The Social Settlement: Its basis and function[1]

The social settlement movement dates back to the early seventies, and appeared in London as the result of the inspiration and efforts of men in Oxford University --- especially of Canon Barnett. The movement in these earlier forms was more or less definitely religious or ecclesiastical in its nature. Its later developments have been on the whole distinctly away from this ecclesiastical point of view. The settlement has come to stand by itself in the community as an institution that has its own reasons for existence, its own types of activity, and its own criteria by which to judge them. It is an outgrowth of the home, the church, and the university. The university and the church were responsible for its inception, and their creative ideas expressed themselves in a "settlement" which was to be the home of those who were engaged in its life. And this home was not to be simply the place of residence of those who undertook certain philanthropic and scientific work in the poverty-infested quarters of the city. The central fact in all settlements has been that these people have lived where they have found their interest. The corner stone of settlement theory has been that the residents have identified themselves with the immediate portion of the community where their work is found by making their home there. It is upon this foundation that the further characteristics of settlement theory and practice have been built. It is this foundation that makes the settlement an institution which distinguishes it from either the church or the university. It might seem to be a mere expression of the missionary efforts of the church. For the missionary makes his home necessarily among those for whom he works; and the settlement worker might be regarded as a scientific observer of social phenomena, who can observe accurately only in so far as he identifies himself with the community which is his object of study. Thus many scientists have become members of foreign tribes and communities for long periods, in this way winning the intimacy which alone could give them the information they sought. The settlement worker distinguishes himself from either the missionary or the scientific observer by his assumption that he is first of all at home in the community where he lives, and that his attempts at amelioration of the conditions that surround him and his scientific study of these conditions flow from this immediate human relationship, this neighborborhood consciousness, from the fact that he is at home there. He does not live where he does to save these souls from perdition, nor to study their manifestations. But he finds himself able to deal more intelligently with the misery about him and to comprehend it better because he is at home there.

It is this foundation upon the home that has made it possible for the settlements to spring up seemingly sporadically, to be peopled by men and women of widely differing ideas and temperaments. Each settlement has stood upon its own feet. It has justified itself and its own existence by the reality of its identification with the group about itself.

It is an interesting fact that settlements have flourished only where there has been a real de-

(109) -mocracy. Neither France, with its layers of society, its social castes, nor Germany, with its fundamental assumption that the control of society must take place from above through highly trained bureaus, have offered favorable soil for the growth of settlements. In France it is mutually impossible for men in different social groups to domesticate in other groups. In Germany nobody out of his own immediate milieu undertaking to enter into relations with others is at ease unless he has on a uniform indicating by what right he seeks information, gives advice, or renders assistance. I know personally of only one settlement in France, and it is practically a Catholic mission. Some time ago a student in social science in a German university consulted his professor on the possibility of starting a settlement in Berlin, and was advised that he would much better devote himself to his studies in order that he might get the requisite training to be of assistance in the community.

It has been only in England and America, where we appeal to the opinion of the average man for social control, that it has seemed of importance to social workers to identify themselves with this consciousness for the sake of directing their own work.

There are two phases of latter-day social and moral endeavor which are perhaps better exemplified in the settlement than anywhere else. One of these is the enormous increase of interest in our social problems, and the other is a somewhat novel type of moral consciousness that is occupied not so much with finding motives to do what is felt to be right, as in finding out in a given situation just what is right and wrong. I think both of these are due to an identification of moral consciousness with our modern scientific consciousness, and I think I can illustrate the first from an experience I have had this last summer.

It was my good fortune to meet the representative of the United States Marine Hospital corps who has been detailed to study the lepers on the island of Molokai, which belongs to the Hawaiian group, and on which all the lepers of those islands are segregated. I doubt not that very many will at once recall Father Damien, and that brilliant, eloquent, and excoriating letter of Robert Louis Stevenson, that was called out by a misinterpreted and private comment upon Father Damien by Dr. Hyde of Honolulu, If you do recall this letter, you have a very vivid impression of what, in Stevenson's mind at any rate, the immolation of oneself in this leper settlement on Molokai meant. It stood out at once as an instance of the highest sort of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation which missionary history has offered. The supposedly loathsome character of the disease and its very hopelessness added a quality of repulsion to the undertaking, and hence of heroism to the missionary, that seemed sui generis even in the annals of missionary heroes.

I have had many conversations with this pathologist who goes to the same settlement on Molokai, and will be in as close touch with these lepers as Father Damien. He knows that he can protect himself from infection, which Father Damien did not. He has no anticipation of following Father Damien into a leper's grave. Otherwise I do not see but that we must provide as refulgent a halo for this scientific pathologist as Stevenson provided for Father Damien, on the ground of the environment in which each has placed himself. For certainly this physician, who is working day and night with the thought of finding a method of treatment which will cure the disease or at least alleviate the misery which follows in its train, is inspired by as noble an ambition. Yet it never occurred to me till long after these conversations not to look upon him as a very lucky fellow, as he indeed regarded himself. He had had given him a scientific problem as

(110) yet unsolved, freighted not only with scientific but human interest, under the most favorable conditions, with unlimited resources behind him. He had already worked in the Philippines under less favorable circumstances upon smallpox, and had helped to add materially to our knowledge of that infection; and his appetite for this sort of achievement was whetted to a knife edge.

It is just this difference between an obligation to undertake a disagreeable duty and a growing interest in an intellectually interesting problem that is represented by the attitude of the resident in the settlement. He would be the last to regard himself as held' to his task by a stern sense of duty, or to regard his occupation as one which could only be done under such pressure. The same interest which the scientific observer of social phenomena takes to his investigations takes possession of the genuine settlement resident, for his first task is to comprehend his social environment. His most important virtue is not blind devotion but intelligence. There is nothing so interesting as human life if you can become an understanding part of it. It is the privilege of the social settlement to be a part of its own immediate community, to approach its conditions with no preconceptions, to be the exponents of no dogma or fixed rules of conduct, but to find out what the problems of this community are and as a part of it to help toward their solution. You will find the settlements at the points where the most intensely interesting problems in modern industrial and social life are centered. It is the good fortune of our time that moral consciousness has been able to tap so large a stream of intellectual interest.

The other function of the settlement, or of that movement of which the settlement is the most concrete illustration, is to enable us to form new moral judgments as to what is right and wrong, where we have been in such painful doubt. It is here that the settlement is enabled to accomplish what the pulpit cannot accomplish, The pulpit is called upon to inspire to right conduct, not to find out what is the right-unless the right is so plain that he who runs may read. While its dogma has been abstruse its morality has been uniformly simple.

When, then, new problems arise, such as the question of the right of the employer to use his property rights to control and exploit the labor of children and women, the justice of the union in its effort to advance the wage, and a hundred more such problems which have been crowding upon us, the pulpit is unable to solve them, because it has not the apparatus, and the scientific technique which the solution of such problems demands. In the meantime it holds its peace, for it must give no uncertain sound to the battle. The only overt social issues with which the pulpit in recent time has identified itself have been temperance and chastity.

The settlement, on the other hand, is not primarily engaged in fighting evils but in finding out what the evils are; not in enforcing preformed moral judgments, but in forming new moral judgments. Not that the settlement is to be confounded with the university in its scientific work. It is more than an observer, a student of a situation. It has voluntarily made itself a part of the community. It is finding out its own duty, not the duty of others. It is discovering proper lines of conduct, not primarily facts. The settlement is practical in its attitude, but inquiring and scientific in its method. If it did nothing else it illustrates concretely how the community ought to form a new moral judgment.


  1. Delivered in the Leon Mandel Assembly Hall on Settlement Sunday, October 28, 1907.

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