On Thanksgiving Day 1902, Reverend John Hensyl stood before an audience in Shenandoah’s Presbyterian Church at Oak and White streets. Before him sat a large audience from numerous Protestant churches in the Schuylkill County mining community prepared to hear a Thanksgiving message.
Hensyl, the minister at Shenandoah’s United Evangelical Church, touched on numerous topics in his speech, but the heart of his message got down to the suffering he witnessed in the community he served. Thanksgiving 1902 came at the conclusion of a months-long, bitterly fought coal strike by members of the United Mine Workers of America.
The 1902 Coal Strike was the largest such strike by a workforce in the nation’s history to that point. Thousands of mineworkers across Northeastern Pennsylvania walked out in May and did not return to their jobs until negotiations had begun between union leadership and the coal barons of the anthracite fields in October. The strike was so bitterly fought and had such far-reaching implications, that President Theodore Roosevelt became involved in negotiations.
Hensyl spoke about the cycle of poverty that had settled over American workers as companies, corporations, and trusts grew stronger. He sought to bring attention to the need that institutions in the United States, including the church and the Federal government itself, needed to work to improve the lot of working Americans. In his speech comes key tenets of Progressive Era thought among reformers. Using the powers of government and institutions to make the country a better place. Hensyl sought not to blame workers and their families for their poverty, but instead indicted a system that had been designed to keep them on the edge of survival for the benefit of corporate interests, especially in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania.
It is no surprise that Shenandoah would be a hotbed of such thought in 1902 – the Schuylkill County community had been among the more radical during the coal strike, with violence and property destruction that inspired the governor of Pennsylvania to send state military forces to the community to keep the peace.
The sermon appeared in the Shenandoah Evening Herald on November 27, 1902:
The time has come when prosperous thanks-givers must consider the fact that a majority of the people feel that they have nothing to be thankful for. It will no longer do for the government and churches, on which is imposed the function of carrying out its thanksgiving proclamation in their places of worship, to ignore the wrongs and sufferings of the poor, or simply read them lessons of patience and resignation.
This course is defensible only on the supposition that the poor have only themselves to blame for their poverty, or that the government and the churches can do nothing to improve their condition materially. Obviously neither of these suppositions is correct. Millions of people in this land of ours are suffering from social evils, for which they are not responsible, and which it is the duty of both church and government to assist in correcting; their failure to perform this duty is certain to alienate the masses from the one, and cause grave distrust and disloyalty toward the other.
The control of all the industries of the country by gigantic trusts is rapidly crowding out small tradesmen and reducing the great mass of the people to the class of wage-workers who can only live by being servants of rich men and corporations. The object of these combinations is, confessedly, to make money at the expense of consumers, but they also have the power to fix rates of production and wages at will.
The result is that the average annual incomes of the millions of wage-workers in this country are barely sufficient to enable them to live. The majority of them have no margins at Thanksgiving time. Nothing laid by for sickness or old age, to start their children in life. Hence their theory and their cry, we have nothing to be thankful for.
“I have worked for thirty years,” said an intelligent artisan, “everyday I could I never drink or use tobacco, and live as economically as I can, and yet I own practically nothing now, and my time and strength are nearly gone. What shall I do when I can work no more? My children will do their best to take care of me; but they are doomed to the same life of toil for only enough wages to support them.”
This is the condition of millions of the people to whom the President issues his proclamation to assemble in places of worship and give thanks to God, who has prospered them on their way. Is it any wonder that they treat this call somewhat cynically?
Hensyl called his listeners to take action on their own to help – offerings were collected for the less fortunate in the community that November – but also made the case that the problem was much bigger than just what individuals themselves could fix.
Featured Image: Breaker boys in Luzerne County in the early 20th century, Library of Congress