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  • David C. Kirkpatrick

Holy Humanitarians: Controversies in Christian Philanthropy

David C. Kirkpatrick reviews Heather D. Curtis’ Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid

Many American evangelicals encounter the faces and stories of children from the Developing World as they carry out their morning routines. Photos of “sponsored children” are stuck on refrigerators in millions of evangelical homes across the United States. Some write letters back and forth, send gifts celebrating birthdays and holidays, and follow the child’s journey through adolescence. The reach of these Christian humanitarian programs is long—in one estimate, over 9 million sponsors donate over five billion US dollars each year to child sponsorship programs. For American evangelicals in particular, child sponsorship programs represent enormous generosity. Yet, on the other hand, they frequently seem to generate a global ‘other.’

Evangelicals want to change the ‘world’—a word which, generally speaking, refers to those living outside the material blessings of life in the United States. To do so, they have historically focused on individual conversion, alongside pioneering projects in education, health care, poverty alleviation, and human rights in the Global South. Since the transatlantic Great Awakenings that produced many of their distinctive attibutes, evangelicals have often been a beacon abroad both through missionary humanitarianism and financial generosity—from women’s education in Malawi, to anti-FGM among the Kikuyu, to anti-sex trafficking campaigns in Thailand. But this work abroad leaves crucial questions unanswered regarding their work at home among marginalized communities. Perhaps most prominently, why has it been easier for white evangelicals to identify and respond to needs abroad than to engage justice issues at home? Many white evangelical leaders, for example, ignored or downplayed racial terrorism in America—lynching campaigns, Jim Crow violence, as well as the post-war Civil Rights Movement.

Yet it would be a stereotype of American evanglicals to claim they have always and everywhere neglected the homefront. Historically, American evangelicals have been marked by two realities: a desire to change the world and a belief in America’s unique role in doing so. However, the toolkit they have wielded to instantiate these two realities has adapted and changed since the 18th century revivals in which evangelicalism first took shape. In fact, in the late 19th century, it was widely assumed among evangelicals that changing the world meant both individual conversion and structural solutions to widespread injustices, including economic inequality. Many influential evangelical leaders, on both sides of the Atlantic, even advocated for Christian socialism.

Both in Great Britain and the United States, many evangelicals articulated a ‘social gospel’ to communicate the synthesis of a spiritual and social conversion. Indeed, the term ‘social gospel’ probably first appeared in B.F. Westcott’s preaching at Westminster Abbey in 1886, which later appeared in his work Social Aspects of Christianity (he was elected Bishop of Durham four years later). John Clifford, one of the most well-known British Baptist preachers of his time, also used the term two years later at his Baptist Union presidential address. In a wider societal purview, historian David Bebbington estimated “Among charitable organisations of the second half of the [19th] century…three-quarters were Evangelical in character and control.” British evangelicals were also increasingly drawn into mass campaigns against social evils. At a similar time in the U.S., American evangelical leader and best-selling author Charles M. Sheldon raised provocative questions in his book In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? As an avowed socialist and evangelical, Sheldon answered “what would Jesus do?” through both structural solutions and individual conversion. He also held in tension a bold rejection of American imperialism and a call for American evangelicals to rescue the poor abroad. Evangelical social action, however, was largely justified through the removal of “obstacles to the progress of the gospel” or eliminating social sins that contravened divine commands.

Today, Christian philanthropy is big business. In 2005, Christian organizations made up six of the 10 largest American international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). In 2011, religious organizations comprised 50% of real revenue for INGOs according to historian David King, and the evangelical aid group World Vision was the eleventh largest in the United States in 2015, with revenue of over 1 billion dollars that year alone. These evangelical aid groups occupy a prominent place across the American evangelical landscape. Today, in King’s evaluation, six of the seven largest evangelical mission agencies are primarily relief and development agencies.

Given the often disparate and even warring factions of evangelicalism, what accounts for the enduring relevance and reach of global evangelical philanthropy? Accounting for this seemingly contradictory reality is a critical strength of Heather Curtis’s narrative in Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid, which bridges the crucial era of the Gilded Age with the present day and widens the definitional boundaries for global Protestantism.

In Holy Humanitarians, Curtis examines a critical period for evangelical humanitarianism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, narrating her story through engaging prose and seamless through-lines. In doing so, Curtis explores the causes and consequences of evangelical generosity, while providing critical nuance to scholarly literature beset by stereotyping (fundamentalist vs. modernist, liberal vs. conservative).  During a time of increasing globalization and U.S. expansionism, alongside a rapidly changing demographic, Curtis examines the role of media in the development of evangelical humanitarianism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. How did evangelical media curate the images and experiences of the Developing World to carve the contours of a growing evangelical coalition?

