Sunday, August 27, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, on Children vs. Preachers’ Examples)

“Do you hear the children weeping and disproving,
O my brothers what you preach?
For God’s possible is taught by His world’s loving,
And the children doubt of each.”—English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), on child labor, in “The Cry of the Children,” originally printed in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (August 1843)

One hundred and eighty years ago this month, British public opinion against child labor was given a powerful boost by the publication of “Cry of the Children,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

As noted in this blog post from the British Library, her poem lifted public support for Lord Shaftesbury’s Ten Hours Bill.

In a blog post 13 years ago, I lamented the impression left by the play and movie The Barretts of Wimpole Street of a frail, agoraphobic poet. At the time of this poem, Barrett (still a couple of years away from meeting and marrying Robert Browning) was a literary figure of considerable skill and power, as demonstrated by this poem.

Barrett Browning identified herself as a Congregationalist Christian, and her religious devotion intensified rather than declined with age. But, in social justice poems like this and the abolitionist “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (1848), she still saw human agency as the prerequisite for effecting change.

The verses above implicitly pose the issue of what and in what manner Christian ministers should preach. Should they comfort sin-burdened man—or challenge him to effect change?

Of one thing Barrett seems to approve: children will quickly sense a disparity between what a preacher says and does. In our own time, one turnoff for many Christians has been the hypocrisy of their religious community’s hierarchy in preaching Christian compassion but displaying so little of it themselves.

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