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The sermons that sparked a socialist revolution

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1917 was the year of socialist revolutions. In the United States, an abortive revolt took place in Oklahoma that August, fueled by revolutionaries twisting the Gospel.

The “Green Corn Rebellion” took place August 2 and 3 in Seminole County, in the rural, central portion of the Sooner State. Two weeks earlier, the draft lottery had begun during World War I. Hundreds of members of the secretive Working Class Union – many of them under threat of violence from the WCU’s organizers – gathered with a fantastic plan: They would wreak havoc on their local region before marching to Washington, D.C., where they would depose President Woodrow Wilson and end the war. On the way, they planned to eat unripened, green corn.

They got as far as shooting their local sheriff (and the deputy) and doing some property damage before they fled in fear. They expected federal soldiers to retaliate but instead found themselves drummed out of the area by a posse of their neighbors. In the end, 458 men were arrested, and 86 went to prison.

What would make all-American farmers foment a Marxist revolution against the U.S. government? The answer, in part, is Jesus Christ.

The seeds of the short-lived rebellion were sown by the Socialist Party of America, which had placed its tentacles in the region by switching tactics and embracing a religious message.

The Smithsonian magazine explains:

Socialist Party organizers, who typically shun religion, exploited the evangelical Christianity of the Oklahoma countryside. They portrayed Jesus Christ as a socialist hero—a carpenter who threw the money-changers out of the temple and said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven. The gospel of socialism spread through Oklahoma at weeklong summer camp meetings that attracted thousands and had the atmosphere of holiness revivals. Religious songs were given socialist lyrics. “Onward Christian Soldiers,” for example, became “Onward, Friends of Freedom,” and began “Toilers of the nation, thinkers of the time….” Speakers told of the evils of capitalism, the great beast whose lair was Wall Street, and the imminent arrival of a paradise on earth called the Cooperative Commonwealth, in which everyone would have enough to be comfortable and happy. Here at last the tenant farmers’ degradation was explained to them—the cause was the system, not their own shortcomings.

This unorthodox brand of socialism won support in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Kansas, but it was strongest in Oklahoma. … Nothing helped the WCU more than President Woodrow Wilson’s decision in April 1917 to engage the United States in World War I.

Imagine a time when disingenuous revolutionaries portrayed socialism – even Communism – as the teaching of Jesus Christ, when political alliances dragged Americans into foreign wars that served no clear U.S. interest, and when Ivy League elitists compounded the problem by forcing Americans out of their farms and jobs and into involuntary military service. Any similarity with our times is purely coincidental.

It is imperative that Christians rebut these distorted readings of the Word of God before someone again takes them to heart, and puts them into action.

(Photo credit: ForestWander.com. CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Communism&ChristianFaith-DeKoster

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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