothers. Colonel Wm. Scranton came to Scranton with his brother and they established the Lackawanna Iron and Coal Company in the 1840s. What they were doing was building rails for the Erie Railroad and they eventually built the DLW railroad a decade later in 1850 or so to provide a rail access between New York City and Scranton. They made the most of their location and the expansion of the whole region. The Scranton clan retained dominance in this area for decades.

Powderly served as a mechanic with a man named James Dickson who knows Wm. “King” Scranton, a descendent of the Scranton family. He asks Wm. “King” Scranton for a job; Wm. “King” Scranton gives him a job. While Powderly is embarking on his career as a mechanic, the Knights of Labor was formed in 1869 in Philadelphia by Uriah Stevens, head of the garment cutters. Uriah Stevens was a member of the Knights of Pythias and of the Free Masons. They work a lot of the rituals from the Masons into this new order called the Knights of Labor. This becomes sort of a union fraternal order at the same time. Uriah Stevens was head of the Knights of Labor until 1879. He died.

In 1878 Terrance Powderly became mayor of Scranton before he was 30. Then he became the Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor. The union grows immensely under Powderly. Labor is in a terrible bind; there are strikes going on at the time. Knights of Labor membership skyrocketed, because these people needed a way to organize. Under Powderly this union will grow to over 700,000 members. At the time, strikes were not popularly embraced by the labor movement. They were in the early 20th century, but in the late 19th century, strikes were seen as counterproductive. Mostly what was embraced was arbitration and boycotts. It was in the midst of massive strikes in 1877, including the railroad strike, that Knights of Labor membership skyrocketed. Powderly himself had gone around saying he was against labor strikes but that was really how his union grew at the time. It was seen as immoral and socialistic at the time.

The Knights of Labor was the most powerful labor union of the 1880s in America and it rises against this industrial change. Why were the Knights special, why did they get so many members? First of all, they were organized vertically as opposed to exclusively horizontally. They were organized by trade. They organized across trades. So you would have coal breakers and coal miners in the coal industry organizing together. They may be separated in groups but they would coordinate their activities together. This horizontal organization tended to be more inclusive than the previous vertical organization where people would stay more in groups.

This horizontal integration was very important in creating this new union and creating its power. Also, the Knights of Labor gathered by invitation skilled and unskilled workers, and you know how unusual that it is, to be part of one big union. This was also part of its success at the time. The Knights of Labor included previously marginalized groups. And this is limited, but they invited women. Women in larger cities were generally segregated from men insofar as their assemblies. More remarkably, African Americans were invited, so you also find African American assemblies of the Knights of Labor.

Excluded were individuals that the Knights deemed non-producers. Bankers and lawyers were viewed as exploitative and as not contributing to the finished material goods. Their constitution said these people cannot be part of the Knights of Labor because they are not producing anything. At the time it seemed to make a lot of sense because we were an industrial economy.

Another thing unfortunately is that Labor excluded Chinese. They supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 on the grounds that it would prevent outside competition. That says there were certain limits on their inclusiveness, and there was this anti-Chinese sentiment also.

Between 1869 and 1896 there were orders in every state. Every state had some assembly of the Knights of Labor. There were 15,000 local assemblies. Powderly was elected as Scranton mayor in 1878 by the Greenback Labor Party and he served three 2-year terms. As mayor he was into municipally owned gas and water works, and he wanted to have a cooperative boot and shoe factory. He wanted to structure the city’s tax structure probably along the ideas of Henry George but the City Council wouldn’t let him do any of it. He got very little passed as far as these progressive reforms go. But he was really popular both as the mayor and as head of the Knights. He was so popular there were people that named their babies after him. He was so popular, that he was practically like a rock star. He was a celebrity at the time. More substantially, John Coggeshall, a Knight in Iowa wondered in 1882 in a letter to Powderly how they would get “releif {sic} from the state of slavery to which the Vanderbilts, Goulds, Garretts, Perkins and other corporation magnates have reduced us owing to our hitherto isolated and consequently defenseless condition.” This was part of the language of the Knights of Labor at the time.

The leaders of the Catholic Church have a problem with the Knights of Labor. The number one concern is socialism. The church fears socialism for the obvious reasons. In its purist form it is an anti-religious body of ideas or at least a non-religious body of ideas. The 19th century saw the birth of socialism, and impoverished workers everywhere embraced it because it sought to restructure society. The Knights favored redistribution of wealth. They favored the 8-hour work day. They favored cooperative work places where workers made decisions with their employers and the church saw this as attempting to redistribute income.

