Lewis Wickes Hine/Corbis

Giving that worked

Poverty | With "work tests" for the able-bodied and disdain for indiscriminate givers, Christians in the past fought urban poverty with generosity plus discernment

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

Christians want to be generous, and that's as it should be. But we can learn from our predecessors who emphasized that generosity is only the first step. If we act without discernment, our generosity may actually be selfishness that gives ourselves a warm glow but hurts others.

We can learn from the oldest charity still existing in the United States, the Scots' Charitable Society of Boston, founded in 1657. The Society from its start resolved to "open the bowells of our compassion" but to make sure that "no prophane or diselut person, or openly scandalous shall have any part or portione herein." They viewed poor people not as standing at the bottom of a ladder but halfway up, capable of ascending to independence and even wealth if they saw themselves as created in God's image and were willing to live and work accordingly, but likely to descend into abject dependence and despair if they started to see themselves as animals.

Boston pastor Cotton Mather three centuries ago asked his church members to be charitable but also careful not to "abuse your charity by misapplying it." A half-century later prominent pastor Charles Chauncey instructed leaders of the Society for Encouraging Industry and Employing the Poor to be careful in "the Distribution of Charity" so they would not "dispense it promiscuously" and "bestow upon those the Bread of Charity, who might earn and eat their own Bread, if they did not shamefully idle away their Time."

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We tend to think of generosity in a linear way as the opposite of selfishness, but there's actually a spectrum: Generosity is in the middle, the selfishness of not giving at one end, and the selfishness of giving that warms the giver's heart but hurts the recipient, on the other. Jesus' parable in Matthew 25 emphasizes that "as much as you did to the least of these, you did to Me." That cuts both ways: A person who offers help is helping Jesus, but a person who gives money that goes for drugs is shooting heroin into Jesus' veins.

Two centuries ago Americans did not subsidize others in self-destruction. Some 23 Boston charity societies declared in 1835 that recipients should believe it "disgraceful to depend upon alms-giving, as long as a capacity of self-support is retained . . . [To] give to one who begs . . . or in any way to supersede the necessity of industry, of forethought, and of proper self-restraint and self-denial, is at once to do wrong, and to encourage the receivers of our alms to wrong doing." The groups declared that "Christian alms-giving" means that relief should be given only after a "personal examination of each case," and "not in money, but in the necessaries required in the case."

Similarly, the Boston Provident Association (established in 1851) gave food, clothes, and coal to those willing to work but in temporary need. The association refused requests from drunkards and asked supporters to give beggars not money but cards proposing a visit to the Association's offices, where volunteers would examine needs, make job referrals, and provide food and temporary shelter. It also developed a list that in 1853 contained 201 names of "impostors"-able-bodied persons who refused to work.

If these groups had developed such rules as a way to hold onto their funds tight-fistedly, we would be right to scorn them today. But the records indicate a generosity that flowed more regularly when contributors felt assured that their donations would help rather than hurt those in need. Pastors regularly exhorted listeners to give both with generosity and discernment. Leaving out either one or the other was wrong.

Later in the century, charities emphasized jobs for adults "able and willing" to work, or "able and willing to do more." Help in finding work also went to "the improvident or intemperate" who "are not yet hopelessly so." The "shiftless and intemperate" who repeatedly refused work gained classification as "Unworthy, Not Entitled to Relief." In this group were "those who prefer to live on alms," those with "confirmed intemperance," and the "vicious who seem permanently so."

Charitable organizations did not pretend to know from momentary observation the categories into which applicants fell: Instead, they offered "work tests." Agencies gave an able-bodied man an ax and asked him to chop wood for an hour or to whitewash a building. A needy woman generally took a seat in the "sewing room" (a child-care room often was nearby) and sewed garments that would be donated to the helpless poor or sent through the Red Cross to families suffering from the effects of hurricanes or tornadoes.


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