Death: Tragedy Teaching About God
The nineteenth-century Sunday School book collection is littered with stories of tragedy. Oftentimes in the form of sickness, harsh conditions, or murder, death weeds itself into the lives of many characters. Whether it comes in the form of personal suffering, or the suffering of loved ones, death is often portrayed as a tragedy that enables and inspires characters to learn more about Christianity, while also growing closer to the Lord through their anguish.
In The Orphan, the repercussions and attitudes towards specific death and tragedy are clearly lamented through a titular child who cries, “I have no father and mother to take care of me and teach me the ways of God” (The Orphan). This emphasizes the tragedy of death in her life, while reinforcing the importance of God and religion. A few lines later, the child is comforted by the kind words of the main character, who advises: “Let this be your comfort, when your father and mother are taken away from you…[the] Lord will be your friend.” It is through this advice that it becomes clear that both the importance of relying upon God and becoming morally devoted are not only encouraged, but are also brought about as a result of the suffering that comes from tragedy and death. This is also exhibited through the main character of The Pedler of Dust Sticks, who, upon losing his wife, “devoted himself not only more than ever to his children, but also to the good of his workmen” (Follen). Pain is often a platform in which lessons are learnt as a result of the vulnerability and fragile emotional state in which the characters are subjected to. As a result of being surrounded by darkness and suffering, the child in The Orphan and the man in The Pedler of Dust Sticks cling to something that will give them hope and direction: God. While death brings suffering, it is clear through the nineteenth-century Sunday School books that it also comforts and brings a renewed sense of purpose.
This purpose and comfort, however, is not nearly as present within the tragedies of secular works. While these texts share the same recognition of the tragedy that comes with death, they do not have the Christianly aspects of consolation and education throughout the process of dying and grieving. Rather, specifically, we see the horror and tragedy of death in Charles Drelincourt’s Christian Man’s Consolation Against the Fears of Death: “Death labors to undermine this poor dwelling from the first moment that it is built, besieges it, and on all sides makes its approaches’ in time it saps the foundation, it batters us with several diseases and unexpected accidents; every day it opens a breach, and pulls out of this building some stones” (Drelincourt). Death comes inevitably; sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, but always coming, leaving destruction and brokenness in its wake. The depiction of death in secular books is tragic and unbearable. In Drelincourt’s case, it is viewed a source that drains not only life, but happiness. While his depiction of death and suffering is incredibly similar to the tragedies in the Sunday School books, there is no suggestion redemption after death in Drelincourt’s work. As a result, loss and pain take hold because, in the secular world, death is viewed as permanent. Without faith, there nothing to motivate perseverance.
Pain and suffering are themes of daily mundane life. Tragedy strikes in the form of the death of family members, of terminal illness, of disasters. In the nineteenth-century, people were more susceptible to tragedy as disease, incredibly bloody wars, and harsh working conditions caused death to become commonplace throughout society. The Sunday School books of the nineteenth-century strive to show that despite these struggles, it is possible to persevere through faith, love, and fear of God by offering these lessons in relation to death. Without the comfort or the motivation to persevere, readers are left with nothing to hold onto. Secular books reveal a sense of permanence, which is the exact opposite of what the Sunday School books strive to teach. It is through examining both sides of this theme that it becomes clear that the concepts of comfort and perseverance in death, rather than wallowing and despairing, is what Sunday School teachers hope to instill within their students.
For other Sunday School books that exemplify this theme, in addition to those mentioned above, see The Emigrant Boy and Sarah’s Home: The Story of a Poor Girl Whose Father Was a Drunkard and Whose Mother Was Unkind in the collection here:
C. Drelincourt. A Chrstian Man's Consolations against the Fears of Death. 28th edn. Liverpool. 1811. p. 55. Print
Follen, Mrs. Eliza Lee. The Pedler of Dust Sticks. Whittemore, Niles, & Hall. 1856. Print.
Unknown. The Orphan. American Sunday-School Union. 18--. Print.