Methodism started out as a reform movement in the Church of England and as a mission to the poor and the working classes. This is a significant fact when it comes to Maggie and her family. Methodist groups did not appeal to middle- and upper-class people until the middle of the nineteenth century. The people it initially appealed to were people on the bottom of the social strata.
I haven’t written much about the Beatty family, Maggie’s forebears, but in the short story, “The Dundee Cake,” Maggie indicates in her journal that it took generations for her family to become well-off.
My people never lived in the town at all. We started out on a little farm north of Blaineton. In the last century, our people were far from well-to-do. Until they too started a carriage business, it was a hardscrabble existence for them, and they were well-versed in tragedy and loss.
My sense is her grandfather started the carriage business, which her father took over and then was inherited by Maggie’s brother Samuel.
So, Maggie’s roots are humble, and it is not surprising that her family gravitated toward Methodism earlier in the century, if not before. Even though their social and economic position began to rise, the family resisted the temptation to change churches. Of course, at that time Methodism was also rising in social standing as well, so it makes sense.
Maggie the child therefore was exposed to evangelical beliefs, lifestyle, and reading material. While she rebelled against some of the stodgier books and periodicals, it is clear to me that she absorbed a great deal from the stories she read and adjusted them to fit her life circumstances.
But what was a little Methodist like Maggie Beatty supposed to believe? In my research, I discovered that children’s magazines written specifically for evangelicals presented several models of the Christian child. There are four clear models, and each one leads to the next in a sort of progression.
And away we go…
The Child Convert
The operating premise is that children are capable of and expected to have a conversion experience. Why was conversion so important? The death rate was high, especially among the lower classes, and there was no guarantee that a case of the sniffles would not turn into pneumonia. Health therefore was a gift. Life was not to be taken for granted. “Dear children,” the Missionary Repository told its readers, “you do not know how long you may have to live. May you be led to give yourselves up to the service of your Savior without delay.”
With such an immediacy placed upon surrendering oneself to Christ, it is no surprise to read of extremely young children undergoing a complete conversion experience. The stories presented in Methodist magazines and books present story after story of children age nine and under fearing that their sins could not be forgiven, being pointed toward Jesus Christ, asking for forgiveness, believing they had received it, and setting forth on a changed life.
Conversion therefore was the first step in the model little Christian’s life.
Did Maggie have a conversion experience as a child? We’ll have to see. But I know she experiences a conversion experience – or more rightly – an affirmation of her life’s direction as she sat weeping in the field at the camp meeting.
While it was possible to have a good character without conversion, most of the magazines took the stand that faith leads to good works. God could and would help children develop and maintain the desirable traits that made up “good character.” Those desirable traits were numerous. Children were expected to be obedient, helpful, honest, loyal, charitable, cheerful, industrious, diligent at whatever they pursued, humble and modest, dutiful to God and parents, well-behaved, polite, patient, submission to authority, tidy, clean, neat, and prayerful.
Let the people say, “Yikes!”
Face it, only God could help a child shoulder a burden like that!
One of the most important aspects of good character, aside from obedience to God and parents, was charity. The charitable child loved to give and gave all he or she could to spread the Gospel worldwide.
The “good character” model was not located simply to evangelical Christians like the Methodists, or to Christians in general. People were judged on their character – or what appeared to be their character. And Maggie appears to have been imbued with the same idea. Character is important to her.
Throughout the series, we see Maggie pursuing honesty, loyalty, industriousness, and diligence. She also is a big proponent of cleanliness and tidiness. She is prayerful and helpful. Is she cheerful? Maybe not all the time. She doesn’t like to put on a show for others. That would be dishonest. She is loyal to her husband and family. She is modest and humble. In the first book, when Eli calls her beautiful, she demurs, saying, “I’m not beautiful. I’m really quite plain.” She doesn’t understand that Eli sees her (and will always see her) through the eyes of love. Finally, she wants Frankie, her wild child, to be well-behaved, polite, and submit to authority. Good luck with that, Maggie.
There are two models left, one of which is a doozy. Let’s continue looking at how childhood reading might have had an impact on Maggie.
 Missionary Repository, June 1842, 90.