Christians and Criminals


YESTERDAY was Sunday in my city, as it was, of course, all over the Christian world, with the exception of the Antipodes, where it must have been either Saturday or Monday. I confess I cannot remember on the spur of the moment whether, when time takes that jump, it is forward into the tomorrows or back into the yesterdays. I am sure, however, that in my city it was Sunday, and in my church an especial one. Not only was it the first Sunday in Lent, but also we were to have a very distinguished preacher from another city — so distinguished, indeed, that he had been saving this Sunday for us for more than two years. I wonder if even royalty makes its engagements as far ahead as that. Besides corning to us from another city, he was from another denomination, also. To-day we were to look up in the pulpit to black gown and white bands, instead of white surplice and black stole. For all of which reasons an unusually large congregation was flowing into the church or already seated when I slipped into my pew.

Oh yes, people still go to church. W e read constantly in magazines, newspapers, and what-nots — mostly, perhaps, what-nots — statements to the effect that they do not, only to go to church to discover they do, which leads one to suspect a mistake somewhere. They do not go, I suppose, as faithfully as they did a hundred years back. I am not wise enough to know what they did in those good — or bad! — old days.

Not only was the body of the church filled, but the galleries as well. I know that on this first Sunday in Lent a large congregation was present, although I am unable to say whether or not it was as large as in the days when General Lee worshiped here, or on that momentous Sunday in April when a hasty messenger summoned Jefferson Davis from his pew with word that the lines about Petersburg had fallen.

It was not, however, the church’s past, but its present, which moved me to the following reflections, as I sat waiting in the dim light with the rustle of incoming people all about me. Reflections, let me hasten to say, directed to the Church in general, and in no way concerned with this church in particular. Here were we then, I thought, a large company of Christians — some of us not very shining ones, of course, for truly, ‘Many are the wand bearers, but few are the mystics,’ nevertheless with a fair number who were very good indeed. It was the beginning of the Lenten season, a period designed for the renewing of the spirit as the ground is renewed by spring. We had already been exhorted on Ash Wednesday to ‘rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God,’ and some were sincerely endeavoring to do so. We should be prayed for, preached to, inspired, and reinspired, all through Lent up to the climax of Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter, and then what? Nothing very much, it seemed to me, beyond spring clothes. Some good people, of course, would be made better, and a few bad ones improved; nevertheless all over the country a vast amount of fervor was about to be aroused, poured out, and wasted.


What is the matter with the Church to-day? A good many things, no doubt, as have been the matter with it in the past, and will be in the future, since it will be long before the Church Militant becomes the Church Triumphant. One of its shortcomings, however, which belongs especially to the present times and which seems to have been overlooked to some extent, is, I think, its extreme wastefulness — a waste not of material goods, but of goodness itself. The spirit of devotion is constantly evoked and poured forth without even twelve basketfuls being gathered up for future service.

Continual stimulation without action is pleasant, no doubt, but leaves one spiritually as flabby as an overstretched rubber band. Unfortunately human psychology is better understood in time of war. All the fervor of patriotism called forth then is not wasted, but translated into marching men, poison gas, horrible wounds and deaths, and devastated countries. Here in the church, seasons of revival like Lent become ends in themselves instead of beginnings. The first Lent was not so; it was the beginning of the greatest years ever lived on earth. Even Nature teaches us better. All her rush of spring sap does not end in the delight of green leaf and blossom, but flows on to the consummation of fruit. Our sap rarely flowers. Collections of money are constantly being taken, but how rarely is the spirit collected! Yet I am almost as sure as though it were actually visible that when a body of people, even a small one, is emotionally stirred and uplifted, something definite takes place; there is an actual pouring out of the spirit, of the Holy Spirit, which might be put to service — indeed, which ought to be. We have learned how to harness the power of a waterfall; how much more might the Church harness the mighty power that is hers. In every congregation, I know there are a few devoted and hard-working souls, but there are many more who do nothing, who are just wasted. I am constantly impressed by the hunger of the human heart. These Lenten crowds are seeking something to make their lives richer, happier, more real. I suppose most of them would say that what they desire is more faith, some deep assurance that there is a great plan in the whole scheme of existence, and that even the most commonplace life is of value in the sight of God. Perhaps what they really need, however, is to be shown how to put into service what faith they already possess, upon which the assurance might follow. ‘If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine . . . ’

