“If Christ Came to Chicago” (11-12-1893)

They were all there on that day in 1893.

As one man remembered it, the gathering at the Central Music Hall was a cross-section of Chicago–“businessmen and labor leaders, representatives of the city government and its executive clubs, preachers and saloon-keepers, gamblers and theological professors, matrons of distinguished families and madames from houses of ill-fame.”

William T. Stead

William T. Stead

This wildly diverse group had been brought together by a visiting English editor, William T. Stead.  Something had gone wrong with the greatest city in the world–their city.  They were here to try to find the answers.

Stead had come to Chicago to write about the Columbian Exposition.  While wandering through the city, he came upon unimaginable poverty.  He found social neglect and political corruption.  The “best people” were ignoring the situation.  Stead decided he had to do something about it.

He rented the Central Music Hall, secured a variety of speakers, and announced a mass meeting–a free floor, open discussion on the city’s problems.  The public response was so great Stead had to schedule two sessions.

The parade to the podium was as diverse as the audience.  Drawing on their personal experiences, the speakers described what they saw as Chicago’s troubles.  The audience asked questions, argued among themselves, cheered, booed, and did some thinking.  It was a lively time.

"If Christ Came to Chicago"--frontispiece

“If Christ Came to Chicago”–frontispiece

Presiding over all was Editor Stead.  At the evening session, he brought the proceedings to a close by telling his own tale of Chicago.

He had come to the city thinking that he’d left injustice behind in the Old World.  “But what would Christ think of Chicago, if He should come here today?” Stead asked.  “If I understand why Christ came to live and die, it was that the common man might at least live a human life.  But there are people in Chicago today who are not living a human life.”

Stead challenged the audience to get involved–in helping the poor, in cleaning up politics, in following the Golden Rule.  All of them must do their part.

After his Music Hall meetings, Stead returned to England.  The next year he published a best-selling expose titled If Christ Came to Chicago.  The revelations in the book led to the founding of the Civic Federation of Chicago.  For awhile the city had a powerful political reform movement.

William T. Stead became an internationally-known social reformer.  In 1912 he was on his way to a peace congress in New York when he went down with the Titanic.




4 Responses to ““If Christ Came to Chicago” (11-12-1893)”

  1. 1 Chris Lamb November 22, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    This is so interesting. I wonder whether the Civic Federation of Chicago was in any way supportive of or related to later reformers like Upton Sinclair, who published “The Jungle” in 1906. Does anyone know how to find out who attended Stead’s event? I am researching an editor named George Horton who worked for the Chicago Herald in 1893 and I wonder if he attended?

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt November 26, 2014 at 9:40 am

      You might want to check the old microfilms of the Herald to see if he has a byline–though in those days, many stories were printed without identifying the author. Also, the Civic Federation gave rise to the Municipal Voters League. You might want to research their work (and their director, George Cole) to see if they connect with your area of interest.

  2. 4 Roger Masa December 12, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Sadly, those issues still bely this great city yet I think in more diverse ways; corrupt politics, inequality, poverty and the social neglect he saw would be supplemented with violence, city debt and a crumbling infrastructure, amongst others. Still, his passion to see things change is still alive in various groups, churches and causes that keep the evil from overtaking things and the call for everyone to make a difference inherent.

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