Or, Mrs. Mortimer’s bad-tempered guide to religion around the world.
By John D. Spalding
Victorian children’s writer Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer was a woman of deep piety--and of even more profound prejudices. Born a Quaker in London in 1802, she converted to Evangelicalism at age 25 and devoted her life to the proper religious development of children, a task that involved extolling the virtues of Protestantism and denouncing as corrupt or evil every other form of faith and practice.
In 1833, she published “The Peep of Day,” her first of 16 books and by far her most popular, eventually selling a million copies in 38 languages. Subtitled “Or, a Series of the Earliest Religious Instruction the Infant Mind is Capable of Receiving,” “Peep” is a Bible primer seemingly intended to terrify four-year-olds into faith. In the opening chapter, for example, Mrs. M explains that though God housed our souls in flesh and bones, what fragile bodies He gave us, indeed:
In the 1840s, Mrs. Mortimer’s dark mind turned to world geography, as she produced a trilogy of travel books cataloging the faults and sins of virtually every nation on earth. Thus, the Irish “are very kind and good-natured when pleased, but if affronted, are filled with rage”; the Italians are “ignorant and wicked”; and the Turks are “so grave that they look wise. But how can lazy people really be wise?” In Sweden, she wrote, “Nothing useful is well done… The carpenters and the blacksmiths are very clumsy in their work.”
Best of all, these casual condemnations came from a woman who only ventured beyond her beloved England twice.
Two years ago, writer and editor Todd Pruzan compiled Mrs. Mortimer’s geography classics into one volume, “The Clumsiest People in Europe.” Her observations are so misinformed, so over-the-top, they're benign and make for hilarious reading. And yet, as Kurt Andersen noted on the back cover, "The Clumsiest People" is also a valuable book. “Mrs. Mortimer’s ignorant, self-confident, dreadfully English disrespect came at a moment of British imperial ascendance,” he wrote. “It’s interesting to read her now, at a moment when the American empire is both ascendant and—one sometimes worries—guided by an ignorant, self-confident, dreadfully American disrespect for other cultures and nations.”
Of course, Mrs. Mortimer had plenty of benighted ideas about faith and belief in other countries. Here are a few sterling examples of her religious xenophobia.
* * *
The Irish say they are Christians, yet most of them will not read the Bible. Is not that strange? Why do they not read it, if they are Christians? Because their ministers tell them not to read it. Because these ministers or priests tell them a great many wrong things, which are not written in the Bible, and they do not want the people to find out the truth.
The religion they teach is called the Roman Catholic religion. It is a kind of Christian religion, but it is a very bad kind.
If you were to go to a Roman Catholic church, you would see a basin of water near the door. What is it for? It is called “holy water,” because the priest has blessed it. Everybody dips his hand in this water, and sprinkles himself with it, and thinks that doing this will keep him from Satan. O how foolish!
There are houses in France called Convents. In some of these women live called nuns. They think they please God by shutting themselves up in a home. But what can the nuns teach? They teach their little scholars to work, and to sing, and to draw; and also they teach them to worship the Virgin Mary. Protestant parents ought never to send their children to convents to be taught.
Perhaps you think the Russians are Roman Catholics. No, they are not. Instead of minding the pope at Rome, they follow the religion of Greece. It is hard to say which is the better and which is the worse, the Greek or the Roman religion.
The Russians behave very respectfully to the priests: instead of shaking hands with them, they always kiss their hands; but they do not respect them in their hearts, for many of the priests are as fond of drinking as any of the people.
Their religion is the Roman Catholic.
All children who have read the Bible, know that the Jews were once called Israelites, and that they once lived in the land of Canaan. Where do they live now? In all lands; but more Jews live in Poland than in any other country.
The Jews are not idle like the Poles, but try in every way to get money. It is they who keep all the inns--and wretched inns they are, because the Jews are very dirty.
Are you not already sure there is a good religion in this country? The Protestant is the religion.
The Holy Land
The children of Jerusalem once loved the Lord, and sang His praises in the temple.
Which is the place where the temple stood?
It is the Mount Moriah. There is a splendid building now on that Mount.
Is it the temple? Oh, no, that was burned many hundreds of years ago. It is the Mosque of Omar; it is the most magnificent mosque in all the world. How sad to think the Mahomedans should now worship in the very spot where the Son of God taught the people.
The Buddhists are full of tricks by which to get presents out of people. Once a-year they cause a great feast to be made, and for whom? For the poor? No. For beasts? No. For children? No. For themselves? No. You will never guess. For ghosts! The priests declare that the souls of the dead are very hungry, and that it is right to give them a feast.
There is no nation that has so many gods as the Hindoos. What do you think of three hundred and thirty million? There are not so many people in Hindostan as that. No one person can know the names of all these gods; and who would wish to know them? Some of them are snakes, and some are monkeys!
The United States
The government supports no ministers, but leaves the people to find ministers for themselves. In the great towns the people have provided themselves with many ministers; but there are large tracts of country without any.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was The Kosher King.
Excerpts reprinted from The Clumsiest People in Europe with permission by Bloomsbury USA. Copyright 2005 by Todd Pruzan.
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