The more I study history, the more I’m convinced that once you dig beneath the incidental details, very little changes in this world. One such thing that seems to be an unfortunate constant is xenophobia.
In one of my Baptist historical studies, I found this snippet in a publication from a Baptist periodical from 1890 (The Baptist Quarterly Review, Volume 12). What really struck me is that if you changed a few country names, this would closely match some of the current anti-immigrant rhetoric. It seems that every generation has some great, deep-seated fears about being swept away in the tide of the “other.”
The article says that “the immigration of the Chinese should be restricted. It is…fraught with moral peril to our civilization…it has been largely that of opium-smoking, unintelligent pariah-casts…They have vices peculiar to themselves…They learn little of our language. They do not assimilate with our civilization…the present European flood of driftwood is only less to be feared…the undesirable element is increasing. The percentage of…Italians and Hungarians [are] increasing…They live in a way simply appalling…Few of them naturalize…The best judges declare that such immigration is hurtful and degrading…There are are aspects indeed in which the worst of European inflow is worse than that of the Chinese…For the general good of our country, as well as from fear of the surging of the nations upon us.. immigration ought to be restricted.”
One the one hand, especially as the son of parents that have immigrated from Eastern Europe into North America, this paragraph is startling, especially since it takes place in a Christian publication.
On the other hand, it is not very surprising at all. Other than the specific countries being mentioned, it very much reads like something from today. I see very similar things being posted by Christians on Facebook nearly every day.
Lest anyone come to that the Baptists have been particularly bad on this issue, two things should be noted: (a) these xenophobic sentiments were quite standard issue among Protestants in North America, not by any means limited to the Baptists and (b) many nineteenth century Baptists stood very boldly against the xenophobia of their day. In San Francisco in the late 1800s, the public opinion against the Chinese immigrants had grown so harsh that mobs were storming Chinese properties to hurt people and damage property. During that time, many non-Chinese Baptists banded together with guns to make a circle around the Chinese immigrants, to protect them.
To get a good picture of the vast array of responses to immigration in 19th century Protestantism I recommend Immigrants, Baptists, and the Protestant Mind in America by Lawrence B. Davis.
Whatever our political views or policy preferences, I hope we can learn from this history!