The second concern was violence. The church feared labor violence. The Molly McGuires were about more than just violence. You will recall just a few years before the rise of the Knights there were murders conducted by the labor agitators, the Molly McGuires. They operated in the coal fields and used violence to achieve their treatment of workers. This turned church leaders off, because everybody seemed to be a Molly. By the way, Terence Powderly was referred to as a Molly in many cases, but he was very much afraid of anarchy and very critical of anarachists. The Molly McGuires were secret.

Finally the Knights engaged in secrecy. The church takes personally this engaging in secret behavior. Various church leaders got hold of copies of the secret ritual booklet and thought they were engaging in Free Masonry. A lot of the rites were actually based on Free Mason rites. That was more antagonistic to the church. The Free Masons had been outlawed in 1734 because they were antagonistic to the church. So church leaders variously accused the Knights of Free Masonry and the penalty was if the Knights of Labor were engaging in this Free Masonry activity, they would not receive the sacraments. That is how they twisted their arms.

How does this situation come to a head? In Canada in 1884, Eleazar Taschereau, the Archbishop of Quebec, invoked the ban on secret societies to condemn the Knights in organizing in Quebec. The idea became popular and moved south into the United States, and Bishop James Healy in Portland, Maine published the ban and said he wouldn’t give sacraments to any Knights in his diocese. Various Catholic leaders get wind of this information and tried to decide, should we condemn the Knights, too. People started talking about this whole situation. You are either going to have Catholics joining the Knights and leaving the church, Catholic workers ignoring the ban and exiting the church, or they are going to heed the ban and not join the Knights.

What happens is that James Gibbons of Baltimore takes the position that if we condemn the Knights we are going to lose the workers of the church. He is very shrewd in dealing with power and he attempted to spread this position around and he started talking to other Catholic leaders. He believes that the church is going to lose members and revenue so he and several other Catholic leaders do two things to support their view that Catholics should not be forbidden to join the Knights of Labor. They convince Terence Powderly to end the policy of secrecy in the Knights, specifically the secret oath practiced by the Knights, and Powderly gets that done. The second thing he does is he writes something called a Memorial in 1887. A Memorial is a petition to the Pope asking him to not condemn the Knights of Labor. It is a long piece; there are pieces of it on our website. And he says essentially this is a huge mistake. There is no socialism in the Knights of Labor. They are not doing anything wrong. The workers are tremendously oppressed. He asks the Pope to say something about this situation and not condemn it. Rome issued a decision in 1888 and it is not a ringing endorsement of the Knights of Labor but they don’t condemn the order in the United States. You can join the Knights of Labor and remain Catholics in good standing. Thanks to Cardinal Gibbons.

Cardinal Gibbons came from a poor family and he supported the workers.

Powderly read George’s works, he read Progress and Poverty. In fact, in 1883, he told the Knights of Labor to read George as he had some good ideas. Knights of Labor reading rooms stocked the book. So there is a strong relationship between these two men and the order and George. Also, George was a member of the Knights of Labor, a member of a local in New York and he joined in 1880. They were both members of the Irish Land League against the landlordism in Ireland. This was headed by Michael Davitt and the various other Irish figures and they would come and try to raise awareness in the United States of the exploitation of the Irish peasants in Ireland. Henry George and Terence Powderly were both strong supporters of getting rid of Irish landlordism, of Irish peasants owning the land. They had that in common, too.

They had a lot of differences that eventually caused them to grow apart. George and Powderly began to differ over the Haymarket affair in 1886. Powderly is against clemency for the people accused of committing murder and George at least initially was for clemency. Of course there is all kinds of evidence as to whether the people accused of this actually did it. This is a terrible moment in the American labor movement. It raised all kinds of bells to the American public. These people are anarchists in our country. This rift between these two men becomes very public. Powderly doesn’t like anarchism and thinks they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They came out publicly with these positions. They also differed on their trade basis. I have several letters where George writes Powderly trying to convince him to abandon his protectionism. But at least half of the Knights were protectionists, and this may have been a limited way of maintaining their jobs.

