Sunday, 29 August 2010
Female Luminaries continued.
"You are blessed of the Lord, my daughter; you have made your latest act of kindness greater than the first...do not fear, whatever you say I will do for you; for all those in the gate of my people know that you are a worthy woman" Ruth 3:10-12
Following on from my previous post on Dorothea Dix, I think it only correct to write about an English Unitarian heroine. And I can think of no better subject than Miss Mary Carpenter. This woman was simply amazing, and it was said of her that no other female had a greater role in the social legislation of the 19th century. It is not easy to label this remarkable woman. Some of her views and approaches would label her by today's polarised arguments as a lefty "hug a hoody" advocate. On the other hand some of her views would cause people in other political quarters to label her as a reactionary right winger. But this was not a person of contradictions, quite the opposite, her views and achievements were a natural outgrowth of her intense devotion to her Unitarian Christian faith.
Mary Carpenter was born in Exeter on April 3rd 1807. Her enlightened father instructed her in subjects such as Latin, Greek and Mathematics, very rarely taught to girls in that era. Her passion for the education of the poor began in the Sunday School that she taught in from very early on. She soon realised that parental involvement and co-operation prove vital to the success of a child's education, and as a result began to visit the homes of her students. This gave her first hand experience and knowledge of the lives lived by her charges. She continued her involvement in the Sunday School and in her home visits, long after she had taken on the additional responsibilities, in 1830, of teaching and running a Ladies School alongside her mother and sister. A visit to England by the inspirational and charismatic Indian reformer Ram Mohan Roy, and later by Dr Tuckerman the Boston Unitarian philanthropist, made a powerful impression on her, and she and the other Unitarian women of Bristol initiated the Working and Visiting Society, which led them into Bristol's most crime and poverty ridden neighbourhoods. This also deepened her understanding of a section of society often neglected and almost always ignored and maligned. She saw children effectively abandoned to the streets, with at best a lack of parental love and guidance and at worst parental abuse and abandonment as the backdrop to their lives. In the midst of all this were trapped many decent parents at a loss to know how to save their children from a future of crime and misery. Mary could not rest having seen this situation, and she set up a Ragged School to provide free education, food and clothing to these unfortunate children.
Bristol and the UK in general was becoming rapidly concerned by the rise of young criminals, who were, in ratio, far exceeding the general population. Naturally Miss Carpenter turned her attention to this phenomena, and therefore she assisted a Mr Russel Scott in establishing in 1852, a Reformatory school for boys. Not content just with this, she sought the assistance of Lady Byron to purchase a building in Bristol (Red Lodge) for use as a Reformatory school for girls.
Right from the beginning, following in the footsteps of Jesus, she declared that "Love must be the ruling sentiment of all who attempt to influence and guide these children", and stated that punishment must be kept to a minimum. She saw the value of every child in her care and understood that there is "a holy spot in every child's heart".
The school proved popular and from a starting group of 10 girls it is estimated that approximately 450 girls were educated in that school. 450 girls who were saved from a life of hopelessness and misery. This is no small achievement. But Mary could not rest. Realising that Reformatory schools were only possible for those children who had been convicted of crimes, Mary wished to reach out and prevent street children from falling into a life of crime in the first place. To this end she, with the help of other decent people, helped to bring about the Industrial Schools Act. And in 1857 the first Industrial School was established in Bristol. This school allowed children from neglectful and destitute homes to be taken out of their squalid environments, and to receive a good, practical and moral education. For this was a key understanding of hers. She viewed a prime cause of juvenile criminality as a lack of moral education, clearly she was no moral relativist. She held parents responsible for the behaviour of their children and felt that often children, especially lower class children, were being blamed for behaviour that should rightfully have been attributed to parental failure. She had no qualms in stating that the state should take away parental rights from parents who refused to live up to their responsibilities. This derived from her clear understanding, born of experience, that the family is the prime influence in the life of the child. As a result she organised her charges into small family sized and family styled groups. Flooding the children with love and discipline.
She permeated her school with Christian values which she viewed as essential to successful character reform, but did not attempt to impose her Unitarian views on the children. She valued their freedom of thought and encouraged them to think for themselves, to have ownership of their own property and to learn responsibility. And of course she never failed to argue that prison was never the right solution to the problem of juvenile crime.
An average person would find all their time and energies consumed by even a small amount of the work she was involved in, but not Mary. Despite all her work she was also a committed abolitionist. And despite not being a wealthy woman she contributed her talents and her money into this sacred cause. Sadly she was disheartened when the US Fugitive Slave Law 1850, allowed a former slave to be sent back to slavery in the Southern States from Boston. Her heart and mind motivated by God's teaching; "You shall not turn over to his master a slave who is rescued from his master to you. He shall dwell with you in your midst in whatever place he will choose in one of your cities which is beneficial to him, you shall not taunt him" Deuteronomy 23:16 simply could not countenance this legal atrocity and she said that the United States had "committed an atrocious act..against humanity against itself, against God.
She visited India, a place she had longed to see since the visit of Ram Mohan Roy, and established schools there for the education of girls as well as Reformatories and Industrial schools. She also visited Europe were she also tried to bring about her reforms that had proved so successful in England and India. Sadly not everybody could see the value of her work, and she was condemned by no less a personality than Pope Pius IX! No doubt she took comfort in the words of Jesus when he taught "Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves...And you will be hated by all for my name's sake but he who endures to the end will be saved". Happily her kindness, humility and charm endeared most people to her, and as Robert Spears wrote regarding her "those who at first shrank from co-operation with a Unitarian, found themselves compelled at last to recognise in her a devoted disciple whom Jesus himself would have loved"
She wrote many devotional books, books that shine with her bright love of her heavenly Father. And it is clear to me that God poured his blessings upon her, and strengthened her hand to bring improvement and assistance to so many of His prodigal sons and daughters.
Today sadly youth crime in Bristol is above the UK average which itself is nothing to be proud about. For the sake of our nation's lost youth and damaged families, let us look into the life of the admirable Miss Mary Carpenter and follow her teaching and example.
Both Mary Carpenter and Dorothea Dix, and the many other wonderful women of all denominations should serve as role models for the young women and even men of Britain. It saddens me that they are not even known, and that in their place vacuous and often negative exemplars of the most shallow and hollow femininity are held up as role models.
Miss Mary Carpenter died peacefully in her sleep on June 14th 1877. Her life summed up in her own words "I am a worker with a purpose... and having dedicated my heart and soul and strength to God's work, I have never begun anything but from a clear conviction of its necessity."
"Many women have amassed achievement, but you surpassed them all" Proverbs 31:29