Holy Humanitarians

American Evangelicals and Global Aid

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Heather D. Curtis
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , April
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In May 1900, the Christian Herald’s “famine ship” left New York for India, its cargo of grain hailed as “Christian America’s gift to starving India.” As they had done in previous humanitarian campaigns, the editors of the popular newspaper relied on Protestant missionaries to distribute the grain and money donated by ordinary Americans. The Christian Herald’s editor, Brooklyn minister Thomas De Witt Talmage, assured his State Department contacts that the famine ship would bring “new lustre to the fame of our Republic for international benevolence” (136). The Christian Herald’s campaign to feed famine-struck India was simultaneously an expression of compassion, an act of penance, and political cover. As Heather D. Curtis notes in Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid, her superb new book on evangelical humanitarianism, Talmage believed that this act of humanitarianism would restore the tarnished mantle of “Christian” America at a moment when news of American atrocities in the Philippines filled the nation’s newspapers. In examining this and other humanitarian campaigns of the Christian Herald from 1890 to 1910, Curtis invites readers to weigh the entangled religious, political, nationalist, racial, and personal motivations underlying the seemingly simple injunction to aid the suffering stranger.

Decades before evangelicals created World Vision or Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian Herald stood as one of the premier coordinators of foreign and domestic humanitarianism. Louis Klopsch (1852-1910) and Talmage (1832-1902) purchased the paper in 1890, and together they reinvented it as a forum to publicize humanitarian crises and to raise money from American Protestants. Under their leadership, the Christian Herald grew into the most popular religious periodical in the United States. Between 1890 and 1910, the paper’s humanitarian campaigns collected $3.3 million (around $82.4 million in 2017) from individual donors. 

Holy Humanitarians moves chronologically through some of the largest of the Christian Herald’s campaigns, including famine relief in Russia, India, and China; aid to the Ottoman Empire following the 1894 earthquake; and relief to Cuba and the Philippines. Curtis contextualizes each campaign within American foreign and imperial policy and larger global imperial politics to great effect, while also attending to how the newspaper addressed labor relations, racism, and immigration within the United States. In the final chapter, Curtis moves closer to the present and locates her analysis of the Christian Herald within a number of current scholarly debates about humanitarianism, and she points out that evangelical humanitarian organizations today still struggle with the same fundamental questions.

The differences between religious and secular humanitarianism, especially the contentious relationship between Klopsch and Clara Barton of the American Red Cross (ARC), offers an important revision to definitions of “modern humanitarianism” as a secular departure from religious charitable aid. Curtis shows how the Christian Herald and its editors defied this categorization between traditional and modern, religious and secular by illustrating how the editors responded to debates about the new “scientific philanthropy.” Proponents of scientific philanthropy criticized the breadline that served thousands of needy men in lower Manhattan at Klopsch’s Bowery Mission. They argued that such old-fashioned “indiscriminate” Christian charity perpetuated the dependency of the poor. Klopsch combatted this criticism by insisting on his Christian obligation to help anyone who was in need, even as he was also a Christian socialist who called for wider structural economic change. 

In terms of foreign aid, Klopsch also forged a religious model of scientific philanthropy. He asserted that the Christian Herald was more efficient than the ARC because it relied on Protestant missionary networks to distribute aid, thus avoiding bloated bureaucracy and overhead. Like other evangelicals before and after them, Klopsch and Talmage also displayed their media savvy, repurposing the sensationalism of “yellow journalism” for their benevolent work by designing the Christian Herald so that it looked like secular newspapers. They also streamlined and nationalized the process of collecting millions of dollars from individual donors, while still framing giving as an act of personal piety. Interweaving individual piety with Christian nationalism (and Christian imperialism), they also routinely presented the Christian Herald’s campaigns as bolstering the image of the United States as a light to enlighten the nations. 

The newspaper’s explicit Christian agenda and reliance on missionaries as aid workers created its own problems, and Curtis examines the limits of the Christian Herald’s evangelical humanitarianism and its complicity with imperialism and white Protestant supremacy. On the one hand, Klopsch and Talmage promoted an emergent Christian internationalism that opposed war and positioned humanitarian donations as the key to fostering harmonious international relations. The Christian Herald also assured its donors that their gifts to alleviate suffering abroad would bolster the evangelistic work of spreading the Gospel, or at least create positive associations between aid and Christianity. Humanitarianism was proudly held up as a kind of soft power that showed the United States to be different from European imperial exploits. While these sorts of claims played well to American readers (and likely won even more subscriptions to the newspaper), they could backfire abroad, especially since foreigners could obtain and read the Christian Herald for themselves. Curtis provides an example of this in the Christian Herald’s handling of the 1894 Istanbul earthquake. After an initial call to aid all victims regardless of religion, the paper backed down from this position and instead focused on the need of the Christian Armenian minority. The paper’s sensationalist headlines condemning the savagery of Muslim Turks led to the offended Ottoman rulers restricting the movements of both the Christian Herald’s missionary agents andthe nonsectarian ARC. The ARC’s Barton tried to convince the Christian Herald editors to tone down their inflammatory rhetoric, but to no avail. 

After Klopsch’s death in 1910, the Christian Herald dropped its humanitarian agenda, and its reputation as a fundraising juggernaut would largely be forgotten as the government-supported ARC and the massive philanthropic foundations of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and the like prevailed. Still, the individual-donor model has persisted, particularly among Christians and other religious communities for whom almsgiving was a form of devotion. More recently, social media has brought about something of a revival of the Christian Herald’s kind of humanitarianism and its fundraising model. Religious and secular groups alike post tragic photographs and heart-wrenching stories to Facebook and Twitter, and with a few clicks, viewers can donate to help others, to soothe their own consciences, to declare their allegiances, and to take a political stand. By examining the contours of evangelical humanitarianism, Holy Humanitarians stands as a vital contribution to the field of American religious history, and also stands out as a thought-provoking query into the trenchant debates surrounding humanitarianism in the present day.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gale L. Kenny is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Barnard College.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Heather D. Curtis is Associate Professor of Religion at Tufts University.


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