Friday, December 23, 2011

Orphange Sermons: Christian Missionaries are Like Nimrod, Haman and Philip II

When I started at Ohio State a few years ago, for my first quarter, instead of teaching, I was assigned to do research for one of the professors for a book on the Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Orphanage in Xenia, OH. This orphanage, which operated until 1997, was originally founded to service the children of Civil War veterans. Most of the boys and girls who passed through were not actually orphans, but adolescents and teenagers from troubled homes, whose parents were not able to take care of them. This project led to many afternoons and evenings looking through back issues of the Xenia Gazette from the 1880s. It is amazing the sort of things you learn from such a paper such as the health benefits of blood thinner, why it would not be appropriate for the widow of a deceased senator to take her husband's seat and that poverty and crime would disappear if only the consumption of alcohol were made illegal. In terms of civil rights, I would summarize the newspaper's attitude as follows: the negro is naturally deceitful, lazy and prone to crime and we would never actually want him in our schools and neighborhoods. But because he is such lowly pathetic creature it is incumbent upon Christian society to aid him and it is absolutely detestable what those treasonous southerners are doing to him. Think of this as Victorian liberal paternalistic racism.

There was also quite a bit about the orphanage. For example the paper printed the departing sermon given by the orphanage head, who apparently lost his job to a political appointee. The next head did not last long as it was discovered that he was carrying on an "inappropriate" relationship with one of the girls. There are reports of children running away; this is blamed on the children reading too many adventure novels. (Amazing how children managed to get themselves into trouble without the aid of television.) One kid, whose father was on death row, ran off to Columbus and somehow managed to make friends with the governor, who commuted the father's sentence. The father killed someone in a drunken brawl thus the moral lesson to be learned from the story is that alcohol can send you to the gallows, but a robust liberal reform of the penal system and having a child who is friends with the governor may just save your life.   

More recently in my work here at Kline's I came across a two volume collection of sermons by Hermann Baar, the superintendent of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York from this same period. As you can see, a major part of Victorian era theory of moral reform was that children needed a good sermon to teach them useful values so that they could get out of poverty. To be fair to Baar he makes a point that "it is natural for children to become impatient when listening to elaborate and extended sermons."

One of Baar's major concerns, working with impoverished immigrant children, was that they would become targets for missionaries and devoted a sermon to the topic:

My children, no nation in the world had to encounter so many Nimrods as ours. From Haman, the Amalekite, to Philip II of Spain, our people were hunted down, on account of their creed, by fire, sword, and social degradation, and if you ask history, it will inform you that the instigators of such wicked crimes usually try to cloak and to palliate their malicious acts by the sophisticated argument that it was done for the honor of God.

There is, however, another class of "hunters before the Lord," who, I am sorry to say, with bad taste and shameless audacity make it their profession, either by bribery or by the promise of lucrative positions, to allure persons from the inherited faith of their fathers. These men, known under the name of "conversionists," apply all their zeal and energy in behalf of their object of drawing over unprincipled and weak-minded individuals to another creed. I warn you against such Nimrods, my children, whose aim it is to make converts in honor of God. Should they in the future venture to approach you, remember that your religion, which has stood the test of centuries and past ages, and for which your fathers lived, died, and sacrificed everything they possessed, is the highest revelation of God's truth on earth. (Addresses on Homely and Religious Subjects: Delivered Before the Children of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum Vol. I pg. 2-3.)

Baar was not completely hostile to Christians. In another sermon, he praised Christianity for having made contributions to civilization alongside Judaism.

Mankind is indebted to the Jewish nation for many blessings that have civilized the human race. The Jews have at first fostered and cultivated the the religious thought; they have ever led an active and laborious life; they have been at all times at the head of our financial and mercantile enterprises, and have shown in all ages an inborn taste for music and its refining and ennobling charms. The Christian world has equally contributed much for the improvement and advancement of society at large. It has been the custodian of the most precious manuscripts; it has invented printing, and thus raised the intellectuality of man's mind; it has made science applicable to practical life; it has opened to us fresh sources of pleasure and delight in the realms of poetry and fiction, and has laid down new modes and methods of teaching for our educational aims and ends. (Vol. I pg. 223-24.) 

On this topic of dealing with children from troubled backgrounds, I do find it interesting to note the shift in the societal response and that it goes against the generally perceived view of how social thought has evolved over the past century. In the nineteenth century, the general view was to place such children in workhouses and orphanages like the Soldiers and Sailors Orphanage and the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. To be fair to both of these institutions, they were most certainly better run and more humane than the Charles Dickens caricature. Despite their paternalism, Victorian era social reformers do not get enough credit for creating a system that was successful at allowing people to work their way out of poverty. The modern attitude to such children is to place them in foster homes where they can receive something resembling normal family life. In the case of the Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Orphanage, the institution was closed based on the conscious decision by the State to support the foster home system instead. I am inclined to think that this is progress. If the philosophy of our era is, as conservatives like to complain, to breakdown the family and replace it with big government then is why is there no movement to "standardize" childcare and put children into group homes instead of the reverse trend we see.