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Religion and the
Erring and Criminal Classes

September 21, 1893 — World’s Parliament of Religions, Hall of Columbus, Word’s Congress Auxiliary Building, Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


The first relation of religion to the erring and criminal classes is that of supplving the sense of right and wrong, by which we distinguish between actions as good and bad. Its second relation is that of a subtle and interior clement in varying moral definitions.

The sharpest contrast between the ancient and the modern dealing with the criminal and vicious lies in this, that in the old civilization the offender was at the mercy of the hasty and individual judgment of his superior and ruler, while in modern civilization the meanest and worst of evildoers has the protection of a recognized code, which is based upon the agreement of many minds and wills. This change is largely due to the twin enlargement of the social and religious ideas by which the state took the place of the narrow familv rule, and the church took the place of the local family altar.

The history of modern penology is a part of the social and moral his tory of the leading Christian nations. Modern progress in penology is marked by seven distinct steps, namely: 1. The establishment of the rights of all free-born men to a trial by law. 2. The abolition of slavery, which brought all men under the aegis of one legal code. 3. The substitution of the penaltv of imprisonment for varied forms of physical torture, and the limitation of the death penalty to a smaller number of crimes and those more universally condemned by all men. 4. The recognition of national responsibility toward offenders by which each state accepts the task of con trolling and caring for its own criminals instead of transporting them out side its bounds. 5. The acceptance of the principle that even a convicted criminal has rights, rights to decent and humane treatment, which social custom must regard. 6. The inauguration of a system of classification, not only of offences as more or less heinous, but of offenders as more or less guilty, according to circumstances. 7. The beginning of experimental efforts in industrial and educational directions toward the reformation of the criminal and erring, that is, their making over into a required model of citizenship. The radical changes in the treatment of the criminal and erring classes which mark so conspicuously the last forty years, changes which have revolutionized this branch of social relation, all proceed, whether consciouslv or not, from one fundamental principle, namely, that every man and every woman, however criminal and erring, is still a man and woman, a legitimate member of the human familv, with inalienable rights to protection and justice. This principle fibers itself upon three distinct contributions of the Christian religion to our Western civilization. These three contributions are first, the democratic social idea; second, a conviction of the sacredness of all human life ; third, the elevation of tenderness to a high place in the scale of virtues. When the Christian religion declared that each soul was its own, whether of bond or free, Jew or Gentile, man or woman, its own to give to the Divine in loving service, it proclaimed a declaration of independence which must perforce eventuate in the recognized self-ownership and control of each human being’s person and estate. The idea of the worth and use of the single soul which was at the heart of Jesus’ doctrine of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man gave to our civilization a conviction that the body of man in which the soul was enshrined should not be hurt or slain. The ideal character which the Christian Church worshipped in Christ, placing as it did tenderness, sacrifice and service at the regal height of human virtue, gave an irresistible impulse to those sentiments and inspired a passion of human love. The contribution of the Christian religion to our civilization has borne direct fruit in the great change from tyranny and brutality to jus tice and humanity in the administration of the accepted moral law.

The most recent tendencies of religion in this field are reformatory, those which aim to make the criminal and erring over into law-abiding and respectable members of society. There are two sides of this new reformatory movement in penology, one which touches medical and one educational science. The first is busied with the pathology of crime and vice, or the influence of heredity and original endowment, the other has to do with the culture of the morally defective and makes much of the effect of environment and training upon that original endowment. The new scientific element in religion has given us social science of which enlightened penology is part. The relation of this new religion to the criminal and erring classes is not only the tenderness of human sympathy which would not that any should perish; it is the consecration of human wisdom to social betterment that shall yet forbid that any shall perish. In this ideal the call is not only to justice for the criminal and erring after they come within the scope of social control, but it is the call also to a study of those conditions in the individual and in society which make for crime and vice : and above all it is the call for the lifting of all the weaker souls of our common humanity upon the winged strength of its wisest and best.



Source: The World’s Parliament of Religions, An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World’s First Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, (Chicago: The Parliamentary Publishing Co.), 1893, pp. 1030-1031.