A Desire to Save the Souls of Men

A Desire to Save the Souls of Men

This week we have the opportunity to consider P. T. Barnum and religion through different lenses by exploring a couple of fascinating letters written in December of 1845 while he was in England.  The two perspectives juxtapose Barnum’s personal religious beliefs and values with his penchant for worldly success, in this case having acquired a set of paintings of Jerusalem and the Holy Land with the intent of monetizing them as a display at the American Museum.   Interestingly, he was targeting particular audiences whom he wished to persuade of the “moral and religious instruction” to be gained by visiting his museum.  I found the contrast between Barnum-the-man and Barnum-the-businessman striking.

Today few people would think of P. T. Barnum as a “religious person,” but his spiritual relationship with God and unshakeable belief in Christianity were an integral part of his life from the time he was a young man.  He grew up during a period that historians refer to as the Second Great Awakening, a revival of fervent believers among Protestant denominations in America.  Barnum himself was raised in the Congregational Church, which had been the powerhouse behind New England’s colonial governments.  In Connecticut, that Standing Order of elites remained in authority until 1818, long past the colonial era, when the State formed a constitution separating church and state, and dissolving the Congregational Church’s official status.  As a teenager in the 1820s, Barnum became disenchanted with the Congregationalists’ dogma regarding salvation; he turned instead to Universalist teachings, based on the belief in a loving and forgiving God and the possibility of “universal” salvation.  Barnum remained a Universalist his entire life, and wrote an essay, Why I Am a Universalist, for a book of tracts published with his legacy gift to the church.

Although Barnum’s deep faith in God has been revealed in brief references throughout the copybook letters, thus far (as I am nearing page 500), there have been few letters that dwell on the subject of religion, except for “heated” exchanges with his Uncle Alanson Taylor.  Those letters are quite long and tend to be repetitive in their content, and I have not yet made them the focus of a blogpost.

Mount of Olives and Gethsemane
Mount of Olives and Gethsemane, general view, Jerusalem, ca. 1890-1900. Scenes something like this, though probably composed by the artist to appear more dramatic, would have been among the painted views of Jerusalem and the Holy Land that Barnum’s visitors saw. Although this image has the look of a painting, it is a photograph from of a set of photochrom prints (early color photographs) showing places in the Holy Land in the late 1800s. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

A letter written on December 19th to Mr. and Mrs. Henry Barnum, friends of the family, alerted us to Barnum finally realizing that his wife was well along in her fourth pregnancy.  However, the majority of that letter concerns religion.  Following a jovial if pointed criticism of his half-brother Philo, who had recently been awarded the position of Bridgeport’s Postmaster and was “filling his station . . . with more dignity than usefulness,” Barnum commented on religious matters, touting his success in convincing others of the beliefs he avowed.

Wicked fellow as I am, I am yet delighted to hear of the prosperity of what before God I believe to be the only true church, and the only religion which can give unalloyed pleasure to the believer, and render honor to the character of the Almighty. I set up till after midnight last night engaged in a discussion with a protestant gentleman of liberal education, and before retiring I had the almost inconceivable satisfaction of hearing him declare in presence of a dozen persons, that he believed the doctrine I had advanced to be true, but that he had never heard it before.   The other persons present (at the house of a friend here) all appeared inclined to agree with him.

Barnum stressed the importance of applying logic to religious doctrine, suggesting that it represented an advancement for humankind.  He asked Mrs. Henry Barnum to,

Give my respects & best wishes to the ladies (as well as gentlemen) of your “little social band,” and tell them to keep on the way rejoicing, for as sure as we are improving throughout the world in arts and sciences, just so sure is man breaking through that thraldom [slavery] of the mind which has so long made babes and fools on the subject of religion of men who in other respects professed giant intellects.

In fact, Barnum’s approach to defining a personal relationship with God was a “modern” concept that had come about with the Second Great Awakening.