We look back wistfully to the Middle Ages as being the age of faith, forgetting how preëminently it was the age of work. If the faith inspired the work, the work kept the faith alive. Christians were not wasted in those days. Almost every social activity was under the auspices of the Church; nursing, healing, education, charity, and more besides, were all as much a part of the Church’s daily life as worship and prayer. Nor did the exultation of the spirit symbolize itself merely with the everyday jog trot of good works, but flowered also into all the creative arts.

Most of these activities have now been taken out of the hands of the Church. But as one views the spectacle of the world as it is presented daily in the morning papers it would seem that Christians might well get into the fustian of service, instead of going to waste in Sunday clothes.


Very well, then, I thought, still sitting in my pew waiting for the service to begin, where may a Christian in the present day find a use for his devotion? The guidance of his own heart should direct him to some service, but, to judge from the wistfulness on many faces, it would appear that people are in need of some outside guidance from their church. Where, then, should some of this Lenten fervor go which is being aroused all over the Christian world? Even as I asked the question I knew the answer: Why, to jail, of course.

All over the country — all over the world, indeed — are churches filled with people who are seeking, and in many cases finding, a righteous way of life; while all over the country, and the world as well, are jails and penitentiaries filled with other people who have sought, and found, an unrighteous life. Then why, in heaven’s name, — really in the name of heaven! — are not the two together? Since there is goodness in the world, — as we all know, unless we have distorted our sense of balance and humor with too much modern fiction, — should not that goodness be where there is wickedness, where evil has broken through, making a breach in the wall? If there are crime waves, why are the waves of righteousness not turned more energetically and definitely against them by the Church? In other words, why are Christians not more closely in touch with criminals? It appeared to me so obvious that the two should be in conjunction that I felt the thought of the first should automatically bring the second to mind — as, for instance, Christians and criminals, church members and convicts. I even dallied with the thought that certain denominations might specialize in certain delinquencies — as, let us say, Methodists and murderers, Baptists and bandits, Presbyterians and prostitutes, and so on.

But, putting all lightness aside, I ask again in absolute sincerity, Why is the Christian body so generally out of touch with the criminal population, and so apparently indifferent to the situation? How many criminals, I wonder, are personally known to the members of the ministerial unions of our cities? And how much do these gentlemen know of the living conditions of their city jails? It is very fashionable at present to know our wild birds and their habitats; should not Christians make it more than fashionable to know at least some of our wild jailbirds and their habitats? I suppose the Salvation Army —all honor to it! — is more closely in touch with the criminal element of the country than any other Christian body. For the most part the rest of us roll comfortably along in a smug indifference, though not in ignorance. ‘Christian! dost thou hear them?’ Of course we do. They have kicked up such a racket that even the most spiritually deaf can scarcely fail to hear them. Just the one crime of lynching might easily occupy the attention of at least half of the church members in the country. Does not some righteous indignation flare up in reading the accounts of these orgies of bestialities? And, if so, why is that indignation not put to more effective service?

Why, indeed, are the churches not more deeply concerned with the spectacle of the lawlessness of our country, and Christians not more active in remedying it? Again I think it is because Christians are being wasted; what religion we have is not being given sufficient exercise of an altruistic nature. I would not have church members rush into the field in a sentimental and uninstructed manner, but I fail to see why the leaders of the churches do not know more about the situation and instruct their followers in some method for its improvement.

At this point I do not doubt that some reader with the type of mind sure to jump in the obvious direction (how rare and delightful is the mind which jumps unexpectedly!) will rise to demand ponderously if I think all the good people are in the churches while all the bad ones are in jail? Oh, respected sir, not I! Certainly I have no patience with a smug piety, but I know that the average of righteousness will be considerably higher in a group of church people than it will be in a similar number of convicts. I am ready enough to concede that many church members are very far from the Christian ideal, and that a few convicts occasionally make an unexpected approach to it, but I must draw the line at the broadminded attitude of the small boy who was allowed one day to trail around with a certain city missionary, and after a visit to the jail reported to his mother that he had met there a very nice lady who had murdered her husband.

