Academic journal article Church History

Jane Addams, Apotheosis of Social Christianity

Academic journal article Church History

Jane Addams, Apotheosis of Social Christianity

Article excerpt

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Jane Addams was not a theologian or a minister; she held no university position. However, in her role as head resident of the Hull-House settlement she became a social theorist of democracy and one of its most influential interpreters. Her primary interest was not in religious institutions, but in the moral and ethical concerns of public life in American society. Was it a good society? Did the people share in a common life? Were the least of them nurtured and protected? In 1892, Addams declared, "This renaissance of the early Christian humanitarianism is going on in America, in Chicago, if you please, without leaders who write or philosophize, without much speaking, but with a bent to express in social service and in terms of action the spirit of Christ."32

To an extent that historians have been reluctant to admit, Addams endowed her social justice and service work with religious meaning. In 1897, she delivered an unusual appeal at her alma mater, Rockford College. During her years as a student at the female seminary she had successfully fought off pressures to convert to evangelical Christianity, and rejected a career of traditional missionary work. Now, she reclaimed earlier church vocations by valorizing new professions for young women like herself.33 At a time when few mainline denominations were willing to expand the definition of female vocation, Addams assured the graduating class, "Those who seek to solve the problems which confront church and state and transform current industrial and political conditions to the requirements of higher Christian standards are well entitled to the name of missionaries."34

For Addams, who affixed a Chi-Rho Cross to her bodice, her work at Hull-House was religious35 ; yet by establishing her settlement as an independent association without ties to any religious organization, university, or other agency, and by not requiring religious worship or religious education, she set out to spread a Christian humanism that she envisioned as cosmopolitan and democratic, inclusive and tolerant. Did this mean that she resolved to exclude religious ideas from Hull-House? I would argue that this has been an area of misunderstanding about Addams's intentions. In a letter to a college settlement colleague, Katherine Coman, Addams spoke candidly: "We find each year that it is more possible to discuss frankly religious problems and differences, because our neighbors have constantly less fear that we will proselyte them."36 So what appears to be a secularizing trend on the part of Addams turns out to be a pragmatic strategy to make conversations about religion non-threatening to the neighbors.

On a personal level, Addams sought a public role for herself at the same time that she had internalized a strong sense of social responsibility and even stewardship for those less fortunate in society.37 She was not alone in this upsurge of college graduates looking for public service, as she indicated in her own understanding of what propelled her generation.38 Her bold project was conceived in the context of a transatlantic social politics39 that was taking place in religious, academic, and political circles. Women had entered the conversation, as had leaders of new labor unions, and innovators in the new fields of evolutionary biology and sociology. Addams had read Darwin40 and came to believe that her generation needed "to revolutionize . . . [its] conception of public morality and national righteousness the way that . . . [he] revolutionized the study of science."41 Earlier interest in Carlyle, Emerson and Ruskin didn't satisfy her and she became interested in Auguste Comte and the English Positivists, and Herbert Spencer. She found Tolstoy's What To Do Then and My Religion mind expanding and inspirational.42 In the early 1880s, she visited Europe's towns and cities and was startled by the poverty of rural and urban workers. …

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