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The Economic Gospel of J.B. McLachlan, 1919

David Frank: Introduction

For Labour Day this year, here is a voice from the labour unrest of a century ago. 

The year 1919 is remembered as the year of the Winnipeg General Strike, but the unrest was more widespread than a single city, as studies of events such as the Amherst General Strike have shown. Although the Winnipeg strike ended in defeat, there were also some victories for the unions that year, including the success of the Nova Scotia coal miners in finally gaining recognition for District 26, United Mine Workers of America. 

But the labour question in 1919 was much more than a struggle for union contracts. It was also a moral question about the distribution of wealth and power in modern society, and there was no stronger advocate of this case than the coal miners’ leader J.B. McLachlan (1869-1937). 

Raised in a strict Presbyterian household in Scotland and later a member of the Baptist Church, McLachlan travelled the road from the Bible and Robert Burns and Thomas Carlyle through to the labour activism of Keir Hardie in the coalfields in the 1890s.

In Canada after the turn of the century, he joined the Socialist Party of Canada and, in the 1920s, the Communist Party. Although often denounced for his alleged atheism, he continued to advance a moral critique of capitalism that won the respect of prominent clerics such as Clarence MacKinnon of Pine Hill Divinity College and Jimmy Tompkins of St. Francis Xavier University. In a reference to McLachlan’s Calvinist upbringing in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, J.S. Woodsworth once described him as a “labour covenanter.” 

The following document captures McLachlan’s rhetoric at full force as it was one hundred years ago in 1919. It provides further support for Danny Samson’s recent reminder of McLachlan’s religious background and his continued engagement with relevant values well into his public life. 

McLachlan’s essay was originally written for a contest sponsored by the Halifax Herald to promote the discussion of social gospel ideas in the period of reconstruction at the end of the Great War. The set theme was “The Ideal Preacher for the New Era in Life.” As far as can be determined, McLachlan’s prizewinning entry was not published in the Herald, but it did appear later in the Halifax labour newspaper, The Citizen.

Following the appearance of the Catholic bishops’ Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis in 1983, I prepared McLachlan’s essay for publication in the magazine New Maritimes under the title “The Economic Gospel of J.B. McLachlan.” I also made use of it in my 1999 biography of McLachlan, which documented his story as the champion of the Nova Scotia coal miners and one of Canada’s most significant radical labour leaders. 

David Frank is a professor emeritus in Canadian History at the University of New Brunswick. 

J.B. McLachlan ca. 1920

J.B. McLachlan: The ideal preacher for the new era in life

It is not to be assumed that all the “Preachers” have always been attached to the Church. The preacher has been abroad during the ages in various guises, the printing press multiplying his efforts ten million fold, and the “ideal” ones seldom had, or, for that matter, looked for the endorsation of the Church. They have been as free and unritualistic as the south wind and generally earned for themselves the opposition of the Church.

Was not all this true of Jesus in his day and of Darwin in ours? Yet their works live and are fondly cherished by the millions who have been benefited by their teachings. 

Two palpable and undisputable facts confront the world today. The rise of a universal working class movement and the decline of the Church, and the “Ideal Preacher” shall very wisely conclude that these two historical facts have a very strong relation to each other. 

Whether we like it or not, the rise of the working class and the decline of the Church are the direct results of the work of the free and unattached “Ideal Preachers.” From Moses and Jesus and Marx and Carlyle, one outstanding theme runs through all their teachings, however much the language employed may have differed. The sins which all of them denounced most fiercely were economic sins, and the mission of all of them in life was to deliver the oppressed.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people, which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows and I AM COME DOWN TO DELIVER THEM”. Such has always been the mission of the “Ideal Preacher” and he invariably found himself in direct and deadly conflict with the owning and ruling classes of society. 

Moses must have been an awful radical: his immediate purpose was the emancipation of a number of work people who were making bricks, and he goes to interview the king on the matter, and the king was anxious to compromise, but Moses talks to the old king just like a member of the I. W. W.

“If you refuse to let my people go, BEHOLD TOMORROW I WILL BRING,” etc., anything from locusts to the death of your boy. No squeamishness in that proclamation, but a decisiveness and sure-footedness that must have enthused those brickmakers.

Nor was Jesus who was the flower of all preachers, different in this respect from Moses, but he contended with the rich from first to last. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor” is the battle challenge with which he confronted the rich, and the rulers, and the oppressors of his day; and for this particular sermon it is recorded that they tried to kill him.

Nor can all the wit and logic of man show from the story found in Luke that the rich man was in hell for anything whatever other than his riches.

Their gospel was an economic gospel that dealt with the affairs of men right down here on this earth, and the preacher that is going to be listened to today, amid the turmoil and welter of a head-on collision between two economic classes — the exploited and the exploiters — must have a message of hope for the one, and not for the other. He must stand either for the supremacy of things as against the supremacy of man, or the supremacy of man as against the supremacy of things.

No more dramatic moment can take place in the life of a preacher than in making his decision on the question. For him it is the day of judgement. He is deciding on a reverence for caste and privilege; for vested rights and oblivion. Or he decides to grasp the torch flung to him from the dying hands of heroes and martyrs and join the world-wide crusade for the emancipation from all exploitation of the propertyless working class. 

This old world entered the rapids in August 1914, and the “Ideal Preacher” having decided on his mission, requires one other qualification: a granite will to get his ideas before men with or without the consent of any organization now in existence. He shall be careful to link his cause with the good and true of all past history, while at the same time refusing to allow the clammy hand of the dead to shackle his mind. 

Infallibility for him won’t exist outside the multiplication table; his reason, his experience and his conscience shall be the only touchstone to discover for him the good and true, the evil and the false. Righteousness will be of infinitely more importance to him than religion; from others he will expect justice; towards the failings of others he will show mercy, with a passion.

He shall work like a Trojan as if the salvation of this world depended upon his efforts, and go to bed at night and sleep as sound as a healthy baby, knowing that mankind has been and will continue to struggle upward and onward towards the light and freedom, and will arrive there even if he had never been born. There are no “lapsed masses” for this “Ideal Preacher”; to him the shedding of the old by mankind is not a tragedy but a treat, a something to be learned from, but never to be lamented over. Long since he learned the elementary truth that “the world do move.”

His business is altogether too important to allow him to step aside and waste time arguing with a dead and dying institutionalized religion. He shall let the dead bury their dead. As for him, the heaving, throbbing surge of the great disinherited is consuming all his skill, energy and time, in keeping them on the narrow path that leads to the land where they shall “call no man master.” 

In a word, the “Ideal Preacher” is not a soothsayer. “He stirreth up the people,” for which he may get hanged some day, but if he gets his way the disinherited will refuse to remain disinherited.

See also: Danny Cavanagh: Pushing back against corporate greed and spineless politicians for 100 years and counting

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