By investigating media, Holy Humanitarians provides an illuminating lens into evangelical culture at the turn of the 20th century. Print media presented helpless hoards abroad in order to guarantee generosity of giving at home. Thus, evangelical print media molded American responses to domestic crises and foreign disasters. In doing so, they highlighted and maintained a global ‘other’ within the evangelical imagination, while also leaving behind an ambiguous legacy at home. Curtis uncovers both the enormous generosity of everyday American evangelicals and the consequences of maintaining that generosity through the use of ‘othering’ imagery. In Curtis’s words, this “reinforced the social, spiritual, and civilizational hierarchies that helped fuel the global expansion of imperialism.” Evangelical media elites often employed “rescue” language to describe the requirements placed on evangelicals by God. Obedience required rescue. But this rescue often did not build agency in the rescued; instead, the rescued were often calcified in a dependent state.

Heather D. Curtis. Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid. Oxford University Press, 2018. $29.95. pp. 384.

Many of the main characters in Holy Humanitarians are familiar to an educated reader: American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, as well as U.S. presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft to name a few. But Curtis fronts two lesser-known protagonists, both involved in print media, whose actual influence has not equaled their representation in scholarly discourse: Louis Klopsch, the founder of Christian Herald magazine, and Thomas De Witt Talmage, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, which at the time was the largest church in the United States. Together, Klopsch and Talmage sought to forge a unified evangelical coalition, bound by sacrificial service at home and abroad; they endeavored to bind together disparate and often warring factions of evangelicals within an ecumenism of service. Curtis put this cogently: “Through its humanitarian mission, these publicists proclaimed, the Christian Herald not only would bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted struggling to survive amid the profound dislocations of modern life, but also would help heal the divisions that threatened to undermine evangelical unity in this fractious era.” These evangelical leaders were marked by a cooperative, irenic approach to boundaries of identity.

Throughout Holy Humanitarians, I was also struck by the scope of evangelical print media’s influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leaders of Christian Herald not only maintained a direct line to the presidencies of McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, but also battled the likes of Barton and the American Red Cross (ARC) for influence. And they largely won, prior to 1906. Barton and the ARC presented a formidable challenge to the leadership of Klopsch and Christian Herald, angling for increased sway on foreign fields as well as with the U.S. government. Curtis is particularly brilliant at uncovering how the U.S. government kneecapped evangelical philanthropy—and dominance—through their increasingly cozy relationship with the ARC.

Up until the early 1900s, evangelical groups were the largest donors to humanitarian causes and still the most influential. For many evangelicals, humanitarianism was an essentially religious practice that ought not be relinquished to secular agencies such as the ARC. The decline of their influence was simultaneously intentional and unintentional on the part of the U.S. government, due to both governmental intervention and the large bequests of Gilded Age elites. For the first time in history, the U.S. government designated a preferred governmental agency for the delivery of relief. In 1906, Roosevelt named the ARC as this preferred agency, and Taft accelerated this focus on nonsectarian and nonreligious distribution of relief. Klopsch, not one to roll over easily, initially pushed through the setbacks. Christian Herald dominated American humanitarianism even after these direct affronts, outpacing the ARC, for example, in Japanese relief in 1906 (according to Curtis’ analysis, Christian Herald raised $241,882 to ARC’s $65,866). Roosevelt even reached out directly to Klopsch for help during a January famine in China that year; the U.S. government could not match the fundraising prowess of the Christian Herald and its extensive evangelical donor base.

Evangelical dominance of American humanitarianism waned as the century turned and advanced. Within broader American public opinion, missionary service abroad was increasingly called into question through popular novels and negative media coverage. Similarly, the philanthropic landscape shifted sharply from dependence on individual average donors to large endowments in the aftermath of the Gilded Age. The ARC gained massive ground due to government preference that increasingly favored nonsectarian and nonreligious organizations rather than evangelical ones. Rather than ecumenism, the coalition of service fractured under the weight of internal battles, government regulation, and the massive bequests of Gilded Age benefactors like Rockefeller and Carnegie. The landscape had shifted tremendously. Ultimately, this evangelical juggernaut, Christian Herald, slowly lost steam. When Christian Herald could least afford the loss, Klopsch passed away unexpectedly in 1910 at the age of fifty-eight. They had no succession plan in place.

As I read Holy Humanitarians, it became evident that American evangelical approaches to social justice have an ambiguous legacy. For example, leaders in evangelical print media combatted and contributed to the concept of a “deserving poor.” While many leaders vocally fought any distinction amongst the needy, these public battles belied internal disagreements. As Curtis clarified, “Although American evangelicals agreed that alleviating distress was a scriptural duty, they often argued over whom, when, and how to help.” Evangelicals remained deeply divided over “the nature of poverty and proper modes of philanthropy” even while the editors of the Christian Herald sought unity. With such a disparate coalition, evangelicalism could not provide a unified voice toward social injustices.

Much of the story is about those who are nameless, though the reader may be tempted only to remember names like Carnegie, Roosevelt, Barton, and Klopsch. Curtis’ story tacitly highlights the anonymous and forgotten evangelical donor and faithful adherent. As almost an aside, she notes that most donations arrived not from wealthy elites but average Americans driven by personal obedience to their faith. The average donor to Christian Herald gave $2.76. When relief was delivered abroad, even foreign governments were shocked at times that the source was not wealthy elites, but everyday Christians. Evangelical donations were massive—Curtis notes that in 1897 and 1900 contributions to Christian Herald famine relief funds “easily outstripped” all other humanitarian agencies. In 1900, many gave through “sponsoring an orphan” for $15.

