Project Canterbury


Christianity and the Criminal.























Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2007



I am to speak this morning of the relation of Christianity to the criminal classes. With the secretary's hand upon yonder bell, I must needs define my subject, if only to narrow its discussion. We are not concerned during this hour, I take it, with Russian Christianity, nor with the Egyptian criminal. What the Archimandrite of Moscow ought to have done in the matter of murderers of their fellow-citizens in the last Sclave insurrection against the Jews--how the Congress of the Powers should deal with Arabi and Tewfik Pasha are doubtless interesting and opportune questions--but not here and to-day. Our concern is with our own Christianity and our own criminals, and it is time that we awoke to it.

For the situation to-day is unique and anomalous. On the one hand, in this Anglo-Saxon civilization of ours is a vast force, organized, aggressive, reformatory. We may call it Christianity, the Church of God in this new world of ours, or the organized expression of the Religion of the New Testament. It is no matter. We all know its aims, its origin, and above all its Master. He announced Himself as having a [3/4] special mission to the prisoner and the criminal. He came into the world to distinguish these by His notice, and to uplift them by His touch. This Church with its Church Congress is His Church a great deal more than it is yours or mine, or anybody else's. And over against this Church of His there stands today a vast army of men and women, and--God forgive us that it should be so--of children, too, who can be designated in no other way so readily and exactly as to call them criminals. The criminal classes! How it ought enlarge that infinite swagger with which we Americans lift ourselves above the outworn civilizations of the elder world, to remember that whatever may be their throngs of convicts and criminals we can rival, if we cannot outnumber them--that however many condemned felons there may be in their Bastiles we can equal them with the multitudes that crowd the cells of our State prisons! How much it ought to deepen our complacency, too, to remind ourselves that whatever may be their indifference in any other and older land to their criminal classes, ours is as great if not greater--that however profound may be European ignorance concerning the condition and prospects of these classes--American indifference can easily match it. Here is a vast constituency numbering in America to-day some hundreds of thousands, concerning whom it is safe to say that not one Christian disciple in a hundred thousand ever hears from year's end to year's end one word as to his personal duty from Christian pulpit or from Christian press. No! I am wrong there. The twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew's [4/5] Gospel is still included in the Church's Calendar, and unless the minister tampers with it, he must needs remind those who hear him read the Lessons, that one test that bars the gateway of the upper sanctuary will be the question: "I was in prison, yes, I, in the image of some poor lost child of mine--did ye visit me?" But, beyond this, what is taught as to the duty of Christian people to the felon? As to the relation of Christianity to the criminal?

I. I will tell you what is taught, not by precept but far more eloquently by practice. The instance which I shall relate belongs on the other side of the water, but it describes, as I think you will own, what is no less true on this. Two young collegians started from Oxford one day on an outing, with a hired horse and gig. One of them was a nobleman and the other a commoner. They found themselves at length at Bristol without money and without means of communicating with their friends. They sold the horse and gig and started back to college, intending to pay the livery stable keeper from resources awaiting them on their return. But they were delayed, and when they reached Oxford were arrested and tried for the theft. The nobleman was shielded by his rank, but the commoner was convicted and transported to New South Wales. He served his term, was discharged, went to work in the Colony, prospered, married, and rose to respectability, if not to eminence. Forty years later he returned to England. A business transaction brought him into court one day as a witness. His examination was concluded, and he was about to step down, when [5/6] suddenly the opposing counsel turned upon him and said sharply: "Were you ever transported?" The witness blanched and quivered, but did not lie. "Yes," he answered, "forty-three years ago under circumstances which I can--" "Never mind the circumstances, sir. The fact is all I want to know. I have no further questions to ask this witness, my Lord!" said the lawyer, and sat down. The witness sat down too, smitten, speechless, ruined. Denied an explanation, he left that court room, bearing a stigma which society, Christian, commercial, fashionable society could not forgive. It shunned him from that hour as though he had the plague. His credit was gone, his business was destroyed, and in three months he died of a broken heart.

