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Church Cooperation In Community Life by Paul L. Vogt


As one travels through the rural districts of America and observes differences in the standards of living he is convinced that human welfare depends very largely on economic conditions. The broad, well-tilled fields of Iowa, surrounding large, well-built houses, big red barns and other outbuildings, form a marked contrast with the patches of corn in irregular fields cleared from the brush and scrub trees on hillsides in Tennessee or Kentucky, and the hovels and rundown farm buildings which go under the name of homes for the hill people. Healthy, well-dressed, happy children attending good schools of the most modern type in the corn belt undoubtedly have the advantage of the boys and girls in the hills who often do not learn to read and write before they are ten years old, if at all, and when they do go to school must be taught by poorly trained teachers for short terms, ending before the holidays, and in one-room schools often attended by nearly a hundred children. Religious service and leadership in the one section under the direction of college and theological seminary men can hardly be put in the same class with the highly emotional expression of religious impulses of the mountain section led by once-a-month absentee pastors with no education, or, worse still, by wandering so-called evangelists of doubtful morality. One could go through the whole list of contrasts between the economically well-favored sections of the country and the less favored agricultural sections and in no way would the advantage be on the side of the latter.

Efficient social and religious institutions cannot be built on poor economic foundations. So long as a section of the country cannot afford to pay more than five hundred dollars per year for teachers or preachers, it cannot hope to have the leadership possible to another section where ministers to rural people can easily secure eighteen hundred to three thousand dollars per year. Good buildings cannot be erected, nor can any of the material comforts which go to make up the foundation of civilized life be enjoyed.

For the sake of the church, as well as the people, the church must attend to the economic foundations of rural life. It is unfortunate for many parts of the United States that the ministry has become so separated from real life by the mystical trend in religion that it has rendered practically no service in laying the foundations for the continuance of the communities themselves.

The shift of population from rural to urban centers which the census records show has continued, if anything, at an accelerated speed, indicates the seriousness of the problem. A part of the shift is doubtless due to improvements made in methods of production. So far as this is the cause there is no reason to be disturbed over the tendency, as it is useless to try to keep young men and women in an occupation that does not offer opportunity for earning a living. Part of the shift may be due to the living conditions in the country. This is but an indication of the task of the church on the social side and can be changed as economic welfare permits. But the fact that rural population has been leaving the farms and that agricultural lands have been abandoned by thousands of acres, indicates that urban opportunities have far outbid the rural in financial returns, variety of openings, and in working conditions. The farmer's income must be increased as compared with other groups before there can be a well-balanced relatively stable American life. Until this is achieved those who are trying to build up rural institutions as strong as those in urban centers will be engaged in a hopeless task.

Eminent, conscientious Christian gentlemen, leaders in religious thought, and occasionally country ministers, have accused those who maintain that the church should have a vital active interest in improving economic welfare of trying to make hog-cholera experts out of preachers, thus taking them away from their real tasks. It is believed that knowledge of hog cholera and of the agencies that can help the farmer to prevent it will not injure the standing of any rural minister. It is maintained with reference to care for economic welfare that it is the business of the church to encourage economic improvement so far as possible (1) by giving advice and assisting in demonstration work when no other organized agency is in a position to render this service, and (2) by opening the way to other organized agencies to perform this service. This is the prime business of the agricultural colleges through their extension service. But it has been the experience of agricultural colleges that they have the greatest difficulty in establishing relationships in those agricultural sections where their service is needed the most. The minister of the gospel, being one of the two or three paid leaders in a local community, enjoying a measure of the confidence of the people, and having a large part of his time available for pastoral duties, has the opportunity and the obligation to tactfully bring to the community the assistance of these other agencies now provided by the State. When he has done this he can rest assured that he has accomplished something that will become the foundation for a far higher, more satisfying rural life.

Although ultimately the problem of production in agriculture will probably be a most serious one, because of influences such as soil-mining, deforestation, and depletion of soil through erosion, the immediate problems are, rather, the adjustment of production to demand so that the farmer will be on a more equitable income basis with other elements in the population. When there is newspaper talk of again burning corn for fuel, when wool is a drug on the market, and when farmers' organizations are urging the decrease in the acreage of cotton, it is idle to talk of agricultural welfare being synonymous with ability to increase crop acreage or production per acre. Agricultural colleges and other State agencies have devoted the large part of their efforts to study of problems of production. The results of their services to date have been to so improve production as to hasten the population movement from the farms to the cities. This tendency to aid production to the point of exceeding equitable demand has been of economic value to the great centers but it has not encouraged the continuance on the farm of a large population, nor has it enabled the farmer to compete with the townsman in maintaining a satisfactory standard of living. It would seem that the producing ability of the farmer has been his misfortune, and that his friends who have taught him to produce more have been his worst enemies.

When a manufacturing plant closes down because it cannot sell its goods at a given price, or when a retailer refuses to handle goods below a price believed by many to be excessive, little is said. But when the farmer tries to adjust his production to demand by limiting production there is widespread criticism of his conduct. There should be continuance of efforts to retain the fertility of the soil, to improve methods of cultivation, and to prevent destruction of wide areas through erosion. The patrimony of the nation must be preserved through wise policies of reforestation and reclamation of waste lands. But the great immediate task is that of adjusting production to demand so that the rural population may advance in material welfare along with other groups. In a competitive organization of industry the farmers success is gauged by his net income rather than by the number of bushels of corn or bales of cotton he produces.

A sinister tendency in the higher-priced general agricultural sections is that of increase in the number of farms operated by farm tenants. Certain writers have attempted to prove that this tendency is taken too seriously. But the evidence of the United States Census from decade to decade indicates that the danger is real; and that the sooner a policy of control is adopted the better.

The handicaps to agriculture through this increase are manifold. In a large proportion of cases, as shown by studies in typical areas, the landowner does not live on a neighboring farm, nor is he a retired parent or other relative of the tenant farmer. He lives in the neighboring city. Consequently, the rental from the farm goes to help build up the material welfare of the urban center. The contributions of the absentee landlord to church work go to supplement the salary of a city pastor on a scale far beyond the competing ability of the rural church where his land is located. His contributions to benevolences are paid for out of the income from his four-hundred-acre farm but are credited to the city church of which he is a member instead of to the rural church in the community where his land is located. Because of the transient nature of his residence the tenant, who remains on the farm on the average less than two years, has but little permanent interest in the life of the community and lacks the stability to become a valuable factor in building up strong rural institutions. The landlord, as previously suggested, has been known to oppose measures for consolidation of rural schools because such consolidation might increase taxes, and has been known to threaten tenants with dispossession if they should vote for consolidation. The constant moving of the tenant has handicapped the children in getting a good common-school education because of the breaks in their training resulting from this constant changing of residence.

The tenant house, with all its implications of class-distinction, has come to the country side in increasing numbers. And slowly but gradually a landed aristocracy is growing up in rural America as marked as the landed aristocracy based on the purchase of a few acres of Manhattan Island several generations ago. And with the tenant has come the farm laborer, alien to the community, transient, and as much a member of the proletariat as if he were working in a great factory in the city. The I. W. W. movement in the wheat fields and lumber camps of the Northwest is but the beginning of the wage-earning consciousness as it spreads out from urban centers.

The short term of tenant operation is lowering the standards of agriculture. Instead of farming on a long-time schedule, expecting returns on a system of husbandry reaching through the years, the tenant is inclined to produce such crops as can be disposed of at the close of the year, regardless of the effect of such a form of agriculture upon the fertility of the soil. Tenant contracts as yet offer little inducement for the tenant to remain permanently on a given farm or to keep up needed improvements.

The tenant for the time being may even make larger profits as a tenant than as an owner. But the tendency everywhere for rents to rise, and the consequent increase in the value of the land, will ultimately bring the tenant to the position of securing from his labor on the farm an income not much in excess of what he would receive from working as a day laborer. The result in the long run will be that the best agricultural sections of the country will be occupied by a population lower in ability than in a landowning section and constantly kept down by poverty. This prediction may be deemed fanciful by some, but the writer believes that it is worthy of the most careful consideration and study.

Since the organization of the great combinations in the oil and sugar industries during the 70's and 80's of the past century the movement toward close industrial organization has proceeded with little interruption. Legislation has been passed designed to break up industrial combinations and from time to time various industries have been disintegrated. But the layman has not been able to discover that such disintegrations by court order have had any marked influence on the progress of the fundamental tendencies toward industrial consolidation. The farmers have been the last to get into the organization field on any extensive scale. The Grange and the Farmers' Alliance, and later the Farmers' Union, have made attempts and, although many failures are recorded, their work paved the way for a far larger movement toward farm organization now under way. The tendency toward close organization of industrial groups may also be seen in the labor movement, the American Federation of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World in this country, and the syndicalist movement in Europe; and in the organization of employers' associations and the National Chamber of Commerce on the part of business men. Whatever may be thought of the unfortunate phases of this movement toward closely organized group consciousness, however Bolshevistic it may be said to be, it must be recognized that class consciousness has come to stay. The old-type citizen who voted as a Republican or a Democrat and as an individual regardless of his industrial affiliations is passing away, and to-day the business men as a class, the wage-earners as a class, the farmers as a class, approach the leaders of both traditional parties with their ultimatums as to what they will do if certain policies are not recorded in their respective platforms. And the best-organized groups, those that can swing the most votes or can produce the largest financial inducements, are the ones that get most consideration. This may be Bolshevism, but if it is, it is a fact in American life, and we may as well adjust ourselves to handling the situation wisely instead of lamenting the passing of the system of individual representation which was the basis on which American government was founded.

The farmer cannot be accused of leadership in this change in the American State. Business men and wage-earners began it, and the farmer has been forced to follow their example. The old type individualism of the landowning-operating farmer has long handicapped the farmer in his relations with other industrial groups. And it is with many mistakes and setbacks that he is now endeavoring to follow the example so ably set by the multimillionaires of the other groups. Better organization, not for exploitation but for protection and maintenance of a safe balance of influence in economic affairs, is fully justified, and the minister of the gospel is serving the farmer best when he encourages right and efficient organization.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, begun a few years ago through the encouragement of county agricultural agents in order to give them a point of contact with groups of farmers and to give local support of the county agent's work, has now taken into its own hands the task of farmer organization. And now, with resources far beyond what could have been dreamed of a few years ago, this organization is embarking on programs of farmers' business organization almost too staggering in their size to be comprehended. If rightly managed, and if farmers can prove loyal to their own organization, this movement is destined to solve many of the problems of intergroup relationships confronting the farmers during the past few decades.

As a part of the modern farmer organization movement, and holding within itself the largest promise of social values, is the encouragement of cooperation. Since the days in 1844, when a little group of wage-earners in England, out of work and gathered round a fire in a tavern, decided to go into business for themselves on a basis of one-man one vote, and distribution of profits on business done with the concern instead of stock held, the movement has continued to spread all over the world until to-day it holds a very important place in many lines of industry in leading countries.

In this country cooperation has been an agricultural rather than an urban development, primarily because economic conditions have made it more necessary in agriculture than elsewhere. Farmers' elevators, live-stock shipping associations, insurance companies, fruit-and produce-marketing organizations have all gained a sound footing and each year shows an increase in their numbers. The movement has been consistently fought by competitive profit-seeking interests but without avail further than to delay the movement. In the early days discrimination in furnishing cars, underbidding, misrepresentation, adverse legislation all had to be overcome, in addition to the fact that ignorance of business principles often led to failure. Even now, within the past five years, agricultural colleges have been prevented from adding advisers on cooperative organization to their extension staffs, retail merchants' associations have prevented cooperative organization legislation, and insidious attempts have been made to prevent popular education with reference to the movement.

The cooperative movement offers the greatest opportunity for the country minister for definite service in the farmers' economic progress. The principle underlying the movement is |Each for all, and all for each.| Instead of the capitalist and laborer being in opposite camps under the necessity for bargaining, and each doing as little as possible and getting as much as possible for their respective shares of the product of the industry, the cooperative movement brings them into harmony for production of goods, in the belief that all are to share fairly in what is produced. The storekeeper and the buyer no longer haggle over the price because both will share in the returns of the business done. The cooperative movement bids fair to solve many of the problems of open and closed shop, collective bargaining, labor organization, and of relations between producer and consumer. Its steady growth is bringing about industrial peace and since it represents the true spirit of Christianity the minister is justified in encouraging its development wherever he may be.

What is the challenge to the church of the economic conditions and tendencies outlined above? First and foremost, the minister must in season and out of season preach honesty in business relations. One of the most important discoveries in the study of problems of the farmer's business relations is that his success or failure depends largely upon the moral principles of the farmer as a group. The farmer who puts poor apples or potatoes in the middle of the barrel, who uses false weights and measures, who fails to produce the best of which he is capable, lowers the price of all farm products. The dealer who must throw out a certain proportion of bad eggs in his miscellaneous purchases makes the buying price low enough to protect himself. The consumer's demand is gauged very largely by the quality or reliability of the goods he purchases. So dishonesty in farm business hurts the farmer more than it does anyone else. The minister can render a service when he imbues his people with the highest ideals of business morality.

Moreover, he can help in eliminating the loss to the farmer through attempted sale of ungraded, miscellaneous products by encouraging standardization and guarantee of quality. This requires organization; and while it should be the pastor's aim to encourage the formation of agencies independent of the church to attend to this and to establish contacts between his community and State and independent organizations that will assist in this work he should not hesitate so far as his time will permit to organize such standardization work and organization for guaranteeing products until other agencies can take the work over. His obligation as community leader extends to the encouragement of every phase of life that makes the country more livable in the way demanded at the particular stage of development in which he finds the community.

As stated before, his primary task in encouraging production is now that of establishing contacts with State agencies and encouraging the support of their work. In some sections of the country, as among the colored people, for example, a country preacher might well be a trained farmer capable of doing in a local community what a county agent tries to do on a larger scale. But the State has now progressed in most sections to the point where, if opportunity is offered, it can assist in this work and relieve the pastor for other duties.

