William Mirola is Professor of Sociology and Presiding Officer of the faculty at Marian University. This interview is based on his new book, Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement (University of Illinois Press, 2014).
JF: What led you to write Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement?
WM: When I was in graduate school in the late 1980’s, I was very much engaged in a variety of social movement protest activities. I had grown up very active in my faith community. I was very interested in the intersections between the two areas of my life. As I read more in the sociology of religion and of social movement activism, I discovered that there was a broad literature debating the role of religion as both a facilitator and obstacle to social change movements, especially the American labor movement. Perhaps because, as a person of faith, I wanted to save religion from Marx’s “opiate of the masses” thesis, I was encouraged to examine the role of religion in the labor movement. The chair of my dissertation committee liked this idea and recommended looking at the post-civil war era because not as much attention was paid to this question in that time frame. So I did…and in reading the histories, the eight-hour day kept returning again and again as the central issue of the period and more interesting still was that the reduction of the hours of labor was being argued over as a moral and religious issue. And so the study began. After my dissertation was complete, it was clear that this historical analysis was unlike many of the others in the field and gave a critical perspective to understanding the role of religion in the labor movement and in social change generally. It was this last point that kept me motivated to see it to publication in its current form.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Redeeming Time?
WM: Redeeming Time examines the role of religion in the fight for the eight-hour workday in 19th Century Chicago. I highlight the challenges faced by factions of the labor movement in attempting to use religion as an ideological and practical weapon in its fights with employers and as a way to build coalitions with Protestant clergy to achieve shorter hours.
JF:Why do we need to read Protestantism and Redeeming Time?
WM: Redeeming Time challenges much of what we know about the role of religion in labor history by focusing its role as a strategic weapon in labor’s arsenal during the battles over shorter hours in the second half of the 19th century. By focusing on the rhetoric used by different factions of the labor movement, by Protestant clergy, and by employers, one can see the evolution in the thinking of these different sets of social actors regarding the religious nature of work and the workday over a fifty-year time span. It also sheds light on how the labor movement viewed the strategic utility of building coalitions with clergy to achieve industrial reform. For labor, religious rhetoric played a prominent role in framing the eight-hour day but eventually it is replaced by economic rhetoric which resonated more with employers. Clergy generally opposed shorter hours for workers, fearing an increase in vice, but overtime, responding the in intensification of class conflict, began to embrace shorter hours as a morally desirable industrial reform but unfortunately not before labor shifts its strategy away from the religious realm. So the story is one of two ships passing in the night. Redeeming Time takes a more critical approach than many other past studies or religion and labor by questioning the instrumental utility of religion in achieving practical industrial reform.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
WM: In point of fact, I am sociologist. However, there is a part of me that has always loved history. I didn’t set out to craft an historical study in graduate school but in the late 1980s, the study of history enjoyed resurgence in sociological analysis and I was fortunate to work with faculty who embraced it. I always tell my students that there is no way to understand contemporary life without understanding the past and so history and sociology are both entwined. I believe that you can’t be a good historian without thinking sociologically and visa-versa.
JF: What is your next project?
WM: I continue to be interested in the role of religion in social movements, past and present although my research now is more contemporary and examines the intersection of religion and social class differences in the United States. I may return to the 19th Century at some point however since there is so much that I left uncovered regarding the intersection of religion and the American labor movement.