Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith. From Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (New York: Children's Classics, a div. of dilithium Press Ltd., 1987). Note: I am not writing about the girls from Alcott's book, I had seen plenty of images in nineteenth-century evangelical publications while researching my paper, but never photocopied them. So, Jessie Wilcox Smith's beautiful illustration will have to do. Actually, Wilcox Smith, who lived in the later nineteenth-early twentieth centuries would be an interesting subject for a forthcoming blog. But today, I'm going to finish up writing about reading materials for evangelical Christians.
Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith was a child way before the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the revolution in the kid lit. Along with the novels that Maggie the child managed to read on the sneak, she would have been exposed to materials written by evangelical Christians. In my research, I discovered that children’s magazines written specifically for that market defined the qualities of good little Christians. There are four clear models, and each leads to the next in a sort of progression. The first one, of course, is…
The operating premise behind this model is that children not only are capable of having but are expected to have a conversion experience. For evangelicals, conversion important because the death rate was high. Health was a gift and life was not to be taken for granted, so having a relationship with Jesus was the big essential. "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 immediacy placed upon surrendering oneself to Christ - lest one meet an untimely death - it is no surprise that extremely young children would undergo complete conversion experiences. After all, one wanted to be assured a place in Heaven. The stories found in early-to-mid-nineteenth century Methodist magazines and books offer story after story of children aged nine and under who, fearing that their sins were unforgivable, turned to Jesus Christ and asked for forgiveness. Upon being assured that their sins had been wiped clean, they were then free to start a new life.
Their new life would include the development of...
While it was possible to possess good character without conversion, most of the magazines I read stressed that faith would lead to good works. God could and would help children develop and maintain the many desirable traits making up “good character.” And those traits were manifold: obedience, helpfulness, honesty, loyalty, charity, cheerfulness, industriousness, diligence at whatever they pursued, humility, modesty, dutifulness, good behavior, good manners, patience, submission to authority, tidiness, cleanliness, and prayerfulness.
Let the people say, “Yikes!” That is a boatload of traits. Only God could help a child shoulder the burden.
One of the most important aspects of good character, aside from obedience to God and parents, was charity. The charitable child would want to give both heart and goods in the service of spreading the Gospel at home and abroad.
But “good character” was not unique to evangelical Christians or even Christians in general. Throughout the nineteenth century, all people seem to have been judged by their character – or what appeared to be their character. So, along with a conversion experience and the development of good character, evangelical children needed to be a…
Good Little Missionary
The missionary movement was thriving in the nineteenth century, Christianity is a proselytizing religion, after all. As a result of the revival movements of the late 1700s and early 1800s, missionaries fanned out throughout the world to convert the “heathen” (non-believers). Whether the endeavor was successful, detrimental, an act of ignorance and hubris, or an aspect of colonialism is fodder for future blogs... or a full-length book. Just know that being a Good Little Missionary was expected of evangelical children.
Good Little Missionaries were supposed to give financially to their church’s missionary activities. They were taught to be thoughtful about how they used their money, a lesson that frequently was taught as poetry so it could be memorized.
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.[i]
Writers told children that their pennies would change the lives of the “poor heathen” by contributing to missionaries who preached the Good News and brought with them the benefits of “civilization” (Western culture). Children learned that the duty of white, Western Protestants was to see that people living overseas would become “happy in God" and “civilized.” Thus, every penny was important.
Despise not then THE PENCE,
They help to make the pound.
And each may help to SPREAD ABROAD
THE GOSPEL’S JOYFUL SOUND![ii]
Later in the century, the missionary impulse also included the poor one's own country - perhaps even included the “heathen” living in one's own home! Young readers were told that converted children and young adults could have a powerful impact on their families.
One example of this is the story of poor little Nelly Steele, who one day loaned her mill dress to her mother, who had neglected to attend chapel because she did not own a nice dress. Nelly’s benevolence had a reach that went far beyond one Sunday morning. Her mother and then her entire family began attending church on a regular basis. Best of all, her father took the pledge to abstain from alcohol.[iii] Stories like Nelly's were meant to encourage readers to help friends and family members become Christian converts.
A child’s conversion, development of good character, and missionary activities would then lead to on final thing…
A Happy Death
As crazy as it may seem, this was a very real goal. If one had faith, then one did not need to fear the death and what lay beyond life. The idea was supported in children’s evangelical literature by numerous deathbed scenes involving children and young adults. In the example below, a young female teacher is on the verge of death. (Note the scary talk about being put in a coffin, buried in the “cold” ground, and facing hell.)
…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?”[iv]
Young readers were taught that they could continue their missionary work right up to the moment of their death. One final act of charity and missionary work could be accomplished through their last words and 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. Then she gave her parents a dying blessing and “told her mother where to find her Missionary money." Finally, she said that she hoped her parents “would still continue to give a tenth to the Missions.”[v]
A Happy Death was achieved when 1) one had been converted and assured of going to heaven, 2) one willed one’s money to missions, and 3) one's last words and bequeaths inspired the people surrounding the deathbed.
In my paper's conclusion, I raised the following question: Did the magazines and other literature aimed at little Christians have any tangible influence on them?
I decided that, if there is an answer at all, it mostly likely would be found in the journals and diaries written by evangelicals, as well as in recorded materials about the attitudes and activities of public figures who also were evangelicals.
As for my character Maggie, she was indeed shaped by her childhood. As an adult she has a strong faith and strives to change people’s hearts, thereby, changing their behavior for the good. And, although she is concerned about Eli's apparent agnosticism, she clearly feels that he will find his way to faith. Maggie also is charitable to a fault (wait until you see how many people she packs into Greybeal House in the upcoming novel). As for a happy death… well, I suspect she is not afraid. Her own near-death experience speaks to that.
See you on Writing Wednesday, when I'll interview one of my characters. In the meantime, be kind and love others.
 Missionary Repository, June 1842, 90.
[i] Missionary Repository, June 1842, 91.
[ii]Sorry! I couldn’t find the reference for this poem! Plus, I only cited its conclusion.
[iii] At Home and Abroad, April 1885, 61-62.
[iv] Early Days, January 1847, 15-16.
[v] At Home and Abroad, December 1885, 228.
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