Saturday, 5 January 2013

Streets Paved with Gold - the London City Mission, Ragged Schools and Rice Christians

Once again I have to thank Rev Dr John Nicholls, Chief Executive of the London City Mission for sending me further material on Ragged Schools in London.  Below are a few quotes from chapter 4 of John's book co-authored with Irene Howat called Streets Paved with Gold, Christian Focus Publications, 2003.  If you want to read the entire chapter it can be downloaded from here and is used with kind permission from Christian Focus Publications. 

Within the chapter on Ragged Schools by Nicholls and Howat there is a good summary of a what a Ragged School was;

'An Edinburgh man, when asked to describe a Ragged School, said they were Sunday schools set up in the poorest parts where every house was ‘worn-out and crazy’ and nearly every tenant a beggar, or worse. ‘These schools, he said, were for ragged, diseased and crime-worn children, such as would not be admitted to any other kind of school.’ The one he instanced was in Field Lane, Smithfield, where 45 young people had to overcome the objections of their parents in order to attend; the parents viewing any possible reformation in their offspring as a potential loss of criminal earnings. Some of the children, who were aged six to 18, had already been in prison, and that, the Scot concluded, would be where they would spend much of the rest of their lives unless educated at the Ragged School. The teacher at Field Lane School was a big-hearted woman who did the work voluntarily three days a week' (Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, 7th June, 1845).

I've already written here about the Ragged School Movement in London, the 'Devils Acre' and the involvement of Charles Dickens.  My family and I were down in London in October this year and visited Covent Garden for the first time.  It is an extremely nice part of London and it is hard to imagine the Dickensian situation described in Streets Paved with Gold ;

'As the men of the young London City Mission tramped the streets and alleyways of their districts, they met the conditions described by Dickens. ‘Covent-garden Market, when it was market morning, was wonderful company. The great wagons of cabbages, with growers’ men and boys lying asleep under them, and with sharp dogs from market-garden neighbourhoods looking after the whole, were as good as a party. But one of the worst sights I know in London, is to be found in the children who prowl about this place; who sleep in the baskets, fight for the offal, dart at any object they think they can lay their thieving hands on, dive under the carts and barrows,dodge the constables, and are perpetually making a blunt pattering on the pavement of the Piazza with the rain of their naked feet. A painful and unnatural result comes of the comparison one is forced to institute between the growth of corruption as displayed in the so much improved and cared for fruits of the earth, and the growth of corruption as displayed in these all uncared for (except inasmuch as ever-hunted) savages’ (Oliver Twist).
It is interesting to see the size and scale of the Ragged School Movement by 1876 and also to notice Lord Shaftesbury's multi faceted campaigning which included reform of abusive working practices;

'By 1861, 176 schools were connected to the Ragged School Union, which for the previous 17 years had worked ‘to give permanence, regularity and vigour to the existing Ragged Schools and to promote the formation of new ones’. Shaftesbury was chairman of the Union. Baptist Noel and R.C.L. Bevan, both closely connected with the London City Mission, were on the committee. So it was not only individual missionaries who were concerned to help the least privileged of the city’s children, the Mission’s leaders were also working to the same end. Mid-19th century evangelicals had a social conscience that led them to hands-on action; they also had a loud voice that got things done in government. While Shaftesbury was lending his name and support to the Ragged School Union, and visiting individual schools in the poorest parts of London, he was at the same time campaigning for there to be a limit to the number of hours children were allowed to work in factories and coalmines.' 

