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School of Arts and Sciences

Holy Humanitarians

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Tufts associate professor Heather Curtis's new book explores evangelical philanthropy and the fascinating story of the Christian Herald newspaper

Heather Curtis

By Dan O'Sullivan

Earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal. Civil war and hunger in South Sudan. The mass exodus of Syrian refugees. Recent crises like these have inspired huge humanitarian responses from around the world.

While such efforts are seemingly benevolent, they do raise some thought-provoking questions. What are the religious, political and economic motivations behind international relief campaigns? And what troubling assumptions about the "less fortunate" sometimes lie just beneath the surface?

These and a host of related issues came to light at the turn of the 20th century, a period in which many U.S.-based charities began engaging in international outreach. At the center of it all was the Christian Herald, the world's most prominent religious newspaper from 1890 to 1910.

Heather Curtis, an associate professor in the Department of Religion, tackles the Herald's far-reaching impact and complex legacy in her new book, Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid.

"I decided to use the Herald to tell a much larger story about evangelical, global humanitarianism as well as domestic charity," she said. "In its heyday, the Herald was sending money to missionaries all over the world and throughout the United States. They supported schools for freed slaves in the South that were founded by African American ministers. My book offers a window into this large and unruly area of charity at home and abroad."

'I Wonder What That Is'
In researching her first book, Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Healing in American Culture, 1860-1900 (2007), Curtis read about U.S. missionaries who traveled to famine-stricken India in the late 19th century.

Their stories stuck with her. Several years later, while reviewing papers at Yale University's Day Missions Library, she came across a reference to a Chinese orphanage that had been founded in the early 1900s.

"This orphanage had connections to something called the Christian Herald, and I thought, 'I wonder what that is,'" she recalled. "I did a little poking around and stumbled across the organization I ultimately wrote about, the Christian Herald Association."

Still active today, the Christian Herald Association operates The Bowery Mission and several related charities that serve homeless, hungry and poor New Yorkers. Curtis contacted the Association in the hopes of learning more about the orphanage in China. She was invited to visit the headquarters, where she discovered a full run of Herald newspapers dating back to the late 1870s.

After the Herald was purchased by evangelical philanthropist/entrepreneur Louis Klopsch in 1890, it became a vocal advocate for alleviating poverty and suffering domestically and internationally. By the time of Klopsch's death in 1910, the newspaper had moved American Protestants to contribute millions of dollars to faith-based relief efforts.

A Compelling Pair
Klopsch was a prodigal youth who ended up in prison, where he had a religious conversion. Following his release, he entered the publishing world and was responsible for a number of technical innovations in the industry. His partner at the Herald was the Reverend Thomas de Witt Talmage, perhaps the best-known minister of his day.

Curtis said that categorizing Klopsch and Talmage as heroes or villains would be far too simplistic.

"They did tremendous good, but whether intentionally or not, their charities at times carried unintended consequences," she noted. "Ultimately, I wanted to ask what we can learn about their efforts to try to do good, and how that might encourage us to reflect on how our own efforts to help others are motivated by business calculations, personal ambitions, religious convictions, moral concerns and more."

Accordingly, Curtis believes her book has relevant lessons for today's world. "I've always wanted my historical work to stimulate conversations about contemporary ethical problems and help shed light on how we got here," she said. "What can we learn from the debates that an earlier generation had about charity?"

Tufts a Perfect Fit
Curtis has started the process of promoting Holy Humanitarians but still has to tend to her responsibilities at Tufts. In addition to her research and scholarship, she has directed the American Studies program for two years and is teaching "Global History of Christianity since the Middle Ages" this semester. She said that while teaching at a research-1 university is challenging, she couldn't be happier where she is.

"I love my research, my scholarship and being part of a scholarly community. Tufts values and supports that," Curtis offered. "And yet, I also love teaching and working with smart undergraduates in a small classroom. Tufts is the best of both worlds in that regard."