Thursday, May 18, 2023
Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we remember Francis Bellamy and the peculiar world of late 19th c. America.
It is the 18th of May 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Friends, bear with me. Today’s show is a little different.
I keep extensive notes in the notes app- in fact, my whole life, this whole program, and every thought of mine are somewhere in that yellow note app on my phone and other devices. And, for the file I have for May 18th, I had two cryptic notes written sometime in the past year:
May 18th, Elijah Craig- a Baptist minister, invented Bourbon?
And May 18th, Francis Bellamy- Baptist minister, some kind of socialist? Pledge of Allegiance.
Those are some rangy Baptist ministers- Elijah Craig was indeed a Baptist minister who also ran a distillery in Kentucky and had a bourbon named after him- but he didn’t invent the stuff, and there’s some slave stuff I didn’t love.
Bellamy, on the other hand, takes us right into the strange world of American history after the Civil War and before World War 1. A time of utopian ideas and expectations, fear of immigration, and the development of youth culture as teens were beginning to work less, and their perceived idleness led to concerns about their immorality.
Ok- Francis Bellamy was born on this, the 18th of May in 1855, in Mount Morris, New York. His cousins, Edward and Frances Bellamy, would become famous in their own right. Edward wrote “Looking Backward,” a Rip Van Winkle-type story of a man who falls asleep and wakes up in America in the year 2000 to find it a kind of cooperative utopia- it was perhaps only 2nd to Uncle Tom's Cabin in sales in 19th century America. Frances (a woman, spelled with an e) would be a famous temperance organizer and the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Our Francis was the son of a Baptist minister, and he himself would study at the Rome Free Academy in Rome, New York, and then at the University of Rochester studying religion and then at Rochester Theological Seminary, where he graduated in 1876 and was an ordained Baptist minister serving two churches in Boston Massachusetts.
There, one of his congregants had started a magazine called “Youth’s Companion.” Think of it as something like Boy’s Life meets Reader’s Digest. It was created to encourage the youth towards “virtue and piety.” It published the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Booker T. Washington, and Jack London.
[fun fact, it was published by Perry Mason and Co. Erle Gardner read the periodical as a young boy and took the publisher's name to give to his own fictional detective].
Francis was convinced that he could do more work on a national stage with the Youth’s Companion and thus left his ministry to work for the magazine. As a Baptist, he was concerned with religious liberty (Baptists being persecuted in the colonies and early republic as non-conformists). There was at the time a kind of “national pledge” popularized after the Civil War and amidst fear concerning growing numbers of immigrants- it read: “We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!”
Bellamy believed this was unnecessarily restrictive for a country with religious (and other) freedoms. And so, he, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe, convinced President Benjamin Harrison to celebrate the American past- and the immigrant past by celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the West and to do so with a national holiday and a new pledge, written by Bellamy: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
It wouldn’t add “under God” until 1954 when in the midst of the Cold War and fear of “godless communism,” President Eisenhower had it changed.
Nevertheless, Francis Bellamy continued at the magazine, organizing and lead groups of Christian Socialists (and if that scares you, they were also called “Christian nationalists,” but not in that sense)- they called for Christians to lead the call for the common good by means of cooperation. He would write for the public square but with what he believed to be the teachings of Jesus that would benefit the common good. He did, however also hold to some common racial pseudo-science, and his legacy (like most) is mixed. Francis Bellamy lived the later portion of his life in Tampa Florida where he died in 1931- born on this day in 1855 he was 76 years old.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- it is ascension day:
So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.
They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 18th of May 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who knows that Bourbon the drink and Bourbon coffee beans both have the French royal house as the origins of their names- true story, he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man noting with today’s story and reading, we’ve been looking for some kind of Christian kingdom for a long time- I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.
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