S3:E28 The National Prayer Breakfast and The Family
When strikes broke out in the 1930’s, some wealthy members of the US elite got together… to pray. One of the organizers of prayer groups across the country was Abraham Vereide. In this episode of Truce we tell the story of how Vereide became one of the most influential non-elected men of his time… and how his movement took a dark turn as revealed in Netflix’s The Family.
- When is it an appropriate time for a labor strike?
- How bad do things have to get before a strike can shut down the economy?
- Is there a Christian perspective on labor strikes?
- Is there anything wrong or creepy about Christian businessmen praying to end a strike?
- Do you think the National Prayer Breakfast is an event focused on piety?
- Read Matthew 6 in the Bible. What do you think it means for public prayer? Jesus prayed in public. Is all public prayer wrong, or just some of it? Where is that line?
- Vereide’s legacy created “The Family”, a shadowy organization that tries to create male Christian leaders. Is this good, bad, creepy, or some combination of the three?
- “The Family” is focused on male leaders. Why do we struggle as Christians to let women lead?
Contributed Voices (not all were used):
- Sharon Campbell – All God’s Women Podcast
- Shea and Michelle Watson – The Pantry Podcast
- Annie Quinnell – The Unstoppable Solo Mom Podcast
- Tim and JK Winders – Seek Go Create Podcast
- Holland Webb – The Afterword Podcast
- Markus Watson – Spiritual Life and Leadership Podcast
- One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse
- Britannica article about The Family
- History of the Prayer Breakfast
- 90% of Everything – book about shipping containers
- Crash Course – Great book about unions and the US auto manufacturers
- Helpful history of the San Fransisco and Seattle strikes and Bloody Thursday
- YouTube video of West Coast during the strikes
ROUGH TRANSCRIPT – Note: We do our best to make these accurate. But last minute changes to the episode do happen, and sometimes things are added or subtracted that are not reflected in the transcript.
CHRIS STARON: Hey everyone, this episode is a part of a long series about how communism in Russia impacted the American Christian Church. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done go back and start at the beginning of season three.
The shipping container was not invented until 19561. I know that’s a strange way to start a story. But if you want to learn about an underappreciated invention that changed the world, look no further than the shipping container. You know, those big long rectangles that cross the ocean on cargo ships. When they reach land they are loaded onto trains or trucks without adapters or whatchamacallits. They’re uniform. They have specific dimensions so they fit wherever you need them. Boats, trains, trucks. Any form of transportation.
Think about how cool that is. No joke – my brother read a whole book about them.
Anyhow, this is not a show about shipping containers. But before their invention and implementation, ships were unloaded by hand. You’d have to take everything out of a boat to load it onto a truck. Then everything out of the truck to load it onto a train. If there were, say, 400 bags of flour, men had to load those bags onto the ship by hand. Stack them. Account for them. And then somewhere, maybe across the ocean, another group of men unloaded those bags of flour. One at a time. Stacked them. Accounted for them. And on and on. With every single item on a boat. See why shipping containers are so much better? Oh yeah.
These men were longshoremen. Their work was dangerous, tedious, with long hours. Then there was the way there were hired. Not by a company as an employee, but each morning the men went down to the docks and were lined up, chosen one by one. There was no guarantee that they’d get picked. Which opened the market for bribery. Imagine looking for work every single day2. We take it for granted that we can get up in the morning and go to work knowing that our job will be there. They didn’t have that luxury. And, as anyone who has done manual labor knows… you can only get away with it for so long. Eventually, the human body breaks down. You need a safety net in case you hurt yourself or the ravages of old age become too much.
These struggles bubbled and churned for decades. Little strikes broke out without enacting real change. Then came the Great Depression. And with it, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. A plan to pull the country from it’s quagmire. One piece of the New Deal, there were many, was the National Industrial Recovery Act or NIRA3. Section 7a of NIRA gave labor unions a new advantage. The right to organize and bargain collectively without interference from their employers.
In May, 1934 the longshoremen went on strike4 physically removing any scabs who crossed their picket lines5. Shipping companies hired professionals who went around the country breaking strikes. They were met with fist fights and brass knuckles6.
The strike closed the west coast. Ships sat on the water, their goods going rotten. There are newsreel films of this era showing empty streets, closed stores. Major US cities reduced to ghost towns. The Industrial Association of San Francisco hired a PR firm to spin the strike as a communist plot to disrupt American life7.
The tension ratcheted even higher on July 5, now known as “Bloody Thursday”, when police and vigilantes fired on the strikers, killing two. By the end of the day another 70 were injured8. The violence encouraged the cities other 160 unions to join the strike in solidarity. 130,000 workers refused to work9.
It was there, amid the strikes that something happened under the radar. Yes, organized labor won a major and bloody victory by the end of July. But in wealthy circles, those frequented by industrialists, a movement was beginning. A prayer movement. One that would shape the country by tying capitalism to Christianity. Changing the outward political reaction to faith for decades to come.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
Let me rewind just a little bit.
Before the strikes, before the shut down, a man named Abraham Vereide did his best to coordinate relief efforts on the West Coast. He was a Methodist clergyman. An immigrant who left Norway in 1905 to seek a better life in the states. In the 1920’s, Vereide ran Goodwill Industries in Seattle. A huge operation.
But ask anyone who works with the poor for a long time… it sometimes grates on you. Slowly. There are genuine needs, but those few who take advantage of the system start to loom larger and larger in your mind. In 1927, Vereide said that…
VEREIDE: Promiscuous charity pauperizes and the average person seeking aid… does not want to work for it.
After rising in the ranks, and being considered for a job in FDR’s relief efforts, Vereide had had enough. He resigned. Now almost 50, he went looking for a new role in life. Just as Seattle was embroiled in a massive labor strike that shut down the city. The longshoremen and other union members had bonded together and slowed down business. The wealthy elite of Seattle gathered together at the Pacific Union Club to lick their wounds and discuss their options. Vereide found himself leading prayer groups there for these wealthy men.
The strike and his time at Goodwill are key to understanding Vereide. He’d seen what organized labor could do – cost his wealthy friends money. Slow the economy. Never mind the strife of the people working on the docks. Forget about the New Deal, legislation that Vereide denounced. He believed that the economy should be unregulated and that the poor should rely on the beneficence of wealthy people10. An ideology that some people still hold today.
The following year Vereide had a chance encounter that shaped his life. A local developer named Walter Douglass stopped him and lamented that churches were not doing enough to stop the labor strikes.
DOUGLASS: Here you have your churches and services and a merry-go-round of activities, but as far as any actual impact and strategy for turning the tide is concerned, you’re not making a dent.
Churches should end these strikes. Denouncing the shut downs. Get involved politically. Which to me brings up questions of the role of the church in society. How much do we get involved and when should we focus people on Jesus. But, we’ve got a long way to go.
The two men hatched a plan. Douglass would give Vereide offices in his building and money to run the operation. Work began immediately. When I say immediately I mean immediately. The two men marched to the offices of the president of the largest department store in the north west and together they drew up a list of wealthy men to invite… to pray with them.
Their first prayer meeting was at the Washington Athletic Club. Guests included people from railroad, gas, lumber, hardware, and candy corporations and two future mayors of Seattle. Political and corporate leaders. Strangely enough, only one of them belonged to a church11.
The prayer breakfast became a regular thing known as the City Chapel. And as word spread, the meeting grew. Soon they were hosting retreats for the wealthy and connected. To see how they could use the gifts God had given them, or that they had earned because of God’s favor, or whatever could be used for their purposes.
Okay. Let’s pause for just a moment. Do a gut check. Is there anything wrong with prayer meetings? I think most of us would say that there is not. What about wealthy people getting together to pray? I mean, does their financial status really make a big difference? No. Of course not. But there are hints… clues that something sneaky could come of this.
But when you hear that people meeting for prayer are not Christians, but are industrialists looking for ways to end their union troubles… doesn’t that give you some pause?
There’s a Bible verse that we’re going to bump up against a lot in the next few episodes. In Jesus’ day the religious leaders gave money in public, prayed in public, and showed off how holy they were. This was Jesus’ response.
Matthew 6:5-6. “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
I don’t want to make a meal out of that passage. Just let it sit a little bit as we go forward. How are we supposed to pray? Humbly. Not parading in front of people.
My early uneasiness about these prayer meeting hinges on this idea. Were they there to pray or were they there to network? And, these prayer meetings were intended as a counter measure to labor movements, which some saw as communist plots to slow the economy. While others saw it as the only way to get the attention of their employers who had ignored their demands for too long.
It wasn’t long before the City Chapel, these prayer meetings, got involved in king making. Their first foray happened at a retreat when conservative Arthur Langlie found his financial sponsor for his first mayoral bid for the city for Seattle. He would eventually become governor and was considered for Eisenhower’s running mate in 195212. That all started in a prayer retreat.
The organizations growth in Seattle sparked businessmen in other cities to start their own prayer meetings aimed at corporate leaders. An oil man started one in Los Angeles. A wool trader in Boston got one going there. A group of business leaders in Chicago. There was prayer to be sure. But also networking. Historian Kevin Kruse described these meetings as, “an important political rite of passage”13.
Makes sense, right? If there are business people and politicians meeting and you want to have influence… you’re going to go where they are. Whether you’re religious or not. There is also the strain of Judeo-Christian beliefs that pushes for “our people” to be in power. We can guess that that concept was very much alive and well in these groups.