Nothing is truer, than that the absurd doctrine of endless misery is receiving its death blow throughout the world.  Every day do men learn more and more to venture to think without asking leave from the Parson, and that is all that can be desired by the best friend of the human race, for if men will think, the idea of a God of unsatiable revenge is worse than ridiculous—it is blasphemous.

Barnum went on to describe his correspondence with Alanson Taylor, the uncle who had become his guardian after Barnum’s father died.

My uncle Alanson & self have been carrying on a religious correspondence across the Atlantic & while he has been begging me to save my soul, I have as earnestly implored him to cut off and burn up that branch of his creed which made God place one whom he had created beyond the power of repentance; or which made God under any circumstances either in this or any other world turn a deaf ear to the truly penitent sinner.

The Virgins Fountain
The virgin’s fountain, Nazareth, Holy Land, (i.e. Israel), ca. 1890-1900. The “religious” paintings that Barnum acquired included both present day scenes of the Holy Land and imagined scenes of the distant past. This artistic photographic image, a photochrom print, was created about 50 years after the paintings Barnum was showing, but suggests what visitors to the American Museum might have seen. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

The passages from Alanson Taylor’s letter that Barnum quotes to Mr. and Mrs. Henry Barnum are rather convoluted, but the essential argument was that Barnum was countering his uncle’s beliefs on matters of eternal salvation.  Taylor appeared to have backed down, and noted that he did not “hold to an entirely contrary opinion” as his nephew believed to be the case.  As Barnum quoted from his uncle’s letter, Taylor conceded,

I fully grant your position, and if you mean by penitence true Gospel penitence, I believe God will receive and forgive that penitent sinner, even if he come from the lowest depths of Hell.  Further will I say with you, neither do I “believe that God will put it eternally beyond the power of a being to repent with sincerity and truth.”

Barnum felt triumphant in reading these words, and told Mr. and Mrs. Henry Barnum, “. . . they afford me much, very much pleasure.”  Further, he noted, “I’ll not quarrel with such a doctrine as this, and I congratulate myself in no small degree for having brought such a concession from a man of the intellectual, argumentative, and somewhat stubborn powers & feelings of Mr Alanson Taylor.

Barnum also wrote to his close friend and the manager of his museum, Fordyce Hitchcock, about Alanson Taylor, as the two men were apparently like chalk and cheese and Barnum had long tried to smooth the relationship as best he could. “I am glad that you & Mr A Taylor have now a good understanding, but I at the same time not only agree with but urge the continuation of your sentiments regarding my money affairs.”  Barnum, having loaned money to his uncle, was not confident he would pay the interest due or repay the debt, and thus advised Hitchcock to

. . . drop him a line or tell him that I informed you he would pay the interest yearly & that you shall expect it at that time.  If he has not gone back to the Wheeler’s, same as before—he ought to return my $5000, but, no matter, if I lose that I shall never lose another cent in the same quarter.

Religion and money, two subjects people often argue about, form the segue to Barnum’s December 30th letter to Hitchcock, describing how he acquired a “religious novelty” for the museum and his suggestions for promoting it and planning the display.  The story begins,

I have bought 12 religious views, mostly relating to Jerusalem—they were chiefly painted by Smith [?] the best painter in London—he has been dabbling on them for 2 years, for a rich fanatic in London, who meant by their means to christianize the world, by having some person show them in the Fairs of England & c.  But when finished & a van built, no man could be found to take charge of them for they knew that the rowdy mob attending a Fair would not attend a religion show.

Barnum then explains the predicament in which the “rich fanatic” found himself, while still refusing to give up on his plan of “christianizing” people by displaying the paintings.

The artist who painted them offered him the cost, about £4 each- the Adelaide Gallery offered him £5. each & he would not sell to either, for he said the Adelaide was a worldly show and these sacred views should not be exhibited in such a place.  He then lodged them at the Polytechnic [Institute] to be sold only to a religious Institution—I applied & saw them, but as the Polytechnic folks knew me they dared not sell them to me—they however gave me the address of the owner & I wrote him saying that I was from the United States—that we had many wicked exhibitions there, and that as I felt a desire to save the souls of men, I should feel a great pleasure (such as the true Christian only knows) in being able to present those views to a religious society in my native town, of which I had the honor of being a humble member—but that I was poor in worldly goods, (though I trusted I was rich in the grace of God) I could not afford to give a large sum for them.

