Heath W. Carter Reviews ‘Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid’ by Heather D. Curtis

Throughout my teenage years, a photograph of a young Honduran boy was as much a fixture of my family’s stuccoed Southern California home as the old refrigerator on which it hung. I had never met this child, whose smiling face greeted me any time I wanted a glass of milk, but we weren’t entirely strangers either, having exchanged letters on occasion. Truth be told, there was little chance I could have located Honduras on a map. All I knew was that my pen pal was struggling to make it and that supporting him was one small way that my family lived out its faith.

Looking back now, it seems remarkable to say, but during all the years that photo hung in the sun-soaked kitchen of our Orange County abode, it never once struck me as out of place. We were just one of many families I knew that had chosen to sponsor a child through World Vision International. Since its 1950 founding, the organization has evolved into nothing short of a philanthropic juggernaut, touching the lives of some 120 million young people in 95 countries last year alone.

But how did such photographs—not to mention the acts of transnational giving that they are intended to motivate—become so ubiquitous in American evangelical households? And how did evangelical institutions become such important players in international relief and development work in the first place? Tufts University historian Heather D. Curtis answers these questions and more in her brilliant new book, Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid, which shows that evangelical leadership in these realms significantly predated the tidal wave of postwar generosity that gave rise to organizations such as World Vision. Even as Curtis unearths this longer history, she underscores the urgency of ongoing moral reflection: After all, as her story makes clear, love of one’s global neighbor has sometimes come with dubious strings attached.

Mix of Motives

Holy Humanitarians transports readers back to the turn of the 20th century, when famed preacher Thomas De Witt Talmage and savvy entrepreneur Louis Klopsch partnered to turn a weekly newspaper, the Christian Herald, into a “medium of American bounty to the needy” around the world. Their mission had magnetic appeal: The paper soon attracted some quarter million readers, becoming by far the most widely read religious periodical in the country. The vast size of the readership boded well for the editors’ hopes that the Christian Herald could do good on the home front too. They viewed international benevolence work as a means of unifying America’s Protestant majority, which was increasingly divided along theological lines and fearful about the nation’s rapidly changing demographics. Perhaps the paper could provide just the boost that “Christian America” needed.

Thus a complicated mix of motives gave shape to the humanitarian work that Talmage and Klopsch undertook. When a severe famine broke out in Russia in 1892, they seized the moment, calling for donations to support that country’s starving people. An enthusiastic response could hardly be taken for granted. At the peak of the Gilded Age and with so much want on display in their own neighborhoods, would American Christians prioritize the needs of those an ocean away? As Curtis skillfully documents, Talmage and Klopsch did not leave the matter up to chance. Striving to generate a powerful emotional response in their readers, they published stories and images that graphically depicted the extent of human deprivation. Meanwhile, they set about “framing famine relief as a spiritual discipline,” one which also would redound to the benefit of American diplomatic relations with Russia.

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Source: Christianity Today