Of course, George was a free trader. I will just give you a little clip of a letter that George wrote to Powderly in 1889 to convince him to abandon his protectionism. “If you waste your strength pottering about little trifling go-nowhere matters, without one clear ringing note on the grand essentials, your day will have soon passed. But if you throw aside your protectionism and all the quack remedies that have been the stock in trade of the conventional labor leaders who have succeeded each other only to disappear, and plant yourself firmly and unequivocally on the broad platform of equal rights and equal justice, urging the only practical measures by which they can be attained, you have before you not merely a great work in the present, but a high place in the list of those who have helped onward the cause of freedom.”

Powderly got this letter and had his assistant stamp on the top, no answer required. He did reconcile a bit later but this really was a serious rift with him. We are starting to have these clear policy disagreements among these members of the labor movement by the 1880s.

Now Edward McGlynn enters the picture. He is one of 11 children born to Peter and Sarah McGlynn. He had a pretty comfortable life early on. At the age of 13 he went to Rome to study at the Urban College of Propaganda of the Faith. At the time Propaganda didn’t have the connotations that it has now. He was training to do missionary work and related activities. He is eloquent, handsome, and is a brilliant student. He is very young when he got a teaching post at what is known as the North American College at Rome, which had been established to train American priests.

Then McGlynn is sent to a parish in New York City in 1860. By 1865 he is the head of the largest parish in New York City, St. Steven’s parish, with 24,000 souls registered. He is very influential, but right on he becomes controversial. To build a parish, the advised practice is you build a church and then you build a parish school connected to it. That was a way to combat prejudice against Catholicism because in the public schools Catholic kids often encountered prejudice. It was also a way to consolidate the power within the church. When McGlynn comes along, he says I was educated in the public schools. I think we should just send all the kids to public schools. Let’s use the money for charity. And let’s use it for religious instruction. He says this publicly. It gets in the newspapers, and he starts getting into trouble. Before George came around and consolidated his relationship with him, McGlynn is in trouble. He is also into the Irish Land League. He goes and speaks on behalf of the Irish Land League in the United States. He was not supposed to do this but he did it anyway. In 1882 he speaks at a very large meeting and he espouses the ideas of Henry George, and says we should apply George’s ideas in Ireland. And let’s apply his ideas in the United States, too. He says this publicly, it is published, and Roman officials get very upset and worried. This caused the Roman official, Cardinal Giovanni Simconi, to issue a statement to McGlynn's superior, the Archibishop of New York, Cardinal John McClosky. The note warned the Cardinal that McGlynn's statements were socialist in character and that he should therefore be reprimanded and, if necessary, suspended. McClosky goes and talks to McGlynn and says stop. McGlynn then promised McClosky he would not make any more public statements on this matter. McGlynn thinks this promise only lasted until McClosky’s death which is 2-3 years later. McClosky dies and Archbishop Michael Corrigan takes his place, and McGlynn says my promise is ended because McClosky is dead, and he starts publicly speaking on behalf of George again.

McGlynn starts this public speaking, and this is the situation when Henry George runs for mayor in 1886 as the United Labor Party candidate. McGlynn goes on a whirlwind speaking tour. Meanwhile Archbishop Corrigan who is very conservative and angry, and less discreet than McClosky was, says you have got to stop doing this. McGlynn gave the address anyway at a rally of the Labor Party backing Henry George's candidacy in New York, for which Corrigan then suspended him from his priestly duties for two weeks. Around this time Corrigan also released a letter condemning George’s theories. Now you see this war developing between Corrigan and his priest and this is all being aired in the press. The letter was sent also to Cardinal James Gibbons, who is the Dean of the American Church and he says I am going to have do something about this. I have got a priest and Archbishop fighting in public. Rome is not happy. They don’t want people to see what is going on within the church. Gibbons feels as senior member of the hierarchy he needs to go and do something about this.

The relationship between McGlynn and Corrigan continues to sour. McGlynn is being more outspoken than ever. Gibbons goes and makes a visit to New York right before he goes to Rome to get his Cardinal’s hat. He meets with McGlynn’s friend, Fr. Richard Burtsell because he doesn’t want to talk directly to McGlynn, as it would look like he is violating Corrigan’s position to discipline McGlynn. Burtsell says he is really not saying anything so bad. He is not a socialist. Henry George is not a socialist either. Gibbons says you are right, let me talk to the Pope when I go to Rome and see what he says. So he does, and Leo XIII, the Pope at the time, asks him what is going on in New York. Gibbons says I am going to tell Edward McGlynn to come and talk to you personally.