The letter convinced (or fooled) the owner of the paintings, who ended up receiving a fraction of what he could have gotten from the artist or the Adelaide Gallery.  As Barnum noted to Hitchcock, “The bait was swallowed and I bought the 12 views for £25.4 besides some 8 shillings expended in cab hire & c.”  Barnum then turned them over to a friend in London who would take care of shipping them via steamer, so that Hitchcock would soon receive them.  In preparation, Barnum concocted a plan to ensure the exhibition would attract visitors, and roped Hitchcock into it with the sly comment, “. . . as you are an ex-clergyman, I look to your giving these views a touch which will bring in the dollars, and if as will probably be best, they are to be brought out at the Museum I would make a few suggestions which you may think over & be guided by them or not.”

Barnum’s “few suggestions” turned out to be a larger plan, so to keep this blog post to a modest length I’ll just highlight his idea of targeting a specific audience, leaving discussion of his more extensive ticketing strategies for another time.  Barnum was first of all aiming to make this display palatable to the clergy, so careful planning was important to avoid the chance of causing offence and undermining the advertised “wholesomeness” of the museum experience.  He recommended Hitchcock hire a gentleman who had had experience narrating a famous panorama of Holy Land scenes (Catherwood’s Panorama of Jerusalem), and have him engage the audience by describing the views to create a sense of wonder and authenticity.  Barnum wanted to build his audience from Sunday school scholars, which meant getting the buy-in of clergymen.  To that end, he suggested that Hitchcock, “. . . make up a moral performance on wednesday & saturday afternoons (microscope, Physioscope, Chromotrope variety of views besides the religious—perhaps laughing gas & scientific experiments, but nothing objectionable to the clergy) . . . .”  Then he should prepare and

. . . send a circular to every clergyman in the city enclosing a free ticket for two persons for any wednesday & saturday afternoon.  In that circular, which Stuart or you can write—come the soft soap touch by talking about a desire to elevate the tone of amusements, to give them a moral & instructive turn & c & c and for this end Saturday afternoon during the winter such exhibitions will take place as will be calculated to please and instruct sabbath school scholars & c and that in order to give the clergyman an opportunity of judging for himself before recommending it to his church, you enclose him a free ticket—and that if he approves of the exhibition sabbath school scholars will be admitted for 10 cts each and a teacher to every 10 (or 20) scholars free.

Barnum advised Hitchcock to follow this up with a slightly modified circular to be distributed to Sunday school teachers, also enclosing tickets, and another variation aimed at the editors of “every religious & moral newspaper in N.Y. [and] enclosing a free ticket for two to each editor—inviting his opinion & assistance & c.”  He then extended the reach, suggesting they send circulars “to every clergyman & school teacher in Brooklyn” as well as in the city.

Confident in his plan, he assured Hitchcock,

Depend on it that this plan [will] gradually swell your receipts beyond your anticipations.  But the subject must be matured—the circulars written to the purpose & the whole thing be well put upon the stage and such a variety of good exhibitions shown as must please the most fastidious.  The bills for those afternoon performances must not be very blue but must announce that the performances are of a nature calculated to please and instruct children, families and the public at large.

To borrow one of Barnum’s favorite words, there was bound to be a lot of gammon (nonsense or chit-chat) in what was written in the circulars and handbills and said in narration, but if he played it right, these religious views could succeed in attracting local New Yorkers during the “dull” winter season when tourists were scarce and profits at the museum were low.  Who knows–perhaps Alanson Taylor himself will visit the Museum to see the Holy Land pictures!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

Now more than ever, the Barnum Museum needs your help!  Please consider making a donation to help support our educational programs!

Donate to the Barnum Museum!

Become a Barnum Museum YouTube Subscriber and be the first to see all our new episodes!

Subscribe to our new YouTube Channel