The American Christ

Eugene Debs argued in 1914 that Jesus “organized a working class destroy class rule.”

Many late-nineteenth-century reformers believed that cities threatened the republican spirit of the American people, and they looked with suspicion at the Italians, Jews, Slavs, and other immigrants flowing into them. For biographers of Jesus living in these surroundings, it became highly significant that Jesus lived in the country village of Nazareth, gathered his disciples in the countryside of Galilee, and came to grief only when he went to the big city of Jerusalem.

The title of Mary Austin’s biography of Jesus, A Small Town Man (1915), emphasized this point. She presents a Jesus who would have been at home in upstate New York or downstate Illinois in the early twentieth century: “One finds him going about with other householders, decent folk owning their own businesses, employing hired servants, paying their own scores, and obliged to ask no man’s leave if they chose to lay aside their work for a season and go a-proselyting.” It was no surprise to Austin that Jesus should be destroyed by the wicked leaders of the big city of Jerusalem. She believed that Jesus was crucified because he was in danger of breaking up the corrupt city and temple oligarchy, which was as brazen in its administration as the Tweed Ring of New York or the cases that Lincoln Steffens had recently exposed in The Shame of the Cities. “The constant flow of tribute into Jerusalem had begotten a ring of grafters as invincible and corrupt as ever controlled a modern municipality....Altogether the temple rake-off amounted to forty thousand dollars yearly.”

Like many progressive reformers, Mary Austin had an optimistic view of humanity and believed that if the corrupt ringleaders of the government could be removed, decency would be restored. Once again, the parallels between her own times and those of Jesus were apparent: “The difficulty was that the chief reason why Jesus must be put out of the way—his interference with the temple trafficnobody dared mention. Evidently not all the Sanhedrin shared or approved of the buying and selling within the sanctuary. Here we have a thoroughly modern situation: a representative body in the main well-intentioned, manipulated by a group within the group whose spring of action was illegitimate profit.”

This theme of conflict between country and city persisted well into the twentieth century. In Fulton Oursler’s bestselling biography of Jesus, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1949), there is again a juxtaposition of the simple, honest country folks going into the lion’s den of a corrupt city and trying to preserve their independence and pride as they go: “Oh yes, he [Joseph] knew that in Jerusalem sophisticates looked down on the countrified Nazarenes, yokels with a ridiculous northern accent....But Joseph, with all his fellow townsmen, felt that the people of Jerusalem were unnatural and overcivilized. Anyway, he was proud of his home town.”

Joseph and his fellow villagers are impressed by the magnitude of the city despite themselves: ” ‘I think Nazareth is a very much pleasanter place,’ Mary answered. With this the others agreed. They said that Jerusalem was a great place to visit but they would never want to live there.”

Although the development of giant cities gave rise to this literary protest, few Americans wanted to abandon the source of their growing prosperity. An alternative solution was offered by American socialists, who accepted industrialization but sought a more equitable distribution of its profits, putting their faith in the future rather than in the past. Just as the advocates of rural simplicity had found a Jesus to their liking, so too did the socialists.

In Europe the socialist movement was anticlerical and usually hostile to religion as an “opiate of the masses.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that “Christ was a man as we are, a prophet and a teacher, and his Eucharist is a mere commemoration meal wherein bread and wine are consumed without any mystic garnishing.”

Inclined to revere Jesus and to see in his ministry a precursor of their own struggle, American socialists were often more sympathetic to religion than their European counterparts. After all, Jesus was a carpenter, sprung from the simple working people, and a man who detested exploitation of the weak by the strong. Socialist magazines such as The Masses ran cartoons of Jesus, wearing overalls and carrying his carpenter’s tools, speaking at union meetings and participating in the life of the working class.