“In the garret of a three story brick house they lived, huddled together, stricken with smallpox, almost destitute of food, fearing to call for medical attendance lest they should be carried back into slavery. While death stared them in the face, fugitive slave hunters rapped at the door of the front room. These inhuman beasts were misled, and shortly after the family was left at Roxbury, Pa. (the uncle having gone to sea), where the faithful mother toiled night and day at washing, to support her children. They returned to Philadelphia, and from there moved to Bordentown, Pa,, where in 1862, the son, William, was apprenticed to a dentist. The doctor was kind to him and William soon learned so thoroughly the profession that he often operated upon some of the best families in the city. But the spirit of the doctor changed and William was treated unkindly ; becoming disgusted he ran away and enlisted in the Forty-first United States Colored troops. His army life was not uneventful ; he took part in battles around Petersburg, Hatches Run and Appomattox Court-house, and was present at the surrender of Lee, the crisis out of which our own happier cycle of years has been evolved. He was- discharged September 13. 1865. and in 1866- ’67 worked as journeyman at his trade for Dr. W. H. Longfellow, a colored dentist of Philadelphia. He was converted in 1867 and joined the white Baptist Church in Bordentown. Although a colored man in the church, he was treated kindly and when his call to the ministry was made known, they rallied to his assistance and supported him in school for three years. The New Jersey State Educational Society aided him at Madison University, where he graduated in 1868, taking the Academic course. September, 1868, found him matriculated at Rochester University, and in that city, he labored with the Baptist Church as pastor. In 1870, he entered Howard University, graduating in 1873.”

W. BISHOP JOHNSON, “Eulogy on William J. Simmons, D. D., LLD.”, The scourging of a race, and other sermons and addresses 1904

This was written by W. Bishop Johnson, an African-American, pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Washington, DC, copyright 1094.

I have collected digital copies of over a hundred books of sermons from the public domain. I’ve been looking at what the pastors were saying about various humanitarian problems. I’ve seen dozens of pleas for aid, stern warnings against abuse of various oppressed classes. The fascinating thing was how many pastors also wrote about the problems in an incidental way. Consider the passage above taken from a eulogy. This pastor writes about people suffering from smallpox. In this passage there is no direct appeal for the reader or for God to help — although certainly there is a great need for this, and one of the motivations for this project. You’ll get plenty of that before we’re done here! But this mention is very incidental, as if it were perfectly natural for a pastor to have smallpox victims among the people he lived with or ministered to.  Is this how we run our churches today?  We may be willing to go on great mission trips abroad, for a year or a weekend, but do we have relationships with people living under conditions as desperate as those above?

The passage may also allow us to infer something about epidemiology. The family of fugitive slaves was hiding out from kidnappers, and so was fearful to call for medical attention. With no help, the disease may spread from one person to another living in those cramped conditions, and then break out with greater ferocity into the general public later.

How does this fit into a devotional booklet? We can pray for these sufferings. Before we are done with this project, we may consider some 1200 ways that humans have suffered, and what Christian pastors have written about it. Each blog post will involve one keyword, and a paragraph or to of one of these sermons, from Augustine to WWI. Across the various excerpts which we may study as devotionals, we’ll see pleas for help, warnings against abuse, mirrors to Christ’s passion, expressions of hope that God will alleviate suffering and that there will be no more tears in the life to come. In response, you can pray for help, pray for forgiveness and God’s mercy, for God’s grace. You can reflect on ways you can help. You can gain a greater appreciation for how much mercy God does have on us. I hope that this exercise will not seem to futile or depressing, but at least we’ll be praying for those who are suffering in real ways around us.

Reflection: who are we making illegal today?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, we are thankful for the doctors and researchers who have made progress in fighting smallpox. Bless the doctors and educators who are currently working on the next big problem. Show us ways to help reduce the suffering.  Also help us to find ways to seek to better the lives of “illegal people.”

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