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Labor's Holiday

This is a piece that Bishop Millsaps wrote for the Cumberland View in 2009. It is a  short history of “Labor Sunday.”

Well we are coming up on another Labor Day. I wonder if many people know even a little of its rich history or know that the churches had some role in the big parades which were not “protests”, but just celebrations and had archbishops and other clergy and acolytes marching in them. Oh, yes, I know there were atheists and doubters too. 

Only the generation of people over sixty years of age remember that churches all over the United States kept the Sunday before Labor Day as “Labor Sunday”. This custom came about as a result of the American Federation of Labor ‘s request. In 1909 the” AF of L”, as it came to be known, sent a resolution to the churches. Slowly the name spread and by 1917 in the midst of World War I, “the war to end all wars” (some people actually believed this phrase), it would have been found on the bulletin or program of most churches, which had bulletins. 

The idea of a printed order of service itself is a new thing when considered in the light of history. If you walked into a church and could find no sheet of paper, even with the hymns in it, today you might wonder why they were so disorganized. That is because you have grown accustomed to it. But ,in time, it could go the way of Labor Sunday. It is already the case that some churches do not have hymnals or songbooks in the pews, or benches, as many call them.

(Tennessee has its own language and a beautiful one at that.) Fixed seating itself is no longer recommended by many church architects. And overhead projectors or digital screens provide the few words one needs for some contemporary praise songs. But is it not a fair question to ask, ”Where is the beef?” The “beef’ seems to be on far too many of our people, as obesity is a far more wide spread problem in our country than hunger. Both are real problems and sometime soon I will write more about the strangeness of this reality.

Anyway, Labor Sunday, as such, had a brief run but Labor Day is here to stay. Peter McGuire and the Carpenter’s Union of 1882 would find this a strange world, indeed. As president of his union he was the one who pressed hardest for a special day “to show the strength and esprit de corps” of American workers. It was McGuire who proposed the first Monday in September since it was about halfway between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. He called it “Labor’s Holiday.”And with his Irish Catholic background he knew what the words meant. I wish we had kept the name. It was not until 1894 that Congress established the day as Labor Day. Any study of American history should include a study of the good and the bad things done in the name of labor. The power of the labor unions has sometimes been abused, but all power can be abused. When we look at countries, which do not have our heritage, and we see how children are exploited and women are dishonored, we should be thankful for those who fought against such things here. 

Our history is far from perfect, but we have given the world some good examples and the recognition of the dignity of labor is one of them. But what does it do to our basic desire to respect each other when someone wearing a pin or t-shirt with a union symbol or name on it attacks another person expressing their own right to free speech? It reflects poorly on the union and enforces a stereotype. One act of violence can undo years of work for harmony.

Perhaps you grew up with the song, ”Look for the union label.” That should be a badge of honor - not a clip for U-tube. Don’t do bad things. Do good stuff like helping your neighbor. Sometimes that means leaving him alone. Have a great Labor Day. Get ready for it by singing great hymns like “Come labor on“ and “Go labor on!” Passion should not just be for your political view, whatever it is. You should also be passionate about your faith.  

We are also enclosing some pictures of the restoration and repair of the front of the church building and some of those at last Wednesday's noon service.  

Bishop Millsaps