American evangelicals attempted to shape the world and were often successful, not only through missionary activism but also within their own minds. Ongoing evangelical donations at home required ongoing perceptions of helplessness abroad—the global ‘other’ described above.   Thus, Curtis explores the ways in which evangelical philanthropy created and curated the images of helpless people abroad. This was a multidirectional process; evangelicals shaped public opinion and were also shaped by it. Yet, if white evangelicals were driven to donate and respond to injustices and catastrophes abroad, why were they often silent at home regarding racial violence, inequality, and injustice—especially among African-Americans? The why here remains unanswered in the book, perhaps a byproduct of Curtis’ careful and evenhanded approach.

Evangelicals did not maintain complete radio silence on key domestic issues, however. Take immigration, for example. Curtis writes: “Encouraged by their ability to cultivate compassion for overseas sufferers, Klopsch and Talmage turned their energies to escalating concerns about the plight of the poor and working classes at home.” This often focused on the white working class and urban immigrants. Talmage, for one, had been a vocal proponent of “every race, nationality, and religion under the sun” living in America in peaceful unity through immigration. At a time of increasing tension and violence against minorities, Talmage wrote, “Let the English come…Let the Irish come. Let the French come. Let the Germans come. Let the Chinese come. Let all nations come. Plenty of room.” He calls the new arrivals a “blessing from God” and warned that restrictive immigration measures would invite God’s wrath. While Curtis does not discuss it, I wonder if there was something behind Africa being overlooked in his apparent laundry list of immigrant sources. Certainly, the number of African immigrants in the early 20th century was miniscule, but the African-American population was not. Whatever the case, the picture arises here as both clear and complex. The same leaders could speak prophetically in favor of generous migration from abroad, while remaining silent on lynchings and disenfranchisement of African-Americans at home.

Ultimately, the openness to immigration and harmony in a “Christian America” did not usher in an era of evangelical advocacy for the rights and inclusion of the most marginalized minority communities in the early 20th century. Curtis sharply concludes, “In order for evangelicals to maintain their position as arbiters of American culture, shapers of the nation’s destiny, and premier providers of humanitarian aid at home and abroad, liberty and justice for all would have to wait.” This stops short of a broad indictment, but it certainly raises critical questions—some that are taken up by David Hollinger in his recent Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America. Hollinger provides critical nuance to my line of questioning by showing how missionary children were instrumental in the later Civil Rights Movement. Any discussion of evangelicals and social action requires patient nuance and restrained conclusions—including generational specificity. In Holy Humanitarians, Curtis calibrates her fine-grained analysis to resist stereotyping, providing intriguing questions rather than overly broad conclusions.

The trajectory of global evangelicalism can be clearly seen in the aftermath of Klopsch’s death in 1910. That year was arguably the height of the Ecumenical Movement and the year of the epochal Edinburgh World Missionary Conference. More could have been said about the irony or foreshadowing of Klopsch’s death in 1910—a crucial year in the history of Christianity in the 20th century.   1,200 missionaries—mostly white, North American and Northern European missionaries—gathered in Edinburgh, Scotland to accelerate both the unity of World Christianity and the “evangelization of the world in this generation.” That year, over 90% of the world’s Christians lived in the Global North, mostly in Europe and North America. 100 years on, the demographic picture has dramatically shifted, as today the vast majority of Christians live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Klopsch’s death, then, happened at a time of accelerating localization and contextualization on so-called mission fields.

The rise of Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America had manifest implications for American work abroad and corresponding visions of saving the world. The legacy of missionary humanitarianism and social Christianity has been largely realized in local agents and multidirectional conversations among Majority World evangelicals. While Klopsch and Talmage held ambiguous views toward American imperialism in places like Cuba, my own work has highlighted an emerging generation of post-war evangelicals who posed a significant challenge to the long held political and theological loyalties of many American evangelicals. In influential quarters, their negotiation inspired a renaissance of social Christianity and the so-called “social dimensions of the Gospel.” Some might argue this resurgence by African, Asian, and Latin American evangelicals more accurately reflects evangelical forbearers like Clifford, Westcott, and Sheldon. What would Jesus do? A unified evangelical response remains elusive. But the voices answering that question today primarily arise from contexts of poverty, injustice, and inquality in the Global South—a marked shift from the year of Klopsch’s death and perhaps a partial picture of the legacy of Christian humanitarianism and social Christianity. The image of evangelicals abroad is not primarily one of child-sponsorship programs, but rather global evangelicals producing their own answers and solutions within Christian theological traditions and frameworks. These worldwide connections and multidirectional conversations build upon enduring legacies of Christian philanthropy while carving new paths for local agency.


David C. Kirkpatrick is the author of A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left and an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University.



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