What does social justice have to do with faith? Does it mean you’re “woke” if you care about the poor or about reforming society? What role, if any, ought Christians to play?
The 1923 Businessmen’s Bible Class lends us a shining example of how Christian faith spilled into the streets of Kansas City and impacted every sphere of society. In the years leading up to and following the historic downtown gathering, the men’s Bible class left its mark on history, especially in the area of moral reform.
The Need for Reform
In the early 1900s, Kansas City was a hotbed for prostitution. The Society for the Suppression of Commercialized Vice formed in 1913 “in response to the death of a high-school-aged prostitute.” The Society was a composite of church leaders previously known as the Church Federation. In their ten-year report, “Ten Years of Fighting Vice,” they claimed that “within one week from the organization of the Society there was not an open house of prostitution in Kansas City.” However, the Missouri Supreme Court allowed the houses to reopen, and court battles ensued over the next eight years.
Influence of the Businessmen’s Bible Class
By 1922, the Businessmen’s Bible Class had grown to thousands. The Society “issued a call for men from the Bible Classes to assemble and hear the report of our investigations on the state of vice in Kansas City.” The men listened to the report and decided to act. By 1923, the Society’s report stated, “There is now in process of organization a virile federation of men’s classes destined to become a strong factor in the civic and moral conditions of our city. One of the first objectives of the Federation of Men’s Bible Classes will be to make it plain to our officials that the public does care what goes on in Kansas City and that the full co-operation of our Christian manhood may be relied upon in the enforcement of law.”
And indeed, the Businessmen’s Bible Class succeeded in leaving their mark on history. The book Prohibition in Kansas City, Missouri could not report on crime in Kansas City without also reporting of a “men’s Bible class” that in 1919 investigated instances of public indecency and advocated for laws to be upheld and businesses held accountable.
For at least a five-year time span (1919 – 1923), and presumably longer, the men’s Bible class fought for moral reform in Kansas City. They actively campaigned for legislation, and they investigated reports of criminal activity. They sought to make Kansas City a city that honored women, protected marriages, and stood up for righteousness.
Following Their Example
The Businessmen’s Bible Class showed through their actions that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17 NIV). True faith always goes beyond church walls and impacts all of society.
Today, The Barnabas Group Kansas City plays a similar role in uniting business leaders to fight against human trafficking.The group has supported efforts to train medical staff on the dangers of trafficking, build shelters for victims of trafficking, and train law enforcement personnel to identify victims and arrest perpetrators.
Just as Psalm 145:4 says, “One generation will commend Your works to another,” so one generation can continue His works from another. As we look at today’s conversations centering around social justice and anti-trafficking, we can look to past Christians’ campaigns for legal reform and follow their example. We can move forward in confidence, knowing that our actions are simply a continuation of what every Christian in every generation has done—standing up for righteousness.
John Simonson, Prohibition in Kansas City, Missouri: Highballs, Spooners, and Crooked Dice (Charleston, SC: American Palate, 2018) 59-66.