November 26, 2020

Boxing Day – And Another Ancestor Story

RobertWilliamBellOnly 100 years ago the number of people who died from disease was staggering. In 1918 the so called “Spanish Flu” swept the world killing an estimated 50-100 million people. At that time that represented three to five percent of the world’s population. Among the dead, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was my Great-grandfather William Robert Bell.

SarahJaneBellHis wife, Sarah Jane, was left penniless, along with three young children, Thomas, Rhia, and James. Sarah went to work in a linen mill. Thomas, at age 12, and Rhia, at age 8, had to leave school to work in the mill with her. Rhia was so small that a special box was made for her to stand on to reach the machinery. This serves as a reminder to me that we are only a few generations removed from child labor in the western world.

In order to help get her family out of poverty Sarah took a better paying job managing a movie theater. This brought an immediate reprimand from her church but they didn’t offer her any other viable solution. This ended any meaningful family involvement with the church for a couple of generations.

When Sarah Jane Bell died in poverty in Northern Ireland, her neighbors raided her meager possessions. The only thing recovered was her wedding ring. In 1990 when my brother and I both got married it was re-smelted and provided half the gold for the wedding bands that my brother and I now wear.

Today is Boxing day. Traditionally it is a day where help is given to those in need. I can’t help but thinking that if the church had assisted my Great-grandmother instead of reprimanding her, that our family history would have been quite different.

In the more immediate past my family has been the recipients of several gifts given through the church when we have had significant need. Once in the early eighties, when facing a hospital bill of $60,000, an anonymous gift was given through the church that covered nearly half of that. A couple of years ago, during a house flip gone bad, we were faced with no way to pay our mortgage. Our church came through with both a gift and a loan to help us through a very difficult time. For that we were and are very grateful.

As you go about your day today, if you find that you have been blessed with abundance, think about someone with whom you might share some of that abundance. You may give someone a Christmas that they might remember for a very long time.


  1. *insert blindingly obvious quotation from Jesus reprimanding the Pharisees for enforcing unreasonable standards of ‘holiness’ and doing nothing to help those trapped by them*

    • Yes, but is it ever right for a church to reprimand a parishioner for what he/she does for a living? I think it can be, but only if, as Mike notes, the church also works to come up with a viable solution.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Tip: “That’s YOUR Problem” is NOT a viable solution.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        ” to come up with a viable solution”

        A good general rule for life – if you cannot propose a feasible alternative, keep your mouth shut. Criticism is easy, solutions are hard.

  2. In churches over 30. Years, I have never heard leadership say anything to anybody about what kind of job they do. I don’t think Jesus did either. Can you imagine the types of jobs or sin involved in some jobs if all had to reveal their type of employment to church leaders?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “I have never heard leadership say anything to anybody about what kind of job they do”

      I have heard church leaders admonish people for being a member of a trade union. I have heard a church leader say that striking or any other type of labor organization is sin – it expresses a lack of gratitude for what gawd has provided as well as a failure to turn-the-other-cheek.

      I have heard church leaders admonish people – always women, specifically, as far as I can remember – for working in bars.

      I wonder if the affluence of a church congregation matters? I am certain we have local churches with very few unsalaried/unprofessional congregants. In such an environment I doubt the congregation would take much guff about their professions. This verses a church that is generally composed of wage workers?

      • I don’t know Adam. My comment us just my experience as a 30 year plus Evangelical. But ita probably the non-denom churches I’ve spent my life in. I really have never heard of a members place or kind of employment be an issue. But then, pastoral authority is never much in non-denom churches. Except of course the pastoral dictator kinds which I shall not name.

    • In my recollection of Jesus in the Bible, I don’t recall him ever condemning the tax collectors he ate dinner with, and that job was considered one of the worst of the times.

      • The early Church is a different matter. It routinely prohibited certain professions, and prohibited people from occupying those positions on pain of exclusion (excommunication?) from the community of believers: gladiator, magistrate, soldier, actor or actress, and others, were all at one time or another, in one place or another, prohibited in the early Church, and for several centuries. Whether the Church helped people who had occupied those positions from 1) freeing themselves from that work (which might not have been so easy, perhaps much harder than it is today) and 2) procuring other work, I have no idea.

        • Given Pope St. Clement’s offhand remark in his letter to the Corinthians about people selling themselves into slavery in order to give the money to those in need (perhaps like those in the wrong type of work), I surely hope they did.

  3. Fascinating story, Mike Bell! Again, thanks for sharing your family’s past!