Image from my copy of Chatterbox 1876, 96. Title: “Another column of spelling, Miss Mary.”
When we left off last, I had explored how nineteenth-century evangelical children (like little Maggie the Methodist) were given for ideals for modeling their lives. The first ideal was Conversion – all children, no matter the age, were encouraged to have a conversion experience. Once they had accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, it followed that they would seek to please him as well as turn to him for help in building their character. That character was created from a laundry list of things that, frankly, one needed prayer to juggle.
At the end of describing each model, I suggested how the childhood reading materials of my character Maggie, protagonist of the Saint Maggie series, might have influenced her adult life. I also suggested that as a child, she liked to subvert the “no fiction reading” rule, which might have nullified some of the effects of the evangelical magazines and stories.
Now, we move on to the last two models for little Christians of the nineteenth century.
The Good Little Missionary
The missionary movement was thriving in the nineteenth century. Christianity is a proselytizing religion and in 1800s missionaries were sent overseas to the “heathen” ( or non-believers). I won’t be arguing whether this endeavor was successful, detrimental, and/or an act of ignorance and hubris. I simply am looking at what the reading material was telling children.
Good Little Missionaries were expected to do several things. The first was to give financially to their church’s missionary activities. They were taught to be thoughtful about how they used their money and poetry was often used and memorized to drive the lesson home.
If you wish to be told the best use of a penny,
I will tell you a way that is better than any,
Not on apples, or cakes, or on playthings to spend it,
But over the seas to poor heathen to send it.
Writers made an emotional appeal to children to change the lives of the “poor heath” by offering them the opportunity to hear the Good News and to receive the benefits of “civilization” (meaning Western culture). The duty of white, Western Protestants was to see that people overseas became “happy” in God and “civilized.” And every penny counted!
Despise not then THE PENCE,
They help to make the pound.
And each may help to SPREAD ABROAD
THE GOSPEL’S JOYFUL SOUND!
Later in the century, the missionary emphasis included helping the “heathen”, i.e. the poor, in their own country and perhaps even the “heathen” in their own home! Children were told that a converted child could have a powerful impact. Example: poor little Nelly Steele loaned her own mill dress to her mother so that she could look nice enough to go to chapel. Nelly’s little missionary act resulted in her family attending church on a regular basis and her father taking the pledge to abstain from alcohol. Stories like these were designed to encourage readers to help friends and members of their families become Christians.
In thinking about Maggie’s character, I believe where her impulse to help others is firmly rooted in stories and articles she would have read in evangelical materials. She had been taught that she had many advantages and should not hesitate to share with others. Later, as a young woman who had been disowned by her family for marrying the son of her father’s business rival and thereby reduced to humble means, Maggie continued to find ways to “be of help” to others. Just because she had little did not mean that she could not do something to help. An example of this is when she opens the boarding house to Nate and Emily Johnson in “The Dundee Cake.” She has little in the way of money, but she has a house and she offers what she has to her friends.
Back to nineteenth-century Christian models for children.
Children’s own conversion, their good character, and their missionary work led to one final thing.
A Happy Death
As crazy as it may seem to us, this was a very real stated goal. If one had faith, then one needed not to fear the grave and what lay beyond – provided one had been converted. This idea was supported by deathbed scenes. The one below involves a young female teacher. (Note the scary talk about being put in a coffin, buried in the “cold” ground, and having to face hell, if one was a non-believer. This was another inducement for the reader to convert.)
…though she knew that it was a fearful thing to die and to be put into a coffin, and be buried in the cold ground, yet she was not afraid to think of it. It is sin that makes people afraid to die, for they dare not face that God whom they have provoke by their wickedness; and they dread the thought of that place of torment where sinners are sent when they die. But this young Teacher had been made happy in her Saviour’s love, and she knew that he had pardoned all her sins, and had promised to come for her, and take her to heaven. The day before she died, her countenance grew very bright, and she cried, “Look! Look! Beautiful, beautiful saints and angels! Saints and angels! But if so delightful now, what will it be to-morrow?”
Children were taught that they could continue their missionary work right up to the moment of death. They didn’t just die with a smile on their face, they also could engage in one final act of charity and missionary work. Last words were important, and so were final bequests. A story in At Home and Abroad tells of young Mary, who “clapped her hands, and looking upwards, exclaimed ‘Thank God for that,’” when informed that her suffering would soon end in death. She then gave her parents a dying blessing and “told her mother where to find her Missionary money” and “hoped her parents would still continue to give a tenth to the Missions.”
The goal for the Happy Death then was to be confident of going to heaven (because one had been converted), to will one’s money to missions, and to exhort and inspire those near the deathbed.
What kind of an impact would this have had on my character Maggie? I’m not sure. I can say that the moment she is closest to death occurs in Saint Maggie. She is unconscious and has an out-of-body experience or dream where she meets her late husband John. He sends her back with a mission to “make things right.”
But let’s be honest. The story doesn’t do the “Happy Death” thing because a 21st century author (me) is telling Maggie’s story. Frankly, I am not sure how she will die and if her death will ever make it into any of my stories. But my guess is Maggie will be confident that something is waiting for her beyond this life.
As for my conclusions regarding the research on children’s magazine that I had done so long ago, I raised a question at the end. Did the magazines and other literature with their high expectations for little Christians, have any influence upon their childhood and adult lives? My guess is yes and no. The answer mostly likely can be found in evangelical journals and diaries, as well as in the attitudes and activities of the adults who became public figures.
Having written the blogs over the past three days gave me an awareness of how research and reading can and does rest in an author's subconscious and is absorbed. In fact, I was surprised to discover that what I had studied in the 1980s had fed into the development of my character Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith. Writing a character is truly an amazing process.
 Missionary Repository, June 1842, 91.
Sorry! I couldn’t find the reference for this poem! Plus, I only cited its conclusion.
 At Home and Abroad, April 1885, 61-62.
 Early Days, January 1847, 15-16.
 At Home and Abroad, December 1885, 228.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder