Why did jane Addams resist the pressure to join an organized religion and become a missionary?

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ms-ahmed eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The short answer:

  1. She defined herself loosely through organized religion, as is apparent in her “(receiving) the rite of baptism and (becoming) a member of the Presbyterian church in the village.”
  2. She didn’t subscribe to a specific form of Christianity, or pursue becoming a missionary, due to her search for reform – even in religion – towards a more humanitarian, egalitarian society.

The Long Answer:

Since her childhood, Jane Addams was familiar with Hicksite Quaker beliefs (it being her father's religion), which encourage seeking inner light and direct connection to God rather than formal creed and texts (the Bible).  However, in the first volume of her autobiography, she refers to her dad alone as being Quaker, not directly ascribing it to their family or to herself, despite the fact that her father held a high position in their church.

Throughout the book, it is clear that Jane learned excellent moral values and ideals from her father, but didn’t adopt the Quaker faith as her own.  Addams' childhood conversation with her father about religion elucidates the way she was brought up - her dad was the focal role model, but he did not push his faith onto her.  Rather, he seems to have encouraged her to think for herself - maintaining religion and religiosity, but with the strength that comes from seeking truths and analyzing them before their adoption.    

It may be for this very reason that Jane didn’t adopt her father’s strictures and faith wholly, nor did she (as she describes in her autobiography) master the religious teachings of Christianity, even years after her graduation from Rockford Women’s Seminary.   

The conversation referred to above:

"What are you? What do you say when people ask you?"

His eyes twinkled a little as he soberly replied:

"I am a Quaker."

"But that isn't enough to say," I urged.

"Very well," he added, "to people who insist upon details, as someone is doing now, I add that I am a Hicksite Quaker"; and not another word on the weighty subject could I induce him to utter.

Reading through her autobiography gives the reader a clearer picture of her religious ideas and goals and why she didn’t pursue becoming a missionary.  Her statements make it clear that:

  • Jane believed in a Unitarian form of Christianity rather than a Trinitarian one. Throughout her life, she explored various forms of Unitarian Christianity, seeking one that satisfied her ideals and goals – especially those that would reaffirm and support ideals for reform stemming from her humanitarian, egalitarian, democratic views.
  • Addams didn't originally want to go to Christian Seminary.  She set her heart on the prestigious Smith College, and wanted to pursue a medical degree.  Despite her hard work to pass examinations and her being accepted to Smith College, she didn’t attend the institution.  Instead, due to her venerated father’s prompting her to study near home, she settled for attending Rockford Women’s Seminary.  Therefore, it can be assumed that Addams’ goal was to go into a more intellectual and humanitarian field rather than a spiritually or religiously inclined one, though the two may not be mutually exclusive.    
  • She believed a “renaissance (was) going forward in Christianity.”  Addams felt Christ's original teachings and those of his disciples were more ideal and true to the Christian faith than the ones being practiced in her current day and age.  For her, it was faith in action, an entire altruistic way of life, not just in statement of belief.  This is illustrated in her writing as she states:

"Other motives which I believe make toward the Settlement are the result of a certain renaissance going forward in Christianity. The impulse to share the lives of the poor, the desire to make social service, irrespective of propaganda, express the spirit of Christ, is as old as Christianity itself. We have no proof from the records themselves that the early Roman Christians, who strained their simple art to the point of grotesqueness in their eagerness to record a "good news" on the walls of the catacombs, considered this good news a religion. Jesus had no set of truths labeled Religious. On the contrary, his doctrine was that all truth is one, that the appropriation of it is freedom. His teaching had no dogma to mark it off from truth and action in general. He himself called it a revelation–a life. These early Roman Christians received the Gospel message, a command to love all men, with a certain joyous simplicity. The image of the Good Shepherd is blithe and gay beyond the gentlest shepherd of Greek mythology; the hart no longer pants, but rushes to the water brooks. The Christians looked for the continuous revelation, but believed what Jesus said, that this revelation, to be retained and made manifest, must be put into terms of action; that action is the only medium man has for receiving and appropriating truth; that the doctrine must be known through the will."

Seven years after her father's death, at the age of twenty-five, Jane became a Presbytarian.  This was well after her college peers set off as missionaries and well after she left religious seminaries.  Throughout her book, and even at this point, Addams describes her understanding of Christian creed as basic.  

This late baptism and delay in adopting a specific organized church illustrates the idea that Addams was more interested in action and social reform than in promoting creed through missionary efforts.

Her main motivators: she was tired of setbacks, questioning her role in life and how she was to make a difference in all the wrong she saw.  In addition, she liked the concrete, outward symbol of unity and fellowship given through belonging to a religious creed.

This statement summarizes her experience in Twenty Years at Hull House: 

"The summers were spent in the old home in northern Illinois, and one Sunday morning I [Page 78]  received the rite of baptism and became a member of the Presbyterian church in the village. At this time there was certainly no outside pressure pushing me towards such a decision, and at twenty-five one does not ordinarily take such a step from a mere desire to conform. While I was not conscious of any emotional "conversion," I took upon myself the outward expressions of the religious life with all humility and sincerity. It was doubtless true that I was

"Weary of myself and sick of asking
 What I am and what I ought to be,"

and that various cherished safeguards and claims to self-dependence had been broken into by many piteous failures. But certainly I had been brought to the conclusion that "sincerely to give up one's conceit or hope of being good in one's own right is the only door to the Universe's deeper reaches." Perhaps the young clergyman recognized this as the test of the Christian temper, at any rate he required little assent to dogma or miracle, and assured me that while both the ministry and the officers of his church were obliged to subscribe to doctrines of well-known severity, the faith required to the laity was almost early Christian in its simplicity. I was conscious of no change from my childish acceptance of the teachings of the Gospels, but at this moment something persuasive within made me long for an outward symbol of fellowship, [Page 79]  some bond of peace, some blessed spot where unity of spirit might claim right of way over all differences. There was also growing within me an almost passionate devotion to the ideals of democracy, and when in all history had these ideals been so thrillingly expressed as when the faith of the fisherman and the slave had been boldly opposed to the accepted moral belief that the well-being of a privileged few might justly be built upon the ignorance and sacrifice of the many? Who was I, with my dreams of universal fellowship, that I did not identify myself with the institutional statement of this belief, as it stood in the little village in which I was born, and without which testimony in each remote hamlet of Christendom it would be so easy for the world to slip back into the doctrines of selection and aristocracy?