Expose It: History's Fatal Wounds for Unwanted Children


By Sheri Mellema | Church Partnership Director

Do you ever have those days when you listen to the news and wonder how things can get any worse?  At every turn there is barbarism, cruelty, injustice, and inhumane treatment.  Here we are, these “enlightened” creatures living in the twenty-first century and you would think we would have progressed to standards of decency which procure respect and a certain level of compassion for every human on the planet.  But clearly that is not the case.  I think of the Syrian conflict and the thousands of refugees who are tortured by starvation and abuse, the nearly three hundred Nigerian girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram with virtually no hope of being found and rescued, the brutal tensions between the Ukrainian and Russian people, and over 153 million children who have no one to call mother and father.

In a world of scientific advancement and technological wizardry how is it that we forge ahead at lightening speed in those pursuits and yet cannot manage the ability to protect life and those who are vulnerable?  Perhaps Solomon was on to something when he wrote, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”  (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  Both Solomon and the lesser-known writer Ambrose Bierce peaked my curiosity.  Bierce suggests, “There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don’t know.”

Hence my search began!  I started with one question that of course led to a second question, which we will unpack in a little bit.  Question number one is, “What happened in ancient Roman society when a child was born that was unwanted?”  The answer I learned was horrific and unexpected.  William Stearns Davis, former professor of Ancient History at the University of Minnesota explains it like this:

“Public opinion, as well as the law, allows a father (at least if he has one or two children already) to exercise a privilege, which later ages will pronounce one of the foulest blots on Greek civilization.  After the birth of a child there is an anxious day or two for the poor young mother and the faithful nurses—Will he ‘nourish’ it? Are there boys enough already? Is the disappointment over the birth of a daughter too keen?  Does he dread the curtailment in family luxuries necessary to save up for an allowance or dowry for the little stranger?  Or does the child promise to be puny, sickly, or even deformed?  If any of these arguments carry adverse weight, there is no appeal against the father’s decision.  He has until the fifth day after the birth to decide.  In the interval he can utter the fatal words, “Expose it!”  The helpless creature is then put in a rude cradle, or more often merely in a shallow pot and placed near some public place; near a gymnasium or the entrance to a temple.  Here it will soon die of mere hunger and neglect unless rescued.  If the reasons for exposure are evident physical defects, no one will touch it.  Death is certain.  If, however, it seems healthy and well formed, it is likely to be taken up and cared for not out of pure compassion, however.  The harpies who raise slaves and especially slave girls, for no honest purposes, are prompt to pounce upon any promising looking infant.  They will rear it as a speculation; if it is a girl, they will teach it to sing, dance, play.  Aristophanes, the comic poet, speaks of this exposure of children as a common feature of Athenian life.  There is little or nothing for men of a later day to say of this custom save condemnation.”

As I read I found myself gasping in disbelief!  How could this possibly have been accepted as common practice?  How could a human infant be discarded so easily and in such cruel fashion?  But in fact, it was indeed common.  So much so that the public places where infants were abandoned became known as “exposure walls.”  It was routine and not at all alarming to walk by these walls and find unwanted babies.  The selling of children was illegal during these years and without any communal support or options, parents and especially single parents, most likely became desperate.  By the time the first Christian emperor Constantine came into power, he authorized the sale of infants.  This change occurred in A.D. 313 about the time Christianity was gaining influence.

Yes, I know, you are wondering how this proclamation is any more merciful!  I had the same reaction.  Well apparently, it was a tiny step in a more positive direction.  “While selling one’s children seems horrible to us, the alternative had been death or slavery: in the one case, worse, and in the other, the same, so sale of infants offered some hope, especially since in Roman society some slaves could hope to buy their freedom.  Even with legal permission to sell one’s offspring, exposure didn’t end overnight, but by about 374 it had been legally forbidden” (N. S. Gill, “Roman Exposure of Infants”).

St. George of Rome

With the advent of the church I am glad to say that conditions for unwanted children slowly became better.  There were courageous people like Callistus of Rome who developed a passion for abandoned children.  At great risk to himself he organized “Life Watches” at exposure walls where babies could be rescued and placed with Christian families.  Callistus had himself been a slave in the late 2nd century, which probably explains his perseverance in sparing children from a similar fate.  Similarly, Saint George Diospolis also known as the “dragon slayer” performed daring rescues of children in distress.  His commitment to the vulnerable cost him his life.  He fell victim to Diocletian in the Persecution of 304.  By the Medieval Age there was an incredibly brave young girl who advocated especially for the unwanted mentally ill.  She felt that there was no such thing as an unwanted child and that life must be protected.  Sadly this young girl was murdered at the tender age of fifteen by her own father who despised her faith in God.  She later became known as Saint Dymphna of Belgium and she is credited with the inspiration for a hospital and orphanage in Gheel, Belgium that is aiding children and adults to this very day.

Saint Callistus

During the Middle Ages and in the 18th and 19th centuries, a new practice developed.  Churches and eventually Christian missions and foundling homes provided a safe, anonymous way to care for abandoned children.  The “foundling wheel,” as it was called, was an opening or flap in the outside wall of a building that opened to a soft warm bed inside where an infant could be placed and a bell could be rung to alert the caregivers that a baby had arrived.  Near the end of the 19th century foundling wheels were no longer used and an updated version called a baby hatch took its place.  Baby hatches have become more prevalent since 1952 and are currently used in many countries outside of the United States.  They provide the opportunity for a mother or father to reclaim their child within a certain time period, they offer the prospect of adoption, and they give the option of life in countries where female infanticide is practiced.

Saint Dymphna

It is truly astonishing to reflect on our heritage and see that countless Christ followers before us created a path that literally changed the plight of the orphan.  Author and historian Dr. George Grant concludes, “The whole of church history is really the story of Christians caring for their neighbors in ways that are simply unfathomable by the rest of the world.  There has never been a time when the church has not been the primary champion for those who have been all together set aside.”

So after exploring “some old things” that perhaps we didn’t know, (many thanks to Solomon and Mr. Bierce) it seems wise to ask the second questionWhat happens today in our modern society when a child is born that is unwanted?  As you know there are a myriad of answers and many of them depend on the location of where the question is being asked.  There are still answers that reflect “nothing new under the sun” like abortion, slavery, infanticide, abandonment, and the selling of children.  But thanks be to a miraculous God, there are also answers like adoption, supportive church communities, foster care being provided by faith-filled families, and birth parents being given the support and structure needed to raise their children.  There is still courage and bravery where parents will dare to keep and raise their children in spite of political pressure and penalty.  There are mercy-laden families within the global church who will take in a cousin, niece or nephew after catastrophe has struck.  There are international churches that partner with western churches to provide home-based care for children without families.  And best of all, there are no longer exposure walls.

Certainly there is a lot of suffering in this world.  And yes, it can be depressing to listen to the news on many days and unfortunately that will be the case until Eden is restored.  But we are called to hope, courage, and love!  We can say with confidence through the redeeming work of the cross that there is more opportunity for the restoration of orphans than ever before.  Christ followers have always led the fight and we need to continue leading the fight today.

One of my favorite quotes from John F. Kennedy is, “There are risks and costs to action.  But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”  I think humanity regresses when we mindlessly slide into inaction because of our affinity for ease.  Please pray with me that we will bravely press forward for what we know to be true and right; that we will have courage like our Christian ancestors to protect and care for the orphaned and vulnerable children of this world.

How has learning more about our history changed your perspective?  In what ways are you taking action and maybe more importantly, in what ways have you become comfortable with inaction?  Comment below!

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