Debs as a radical Christian (17-16)


 I am pleased to note that I have located what may well be the first truly serious piece of Debs scholarship published in the current century. David Burns, a history graduate of Northern Illinois University, adapted his dissertation to become the book The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus (Oxford University Press, 2013) — my big Debs-related library acquisition of the week.

radicaljesusBurns relates the tale of a set of freethinking-but-ethical Americans of the late 19th and early 20th Century —Colonel Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) being one prototypical example — who attempted to forge a new path between scientific knowledge and historical realism on the one hand, and a quasi-religious faith in humanity on the other; believers in a historical Jesus of Nazareth of exemplary tolerance and concern for the meek and the poor who could be placed in a pantheon of the righteous beside equally worthy figures from other religious traditions such as Confucius, Lao Tse, and Gautama Buddha.

“The lines between science and faith were shifting in unpredictable and unsettling ways as ancient religious truths were called into question and the life and times of Jesus remained something that seemed personal and concrete to believers and nonbelievers alike. Thus, the radicals who sought to chart a middle path between reason and religion by finding divinity in Jesus’s humanity were attempting to wrest some certainty and stability from a world that was becoming more uncertain and unstable.” (pg. 11)

Gene Debs was nothing if not a fan, follower, and eventually friend of Bob Ingersoll (as well as the scripture-quoting product of religious training in his youth). This was his intellectual world, a path which he walked together with such Socialist Party comrades as George D. Herron (1862-1925) and Bouck White (1874-1951).

While these

“…all recognized that any reconstruction of Christ’s life would be flawed and incomplete, they believed some versions were more accurate than others. They also drew emotional strength and inspirational hope from the idea that it was possible for a poor peasant from a remote province of the Roman Empire to have a profound impact on the world in which he lived. So Herron, White, Debs, and their peers blended fiction and fact to fashion an imaginative brand of biblical criticism that they thought provided them with a vivid picture of the human Jesus who had roamed the dusty roads of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.

This method of criticism was not objective or dispassionate, but it was a historical approach to the life of Jesus that eschewed the mystical and supernatural….” (pp. 11-12).


This well-known work by left wing cartoonist Art Young (1866-1943) originated in the Aug. 1921 issue of his magazine, Good Morning.

Burns writes Debs’s name large in the history of this theological movement, devoting the fifth of his five chapters to “The Fireman of Terre Haute” and hailing the red Hoosier as “the most powerful [and] popular disciple of the Radical historical Jesus during the Progressive Era.” (pg. 162). 

Burns speculates that Debs’s French parents’ non-conformist religious beliefs (his father Protestant, his mother Catholic, but neither frequenting organized churches) probably lead young Gene to Ernest Renan’s seminal 1863 biography, The Life of Jesus, and to Eugène Sue’s The Silver Cross, or, The Carpenter of Nazareth (1850) during his formative years. Sadly no documentary evidence is extant to bolster this theory — there simply is no “smoking gun” letter to be found, nor revelatory interview to be mined — but Burns’s argument nonetheless strikes me as very possible, particularly given that both Eugene Debs and his sister Eugenie (“Jenny”) had been named after the French author Sue.

As for the depth of Debs’s actual belief in religious texts, Burns either completely misses or grossly undersells the point, instead reciting uncritically two hoary and self-serving anecdotes told by Debs of himself during his later years. In the first EVD allegedly turned his back forever from the organized church while still a teenager over the reactionary hellfire rantings of a priest; in the second, Debs is said to have received a Bible from his teacher as a prize in school bearing the inscription “Read and obey,” after which he…….. (wait for it) …….“never did either.” (Five stroke roll and a cymbal crash! Gene Debs will be playing here all week, folks, and don’t forget to try the meatloaf…)


Radical minister Bouck White (1874-1951) at the time of a May 1914 arrest for disrupting services at the Calvary Baptist Church, attended by Standard Oil mogul John D. Rockefeller.

Trust but verify, Ronald Reagan famously said. In actual fact, Debs’s articles and speeches are littered with biblical allusions and quotations that belie the latter cheeky quip — a point which the otherwise careful scholar Burns could have made and should have made but didn’t.

Burns writes of Debs’s gradual radicalization, a transition from his early full-throated idealization of America and American institutions to a burning desire for a social revolution which would make possible a highly ethical “species of socialism that was almost indistinguishable from what he regarded as constituting a proper interpretation of Christianity.” (pg. 183) Following previous scholarship, Burns depicts the Pullman Strike of 1894 as seminal in the transformation of Debs’s views.

Parenthetically: I would personally argue that the ideological impact of this event is greatly overstated and that Debs’s intellectual trajectory was more or less logical and unbroken, although not necessarily linear. Debs jumped from idea to idea both before and after 1894. His jailing in that year was not a single grand event that served as a point of demarcation of Saul into Paul (to make a very Debsian biblical allusion); rather it was but one impactful event among many which moved him forward from point D to point E, on the herky-jerky path to point K, if you follow. Debs later claimed that his 1895 jail term was that single grand game-changing event, mind you, he explicitly asserted it to be “how he became a socialist.”

Trust, but verify… The documentary evidence does not support this particular nugget of self-analysis.

“Christianity is impossible under Capitalism,” Debs is quoted by Burns as saying, and only under Socialism, marked by the flourishing principle of “love of man for man,” would it be able to flourish. (pg. 183). Rationalism and religiosity were a yin and yang with Debs, who sought a philosophical path which dispensed with unscientific mysticism while embracing the radical egalitarianism ascribed to the martyred Jewish prophet from Nazareth. There was nothing artificial, contrived, or manipulative about this philosophy — Debs was earnest in his belief.

