The early weeks of the Trump presidency have been dominated by discussions of the ethics and propriety of his immigration policies. But Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries faced a flood of immigration that makes today’s issues look modest in comparison. Between 1877 and 1890 alone, a total of 6.3 million new arrivals entered the United States. Even more would arrive before the coming of World War I. The total American population in 1900 was a little more than 72 million, so the new immigrants were visibly and suddenly changing the American landscape.
The influx particularly shifted the demographics of American cities. By 1890, some 15 percent of the national population had not been born in the United States. Cities like Chicago and New York were utterly transformed. By 1900, four-fifths of those cities’ populations were foreign born, or at least had parents who were not born in the United States. Many of the newcomers were Catholic or Jewish, and were coming from previously uncommon places of origin in southern and eastern Europe. (America also stood on the cusp of the first great wave of immigration from Mexico, which saw hundreds of thousands flee north during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s.)
The cities had terrible difficulties keeping up with the pace of growth and the teeming masses of people. There were few systematic efforts at waste disposal. This problem became especially acute as cities like Chicago developed large-scale industries, including meat processing and the massive amounts of carcasses and bones it left behind. Chicago, which had become the hub for processing the cattle of the Great Plains, saw the rise of the “Packingtown” district, which became one of the most lucrative and dismal industrial sites in the world in the early 1900s.
More than 75,000 people lived in Packingtown’s six square miles by 1920. The majority of Packingtown’s residents worked for the great meat-packing factories, especially those of Gustavus Swift and Philip Armour. Infant mortality, disease, and workplace injuries were all epidemic there.
Chicago struggled to maintain basic sanitary conditions in the city, especially in and around the hellish scenes of Packingtown. Leaders found it impossible to keep an uncontaminated water supply, no matter how far out into Lake Michigan they put the intake pipes. Already by the middle of the Civil War, before the massive meatpacking boom set in, empty fields around the processing factories were littered with the decaying skin and bones of sheep, cattle, and other animals, with accompanying swarms of flies and rats and intolerable odors. The Chicago River, likewise, became an open sewer with trash, industrial waste, and human excrement.
The plight of the cities led many churches and social reformers to try new means of ministering to the needs of the urban poor. Many sought to establish “settlement houses” that catered especially to young women of the cities. The most famous settlement residence was Chicago’s Hull House, founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Addams and Starr’s experiment was based on moral principles but was also relatively secular. It offered classes for neighborhood residents, as well as day care and assistance for fair employment.
Catholics and most major Protestant denominations also opened settlement houses in American cities, many of them inspired by the ideals of the “Social Gospel,” or the idea that Christian principles were better lived out in practice than merely discussed. Some conservative Christians worried that the Social Gospel was more “social” than “gospel,” however.
Some sought to balance the two mandates of social relief and gospel. For example, Baptists of Orange, New Jersey, near Newark, opened a missionary outreach chapel (“a sort of Settlement House”) for Catholic Italian immigrants and their families in 1908. In addition to Sunday morning and evening services, the new building hosted a Sunday school and weeknight lectures that drew hundreds of attendees, even those “indifferent or hostile to religion.” Other classes taught cooking and “industrial arts” to girls.
The leaders of the Baptist mission all believed “in the value of preaching the Gospel,” the church noted, but “they felt that they must first of all open the minds, instruct, educate these people [the Italians] to adjust themselves to life in this strange country, and help them to see and lay hold of what is best in American life, to truly Americanize so that they may become good and intelligent citizens.” A Baptist periodical commended the church for not forgetting the “strangers within the gates.”
As suggested by the Baptist church’s concern to “Americanize” the immigrants, the flood of immigrants in the period prompted fears about their lack of cultural assimilation, and fostered anti-immigrant political organizing. Leaders of these nativist groups worried that the immigrants would dilute the traditionally white and Protestant character of dominant American society. The Immigration Restriction League, founded in Boston in 1894, focused on population control and eugenics, or the idea that superior races should protect themselves from the genetic qualities of inferior races, especially by protecting against intermarriage. One of the founders of the Immigration Restriction League explained that the crisis of immigration was “a race question, pure and simple. . . It is fundamentally a question as to what kind of babies shall be born; it is a question as to what races shall dominate in this country.”
Some critics worried that so many of the new immigrants were Roman Catholics, a religion which struck many as fundamentally inimical to American values. Others worried that some of the newcomers might adhere to radical political philosophies such as socialism or communism. The Immigration Restriction League successfully convinced Congress to adopt a literacy test requirement for new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed the law, believing that it violated America’s historic commitment to welcoming immigrants. Such a immigration literacy test did finally pass in 1917, however, as Congress overrode a veto of the law by President Woodrow Wilson.
The theological Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of this era was based in part on a reaction against Social Gospelers’ tendency to reject evangelism and the exclusive truth of the gospel. But many Christians across the theological spectrum were also trying, in their way, to alleviate the massive urban crisis precipitated by immigration and the abuse of industrial workers. When the Fundamentalist-Modernist crisis led to major splits within American denominations in the early 20th century, the “fundamentalists” were so wary of Social Gospel compromises that they sometimes turned against social relief work of virtually any kind. The only agenda of the church was saving souls, some fundamentalists implied. This led the great evangelical theologian Carl Henry in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) to critique fundamentalists and neo-evaneglicals as the “modern priests and Levites, by-passing suffering humanity.”
Echoes of the Gilded Age immigration crisis have re-appeared in the 2016 election cycle and the early weeks of 2017. Many “Never Trump” evangelicals were dismayed by how anti-immigrant rhetoric undergirded the Trump campaign, with its talk of “deportation squads” and promises of a beautiful, swiftly constructed border wall. Few of these evangelicals would deny, of course, that America needs to better secure the southern border and actively discourage illegal immigration.
But however we have arrived here, America has around 11 million or 12 million undocumented immigrants living within its borders. It remains to be seen whether a Trump administration will follow through on the most aggressive of its campaign promises about evicting these people. Even as we affirm the rule of law with regard to immigration, the church in America ought never to adopt a fundamentally anti-immigrant posture.