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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Jane Addams and Hull-House

Occasionally you come across a book that you’d like to turn over and restart immediately once you reach the end, one that you’d put on a list of books you’d choose if you could only have access to a handful. One of the latest ones to go on my list is Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams.

Jane Addams was probably the most famous pioneering social worker. In 1889, at age 29, she and a friend opened Hull-House, Chicago’s first settlement house. It was designed to connect wealthy, idle young people with the poor immigrant population, giving the former an outlet for ministering to society and the latter access to a more cultured American life. “We have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties. They hear constantly of the great social maladjustment, but no way is provided for them to change it, and their uselessness hangs about them heavily.” (From Addams’ early paper on her vision for settlement houses.) But people of every age and calling soon became involved with Hull-House as the problems of Chicago’s poor overwhelmed them with a desire to do something.

They opened, among many other facilities, a kitchen to cheaply sell healthy food, a gymnasium for sports and dances to provide a safe, moral place to socialize, and an art gallery for “the escape it offers from dreary reality into the realm of the imagination.” They taught classes of trade and higher learning. They hosted concerts, parties, lectures, and social clubs – anything that would at least temporarily raise Chicago’s poverty-stricken citizens from their life of soot, grime, noise, and mind-numbing labor. They became a voice for the factory-workers and for the improvement of living conditions. They endeavored to show the immigrants what America’s ideals were all about.

Although, as far as I can tell, Jane Addams herself was a Christian (she seemed to identify most with social Christianity), and her motive was to follow the Messiah because He did all the right things, she made Hull-House secular so that people of all faiths would come without hesitation to look for help. She was concerned with lifting the lot of people here on earth, and she rightly perceived that God is very much concerned with that as well. (I’m sure you all know how you love it when your heroes are sold out to the Lord, but if they’re not completely orthodox in their beliefs about the Gospel, it’s disappointing. Hopefully you understand that’s how I feel about Jane Addams. However, religion was welcome there; it’s just that the settlement house didn’t focus its efforts on Biblical discipleship. It encouraged morality more than anything else. Have you ever seen the movie Time Changer? That delves into the inherent problems of removing Jesus/Yeshua’s salvation from morality. This is a whole issue I would love to study more; hopefully I have Jane Addams pinned down more-or-less correctly for the purposes of this post!)

Jane Addams was idealistic, practical, and unbelievably resolute. She traveled, dealt with people from every walk of life, and paid close attention to world affairs. She had to, seeing as she helped men and women from so many nations. “Addams’ philosophy combined feminist sensibilities with an unwavering commitment to social improvement through cooperative efforts. Although she sympathized with feminists, socialists, and pacifists, Addams refused to be labeled. This refusal was pragmatic rather than ideological” ( At times she and Hull-House were accused of aligning with weird political ideologies like anarchy because of the people they were involved with, but that was always far from the truth.

This book, a sort of autobiography of Jane Addams and Hull-House, was packed with anecdotes of Chicago’s inner-city life and the quest for improvement, either encouraging or sobering but always interesting. Jane Addams thoughtfully philosophized on how to alleviate problems; I think readers will be challenged to do more to minister to the disadvantaged around them. I read it mainly for my work-in-progress, The Alice Quest, and found it infinitely helpful as I work with that place and era. But it was also just a plain intriguing read!

Who are some of your historical heroes?

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