Robert Thoburn, March 2023
We’ve been reading modern works this year in my high school
Omnibus course at Oak Hill. Someone
might wonder, why do Christians need to read Upton Sinclair, an avowed
socialist. I believe reading this helps students to analyze where we are as a people and allows us to appreciate the authors who, unlike Sinclair, pushed a Christian perspective.
The FDA was founded in 1906, in many ways a response to Sinclair’s bestseller, The Jungle. In the first year, his book sold 100,000 copies. Its lurid description of sausage made with rancid meat and even human fingers and rodents turned Americans’ hearts to a desire for government regulation of meat and ultimately all kinds of commerce. Clarence Carson says acts passed at this time were the first national laws passed with the intent of regulating the quality of goods sold in interstate commerce. He suggests the founders never intended to authorize Congress to do this.[i]
Most of us today accept the reality of Federal regulation of all kinds of things. But where did this idea come from? Are we aware that our assumptions were influenced by a Socialist?
Sinclair wrote at a time of great prosperity. According to Clarence Carson:
New discoveries and inventions abounded; sanitation and health facilities were clearly improving; population was increasing, perhaps as never before in history; and people generally had the means for producing and had a greater variety of goods available than ever before.[ii]
It was in the middle of this great prosperity that Sinclair began to criticize American culture and Free Enterprise. His book is 300 pages of pure horror. It begins with a wedding feast, but every time something good happens, the worst is around the corner. Describing Mikolas, an Eastern European immigrant working in the Chicago stockyards, he says:
He is a beef-boner, and that is a dangerous trade .... Your hands are slippery, and your knife is slippery, and you are toiling like mad, when somebody happens to speak to you, or you strike a bone. Then your hand slips up on the blade, and there is a fearful gash. And that would not be so bad, only for the deadly contagion. The cut may heal, but you can never tell. Twice now, within the last three years, Mikolas has been lying at home with blood poisoning–once for three months and once for nearly seven. The last time, too, he lost his job, and that meant six weeks more of standing at the doors of the packing houses, at six o'clock on bitter winter mornings, with a foot of snow on the ground and more in the air. There are learned people who can tell you out of the statistics that beef-boners make forty cents an hour, but, perhaps, these people have never looked into a beef-boner's hands.[iii]
Sinclair was one of the Muckrakers who, in spite of the prosperity which God had brought to us, always found the bad. Compared to his fellow disparaging journalists, Sinclair had an advantage because he was a novelist. He could freely make up stories and make things sound even worse. His stories had great impact on the minds and hearts of the nation.
So, you might wonder how I connect this with Bradford, a hero of Christians and those who love freedom. He came to Massachusetts in 1620 with pilgrims willing to face a barren wilderness in return for freedom to worship as they thought right. After some success he writes:
But soon a most lamentable blow fell upon them. In two or three month’s time half of their company died, partly owing to the severity of the winter…and want of houses and other comforts; partly to scurvy and other diseases…Of all the hundred odd persons, scarcely fifty remained, and sometimes 2 or 3 persons died in a day.[iv]
The colonist faced terrible living conditions. Yet Bradford doesn’t complain like Sinclair. He says:
In the time of worst distress, there were but 6 or 7 sound persons, who, to their great commendation…spared no pains night or day, but with great toil and at the risk of their own health, fetched wood, made fires, prepared food for the sick, made their beds, washed their infected clothes, dressed and undressed them… in a word did all… which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear…and all this they did willingly and cheerfully, without the least grudging, showing their love to the friends and brethren.
…The spring now approaching, it pleased God the mortality began to cease among them, and the sick recovered…they had borne their sad afflictions with as much patience and contentedness as I think any people could do. But it was the Lord who upheld them, and had beforehand prepared them...[v]
Bradford’s cup was always half full and he was grateful. Sinclair and many of his contemporaries always saw it as half empty and complained. Bradford took the socialist common storehouse which investors imposed on the pilgrims and which led to dissension and starvation and established a biblical system of private property. The Lord used this to save them from starvation.
After enjoying their own church and civil governments for 150 years in this barren land, God caused those Americans to become wealthier than the Europeans they had left behind. By the 1760’s the prosperous and well educated people of the 13 colonies were well prepared to resist the British Parliament which suddenly had a desire, but apparently no legal or constitutional right, to rule the colonies.
Prosperity continued. But a new wave of confidence swept over this people of God. Perhaps they began to think they had done all this themselves. By the early 1900’s, science and inventions made progress seem inevitable. A new movement called “Progressivism” believed in using the almighty power of civil government to achieve almost any great end.
Americans no longer fought to preserve their freedoms. They became worried about things like fraudsters and foul food. They turned away from private property and individual responsibility and sought state mandated standards. Upton Sinclair attacked our inherited system of capitalism and actually wanted America to become a socialist country. Americans did not establish a communist state as men like Sinclair wanted. But, they made political decisions that were influenced, not by their Christian faith, but by the clamoring of the popular socialist writers of the day.
This is one of the important stories that we have learned this year reading great books. Students can’t learn these stories from textbooks. At a high school level, they need to read great godly men like Bradford. And, in a fallen world, they need to read Americans like Upton Sinclair. By reading both, students can better discern whether we today are following in the footsteps of Bradford or whether we are actually pursuing the ideas of a false prophet who was nothing like that great man, Bradford.
Bradford actually is the author who convinces me to enjoy The Jungle. The despair of Sinclair's book could never entertain me without being able to compare it to the tremendous gratefulness of the early settlers. In fact, by contrast it highlights the virtues of Bradford and other early Americans. Sinclair brings into clear focus for me the tendency of those who have been given so much to forget the giver and to listen to those who attack the very means that have been used to bring them blessing.
[i] Clarence B. Carson, The Growth of America 1878-1928, p. 158
[ii] Carson, p. 2
[iii] Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, Chapter 1
[iv] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Book II, Chapter 1