Born in 1860 to a long-time friend of Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams (d. 1935) dedicated her life to ensuring that even the nation’s poorest citizens would be able to realize their natural right to the “pursuit of happiness” central to the Declaration of Independence. Although Addams’ personal religious views are somewhat enigmatic, she fully believed that the human soul existed on a level above the merely material or even rational. A proponent of the “social gospel,” she emphasized those elements of Christian teaching that pointed to the dignity of every individual and the duty to ‘love thy neighbor’ as practical and not merely spiritual exercise.
In an essay on “Religious Education and Contemporary Social Conditions” (1911), Addams criticized traditional churches and religious organizations for failing to appreciate that the souls they longed to save had immediate as well as eternal needs. She warned church leaders that in doing so, they had left the poorest and most vulnerable members of society open to the false promises of evolution and materialism. Yet the very falseness of these philosophies–their inability to speak to the transcendent element of human nature–meant that there was still a “great opportunity” for religious educators to reach not only the poor and immigrant communities, but also the optimistic and secularized social workers who labored among them. Addams urged religious educators to harness their theology to compassion, to “transmute the comradeship of mutual suffering into a religious communion.” It was the “business of religion,” she argued, “not only to comfort and conserve, but to prophecy and fortify men for coming social changes.”
In 1880s, Addams traveled to Great Britain to study the “settlement house” movement. Although settlement workers often advocated for government reforms to improve living conditions in the crowded tenement housing of nineteenth century cities, their most important contribution came in the form of hands-on volunteer work.Essentially an urban missionary effort, the movement recruited young men and women from the educated classes to live (or “settle”) among the poorest urban communities. There, they could put their education to use, offering services to their neighbors ranging from daycare, language, and health and hygiene classes to lending libraries, lecture series, and other forms of cultural enrichment.
In 1889, assisted by her friend Ellen Gates, Addams moved into the heart of one of Chicago’s largest immigrant neighborhoods to establish the first American settlement house.
At Hull House, Addams and her coworkers put their progressive, practical morality to the test, offering a variety of social services and practical educational opportunities to immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Germany, Greece, Russia, and Poland. Subjects covered included: sanitation, midwifery, modern cooking techniques, and office skills as well as language and physical fitness.
Driven by Addams’ vision of dignified democracy, these courses were supplemented with activities designed to uplift the human mind and spirit such as book clubs, lecture series, singing groups, and even an art studio and exhibition space. In these settings, Addams encouraged immigrant families to retain their traditional heritages while also adopting a respectful attitude towards those of others. She fostered a sense of unity within diversity at Hull House by welcoming all its members to share their traditions and talents with one another.
Although Addams fiercely criticized the majority of religious education as irrelevant, she appreciated the use of music in such settings. Group singing of religious songs, she observed, reinforced a sense of community among the participants: choral singers not only gained a skill that could provide enrichment and beauty to their lives, they also learned to work together with the rest of the chorus members to create the harmonies necessary for a richer, more nuanced song. Music practice, then, was also practice in the art of community building so central to the success of Hull House’s mission, and Addams even went so far as to encourage one of her coworkers to compose a series of Hull House Songs specifically for use at the settlement.