Eventually, Vereide made the natural progression to Washington DC where the meetings went from local muckatie-mucks meeting regularly to national politicians. Republicans and Democrats. Members of congress, supreme court justices, business leaders. The Vice President.
Vereide printed up a monthly program that guided these prayer meetings with scripture passages and discussion questions. All the while, Vereide made contacts across the board. Some that you would know. JC Penny, the department store magnate, introduced him to Norman Vincent Peale. Long time listeners may recognize that name. He is the guy who wrote the book, “The Power of Positive Thinking”, which encourages people to think and talk positively to bring about their desired outcomes. It’s basically the precursor to The Secret well before Oprah’s book club. One of the people who would attend Peale’s church and hear his preaching on positive words about oneself was a little boy named Donald Trump.
Vereide framed his movement simply, as “Christ or Communism”. He believed the antidote to communism, which was inherently atheistic according to Karl Marx, was Christianity. Collectivism, labor movements, could be combatted with capitalism and prayer. These little meetings which started with just a few people, these gatherings of the wealthy and connected, were about to go big.
We’ll continue our story after this commercial break.
Enter Senator Frank Carlson. Carlson was one of Vereide’s closest friends in Congress14. He was described by one person as, “like a sunburned Bela Lugosi”, the actor famous for playing Dracula. He spoke out against the New Deal and Roosevelt as the “destroyer of human rights and freedom”15.
Senator Carlson was a member of these prayer breakfasts and decided to invite President-elect Dwight Eisenhower to their small gathering. Seems like a simple enough idea, right? Well, have you ever put together a party and nobody will get back to you?
VALLEY GIRL: I don’t know. I might be doing my hair that night.
Until that popular person is going and then everyone wants to go?
VALLEY GIRL: Wait? Becky is going your party? Like, I’m totally in.
It was something like that. When people heard that Eisenhower would be attending, the prayer meeting got much bigger. The only problem is that their usual meeting place, the Vandenberg Room in the Senate, couldn’t fit the number of people who wanted to attend. So Carlson cashed in a favor with Conrad Hilton so they could host it at one of the Hilton hotels for free. And so was born the National Prayer Breakfast.
The first breakfast’s theme? “Government under God”.
Okay, so it’s a prayer breakfast. We’ve spent all of this time talking about a prayer breakfast? Yes. It’s an important thread in this tapestry that we’re discussing this year. We’re talking about how communism in Russia impacted the American Christian church. And you can see it pretty clearly in the story of Abraham Vereide. The late 1800s and early 1900s in industrialized parts of the world were all about labor. How will we treat workers? Will they have rights? What should the working conditions and the hours be? Should they be allowed to unionize?
People like Vereide saw in the unions a sort of mini-communism. Because they took the role of the individual to bargain with their employer for their pay and collectivized it. Pooled it. Collectivization was seen as one building block of communism. One little nudge closer to Joseph Stalin. And the New Deal as a power play by Roosevelt to gain more power for himself.
If they could tie the interests of capitalists together using the ribbon of religion, they could fight creeping communism. And when I say religion I use that word deliberately. They sought a Judeo-Christian understanding. Not necessarily a purely Protestant one. It was meetings like this that allowed people to call this a Christian nation. Because our leadership was meeting together regularly to pray.
We can debate the validity of their espoused faith. Really, we can. Obviously there is a temptation to attend these things whether you believe or not because this is where the powerful are coming together. That is one way that communism in Russia impacted American Christianity: it sparked the creation of prayer meetings for the politically connected across the country. And, in the process, it dangled the carrot of false piety in front of a lot of people.
There is another, more sinister underpinning as well. Beyond the putting on of airs.
First there was the focus on leadership abroad. Vereide built relationships with authoritarian leaders in Haiti, Indonesia, South Korea, and the Philippines16. Which looks today a little like Christian endorsement of these lousy leaders and their deadly policies.
Vereide organized the efforts of these prayer groups as the National Council for Christian Leadership or NCCL and then an international version of that called the ICCL. It’s a lot of acronyms, I know. But this organization is important.
There is a strain of Christianity that is very interested in leadership. I’ve seen this a lot working in the Christian film, publishing, and now podcasting world. Leadership has been all the buzz for a while. Vereide’s organization became very interested in making Christian leaders. Male leaders.
After Vereide’s death, the organization was led by Doug Coe. It’s Coe who is the focus on the Netflix series “The Family”17. An expose on the now shadowy organization that owns homes near DC where young men are mentored to be leaders in the US. Not… maybe what you and I would consider Christian leaders, but a strange pseudo mixture of things involving studying only sections of the Bible, and leadership itself as practiced under some really bad dudes. Think of the bad guys you know and the Family is studying them. Supposedly not for nefarious reasons, but for their leadership qualities.