Perhaps one of the most interesting points raised in Streets Paved with Gold is the fear of creating 'rice Christians'.  This continues to be an issue today with many Christian organisations being accused of manipulation when offering food/clothes/help on condition of salvation.  I am often asked at meetings 'when do you get the gospel in?'  My response is usually to say that there was there was no sermon on the Jericho Road and the Cross itself was an act of love rather than a sermon.  When people walk in to a Night Shelter run by a Christian organisation or a church, cold, hungry and wet, the greatest act of love is to feed them, and give them somewhere warm to sleep. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Les Miserables where Jean Valjean is on the receiving end of great kindness and grace from a Bishop. Famously he says to Valjean 'Do not forget, never forget that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man. Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good.' This grace led to spiritual transformation without the need for a sermon. Preaching of course has a central place in the salvation of sinners but we need to remember that it is the Holy Spirit that regenerates and any church or organisation that seeks to bribe or manipulate people in a vulnerable position will only do huge damage to the kingdom of God.  Love, if it is true love must come with no strings attached.  In order to avoid the allegation of 'rice Christians' LCM pursued a policy of dividing evangelism and practical relief although it seems to have been fairly loosely interpreted;

'The LCM’s official policy had always been that the spreading of the gospel was paramount, and missionaries were forbidden to be involved financially with their people. As more and more missionaries became involved in the setting up and running of Ragged Schools, the Mission clarified this policy further. ‘The missionaries are most carefully to avoid the giving of temporal relief, as not their department of Christian effort, and as most materially interfering with the integrity of their especial work.  The missionaries are strictly forbidden from writing letters soliciting aid for persons in distress, or for objects connected with the district except with the special leave of one of the Secretaries … The missionaries must not make themselves responsible, or incur pecuniary responsibility in any form, for ... expenses attendant of Ragged Schools, rooms of meeting ...’ Behind these regulations lay not a lack of concern for the poor but the fear that, once missionaries were seen as a source of ready cash, it would be difficult for them to be sure of the honesty of those professing spiritual concern and conversion. The Mission was concerned to avoid the problem of what later became known as ‘rice Christians’. Yet the regulations were always interpreted fairly broadly, as in the case of a missionary who persuaded his local butcher and cookshops to help him feed starving children.'

There is also an interesting story about an LCM Missionary who is jumped on the way back from  a meeting.  It gives an insight in to the dangers missionaries placed themselves in on a daily basis;

'The Mission would probably not have been for the nervous or fearful either, as illustrated by one missionary’s experience of a visit to a Ragged School. The ‘little incident’ was reported in the February 1863 Magazine under the heading ‘A Missionary Garroted. ‘We fill up the remaining lines of this number with a narrative of a little incident which has just occurred to a missionary … Having received an invitation to attend a Ragged School Meeting in his old district (Deptford), he was induced to accept the invitation and pay a visit to his former friends. His return home from this visit was necessarily somewhat late, and in passing though Southwark near St. Saviour’s Church, he was accosted by two men, one of whom pinioned his arms and the other grasped his throat in his embrace. From the effects of the violence he is not yet free. He was robbed by them of his watch and the money which he happened to have in his pockets.’  Interestingly, his watch was returned to him by one of the thieves, but the other had no compunction about keeping a missionary’s money!' 

The chapter concludes with the legacy of the London City Mission and the ongoing work of the Shaftesbury Society the successor of the Ragged School Union;

'London City Missionaries have on many occasions been the agents of change, and this was certainly true in the establishment of Ragged Schools. From them, or associated with them, were the Ragged School and Chapel Union (again, with Lord Shaftesbury as its President), the Children’s Country Holiday Fund, Pearson’s Fresh Air Fund and, more loosely, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  Thirty years after the first missionaries began Ragged Schools, their work came to an end. With the Education Act of 1870, elementary education was made available for all children, regardless of means. But while children’s educational needs were then catered for, their most basic welfare needs were not. The Ragged School Union became the Shaftesbury Society and continued to work for the good of the  children. Nor did the London City Mission opt out of education. Missionaries today are still involved in school work, after-school groups and children’s clubs. They still have a concern for the whole life of each child.'

I would like to recommend Streets Paved with Gold.  Remember you can read the whole of chapter 4 here.  It is an excellent read and the London City Mission continue to do a wonderful work which deserve our support and prayers.

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