I know also that criminologists may throw up their hands in horror, exclaiming, ‘Well, whatever you do, don’t turn a lot of Christians in on the job!’ To them I may merely remark that if they feel sufficiently pleased with what they have accomplished in this most difficult field to point with pride to it, we average people on the outside fail to be equally impressed, especially when we are informed that someone in the United States is murdered every forty-five minutes. (Personally I dislike statistics of this sort; they make me glance nervously over my shoulder just to see that I am not scheduled for the next forty-five minutes.)

My remarks, however, are not addressed to the professional criminologists, or to those who regard all religion as moribund, but rather to that large body of people like myself who have been brought up in some form of religion and are still associated with it. Perhaps they wonder, as I do, why the Church is not more actively engaged in bringing law and order to a distressed country, and why Christians are not better acquainted with criminals.


I was no doubt particularly moved to these reflections because, through a twist of circumstances, I have lately become interested in a young man recently returned from his third term in jail. Since I am a friend of his mother’s, I happen to be aware of some of his needs and difficulties, and so cannot but feel that he has been left as it were on the doorstep of my conscience. He is the only convict — or ex-convict — with whom I have had any personal dealings. Should not a mature church member like myself be ashamed of such a confession? And does it not argue t hat I have tucked myself all too smugly into a comfortable pew, wast ing whatever religious fervor I have experienced? In doing so I have also missed an immense amount of human interest, for what small contact I have had with this young delinquent has proved very illuminating.

In the first place, I like him. He is fairly good-looking, with on the whole a pleasant expression. He has done some work for me, and not only done it well, but with the added grace of genuine enthusiasm, which I find very refreshing when I consider all the indifferent slackers I have employed.

I hear of him at one time nursing a member of the family ill with influenza; at another befriending a stray dog; and when his mother returns from work he has the house spotlessly clean for her with even the clothes washed and ironed. All these things I know to his credit. Unfortunately I know a number of other things to his serious discredit. He has been a constant source of anxiety and humiliation to his relatives ever since early boyhood, the one black sheep in an otherwise highly respectable family. He is apparently safe, sane, and law-abiding as long as he is sober. Once drunk, he is none of these things, and the authorities very properly lock him up. He comes to himself in jail protesting that he has no recollection of what he has done, or how he got there. There appears to be a possibility that he is telling the truth, since I understand, given certain pathological conditions, a very small amount of alcohol may change the personality, even though the individual does not appear to be intoxicated either to himself or to his friends. He steals when he is drunk, but apparently never does so when he is sober.

He is now at liberty and swears he will never drink again. If he makes good this resolution, he will be doing remarkably well, since he is back in his old environment and his old gang are on his trail. They are out to get him again if they can — and in all probability they can. Here is a gang of young ruffians out to wreck him. Why, then, is there not an equal gang of Christians out to help him? That there is not is again, I believe, because of all the wasted church members who rise and sing, ‘Fight the good fight,’ and then go home to Sunday dinner. This young man is receiving no attention whatever from any church body, though a few — far too few! — individual Christians are interesting themselves in his welfare. True, he is bitterly antagonistic to the church in which he was reared, and any friendly approach from that quarter, or indeed from any other denomination, would have to be made very delicately. With tact, persistency, and understanding, however, I think it might be accomplished; but how much training does the Church give its members in the understanding of difficult and wayward personalities?