Yes, this is what Christianity, our Christianity, the Christianity of week-days and society, the Christianity of deeds not words, has to say to the criminal classes: "Shave as close as you please to the edge of criminal wrong-doing, and nothing shall harm you. Steal, but don't be found out; defraud, but put the money back before quarter-day; break your trust and indulge your greed or lust or illicit ambition, but keep inside of the line of detection, and it is all right. But, yield under some strong pressure, and so blunder in your theft, your intrigue, your defalcation, that you can't cover it up, and the world--the Christian world--your brethren in the family, whose elder brother is the Lord Jesus Christ, will have no more of you." I am not unmindful, in saying this, that in more than one community there is a Prisoners' Friend Society in which those noble [6/7] Christian men who adorn the Society of Friends have always borne a conspicuous and honorable part, nor that here and there in jails and penitentiaries you will find some brave and tender heart trying to lead men out of that living hell into which their sins have cast them. But this, I affirm, that Christian society stands, as a body, with a front of brass turned inexorably toward the criminal classes. God forgives, but they will not. The woman that was a sinner, He once welcomed, but they spurn her. The man who had fallen, He beckoned back into His own loving fellowship, but they repel him. In one word, the criminal and the criminal classes stand to-day, as a rule in the large, to the Christian Brahmin, as a Pariah--not to be touched, not to be owned, not to be defiled by, if one can help it, even with so much or so little as his passing shadow. The jail-bird, this is the fowl turned verily out of the Christian ark, and for whom the deluge never subsides!

It is time that such an infamy were ended. Let us be Pagans, Agnostics, Mohammedans, what you will, but let the Church of Christ have done calling itself by His name until it can show that it has not gone barren of His quickening spirit.

In behalf of the prisoner in his cell, of the prisoner discharged from his cell, of the criminal who has come under sentence of the law, and of the criminal who has served his sentence, and who is turned loose to find his footing in a hostile world as best he may, we want the awakening of an intelligent Christian [7/8] sympathy, and of some practical expression of brotherly helpfulness and regard.

II. And foremost of all, in behalf of the prisoner in his cell. I have alluded to the hardship of one who has served his time for some penal offence, and who has then to walk the lonely and stony pathway of a discharged criminal. But the moral dangers of one who, for the first time especially, finds his way within the walls of a prison or penitentiary are immeasurably greater. Our criminals and convicts may be roughly said to be made up of two classes. There are, first, those who are in prison for the second, third, fourth, or possibly twentieth time. These are persons who belong to the criminal class by deliberate election, and who spend their time, while serving one sentence, in devising crimes with which they will celebrate their discharge from the custody of the state. I would not seem to describe this class too harshly, and so I will rather quote, here, the language of one who himself served a term of seven years in a penitentiary, and who has put upon record his impressions and experiences. "There are," says this writer, "thousands of criminals to-day whose fathers and mothers are as familiar with half the prisons of the land as they are. Many were born in prison; many more in the alms-house, and nearly all of them have from their very cradle lived in an atmosphere of vice. A clever professional thief whom I met at Portland two years ago, told me that he got his first lessons in thieving from his mother. His father, he said, 'was on the square,' 'an honest working man,' as he called him, in a grocery house. [8/9] The idea of morality entertained by this class may be inferred from the fact that what this prisoner meant by being 'on the square' was that his father, though as habitual a thief as his mother, had never been caught." But he and his belonged, of deliberate choice, to the criminal classes. And what impression this writer formed of these classes from seven years' close and intimate contact with them he himself tells us. "They are," he says, "simply dead to all sense of shame. They approach more closely than before I could have conceived possible, to the idea of universal and consummate depravity. They think nothing of passing their lives in inflicting misery upon their fellow-creatures, and they do it not only without remorse, but with a hideous rapture. Their social habits are as loathsome inside the prison as in the vilest dens without. They have so fixed a propensity for all horrible vices, that if the sensuality, the poltroonery, the baseness, the effrontery, the mendacity, and the barbarity which distinguish the every-day life of these professional criminals, were depicted in the character of a hero in a criminal romance, it would be set down as a caricature. I am not exaggerating when I solemnly declare that whatsoever things are filthy, whatsoever things are unjust, whatsoever things are hateful and fiendish, if there be any vice and infamy deeper and more horrible than all other vice and infamy, it may be found ingrained in the character of the professional criminal. Compared with him, Gulliver's Yahoos were refined gentlemen!"

