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  • Lydia Maria Child's Legacy to the Twenty-First Century:The Law of Love versus Religious Bigotry, Anti-Immigrant Hysteria, and Mass Incarceration
  • Carolyn L. Karcher

[F]ar back in my early years, I remember an intense desire to be enough acquainted with some intelligent and sincere Mohammedan, to enable me to look at the Koran through his spectacles.

Lydia Maria Child, Letter 6, Letters from New-York, 1843

So wrote Lydia Maria Child in Letters from New-York, and she expressed much the same sentiment in the preface of The Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive Ages (1: vii), her encyclopedic, three-volume comparative history of the world's various creeds. Child's effort to combat religious bigotry and promote tolerance toward non-Christian faiths did not strike me as the most compelling aspect of her legacy while I was working on The First Woman in the Republic. At the time, I viewed her research on religion as pioneering for its own era but dated for ours, and her account of visiting a Jewish synagogue—her first venture "beyond the pale" of Christianity—as marred by the very anti-Semitic assumptions she was seeking to challenge (Letter 6: 24). Now, however—amid the rampant Islamophobia propagated by the media with the blessing of synagogues and churches, acted on by governmental agencies and private vigilantes, and terrorizing whole communities through espionage, police sweeps, imprisonment, and even murder—I find Child's youthful desire to meet a Muslim who could enable her to understand the Koran from his point of view extraordinarily moving. Not only does it typify the intellectual curiosity and sympathy that impelled Child to push against the limits of her culture and to embrace her society's Others, but it also illustrates with wonderful clarity how relevant her writings remain for us today.

Deeply rooted in Western culture, Islamophobia currently takes the form not merely of religious bigotry but of anti-immigrant hysteria directed at brown-skinned people. Until the Paris and San Bernardino massacres of November and December 2015, Latinx rather than Muslim immigrants were the main targets of this hysteria in the United States. They remain targets [End Page 8] despite the shift of animus toward Muslims. In any case, perceived physical similarities among them often cause Latinx, South Asians, and Arabs (whether Muslim or not) to be mistaken for each other. Whatever their country or region of origin, brown-skinned immigrants arouse the hostility of white Americans largely because they embody a future in which whites will become a minority among US citizens.

Child's contemporaries likewise greeted immigrants from Ireland and Italy with hostility, regarding them as a threat to Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance. In response, Child celebrated the religious and ethnic diversity of New York as the city's chief attraction. "Almost without effort," she writes in Letter 10 in Letters from New-York, "one may happen to find himself, in the course of a few days, beside the Catholic kneeling before the Cross, the Mohammedan bowing to the East, the Jew veiled before the ark of the testimony, the Baptist walking into the water, the Quaker keeping his head covered in the presence of dignitaries … and the Mormon quoting from the Golden Book which he has never seen" (43). The list breaks down the barriers between Catholic and Protestant, Christian and non-Christian, by juxtaposing representatives of three dissident Protestant sects (one of which, the Mormons, was then undergoing vicious persecution) with a Catholic, a Muslim, and a Jew, and by analogizing the different forms of prayer in which each engages. Elsewhere, Child sympathetically portrays the immigrants who practice these non-Protestant faiths. In Letter 6 she notes that a new synagogue has just been "consecrated," bringing the number of synagogues in New York to five, serving "about ten thousand of this ancient people." The new synagogue, she adds, was built by immigrants who have succeeded financially in their adopted country after being "driven" out of Bavaria by "oppressive laws" and who have devoted the first fruits of their prosperity to "the erection of a place of worship" (27).

The majority of immigrants Child encountered in New York, however, were not models...


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