‘Messiah of the Masses and Prophet of the Proletariat’: Reexamining Eugene Debs in the Framework of Spiritual Socialism


  • Gabriel Paxton Boston University




The following paper is concerned with the role that Christianity played in the discourse, life, and campaign of the prominent American socialist, Eugene Debs. Considering that socialism in the United States is often deemed impossible due to a myriad of factors—a prominent one being the underlying Protestant ethos of the state—Debs’ campaigns earned unprecedented support for the presidency in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. I contend that Debs’ presidential campaigns offer a unique case for exploring the reconciliation of a secular socialist program with the Protestant and individualistic ethos of American society. Though an avowed secularist, it is well documented that Debs’ admired the historical Jesus, and he notably challenged the alignment of the Protestant Churches with industrial capitalism at the turn of the twentieth century. Using first and secondhand documentation on Debs’ campaigns, this paper proposes that Debs’ presentation of socialism as a necessary and logical expression of Christianity was important for overcoming the ideational barrier that Protestant Christianity poses for socialist candidates in the US. Where scholars like Jacob Dorn contend that Debs was effective at overcoming the “either-or” thinking that often plagues orthodox socialism, I contend that Debs’ appeal to a Jesus-centered Christianity importantly presented a new “either-or” maxim, where Christians were faced with choosing between capitalist Churchianity, or true Christianity.