At the dawn of the twentieth century, the most widely read religious newspaper in the world was a weekly entitled the Christian Herald. This newspaper was also a major force in philanthropy. Aiming to be a “medium of American bounty to the needy,” it pioneered the use of sensational modern journalism to raise awareness and funds for humanitarian causes. A new book, Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid, has brought this fascinating but largely forgotten history to light.
Author Heather Curtis, a professor of religion at Tufts University, has mined many sources to document her argument that the Christian Herald became “a major force in shaping the humanitarian sentiments and habits of the American public.” Just as our country was becoming a global power, the paper encouraged readers to embrace American exceptionalism and the idea that the U.S. was ordained to save many sufferers as “almoner of the world.”
By the time Christian Herald publisher Louis Klopsch died in 1910, the newspaper had raised millions of dollars directly, fueled giving to other groups, and mobilized countless volunteer hours. Only the American Red Cross, “which became a quasi-governmental entity in 1900 and was subsidized after 1905 by congressional appropriations, rivaled the Christian Herald’s achievement as a relief agency during this period. No other grassroots charitable organization—religious or secular—came remotely close,” Curtis explains.
The Christian Herald used dramatic human-interest stories and splashy photography to attract readers. “Rather than allowing tabloids such as Hearst’s New York Journal or Pulitzer’s New York World to monopolize the marketplace of ideas,” Klopsch believed, “religious publishers ought to consecrate the printing press to ‘high and holy objects.’ ”
There were critics of this approach and of its promoters. Before he became a Christian and married a Methodist pastor’s daughter, Klopsch had served a two-year stint in Sing Sing Prison on charges of forgery and insurance fraud, so his credibility was periodically questioned. His partner at the Christian Herald, Brooklyn Tabernacle pastor Thomas Talmage, was also sometimes criticized for sensationalist tactics. But the confidence of Klopsch and Talmage that their cause was noble enabled them to build a popular publication.
The Christian Herald did not ignore domestic needs. The newspaper’s first successful appeal raised funds to rebuild Talmage’s Brooklyn Tabernacle after a fire. The paper also supported the launch of New York charities that still exist today, like the Bowery Mission, and Christian Herald Children’s Home at Mont Lawn (now known as Kids with a Promise). But international disaster relief was a particular priority of the journal.
Curtis traces the relationship between faith-based charity and the more secularized philanthropy of the American Red Cross. Tension between the groups stemmed partly from simple territorial competition. But the organizations also had fundamental differences in approach. The Christian Herald cultivated spiritual motives for philanthropy, and encouraged use of existing networks of embedded missionaries as the most efficient and effective means of helping. The American Red Cross promoted non-sectarian aid distributed by officials who were more professionalized but also not as familiar with local cultures and indigenous needs.
Curtis describes how the Christian Herald and the Red Cross variously cooperated and conflicted during successive foreign aid distributions. Eventually, President Theodore Roosevelt’s appointment of the American Red Cross as the nation’s official relief agency after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—conferring on it subsidies, prestige, and technical support—left the Christian Herald without a role. A famine in China the next year demonstrated the still superior fundraising capabilities of the paper’s readers. However, as government intervention increasingly dominated, the writing was on the wall for the newspaper’s grassroots faith-based charity. When an earthquake devastated southern Italy in 1908, the Red Cross was—for the first time—able to raise more relief funding than the Christian Herald.
Henceforth, state funding increasingly crowded out faith-based private humanitarian assistance. Federal support coupled with large grants from America’s new foundations—Rockefeller, Carnegie, and the like—increasingly favored “scientific charity.” Klopsch and Talmage preferred more personally responsive forms of giving that reinforced Gospel mandates of responsibility for the distressed poor, widows, and orphans.
After floods hit Mexico in 1909, President Taft further centralized and solidified the American Red Cross as “the authorized official organization of the United States for volunteer aid in time of war or great disaster.” When Klopsch died in 1910, his newspaper still had “a great united army” of 400,000 subscribers who were generous givers. But during World War I, the American Red Cross “finally and definitively succeeded in eclipsing all other organizations” in foreign aid. Membership in the American Red Cross grew from 22,500 in 1915 to around 20 million by the end of the war.
Wartime government mobilization and competition from major foundations continued to marginalize grassroots charity during the 1920s. Yet Curtis argues that the Christian Herald’s legacy lives on today in the form of major evangelical disaster-relief organizations like World Relief, Compassion International, Samaritan’s Purse, and World Vision that have regained momentum as nimbler and more effective agents in the field than more bureaucratic alternatives.
Meanwhile, the “groundbreaking visual technologies, narrative strategies, and fund-raising tactics Klopsch employed to inspire sympathy for distant sufferers…became standard practices in the twentieth-century aid industry.” These tools continue to be used by thousands of grassroots charities—nearly 40 percent of which are faith-based—that mobilize small-scale donations from ordinary citizens across America.
Curtis notes that “ordinary citizens who donate money, purchase items at charity auctions, and volunteer countless hours serving at soup kitchens, packing disaster relief kits, or tending the sick on medical mission trips” are yet again a big part of the tens of billions of aid Americans offer to the poorest of the poor overseas. “Despite the perceived dominance of professionalized secular foundations or government agencies,” Curtis reflects, “the kind of popular evangelical charity Klopsch and his colleagues promoted through the Christian Herald remains a powerful force in contemporary American society.”