About the book

On May 10, 1900, an enthusiastic Brooklyn crowd bid farewell to the Quito. The ship sailed for famine-stricken Bombay, carrying both tangible relief―thousands of tons of corn and seeds―and “a tender message of love and sympathy from God’s children on this side of the globe to those on the other.” The Quito may never have gotten under way without support from the era’s most influential religious newspaper, the Christian Herald, which urged its American readers to alleviate poverty and suffering abroad and at home. In Holy Humanitarians, Heather D. Curtis argues that evangelical media campaigns transformed how Americans responded to domestic crises and foreign disasters during a pivotal period for the nation.

Through graphic reporting and the emerging medium of photography, evangelical publishers fostered a tremendously popular movement of faith-based aid that rivaled the achievements of competing agencies like the American Red Cross. By maintaining that the United States was divinely ordained to help the world’s oppressed and needy, the Christian Herald linked humanitarian assistance with American nationalism at a time when the country was stepping onto the global stage. Social reform, missionary activity, disaster relief, and economic and military expansion could all be understood as integral features of Christian charity.

Drawing on rigorous archival research, Curtis lays bare the theological motivations, social forces, cultural assumptions, business calculations, and political dynamics that shaped America’s ambivalent embrace of evangelical philanthropy. In the process she uncovers the seeds of today’s heated debates over the politics of poverty relief and international aid.


A “superb new book . . . By examining the contours of evangelical humanitarianism, Holy Humanitarians stands as a vital contribution to the field of American religious history, and also stands out as a thought-provoking query into the trenchant debates surrounding humanitarianism in the present day.”

Gale Kenny, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Barnard College

A “brilliant new book . . . Readers will find Curtis to be a trustworthy guide through the maze of thorny questions raised by her story. . . The holy humanitarians of today—including everyone from the heads of major philanthropic organizations to low-level sponsors of faraway children—would do well to ponder this book’s insights. Both the encouragement and the warning it offers are gifts in their own right.”

Heath Carter, author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago and co-author of Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism

“Deeply researched and cogently argued, Holy Humanitarians is a major contribution to the literature on the American missionary impulse and philanthropy. Curtis is a master stylist; her book is a model of how to write with beauty and grace.”

Grant Wacker, author of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation

“A wonderfully written and powerfully insightful book that stretches and deepens our understanding of how religion helped shape America’s engagement with the world. Historians have recently explored humanitarianism and philanthropy around the turn of the twentieth century, yet Curtis shows that we’ve only just scratched the surface.”

Andrew Preston, author of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy

“A stellar study of the popular Christian Herald and its outsized importance in the emergence of American evangelical media, philanthropy, and global engagement at the turn of the twentieth century. This is a colorful, compelling narrative.”

Darren Dochuk, author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism

“A remarkable achievement. Holy Humanitarians offers valuable insights into issues of domestic inequality, Christian–Muslim encounters abroad, and Americans’ ambivalent attitudes about the suffering of distant others. This thoughtful, nuanced exploration of the contradictions of humanitarian sentiment is rich and compelling.”

Melani McAlister, author of The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals