Woody Guthrie’s Social Gospel Roots

by Larry Guthrie


Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was named in the summer of 1912 on a hope that his namesake would become President, and he did. So, Woody carried a presidential message. In the future formation of that message, Christianity and Catholicism played significant roles in the entire tapestry of the life of Woody Guthrie.

First, Woody was broad-minded, or “catholic,” in his consideration of world religions. This curiosity exhibited a universal ecumenism that is the definition of catholic.Woody married Catholic. His Dust Bowl darling and first wife was a Pampa, Texas, Catholic named Mary Esta Lee Jennings. According to their Certificate of Marriage, Woody and Mary were lawfully married on Oct. 28, 1933, according to the Rite of the Roman Catholic Church at Holy Souls Church in Pampa, now St. Vincent de Paul Parish. The priest, Father Wanderly, made Mary promise to raise her future children—Gwen, Will Rogers (Bill) and Sue—as Catholics.

Woody’s father-in-law, Harry Jennings, had two sisters who were Catholic nuns.Although Harry disapproved at first of his daughter’s marrying Woody because he was not a Catholic, a couple of days later Woody’s and Mary’s fathers celebrated together.

As a youth, Woody studied Kahlil Gibran and considered converting to Catholicism and possibly taking holy orders and becoming a priest.

Abby Wendle shares the story of the men who worked to identify the 28 Mexican deportees who died in a plane crash in 1948.

Matt Jennings, Woody’s friend and brother-in-law, in 1935 prodded Woody towards social justice through reading the Catholic newspaper The Sunday Visitor. In it, then-Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen condemned the evils of communism.

In the desperately hard times of the Dust Bowl days, many Oklahomans explored socialism as an avenue of social justice. The strongest state expression of socialism in the United States occurred in Oklahoma between 1914 and 1917 when Woody was 2-5 years old.

In Oklahoma, low crop prices and high credit costs drove farmers to socialism.

Woody’s father, Charlie, watched the rise of the Socialist Party in Oklahoma with concern. The Socialist vote had steadily grown until Oklahoma had the largest membership of any state in the union. In Okfuskee County, the socialists had skimmed off 15 percent of the votes in the 1908 presidential election. The Socialist Party in Oklahoma in 1914 elected six members to the state legislature.

Jim Bissett, in his book Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920, notes that a former Sequoyah County Judge, L.C. McNabb, sued bankers and landlords for violations of an anti-usury law passed at a special session of the Oklahoma Legislature in February, 1916. It set 6 percent as the maximum legal interest rate.

The Catholic church also condemns usury. “Although the quest for equitable profit is acceptable in economic and financial activity, recourse to usury is to be morally condemned.”

Woody’s words were a social gospel. Although Woody did not seem to like participating regularly in an organized religion, he did develop a great concern for social justice. Social justice evolved from the “Social Gospel,” a movement in the early 20th century. It developed from Protestant to Baptist to Episcopal and on to Catholic. It believed that all Christians should work to improve social conditions for the poor, the sick and the downtrodden. Many of these who supported the Social Gospel supported the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, and later the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Like the Socialists of pre-statehood Oklahoma, Guthrie remained a bedrock Christian, un-churched, undisciplined, but certain of his faith. “I seldom worship in or around churches, but always had a deep love for people who go there,” he explained.

Woody supported labor unions, a cause championed by the Catholic Church as described by Greg Guthrie in his Georgetown University thesis. In Chapter 2, “The Church’s Support of Labor Unions,” he lists the four papal encyclicals which support labor unions: Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891), Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI, 1931), Laborem

Exercens (John Paul II,1981), and Centesimus Annus (John Paul II,1991).

In addition, the 2005 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the (Catholic) Church, by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace states, “The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labor unions, whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions.”

On March 23, 1946, Woody, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays flew to Pittsburgh to perform for 10,000 striking Westinghouse workers. Pete Seeger felt that every union should have a choir, just like every church. “We went to union halls and sang … ‘Union Maid,’ ‘Talking Union,’ ‘I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister,’ ‘Get Thee Behind Me, Satan,’ ‘Union Train a’ Comin.’ ’ ”

In Woody’s song, “Tom Joad” (referring to the character in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath), he said, “Everybody might be just one big soul.” Later, Woody said in an interview, “We wasn’t in that class that John Steinbeck called the Okies because my dad was worth $35,000 to $40,000 and everything was hunky-dory an’ he started havin’ a little bit of bad luck …”

Oklahoma has come a long way, Arlo Guthrie says, from the days when it all but disowned his father Woody Guthrie. Woody has also been vindicated through Charles Banks Wilson’s portrait of him in the Hall of Fame beneath the Oklahoma Capitol dome; and through his 1943 book, Bound for Glory, which received the Oklahoma Center for the Book Ralph Ellison Award in 2004.

Woody was described as one of the “American rebels” (The Nation, July 21, 2003) along with Dorothy Day, whose social justice fervor has gained her a nomination for sainthood in the Catholic Church.

Woody’s second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, from New York (married in November 1945) was Jewish, and the mother of Arlo and Nora. Historically, Catholicism and Christianity are rooted in Judaism.

Eventually, Woody said, “Love is the only God I’ll ever believe in.”

Larry Guthrie’s grandfather and Woody’s father both lived in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, in 1912, the year Woody was born.