The Netflix program, while not what I’d call a documentary, does point out some valuable issues within this slice of Christianity. Using religion to open politically connected doors. Preferential treatment of men, and only a certain kind of man. A weird sort of insider market on growing their own kind of leader. King making. In a country where we are supposed to be a government by the people, for the people… this gives me a great deal of pause. Are the normal, work-a-day people of the nation really being represented if there is an inside track for certain well-connected men? How does that reflect back on Christianity when we create and endorse this kind of system?
Where does this leave us? Did I really do this whole episode just to knock the National Prayer Breakfast? No. There’s always the possibility for real ministry to be done, too. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for people hearing about God. For prayer.
But I think that it is crucial for us to understand the motives behind these actions. These prayer meetings were started to combat organized labor, yes, a movement fraught with its own issues. If you don’t believe me, research General Motors in the 1980’s. But the labor movement was necessary in moving the country forward. We almost certainly would not have child labor laws, a forty hour work week, safety standards, or the like if it wasn’t for the labor movement.
As for the prayer meetings themselves, they played a key role in allowing some people to call the US a Christian nation. It’s just one thread in a much bigger tapestry that includes the Pledge of Allegiance, the slogan “One Nation Under God”, “In God We Trust” printed on our money, prayer in school. There are upshots to branding a nation as Christian. It calls people to a heritage, encourages morality, and there may be some incidental conversions. We can give Bibles to soldiers, equip military chaplains, allow prayer meetings in prisons. Students can study the Bible in schools, if nothing else, because it really has impacted literature for thousands of years. Even Stephen King refers to it a ton in his books. Try understanding Faulkner without at least some knowledge of the Bible. The TV show Seinfeld brought it up a lot. But we also have to consider the downsides. Maybe it sounds like I’m a broken record, but when we market the US as a Christian nation, the actions of the United States are then tied to Christianity itself. The national sins of the US are easily used against us.
Finally, we should call into question the real religious value of meetings like the National Prayer Breakfast. Remember the words of Jesus when He instructed His followers on how to pray:
“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
We sometimes allow ourselves to see these public demonstrations of piety as evidence that our system is godly. When really, its evidence that at the core, there’s nothing of substance going on. It’s a show, a performance that is put on to gain power.
Really quick, did you know that a lot of the US’ recycling used to be shipped to China? It’s true. Because it was cheaper that dealing with it here. I know that sounds crazy. Ship something across the world for cheaper than sending it across the state. But it was true. Do you know what made that possible? Shipping containers. Chinese manufacturers sent us their goods in shipping containers and, rather than send those containers back empty, wasting a perfectly good trip across an ocean, we loaded our scrap metal, plastic, and broken electronics in them instead. For a long time that practice made it cheaper for us to ship our recycling across the ocean than it was to ship and process it ourselves.
My brother read a whole book on that too. Go figure.
When we see a ship in port filled with containers, we might be tempted to think, wow, they’re full of good stuff. Food, clothes, gadgets. Goodies. Endless possibilities. I think the same is true when we see public displays of piety. We want to believe that they herald good things. And they may. They could be a sign of really great stuff.
Or they could a sign that the trash needs to be taken out.
Special thanks to all of the people who loaned me their voices for this episode. Much of the research for this week stemmed from the excellent book “One Nation Under God” by Kevin Kruse. Mr. Kruse chose not to be on the show, but I still want to recommend his research. Other source material can be found on our website at trucepodcast.com. When you’re there you can listen to our complete archives, and join our email list where you’ll get access to our free media fast curriculum and the curriculum for our empire game from a few episodes ago. There you’ll also find ways to donate to the show. Have you ever heard anything quite like this podcast before? I’m guessing no. It is mostly a one-man operation. I’m working toward the goal of doing this full time. Your donation of any amount can help me with that. And donating via Patron will give you access to our bonus interviews, episodes, and insider-only updates. Learn more at trucepodcast.com.
Also, I’ve set the goal of reaching 1,000 downloads per episode by the end of the summer. We have to more than double the number of people listening to do that. I need your help! So, would you take out your phone and text or call someone to let them know how much you appreciate Truce?
Want to help even more? Leave the show a review on your podcasting app. We got this one in recently from TFE tim. It reads, “How did we get to where we are? Spiritually and politically. Truce does a great job asking questions that are rarely asked in our modern culture. This podcast is a breath of fresh air in the stifling dogmatic culture that we now live in.”
Thanks for the kind words! Your reviews help people to find the show.
And for my super-nerd friends out there, I mentioned that you might be interested in learning about the rise and fall of auto worker unions in the US. There is a great book called Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road to Bankruptcy and Bailout and Beyond by Paul Ingrassia. I’m not getting any kind of bump to recommend it. It was just a really insightful book.
That’s all for now. God willing, we’ll be back in two weeks with more.
Thanks for listening.
I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
11One Nation 41
13One Nation 43
14One Nation 76
15One Nation Under God 76