The Home Missionary Society of Philadelphia (1835-present)
By: Michael Barga
Introduction: In 1835, a group of young men from Union and St. George’s churches in Philadelphia established a new outreach group which became known as the Home Missionary Society of the Methodist-Episcopal Church for the City and County of Philadelphia. The Home Missionary Society’s sought to spread its Christian message through religious education and aid to the poor. The original activities included public preaching, distributing religious tracts, developing Sabbath-schools, and providing food and fuel assistance to the poor. (Hartley, 2009) Within a decade of its founding, the scope and purpose greatly expanded and eventually would center on relief activities, particularly the care of destitute children.
Development and Activities: Those who helped found the Society were successful in the early years of their ministry, collecting $61.10 the first year using their standing in the Methodist-Episcopal Church community. Four years later, the collections amounted to $413.24, and the group reported the establishment of five Sabbath-schools by 1841, which would eventually become churches. A turning point occurred that same year when the Society gained permission to hold meetings in public places. Rev. John Street recorded that after his public missionary activities: “the poor from almost every part of the city [sought] my residence. An old lady in Swanson Street, near the Navy-Yard, who [could] scarcely walk, hobbled to my house for relief” (Home Missionary Society of the City of Philadelphia, 1885).
Those involved in engaging the public in faith discussions became increasingly aware of painful poverty throughout the city, and by 1843, Rev. Street and a fellow preacher Rev. Mr. Allen were well known for their charitable activities for the poor of Philadelphia. The organization became known as the Home Missionary Society of the City and County of Philadelphia (HMS) two years later, reflecting its reformed and less sectarian purpose. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 2015) By 1850, spreading the gospel was only one of three departments. The other two were the relief of the poor and the care of destitute children. The community’s donations of $9,000 that year were a significant recognition of the HMS work, and a few charity locations in the city had been established.
The Society created houses where older children congregated for education and younger children received more basic care. Reportedly, the property values and overall safety of neighborhoods would go up based on the presence of such houses. The HMS’ work with children eventually led to foster care placements into homes in rural areas outside the slums of Philadelphia. The majority of the children were sent as indentured servants starting around 1854.
The homes were located in a wide geographic area that included New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. In cases of long-term placement, the children would return to HMS to collect a small sum of money when they turned 18 or 21. Some historians consider this process a form of social control, noting that by sending poor children to foster homes outside the city, middle and wealthy class citizens appeared to be imposing their own vision of a hard-working, model citizen on other people’s children.
An 1885 semi-centennial report of the HMS acknowledged involvement with immigrant groups: from all nations, climes, tongues, and kindred, of all ages and both sexes, [came] these weary-laden, poverty-stricken sick and wounded children of Adam.1 Historical evidence is limited regarding the demographic statistics of children who were placed into foster care. The evidence does suggest that unlike the orphan trains common to New York City, Catholic children generally avoided indentured servitude to or adoption into Protestant families.
While the Home Missionary Society was started by a few members of the MEC, the professionals in the community, like bankers and physicians, gradually grew in their involvement. The Society’s expanding charity was also supported through the many personal connections of individuals in the church community to businessmen, which enabled access to fair or discount prices for coal, clothes, food, and other staples. For publicity, the pulpit proved to be the easiest and most convenient method of communication.
The work also spoke for itself. More than 1000 children had been placed before 1860 and $500,000 in aid was distributed by 1885. The HMS framed their charity as active friendship with the poor, where encouragement and counsel would be given in situations when material assistance was deemed a support of pauperism. The particular focus on child care was first noted in 1874. While some children required long-term placement, assistance was often temporary. One worker describes a case below which particularly displays the “uplift” mentality of the Society:
After a meeting, I called on a widow with four children. She is sick. To secure daily bread, her boy, twelve years of age, sells papers. He called to see me, asking for a situation in the city, whereby he might help his mother. I knew a man of business who wanted a boy, took him with me and secured the place. He has been with him three weeks, and gives such good satisfaction that his wages have been raised, and he is promised permanent employment with a knowledge of the trade. When the mother had sufficiently recovered she came to thank me for the interest I had taken in her son. In this case it was not the money given which called forth her gratitude, but the fact that I had helped the family to help themselves (Home Missionary Society of the City of Philadelphia, 1885).
By the 1880’s, the rise of scientific charity brought the Children’s Aid Society and Family Service into the forefront of relief work in Philadelphia. Both scientific charity and the Home Missionary Society were middle-class movements to cure social ills and bring people out of poverty which utilized paid professionals, and there was some overlap in membership. One of the key differences was the development of female leadership in the scientific charity movement within a few decades of its origin. The Society recognized women as having a special propensity for the work, but it maintained the male-dominated structure of its past.
The Home Missionary Society did follow the lead of the scientific charity movement in doing away with the indentured servant system of foster care by the late 19th century. Instead, they would refer the family of children to a country home and act as a facilitator in the placement. In 90% of cases, a relative or parent accompanied a child to the HMS. The majority of situations involved single or sick parents who held low-paying jobs, those people of demographics who in the late 20th century would receive public relief.
With children who needed long-term care, the Society did their best to keep a child with the same family, averaging only one or two transfers. Two-thirds of children who spoke 1:1 with visitors from the agency reported good treatment from their family, most of whom were younger children. It is important to note that the HMS increasingly was serving non-Protestant communities and young children, which likely led to their decision of non-proselytizing services around the same time as the emerging scientific charity movement of the 1880’s.
By the turn of the century, the scientific charity movement had increased coordination between service-providers. When advocacy efforts led by Mary Richmond created a government-reimbursed foster care system in 1913, it was clear that Family Service and other scientific charity organizations would be the preferred service-providers. The Home Missionary Society increasingly found that their child care work involved resource-sharing and communication with other Protestant aid organizations, and the emphasis shifted to an adoption program.
By 1945, the decision was made to incorporate the Society as a non-sectarian group, starting the organizational trend that led to its name change fifteen years later to the Inter-Church Child Care Society (ICCS). ICCS continued to receive government contracts and donations, serving mostly young children. When a study recommended the dissolving of their adoption services, they adapted their organization to serve other community needs. In 1980, ICCS merged with the Philadelphia Society to Protect Children, another organization that shifted its charitable functions as the community needs changed and government roles shifted.
Conclusion: The Home Missionary Society was a model of pre-welfare state charity in the United States and the way in which people with a spiritual aim, in this case members of the Methodist-Episcopal Church, find themselves providing material assistance when they encounter the reality of community needs. It was one of the earliest charities in Philadelphia of a wide scope, and their legacy is carried on in Turning Points for Children, the nonprofit that developed in 2008 after the reorganization of several service-providers to children.
This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.
Clement, P. F. (1979). Families and foster care: Philadelphia in the late nineteenth century. Social Service Review, 53(3), 406-420.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (2015). The Home Missionary Society of the city and county of Philadelphia. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from https://hsp.org/blogs/roots-branches/the-home-missionary-society-of-the-city-and-county-of-philadelphia
Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (2003). Home Missionary society of the City of Philadelphia Visiting Book. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/h/homemissionary3036.htm
Home Missionary Society of the City of Philadelphia. (1885). Fifty years’ work in the “spread of the gospel, relief of the poor, and care of destitute children.” Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Company. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/semicentennial1800home
Philadelphia Society for Services to Children. (n.d.). Philadelphia Society for Services to Children Records. Temple University. Retrieved from https://library.temple.edu/scrc/philadelphia-society-services
Rauch, J. B. (1974). Unfriendly visitors: The emergence of scientific philanthropy in Philadelphia, 1878-1880. Dissertation of Bryn Mawr College, the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research
Toll, J. B. & Gillam, M. S. (1995). Invisible Philadelphia: Community through voluntary organizations. Philadelphia, PA: Atwater Kent Museum
For further reading:
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Barga, M. (2013). The Home Missionary Society of Philadelphia (1835-present). Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/programs/child-welfarechild-labor/home-missionary-society-of-philadelphia/