Burns plays the trump card in support of his thesis in the form of a snippet from the 1929 biography That Man Debs by Indiana State University professor Floy Ruth Painter, who himself mined a March 1924 personal letter. In this communication Debs wrote to his correspondent:

I never darken a church door because I hate hypocrisy almost as much as I love the character and teachings of Jesus Christ. Christianity is a beautiful faith. The only trouble is that there are so pitifully few Christians in the world. (pg. 197)


In short, I am excited to have found scholarly support for one of my central and perhaps controversial takeaways from having been immersed in Debs’s writings for so long: that Gene Debs was not a Marxist but rather a particularly radical Christian Socialist. Having discovered Burns’s book, I no longer feel I will be forced to hack a pathway through the academic underbrush to advance this thesis alone.

fingers Debs was simply blowing smoke when he smirked about having “never did either” with respect to reading the Bible or trying to follow its prescriptions. Don’t believe me? May I present the article “Why Great Cities?” — a 1600+ word piece so full of Biblical allusions that it took me longer to run them one by one through an online King James Version search engine to write the footnotes than it did to correct and format the Optical Character Recognition output of the piece itself.

Behold the words of the prophet:

The first city we read about was built by Cain, the first murderer, who went forth with a murderer’s mark upon him. This murderer’s first born was a son, and Cain being a doting father named the city he built Enoch, in honor of his son, who bore that name. Such was the beginning of cities, as recorded in the scriptures.

Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen's MagazineAll cities, from the first accounts we have of them, were dens of iniquity, and it is not surprising, therefore, that the declaration was long since made that “God made the country, and man the city.” Men are gregarious animals; they delight in herding together, and the more vicious they are the more compact do they seek to have their abodes. It seems to have been characteristic of human animals from the beginning, and it further appears that all of the great cities of remote ages were centers of wickedness — conspicuously, Sodom, Gomorrah, Zeboim, and Admah — in all of which infamous practices had become so common, such as pride, gluttony, idleness, haughty neglect of the poor, together with unnatural vices, that God’s patience became exhausted and He rained upon them a storm of fire and brimstone and sunk them to their native hell, and then the Jordan flowed into the cavity and formed the Dead Sea.

Great cities have been doomed, for their wickedness, to destruction, as, for instance, Nineveh and Babylon. *  *  *

The influence of great cities is known to be in all regards pernicious, and their demoralizing contagion extends far beyond their boundaries. This is known to be true, and yet there is a steady flow of population from the rural districts to the village, town, and city. The innocent and pure are ceaselessly abandoning happy and peaceful homes, where all things contribute to physical and moral healthfulness, to take their chances where the earth, air, and water are contaminated, and where vast numbers of them are doomed to lives worse than death, more unfortunate than dumb, driven cattle imported for the slaughterhouse. Their fate is known, or if unknown the gloom that uncertainty creates is, if possible, more depressing than if the worst had been told.

Men and women are writing of conditions in great cities, but only of virtuous squalor; what lies beyond in the unexplored haunts of vice and degradation is horrid conjecture; the abodes of abominations which defy exaggeration, so foul and beastly as to create inexpressible abhorrence, and which, were they explored, the hideous pictures, if printed, would be suppressed by the authorities. *  *  *

In the great cities of the United States, of which there is so much and such continuous boasting, there is enough of this poison generated every day of the year, Sundays not excepted, to arouse the vengeance of an infinite God, as did the “cities of the plain.” We have civilization and science; literature and religion; the church, the school and the library; we have courts forever grinding, like the mills of the gods; we have legislatures piling up laws like Alpine peaks, and prisons and the scaffold; the experience of the centuries since Cain built the first city and since the deluge made a clean sweep of all men save Noah and his family — and yet, great cities eternally perpetuate the virus of Sodom, and victims from the country — where all things conspire, sunshine and shower, field and forest, mountain and plain, flowery meads and babbling brooks, to make men happy — ceaselessly throng the gates of cities to eke out wretched lives, die wretched deaths, to find a resting place at last in some potter’s field. *  *  *

Honestly, once one reads him extensively and attentively the question whether Debs may be best described as an extremely radical Christian socialist or a revolutionary Marxist is not close. One would have to stuff fingers into one’s ears and sing “LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!!!” to disclaim the former description with a straight face.

 Another landmark for the Debs Project has been visited this week, with the word count of Debs articles rendered into editable form for Volume 1 topping the half million mark. The budget for the book remains a total of 260,000 words by Debs, which means that more than half of what is being rendered will wind up on the cutting room floor, but it does indicate that David and I will have a rich store of material from which to craft the best possible selection of early writings.



 “Confederation of Labor Organizations Essential to Labor’s Prosperity” — July 1892 article — 3,100 words

• “The Battle of Homestead” — Aug. 1892 article — 2,600 words

 “The Homestead Horrors” — Sept. 1892 article — 2,340 words

 “The Switchmen’s Strike” — Sept. 1892 article — 1,215 words

 “The End of the Switchmen’s Strike” — Oct. 1892 article — 1,460 words

 “Homestead and Treason” — Nov. 1892 article — 1,400 words

 “Profit Sharing” — Dec. 1892 article — 1,610 words

 “Evolution” — Jan. 1893 article — 1,370 words

 “The Labor View of the Election” — Jan. 1893 article — 1,050 words

 “Jay Gould” — Feb. 1893 article — 2,410 words

 “Why Great Cities?” — Feb. 1893 article — 1,625 words

 “Interview with the Cleveland Leader” — Jan. 1896 interview — 3,130 words


….Word count = 496,405 words in the can + 23,310 this week =  529,715 words

• 4 more Saturdays to go until the July 1 target for the end of output of editable text. There are still 79 article pdfs remaining to be processed (or rejected at second reading).


As always, the above material is either now up or will be up within the next week or so at the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive on MIA, curated by David Walters.



About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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