The needs of this young man, as I see them, are definite and practical, but no less Christian for that reason. They are: friendly companionship of a proper kind, work, and a thorough medical examination to determine whether there may not be some physical defect at the root of all his evil. The work he is very eager for; the companionship, too, he would probably accept if it were tactfully offered, but only long and careful handling would induce him to consent to a medical examination. Given all these needs of his, one can readily see that even with the best will in the world — and mine is far from being the best — there simply is not enough of me to go around. How glad I should be if I knew where I might lay my hands on some Christian shock troops to fling into this difficult sector. Anywhere from five, ten, or even twenty trained and consecrated church members could easily be used on this one case alone. I for one do not see why there might not be a good deal of fun derived from the crusade. Presumably the young ruffians enjoy their side of the game. One cannot credit them with sufficient unselfishness to believe they would make the attempt otherwise. Why, then, should not helping souls be as gay and adventurous an undertaking as injuring them? For some reason it rarely appears to have been so regarded. One recalls old frescoes depicting angels and devils contending for the souls of men, in which the devils seem to be having all the fun despite the fact that they are usually playing a losing game. When they do win, heavens! with what snap and gusto is the soul pitchforked into Hell! Christians might at least copy the Devil’s enthusiasm.

While I cannot flatter myself that I have done much so far for this young man, I have nevertheless derived a good deal of enjoyment from the attempt. It has widened my sympathies and opened up for me whole new areas of life. If so much human interest is connected with one young criminal alone, how much more must there be in a whole jailful! Why, even these predicaments of his were foretold when he was scarcely more than a baby! At the age of four a fortune teller, pointing to him, said to his mother, ‘ Right there’s where all your bad luck’s coming from. That boy will give you every kind of trouble until he is twentyeight, and then he’ll turn around and be one of the best children you’ve got.’ The first part of the prophecy has certainly come true — now we are hoping for the second. He is, however, some years short of that happy ending, so no Christian need excuse himself on that score. Aside from the prophecy, I feel that the game in this instance is a hopeful one, since even the small amount which has been done for him so far has already reaped some reward. Given more helpers, much more might be accomplished. How many Christians, then, should one allow to each criminal? I asked myself, still pondering the matter in my pew, with the church all around me filling with worshipers, while only a few blocks away the city jail was, as always, far more than full of convicts. Even from a youthful age I seem to have yearned for statistics of a transcendental nature. Once, when I was three or so, I was frightened all alone in the dark upstairs. My mother, coming up, inquired what I was afraid of. ‘Bears,’ I confessed with tears. But did n’t I know the angels were all around me? ‘Yes,’ I quavered. ‘But how many angels does it take to whip a bear?’

So, again, how many Christians to a criminal? I suppose the answer is much the same as the one the little girl at the sewing school gave to Napoleon when he inquired how many needlefuls of thread it took to make a shirt: ‘One, Sire, if it be long enough.’ Probably, then, one Christian, if he be strong enough. But alas, since strong ones are rare, I suppose we must hunt in couples, or better still in packs.


How do church members, who are at least supposed to keep the law, compare in numbers with those who break it? I have since had the question answered with the following statistics: it is estimated that there are over 150,000 criminals in the country, — 160,000, let us say, making a generous allowance in figures, — while the number of church members in all the various denominations is said to be 54,576,346. Dividing the Christians by the criminals, then, we find that there are 341 church members, with a fraction over, to every criminal. Let us discard the fraction, since only complete human beings can be used in this venture. Out of the 341 also we must expect some 301 to suffer from spiritual anæmia and be merely supercargo on our old ship of Zion — church members rather than Christians, for I repeat, ‘Many are the wand bearers, but few are the mystics.’ When these go overboard we are left with 40 able-spirited Christians. Even out of this number, one must drop half again, since some will be temperamentally unfitted to cope with the lawless element, some will be too busy with other equally important work, while others again will not have the physical health for it. Even so, we shall have 20 Christians to every criminal, and if even this seems too optimistic a figure I am willing to cut it in half once more, being satisfied with 10 Christians to a criminal. Ten to one! And yet the country is said to be crime-ridden.

I have no desire, of course, to exclude members of other religions from this venture. All are welcome, and all are needed. If I figure merely in Christians it is because they happen to be the members of my own household, and also because we seem to have been especially commissioned to visit those in captivity: ‘I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’ Possibly if the members of all religions met more frequently in the jails we might make a closer approach to spiritual union and brotherhood — perhaps it has been in prison, waiting there, all along.