The rural pastor should be a leader in community economic organization. It is accepted now that economic organizations along cooperative lines should be independent of either educational, religious, or social groups. After such organizations are well established the pastor has met in this respect the challenge to the church and to the pastor as community leader.

The church as a whole should have some form of organization whereby it can register its influence in favor of State legislation making safe the development of the cooperative movement, the better organization of marketing, the proper control of land ownership, taxation, and other business relations affecting the farmer. Many of these problems cannot be solved by a minister working alone in a local community. He can preach honesty, stability, loyalty to community organization with all the fervor and liberty of a prophet, but so long as the tenant contract remains an inducement to transient tenant population; so long as class distinctions continue to become more marked; so long as discontent over high rents, high prices of land, and other conditions continues, he will not get far toward the establishing of the kingdom of heaven in agricultural life. These problems must be attacked by the church as a whole as the obligation of the general church to the minister who is on the firing line of the great world-wide struggle for the establishment of industrial peace.

One or two concrete illustrations will show the necessity of general church action on these matters if the rural church is to be saved from conditions now acute in the large centers. Wage-earners in the large centers who have no assurance of permanence of jobs are not inclined to give liberally toward providing adequate building and equipment for religious services. No wage-earner can be expected to give hundreds of dollars out of his income toward building a church when the next month may find him compelled to move to some distant city. In like manner it is difficult in large centers to get wage-earners even to maintain a church adequately. Consequently the church is to-day spending millions of dollars to provide church buildings for wage-earners in large cities. Yet it does not have any program for bringing about wage returns, permanency of employment, or interest in business that would make it possible or desirable for the wage-earner to finance his own church building. Neither does the church have a plan whereby the industries of a city make any adequate contribution to the housing of religious institutions for those connected with the industry. Although the wealth of America is centered in the great cities, the provision for religious service to city people is being made by people living in small towns and in the open country.

As in the city, so in the open country. It has become necessary for the general church to provide even pastoral maintenance in certain sections where land is worth three hundred dollars per acre. The transient tenant has no abiding interest in the community because he expects to move at the end of the year. This condition is gradually becoming worse; and unless the general church undertakes the solution of problems affecting the local church but over which the local church has no control, the future will bring either a decline in religious influence in rural sections or a continuous burden on national boards that should and would under proper conditions be cared for by local communities.

That the church can help in improving economic conditions to the advantage of all rural life has already been abundantly demonstrated. On the Brookhaven District, Mississippi Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, the missionary board of that denomination made a contribution of three hundred dollars toward the support for the summer of a man and woman engaged in organizing community clubs. Twenty-one clubs were organized, and as a result of their efforts over fifty thousand pounds of fruit and truck were saved during the period of the war when food conservation was a necessity. As a result of this contribution, at last reports there were three colored county agricultural agents employed in counties of that district, all supported by the State, and no further contribution of missionary funds to continue the work was necessary. For years Bishop Thirkield, of the New Orleans area of the Methodist Episcopal Church, had been encouraging keeping of gardens by the pastors and land ownership among colored people. It is impossible to estimate accurately the results of his broad program, but one district superintendent reported for his own official boards that while at the opening of the year 25 per cent of his official board members on the district were in debt, at the close of the year not one of them was in debt. They had been taught how to save money and to pay their debts, and the members of the churches were encouraged to follow their example.

On a little charge in southeastern Ohio the pastor began to preach good roads. Before the end of the first year a township organization had been formed and a vote taken providing for the macadamizing of every road in the township.

Four years ago the missionary board of the Methodist Episcopal Church made a contribution of four hundred dollars toward the support of a pastor in a village in New York. He organized a community club, led in securing a community house, installed moving pictures, and provided for the recreational life of the community. To-day no contribution is being made by the Board for this work. Yet the membership of the club has increased from fifty-nine to two hundred and twenty-five. It has been responsible for the establishment of a national bank which had one hundred and seventy thousand dollars deposits in the first six months; it paved over five hundred feet of street; it provided for the consolidation of four rural schools with the village school. And plans were under way for opening a ferry across the Hudson that had not been run for thirty years and for the establishment of an important manufacturing plant. Thus a little stimulation has resulted in economic development that must result in better financial support of all community activities.

In conclusion it may be said that it is the business of the pastor to concern himself with all economic problems that affect the welfare of his people. The type of problem will vary with the community and its stage of development. As rapidly as possible the church should turn over to private or State agencies the task of economic development. But the church should encourage in every way every movement that is destined to bring about a higher stage of economic welfare; and the pastor cannot relinquish his obligations in this respect until he has succeeded in establishing other agencies that can effectively perform this task. His duty, then, is to encourage this form of development by educating the people as to its value and by giving it his moral support.

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