Now, plainly, Christian civilization has a duty to [9/10] such a class as this. If there is anything left in it, to which the nobler motives of the New Testament can appeal, it must not be left unaddressed. But meantime, a Church which represents the moral force in society has a plain vocation to say to the State, "You shall not so handle these pests of society in your so-called punitive dealings with them, as to make them pest-breeders! Do your punishments punish? Do your penalties deter? You have banished the scourge and the lash--do you realize that you have thus thrown away the one weapon that can deter multitudes from vice?" The question is not one which is any longer open to serious discussion. When, a few years ago, a respectable person could hardly walk through the London parks at night without the peril of being garroted, the authorities, after having tried in vain to restrict this barbarism by any other means, imposed a few sentences of whipping. The thing operated almost with the suddenness of magic. In thirty days the crime had virtually disappeared, and so long as that penalty stands over against it, it is safe to say that it will not be heard of again.

Such an isolated fact has abundant meaning for the Christian public. There is a maudlin sentimentalism that coddles the criminal as though he were the innocent victim of the evil forces of society; and there are hardened criminals all over the land who trade upon such a sentiment with insolent and scoffing effrontery. For all such it is the function of the Church of God in the world as representing His outraged moral law, to insist that the State, its [10/11] Executive, who so often outrages a healthy moral sentiment by exercising the pardoning power on insufficient grounds, its highest and its lowest officials on the Bench, in jails and prisons, and anywhere else that law is administered and crime punished--that all these, your representatives, shall have for the incorrigible and the impenitent a front of brass and a hand of iron!

III. But there is another and a very different class of criminals, and it is for these most of all that our Christianity of to-day needs to be concerned. A vice of our prison system, which cannot be too strongly reprobated or to speedily reformed, is that which herds together such hardened offenders as I have just referred to, with those who from their first false step find themselves for the first time within prison walls. Said one of these: "I can forgive the council for the prosecution who so cruelly exaggerated my crime, and the judge who dismissed me to my doom with such cold indifference; but the State, and the Christian society behind it, which condemned me during all those dreary years to the society of life-long felons and hardened and infamous offenders--these I cannot forgive!" Nor ought we, even though the sentence lie against ourselves!

For here, at this crisis in the life of one who has fallen under sentence of the law, is the turning point of his career. I dismiss for the moment the question whether the penalties of law should be construed as merely punitive or as reformatory. But surely it is worth while, if possible, so to administer them as that they shall not eventuate almost inevitably [11/12] in the moral and spiritual ruin of the offender. As it is now, what are the facts in the case? I give again the testimony of a convict on this point as of incomparably more value than my own. "What," he writes, "does the present convict system do for those first offenders who do not yet belong to the class of habitual criminals? It sentences them to the society and thrusts them into close communion with the abandoned villains and professional thieves whose characteristics I have already described. It virtually binds them as apprentices for a shorter or longer time to learn the trade of law-breaking. They are, during the whole term of their imprisonment, under the influence, tuition, and example of miscreants who, from the cradle to the grave, exist upon outrage and plunder. They are, by these men, initiated into all sorts of tricks and dodges by which they can evade prison discipline and elude the burden of work during their imprisonment, and at the end of it enroll themselves in the great and yearly increasing army of professional criminals."

And worse than this. A lad, a young girl, a young or middle-aged man or woman transgresses the law for the first time. Behind them and the temptation to which they yielded lies often a record of blameless living and comparative innocence. What has become of this last when they leave the doors of a prison, after having served the term of their sentence? Condemned day after day to the fellowship of the vile and depraved, it is a moral miracle if any sense of decency or integrity survives!

