"The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
Ministry of John the Baptist
3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, 2 “ Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven! ” 3 He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:
4 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
5 People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. 6 As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 7 Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “ You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. 9 And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out. ”
In this exceptional dual biography and cultural history, Erik S. Gellman and Jarod Roll trace the influence of two southern activist preachers, one black and one white, who used their ministry to organize the working class in the 1930s and 1940s across lines of gender, race, and geography. Owen Whitfield and Claude Williams, along with their wives Zella Whitfield and Joyce Williams, drew on their bedrock religious beliefs to stir ordinary men and women to demand social and economic justice in the eras of the Great Depression, New Deal, and Second World War. Williams and Whitfield preached a working-class gospel rooted in the American creed that hard, productive work entitled people to a decent standard of living. Gellman and Roll detail how the two preachers galvanized thousands of farm and industrial workers for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. They also link the activism of the 1930s and 1940s to that of the 1960s and emphasize the central role of the ministers' wives, with whom they established the People's Institute for Applied Religion. This detailed narrative illuminates a cast of characters who became the two couples' closest allies in coordinating a complex network of activists that transcended Jim Crow racial divisions, blurring conventional categories and boundaries to help black and white workers make better lives. In chronicling the shifting contexts of the actions of Whitfield and Williams, "The Gospel of the Working Class" situates Christian theology within the struggles of some of America's most downtrodden workers, transforming the dominant narratives of the era and offering a fresh view of the promise and instability of religion and civil rights unionism.