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Christianity for the Rest of Us

On May 13, Christians celebrate the Feast of the Ascension.  The Episcopal saints calendar marks an additional commemoration on May 13, a day set aside to remember Frances Perkins (1880-1965), the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, who served as Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt.  An Episcopal laywoman, Perkins worked tirelessly for the rights of working class people including the establishment of social security, unemployment insurance, child-working laws, and the federal minimum wage–all programs that grew out of her spirituality and passion for a “politics of generosity.”   

When asked about the motivation behind her work, Perkins responded, “I came to Washington to serve God, FDR, and the poor working man.”  Of her theological views, one Anglican historian writes,

…For the twenty years before she went to Washington, she was immersed in the 

unique religious culture of New York, where high-church Anglicanism had played a 

formative role in shaping a public religious culture . . .  [Elite] in pedigree 

and catholic in theology, New York Anglicanism enjoyed religious presidency in a city

where Roman Catholics and Jews tipped the balance in favor of a vision of 

community that was at once pluralistic and solidaristic.  Together, these three groups 

forged a religious and civic culture that gave rise to a “politics of generosity.” 


At the beginning of the Great Depression, some religious Americans advocated a “politics of righteousness,” that is, that people got what the deserved.  In other words, the pious became wealthy, and sinners were poor.  Perkins and her circle rejected this idea in favor of a “politics of generosity,” the theological belief that God has been generous with all humankind, and that those people who are more prosperous have wealth only because of grace.  It is their spiritual duty, therefore, to be as generous with the poor as God has been with them.  


Perkins became an activist following the the horrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which she witnessed, and in which 149 women–some chained to sewing machines–died. This led her into a deeper life of prayer and political action.  Her theology was shaped by studying in England with Anglican theologians, poets, and writers like TS Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, and William Temple.  And her politics were increasingly formed in the crucible of Christian socialism.  Perkins and FDR believed that American ideals were inherently generous but that they needed to be manifest in human lives, through communal and government actions that provided for food, shelter, adequate income, and safety.  

It is 99 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory prompted the a spiritual and political conversion of the young Frances Perkins.  From that tragedy, she committed herself to God, transformational politics, and her neighbor–a commitment that changed America by enlarging our generosity to include the poor, the working class, and those who do not share in all the nation’s wealth.  I can’t imagine a more important saint to remember today.  May we live in her example and renew a politics of generosity for our own day.


The Episcopal prayer for Frances Perkins:

Loving God, we bless your Name for Frances Perkins, who lived out her belief that the special vocation of the laity is to conduct the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency. Help us, following her example, to contend tirelessly for justice and for the protection of all in need, that we may be faithful followers of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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