While Gibbons is in Rome, he learns that there's a movement to put the writings of Henry George on the church's Index of Prohibited Books. Gibbons realizes that putting George's works on the Index would be foolish, not because he necessarily agrees with George, but because he believes it would not be useful and would attract negative public attention to the church. It is going to look like the Pope is violating the American ideals of free speech, and it is probably going to get more people reading Henry George's book. He knows also there will probably be backlash against the Catholics if the Pope does this because there is a lot of anti-Papal sentiment in America.

Gibbons prepares a Memorial, a petition against prohibiting George's works, for the Pope. He argues essentially that many of George's ideas originated with Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill and that the world would judge the Pope harshly for condemning the works of "a humble American artisan" rather than the writings of his masters. Secondly, Gibbons notes that George's theories differed from socialism and communism, stating that where communism abolishes private property, George supports absolute ownership of all of the fruits of one's labors, and only in the matter of land did George advocate limited ownership, and even here he didn't teach that the actual proprietors should be dispossessed, but that a change in the system of taxation should be put in place so that taxes should come from the land only and not from the fruits of industry. Finally, he said that in the US, such ideas wouldn't get anywhere anyway, and the movement would die out eventually as Congress would never enact the single tax idea. He urged the Pope to issue a statement, an encyclical, on private property.

The Pope read the Petition and does condemn George's work and puts it on the Index, but he doesn't publish that. So it doesn't get the kind of attention Gibbons thought it might.

Meanwhile the situation with McGlynn grows worse. In 1887 he is asked to head the Anti-Poverty Society created by Henry George. As head of the Anti-Poverty Society, McGlynn gives his famous speech “The Cross of a New Crusade," which promoted the single tax theory and better conditions for workers.

It is here that Terence Powderly enters the picture. McGlynn gave his speech and is getting really popular. He wants to spread the word about the Anti-Poverty Society and asks Terence Powderly for the mailing list of the Journal of United Labor. This is the publication of the Knights of Labor. Terence Powderly thinks, I am already in trouble with the Catholic Church, and if I give him this list, I am going to be in even more trouble. The hierarchy is going to get mad at me, and then they might condemn the Knights of Labor. So Powderly tells McGlynn the Knights of Labor constitution won't allow it, and I am not giving it to you. McGlynn then goes and publicly denounces Powderly and the Knights of Labor, and there is a huge uproar in the press between McGlynn and Powderly.

McGlynn keeps giving his speeches, and he was ordered to stop giving these speeches for George and his theories in 40 days or he would be excommunicated. He keeps giving his speeches and on July 3, 1887, he is excommunicated. Corrigan fears that he might be reinstated back into the church if McGlynn goes and makes his case, so he passes information about McGlynn’s appearance activities and promiscuity -- which may have been fabricated. He sends this to Rome and the excommunication is affirmed. Corrigan actually made membership in the George's Anti-Poverty Society a sin. If you join the Anti-Poverty Society you will not receive the sacraments. In 1889 Anti-Poverty Society member Teresa Kelly of New York died and was refused burial for being a member.

When 1892 rolled around, the excommunication is sticking, but McGlynn doesn’t care. He is going around and talking anyway. Pope Leo XIII has just released Rerum Novarum, which is influenced by both the Knights of Labor and Henry George’s work. An emissary from Rome, Archbishop Francesco Sartolli was sent to the US to reconcile McGlynn. Sartolli asked McGlynn to compose a document outlining his ideas on political and economic theory, and McGlynn does this. Satolli pronounces that the document has nothing objectionable. McGlynn is also asked to express his support for Rerum Novarum, and shortly after he is reinstated into the church at the Catholic University in DC. In 1893 he goes to Rome and sees Leo XIII.

Archbishop Corrigan is not happy about any of this. McGlynn is moved to a parish in Newburgh, NY, where he continues to speak for labor, and on the single tax theory. McGlynn gave his last great speech at the funeral of Henry George in 1897, saying "there was a man sent from God and his name was Henry George." Edward McGlynn died in 1900. Gibbons is gone by 1921. Powderly is gone by 1924. It is really the end of an era when these men pass on. And it is the AFL-CIO after that.

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