Upton Sinclair: The Profits of Religion

Book Two - The Church of Good Society


I know the Church of Good Society in America, having studied it from the inside. I was an extraordinarily devout boy; one of my earliest recollections - I cannot have been more than 4 years of age - is of carrying a dust-brush about the house as the choir-boy carried the golden cross every Sunday morning. I remember asking if I might say the "Lord's prayer" in this fascinating play; and my mother's reply: "If you say it reverently." When I was 13, I attended service, of my own volition and out of my own enthusiasm, every single day during the 40 days of Lent; at the age of 15 I was teaching Sunday- school, It was the Church of the Holy Communion, at Sixth Avenue and 20th Street, New York; and those who know the city will understand that this is a peculiar location - precisely half way between the homes of some of the oldest and most august of the city's aristocracy, and some of the vilest and most filthy of the city's slums. The aristocracy were paying for the church, and occupied the best pews; they came, perfectly clad, aus dem Ei gegossen, as the Germans say, with the manner they so carefully cultivate, gracious, yet infinitely aloof. The service was made for them - as all the rest of the world is made for them; the populace was permitted to occupy a fringe of vacant seats.

The assistant clergyman was an Englishman, and a gentleman; orthodox, yet the warmest man's heart I have ever known. He could not bear to have the church remain entirely the church of the rich; he would go persistently into the homes of the poor, visiting the old slum women in their pitifully neat little kitchens, and luring their children with entertainments and Christmas candy. They were corralled into the Sunday-school, where it was my duty to give them what they needed for the health of their souls.

I taught them out of a book of lessons; and one Sunday it would be Moses in the Bulrushes, and next Sunday it would be Jonah and the Whale, and next Sunday it would be Joshua blowing down the walls of Jericho. These stories were reasonably entertaining, but they seemed to me futile, not to the point. There were little morals tagged to them, but these lacked relationship to the lives of little slum-boys. Be good and you will be happy, love the Lord and all will be well with you; which was about as true and as practical as the procedure of the Fijians, blowing horns to drive away a pestilence.

I had a mind, you see, and I was using it. I was reading the papers, and watching polities and business. I followed the fates of my little slum-boys - and what I saw was that Tammany Hall was getting them. The liquor-dealers and the brothel-keepers, the panders and the pimps, the crap-shooters and the petty thieves - all these were paying the policeman and the politician for a chance to prey upon my boys; and when the boys got into trouble, as they were continually doing, it was the clergyman who consoled them in prison - but it was the Tammany leader who saw the judge and got them out. So these boys got their lesson, earlier in life than I got mine - that the church was a kind of amiable fake, a pious horn-blowing; while the real thing was Tammany.

I talked about this with the vestrymen and the ladies of Good Society; they were deeply pained, but I noticed that they did nothing practical about it; and gradually, as I went on to investigate, I discovered the reason - that their incomes came from real estate, traction, gas and other interests, which were contributing the main part of the campaign expenses of the corrupt Tammany machine, and of its equally corrupt rival. So it appeared that these immaculate ladies and gentlemen, aus dem Ei gegossen, were themselves engaged, unconsciously, perhaps, but none the less effectively, in spreading the pestilence against which they were blowing their religious horns!'

So little by little I saw my beautiful church for what it was and is: a great capitalist interest, an integral and essential part of a gigantic predatory system. I saw that its ethical and cultural and artistic features, however sincerely they might be meant by individual clergymen, were nothing but a bait, a device to lure the poor into the trap of submission to their exploiters. And as I went on probing into the secret life of the great Metropolis of Mammon, and laying bare its infamies to the world, I saw the attitude of the church to such work; I met, not sympathy and understanding, but sneers and denunciation - until the venerable institution which had once seemed dignified and noble became to me as a sepulchre of corruption.

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