While researching some potential topics for my Labor Day sermon, I came across a fascinating tale of redemption. I got so absorbed in the story and spent quite a bit of time with it. After much deliberation, I decided I could not in good conscience use it in a sermon as a celebration of redemption, and so I put it aside. Nevertheless, it is an engrossing story.
I imagine most of you have heard the expression, “That’s a real Horatio Alger story,” referring to someone who has gone from rags to riches. In the latter 19th century Horatio Alger wrote over 100 books about impoverished young men who overcame adversity through hard work, courage, and determination. They weren’t actually rags to riches stories, as most of his characters went on to achieve middle class status at best. But the overwhelming success of his books led to his name being forever associated with achievement of the American Dream. One of his books called “Ragged Dick” sold more than 20 million copies and was read by millions more. It was continuously in print for more than 40 years. The population of the United States at that time was only 50 million, which means that virtually everyone in the country was familiar with his stories.
Though you have probably heard of Horatio Alger, you may not be aware that he was a Unitarian minister before he achieved such popularity as a writer of children’s fiction. His association with us is not much celebrated, however, because he was compelled to resign his pulpit after allegations of sexual improprieties with young boys, allegations that were found to be true. All parties involved agreed to suppress the incident, and, according to the biography of Alger published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, “no further such incidents occurred” during the remainder of Alger’s life.
What really got me interested in the redemptive aspects of this story was a beautiful, heart rending poem that Alger wrote not long after he resigned his ministry in disgrace. From all indications, it appears to be autobiographical – that is, Alger wrote it in confession of his own sin. It has the same form and cadence of the poem “Abou Ben Adhem,” and its called Friar Anselmo’s Sin.
Friar Anselmo (God’s grace may he win!)
Committed one sad day a deadly sin;
Which being done he drew back, self-abhorred,
From the rebuking presence of the Lord,
And, kneeling down, besought, with bitter cry,
Since life was worthless grown, that he might die.
All night he knelt, and, when the morning broke,
In patience still he waits death’s fatal stroke.
When all at once a cry of sharp distress
Aroused Anselmo from his wretchedness;
And, looking from the convent window high,
He saw a wounded traveller gasping lie
Just underneath, who, bruised and stricken sore,
Had crawled for aid unto the convent door.
The friar’s heart with deep compassion stirred,
When the poor wretch’s groans for help were heard
With gentle hands, and touched with love divine,
He bathed his wounds, and poured in oil and wine.
With tender foresight cared for all his needs, –
A blessed ministry of noble deeds.
In such devotion passed seven days. At length
The poor wayfarer gained his wonted strength.
With grateful thanks he left the convent walls,
And once again on death Anselmo calls.
When, lo! His cell was filled with sudden light,
And on the wall he saw an angel write,
(An angel in whose likeness he could trace,
More noble grown, the traveller’s form and face),
“Courage, Anselmo, though thy sin be great,
God grants thee life that thou may’st expiate.
“Thy guilty stains shall be washed white again,
By noble service done thy fellow-men.
“His soul draws nearest unto God above,
Who to his brother ministers in love.”
Meekly Anselmo rose, and, after prayer,
His soul was lighted of its past despair.
Henceforth, he strove, obeying God’s high will,
His heaven-appointed mission to fulfil.
And many a soul, oppressed with pain and grief,
Owed to the friar solace and relief.
It appears that Alger was genuinely contrite about what he had done and took the exhortation of the angel in the poem seriously because, judging by the rest of his life’s work, he did indeed dedicate himself to “noble service” to “thy fellow men.” He would spend the remainder of his life living in relatively obscure circumstances, advocating for homeless and impoverished children. Through his books he exposed the plight of these poor children, and worked tirelessly for improvements in their working conditions. Despite the enormous popularity of his books, he never had much money because, according to legend, he gave most of it away to the homeless. How much truth there is to all this is difficult to determine for certain, as all of Alger’s personal papers were destroyed at his death.
As I mentioned, I considered using this story for a sermon but ultimately decided against it. Though it is an intriguing story, I felt conflicted by the prospect of acknowledging publicly the merits of someone apparently guilty of a sexual offence against children. Alger’s hometown of Marlborough, Massachusetts found itself in a similar situation 3 years ago. The town had been celebrating a “Horatio Alger Street Fair” for many years, but when it was confronted with what was known about Alger’s past decided it could not in good conscience continue to use his name for its big event.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to gain public redemption for such offences. I certainly hope that Alger and the victims of his acts were finally able to find some personal peace about what he had done and that his story really was one of redemption. As someone who has familiarity with the subject because of an incident that affected someone in my own family, I know a little bit about how difficult this is to talk about. Maybe someday we as a society will find a way to discuss this subject more openly and some healing can come to those who have been affected by such terrible acts.