[13] Said a discharged convict, speaking of this to a friend: "There are times now, on my way home and in the presence of my pure young wife, when the memory of the hideous oaths, the vile speech, the infamous themes and schemes which were forced upon me when I was a prisoner, so rings in my ears that I find myself shuddering at the thought of them, and wondering most of all how I ever escaped the pollution and ruin, both moral and spiritual, with which they threatened me." Go into the women's wards in one of our great prisons or jails, and see how all ages, classes, degrees of criminals are herded together during the so-called work hours. Look at some of the faces, catch if you can some of the speech that prevails there, and then take notice of a young girl, a domestic convicted for theft, a woman who has struck an angry blow in some sudden burst of passion, and then consider what these who are there for the first time will be after they emerge, at the end of six months or a year, from such society. I arraign the neglect of some scrupulous and discriminating system of classification in dealing with criminals of both sexes, as one of the darkest stains upon our Christian civilization. I arraign it as the fruitful source of crime, and as the moral murder of human souls. Here is our first, our most urgent duty to the criminal. We are to see to it that, in punishing crime, we take at least some reasonable precaution against the permanent degradation and ruin of the criminal.

IV. I have thus spoken of the way in which society should deal with the criminal when he returns to it, [13/14] and of the duty of the State while he is still under sentence of the law. One word more as to the character and responsibilities of those to whose custody the criminal is committed. I confess that here the outlook seems more disheartening than in any other direction. Our jails and prisons are in the custody, usually, of those whose appointment is the reward of political service. Of any question as to their moral and intellectual qualifications, except it were asked in derision, who hears? Doubtless, often, there are men and women in such positions who do their duty, or try to. All honor to such for a service so noble, under conditions so discouraging! But what can we expect as a rule under our present system? A prison superintendentship is a political prize; and he who, by his services to the party, is supposed to earn it, must use his power of subordinate appointment to reward his political associates and inferiors. That, first--inevitably, inflexibly--first; and then if, afterward, he can find an intelligent, a humane, a conscientious deputy or assistant--very well. But what shall we say of the prevalence of these characteristics as a rule? What a grand sphere here for criminal service reform!

I have done. If I understand its meaning and office in the world, it is the duty of Christianity-- our Christianity--in its relations to the criminal, to insist upon--

(a) The classification of prisoners.
(b) The decent restriction of the pardoning power.
(c) The elevation of the character and qualifications of jailers and wardens; and [14/15]
(d) The helpful sympathy of Christian society with discharged criminals.

I should like, if in this scamper of discussion the opportunity had permitted, to have spoken

(a) Of the relations of prison labor to the convict and his reformation.
(b) Of intellectual culture, and rudimentary education, both mental and physical, in prison; and
(c) Of the large and difficult theme of religious ministrations to the convict. But enough, if I have merely torn open this soiled and disreputable page in our social history, that others who are to follow me may read its lessons in clearer and more stirring tones.

Our duty as Churchmen is surely a very plain one. The message which has been intrusted to us is a message of love, of hope, of redemption, even to the prisoner. Do you remember in Victor Hugo's great picture of "Les Miserables," the meeting of Jean Valjean and the Bishop? Valjean having been sentenced to five years' imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, is resentenced, repeatedly, for trying to escape, until he has remained in confinement nineteen years. At length he is released, and given the yellow passport that describes him as a discharged convict. The paper that liberates him is the stigma that denounces him. Every honest man's door is closed against him, until he knocks at the gate of the old Bishop. There, to his surprise, he finds welcome, food, and shelter. But the evil spell of his old life is still upon him. He cannot sleep for remembrance of the silver plate upon the Bishop's [15/16] table. He rises in the night, robs his benefactor, and flies. Of course he is retaken and brought back. The gendarmes who have captured him lead him into the Bishop's presence with the convicting bundle in his hands. The old prelate rises to meet the group as they enter, and before a word can be spoken, exclaims, "Ah! Valjean, I am glad to see you! But I gave you the candlesticks too, which are also of silver. Why did you not take them away with the rest?" He tells the gendarmes that they have made a mistake, and may retire; and then going up to the cowering wretch and putting his hand upon his shoulder, the Bishop says: "Jean Valjean, my brother! you no longer belong to evil, but to good. I withdraw your soul from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and give it to God. Never forget that you are to employ this silver--your silver now--in becoming an honest man!"

The setting of the picture may be exaggerated and French, but the spirit of it is righteous and Christian. Ours is a Gospel, not of implacability, but of pardon. Ours is a religion, not of damnation, but of hope. Let us see to it that we carry its message even to these "spirits that are in prison!"

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