What, then, might we expect this band of hope to accomplish with the country’s criminals? And how should they go about it? Frankly I do not know. That, it seems to me, is for the leaders of the Church to discover, and they should point the way for the rest of us. My own knowledge of criminology is about that of the average man in the street, or of the woman in the pew. I do know, however, as I have affirmed before, that the churches are fairly full of Christians, while the jails are far more than full of criminals; therefore it seems to me, for the sake of all concerned, that the two should get together. Ignorant as I am, I am still convinced that if more people of good will took an intelligent, active, Christian — never sentimental! — interest in the criminal himself, his surroundings, and the whole question of crime, the situation would be improved. If one did not feel at first sufficiently instructed to cope with individual criminals, he might at least inform himself as to the living conditions in his nearest jail or penitentiary. To know whether a place is clean, light, and sanitary, rather than dark, dirty, and overcrowded, does not require a great amount of education. The jail of my own city, for instance, is shockingly crowded. It has a capacity for three hundred inmates, but has always over four hundred there, frequently five hundred, and sometimes even more. Public-spirited citizens have fought for years to improve these conditions, but without success. The fight might go better if church members visited their jail more frequently, actually seeing its overcrowding, instead of contenting themselves with comfortable and none too crowded pews. Also in this city — and I imagine the same is true of many if not most of the other cities over the country — if a person goes insane and has not sufficient money for treatment in a private hospital he must be sent to jail pending his commitment to one of the state institutions. There is no other place in the city for his accommodation. Is not insanity a sufficient tragedy in itself, that a jail sentence must be added to the innocent victim as well? Some wasted Christians might well be used to rectify this condition. Oh yes, there is plenty of work to be done!

Why should not every large church have its jail committee, composed of a number of picked Christians, people who are high-minded, high-spirited, devoted, and intelligent, who, after preparing themselves with some real study of criminology, would then undertake to visit regularly a certain number of convicts, informing themselves as to the past history of each, his present delinquency, his problems and possibilities, keeping in as close touch as possible with him when his term was over? If the Church has anything of value, good will, highmindedness, and power, as we know that she has, surely these are the very people with whom it should be shared, since they are the ones who need it most. And certainly the authorities could hardly reject the interest and assistance of a group of people whose sympathies would inevitably be on the side of law and order.

There is a movement on foot, fathered by Dr. Richard Cabot of Boston, to induce young ministers before taking a parish to spend a year or more attached to some large hospital, to give them some first-hand acquaintance with the needs of suffering humanity. Why should this movement stop with hospitals? Why should it not go on to the even more crucial needs of those in jails and penitentiaries? And reformatories — I went once not so many years ago to a reform school for boys, and never have I seen anything more depressing. Most certainly some Christian understanding was needed there.

Since church members — and indeed even real Christians — so far outnumber criminals, it would seem that this venture of bringing the two together, when properly organized, need not lay too great a burden on any one person. Yet, supposing it did entail hard work, frequent disappointments, and even danger, what, after all, are Christians for? Are we to pay no price for the ‘inestimable benefits which we have received ’ ? There is a great power in religion, there is a great need in the world; the churches are full of Christians, the jails are full of criminals; then why . . .

But even as I started to repeat this by now well-worn question my thoughts turned abruptly around upon me and demanded, ‘Very well, then, since Christians should go to jail, why have you never been?’

Why, indeed! Perhaps because I cannot flatter myself that I am a very good Christian. Still, there are some convicts who are not very bad criminals. No doubt, did I try, I might find one whose badness did not overwhelmingly outweigh my goodness. Besides, I have had more opportunities to go to the jail than most people, since my brother, who is the City Missionary, visits there regularly and has to his credit a large acquaintanceship among its inmates. He is constantly urging Christians to visit their jails and penitentiaries, and no doubt much of this paper has been inspired by him. He has frequently invited me to go to jail with him. I as frequently have declined the invitation. I will decline no more. As I rose to the opening hymn I vowed that before another Sunday swung round and I sat again in that pew I should know at least a little more about the criminals of my city.

And so farewell, my Christian friends, I’m off to jail — where you, too, should go.