Clara Barton hated nothing more than feeling useless, and it was this impulse that led her to become a very effective schoolteacher, an intrepid Civil War nurse, an important early feminist, and ultimately the founder of the American Red Cross. She was genuinely heroic: amidst a civil war that, like the one in Mormon’s time, spread blood and carnage throughout all the face of the land, she fought to get close enough to the action to do some good, dodging bullets at Antietam as she rescued wounded soldiers from the field. Efforts to do the same during the Franco-Prussian War brought her into contact with the Red Cross, recently founded in Switzerland. Barton’s engagement was so strenuous that from time to time she’d collapse in exhaustion, her heart stricken and withered like grass.
Barton complicated her own legacy, though, with her habit of exaggerating her exploits. She, for instance, contacted the Swiss leaders of the Red Cross asking for their support in her plan to start an American branch, but she publicly insisted that they’d reached out to her. This is but one example of many. Barton thrived on the adulation of others: she needed to feel important. It would seem that she violated Jesus’ call not to do alms in order to be seen by others, and yet surely the good she did counted for something, right?
Enter Barton’s history with feminism. She was not born or raised a feminist (even though she always had liberal views); rather, her persistent battles with patriarchalist 19th-century American society made her one. She had to fight to get the same salary as a male schoolteacher she was replacing. Because women following armies tended to be seen and treated as prostitutes, she had to fight bureaucratic efforts to keep her away from the front, and even there she had to fight against officers and surgeons who only saw her potential to get in the way. Again and again, blind male prejudice put obstacles in her path.
Perhaps, then, Barton’s tendency to exaggerate has a kinship with the way that Tamar had to bend the rules to get justice from her father-in-law Judah. Deprived of recourse by “proper” means, both women had to think creatively. The problems Barton faced had to do with a widespread failure of imagination regarding women’s potential to act in a public capacity, and this led her to reach beyond her legitimately noteworthy accomplishments into the realm of fiction. The impulse is understandable, although in her case the truth was probably spectacular enough on its own to have done the trick.
As Paul wrote, though, love is the fulfilling of the law. In her days as a schoolteacher, Barton eschewed the switch commonly employed in classroom discipline: she preferred persuasion, longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned. This gentler approach meant that relationships formed with boys she only taught for a year often lasted decades, because they knew that her love was stronger than the cords of death. Barton perennially lacked confidence in herself, and yet because of this loving way of interacting with other human beings, her confidence will wax strong before God. Barton’s strengths and weaknesses were two sides of the same coin, seemingly inseparable from each other. May her story inspire faith that our own blended records might also be redeemed.
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, 1912
The Collect: O God, creator of this world that we have mired in conflict: grant that we, like your servant Clara Barton, might be instruments of succor and relief to those who suffer, just as your Son Jesus Christ ministers godly peace to us through the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For the music, here is a performance of the Shaker hymn “Love is Little,” arranged by Kevin Siegfried:
The biographical information in this post derives from Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Clara Barton: Professional Angel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987).