The Chimney Sweeper

sweeper Today, the British government announced their intention to apologize for taking an estimated 150,000 poor British children from their fathers and mothers to ship them abroad.  The program, which ended just 40 years ago, was intended to reduce the burden of poor children on British society, and provide “sturdy white genetic stock” for the colonies.  In the first century or so, the program was administered by religious organizations! 

Imagine the churches today wresting children away from impoverished mothers and fathers, and sending them away to hard labor (and abuse) across the world – in the name of helping the children!

I’m reminded of William Blake’s poem about The Chimney Sweeper.  Excerpt from Songs of Innocence:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

And from Songs of Experience:

A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.


Some will see this story as further evidence that Christianity preys on children.  Whether pederast Catholic priest or Calvinist British Puritan, these critics will say, a strong secular government is necessary to protect children from Christianity.  I mean, isn’t that what Blake’s final stanzas in Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Experience alluding to – hypocritical Christian parents sitting in the church while their child dies outside?

However, I don’t think that’s right.  This story, and Blake’s poem, reinforces the fact that life has always been pretty terrible for poor children.  And while some Christians societies have been hypocritical about their moral responsibility to “let not your children pass through the fires of Molok”, at least Christianity bore within it the seeds of recognizing this sin.

Anyone who thinks these days are behind us – that we are beyond this treatment of children –  is indulging in wishful thinking.  And anyone who thinks that eradication of Christian values will prevent these old practices from returning is even further deluded.  As our postmodern Western culture cuts the chain from the Christian values that have anchored us for centuries, we already see a slide back toward euthanasia, eugenics, and all the worst of the past.  Speaking up for the rights of widows and orphans, and more generally for the least among us, must always be a moral prerogative.