Shaw, Iain. High Calvinists in Action: Calvinism and the City, Manchester and London, c. 1810-1860. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Do the theological rigor, precision, and dogmatism of Calvinism inhibit evangelistic and benevolent efforts? Perhaps individual cases here and there may be pointed out in defense of this caricature. But in High Calvinists in Action, Shaw goes a long way to debunking the notion historically by turning to a period of great spiritual and social need, the Industrial Age in Britain, to two of her prominent cities, London and Manchester, and then to several ministers within them representing not only Calvinism but even ‘High Calvinism’ (a brand of Calvinism that one might distinguish as strongly emphasizing divine sovereignty in salvation, dismissing any idea of a free offer of the Gospel, advocating eternal justification, and a tendency to oppose progressive sanctification). When examining a cross-section of Calvinist and High Calvinist preachers in the industrial centers of England, does one find a cold, clinical indifference to the spiritual and temporal well being of their neighbors? And, consequently, are these chosen ‘frozen’ in inactivity, beyond the conventional routines of congregational life? The data, indicates Shaw, leads to quite a different conclusion.
I will refrain from going into greater analysis; to read the book is to have the basic point reinforced repeatedly with many illustrations and concrete data. If Shaw’s sampling is at all fair, which it seems that it is, then 19th century British Calvinists and even their more extreme representatives were decidedly not cultural retreatists. Instead of analysis then, I’d like to turn to some interesting issues and questions that the book raised for me.
First, I was ignorant of the fact that it was the general consensus of the times – and not just paternalistic figures like Thomas Chalmers – that poverty was to be seen perhaps more often as the fruit of vice and that the antidote was holding individuals accountable, stressing self-reliance and self-improvement, and giving aid only when absolutely necessary. According to Shaw, “the self-help, anti-mendacity dogma was not only prevalent across sect and party, but that it also functioned as a cohesive force in much of the religious community” (102). Consequently, the High Calvinist William Nunn of Manchester, when signing on to the newly created city Provident Society, was not unique in pursuing philanthropy by a strictly controlled process of personal visitation to avoid dispensing aid to the unworthy. And James Wells, High Calvinist serving in South London, in a sermon he preached entitled ‘A Rod for the Lazy and the Crumb for the Hungry,’ pointed to his own history of self-help, raising himself up from poverty to self-sufficiency as an example for the poor to follow. “And here I am now,” says Wells, “above fifty years old, and a better man than some of you that are hardly thirty; because you have been afraid of work and I have not” (quoted by Shaw, 267).
Our own philanthropy in 21st century America – including that of the evangelical element in our society – could use a heavy helping of this kind of reasoning. Is it not a biblical truism that “if a man will not work, neither let him eat?” And is it truly merciful to rescue a man from the rod of God, brought upon his back for his own folly? Will not God’s rod teach him better than our social programs? If this is not true social concern by 21st century standards, then forward to the 19th century!
But if this was a 19th century British consensus, and the High Calvinists of Shaw’s study were not particularly unique, what is to account for that consensus? Was it an outgrowth of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ that generally characterized English culture at the time? Or was it less of a religious and more of a cultural or political predisposition? Or a mixture of both?
It is also interesting to note in this connection that many Calvinists and High Calvinists recognized that not all poverty was to be chalked up to personal vice. (“Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents?”) Much poverty was the consequence of broader structural changes in economics and politics, and some men were more realistic and consequently more open-handed, according to Shaw. William Gadsby, a High Calvinist Baptist in Manchester, responded to the “appalling poverty” of 19th century English cities in a different manner from those “evangelicals [who were] steeped in the tenets of political economy, who shunned indiscriminate personal acts of charity as lending only to pauperism and indigence” (147). And therefore, “the poor in the district of his ministerial labours were ‘daily the objects of his commiseration and aid, and their temporal relief as well as their spiritual instruction was never lost sight of in his visits to their dwellings’” (quoted by Shaw, 147). And even more discriminating philanthropists among the High Calvinists probed the claims of the poor only to ensure that funds were given to those who “suffered from the common accidents of life, evils which no human foresight can elude” (quoted by Shaw, 101).
Which leads me to a further observation. The ingredient of systematic visitation and examination of the poor by lay-agents, as in the case of the Manchester and Salford District Provident Society (100) founded in 1833, appears to have been a practice that predated Thomas Chalmers. The description of their operations (101) struck me as remarkably close to what Chalmers presided over in his St. John’s parish in Glasgow, 1819-1823. I had thought his was a novel idea. But perhaps he was simply a popularizer of a practice already in place; or he was an efficient administrator… or both. And in confirmation of this suspicion, it is intriguing to note that Shaw traces the philanthropic work of that Provident Society back to Charles Simeon, “who was involved in schemes in 1788 to sell bread to the poor cheaply and visitation schemes to administer relief to the poor of Cambridge” (99, emphasis mine). Incidentally, I was just reading this morning in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History & Theology concerning Charles Simeon’s visits to Scotland and his warm reception among the Scots Presbyterians. Is there a line of influence there?
Another issue that this book raised for me – and didn’t necessarily resolve – is the matter of the church’s benevolent obligations to the surrounding society in which it is placed. Some of the High Calvinists whom Shaw treats had an inclination to focus on the ‘Lord’s poor.’ That does make perfect biblical sense. “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). We must “especially” do good to the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). But on the other hand, we are to love all men, not only in word, but in deed. Though there is to be special focus on the household of faith, Paul in his imperative does not exclude our doing good to those outside. “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men.” And though there was attention to the ‘Lord’s poor,’ Shaw demonstrates how that even the sternest of High Calvinists were men of true compassion and were moved by the scenes of wretchedness and squalor in the slums of the Industrial Age. How could they simply say, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled” (Jas. 2:16)?
So, provided that the emphasis remains on the household of faith, shouldn’t benevolent concern also extend to outsiders? Obviously in the contemporary North American context, it cannot be done indiscriminately – of course, it never really can. This is where I think the principles of visitation, inquiry, and accountability, embodied in these 19th century benevolent societies, come into play. Money without strings is not necessarily true charity. If 50 cents to every dollar you give goes to the local liquor store in the end, you are not helping anyone.
Furthermore, this is where, again, I think having actual defined parishes can really come in handy. The church phone, listed in the yellow pages, will always get a regular stream of calls for handouts. But there is no face-to-face, regular interaction. Consequently, accountability is nearly impossible. But adopt a fixed geographic district for spiritual and benevolent care, and the efficiency of the benevolence is improved by face-to-face visitation and accountability. And the phone solicitations can be answered with the official policy: congregation first, parish second.
Obviously, however, many middle-class churches meet in the suburbs. To adopt a parish in the suburbs is not a bad thing – but it will rarely bring us into contact with the poor, whether they are poor by their own vice or otherwise. Perhaps the answer here is to adopt a district, maybe 3 or 4 square blocks, in the inner city, and start a visitation (‘door-to-door’) schedule.
Finally, the book also helped illustrate the very practical and experimental nature of 19th century British evangelicalism in its evangelistic and benevolent efforts. I had thought that Chalmers was unique in the development, experimentation, promotion, and supervision of various ‘schemes’ and ‘societies.’ But he was apparently only representative; or again, a great popularizer and an efficient administrator. I know that there is a fine line between principle and pragmatism. It is not particularly easy to discern with confidence how well these men walked it. But one with zeal for the promotion of the Redeemer’s cause and the well being of his fellow man can’t help but read such ventures and ask whether or not we could really learn from them. And especially in conservative Reformed circles – because these doers, these activists, were anything but milk toast Arminians.