Thomas Chalmers has been widely acclaimed for his views and particularly his applications of social concern. And within the current Reformed world, he is pointed to as an example for modern day ‘mercy ministries.’ Consequently, I’d like in this final commentary on Cheyne’s The Practical and the Pious to turn to the principles of Christian benevolence that Thomas Chalmers advocated – principles that the contributors to this collection of essays have helped me grasp a bit better.
(1) The priority of spiritual benevolence
First, I think Mary Furgol was the most helpful in bringing to the fore the evangelical cast of Chalmers the philanthropist. She demonstrates that Chalmers’ view of social concern meant that one should redress the spiritual needs of the poor ultimately. That is the priority. And so she cites Chalmers, “The main impulse of his [the Christian’s] benevolence, lies in furnishing the poor with the means of enjoying the bread of life which came down from heaven, and in introducing them to the knowledge of these Scriptures which are the power of God unto salvation to every one who believeth” (121).
Chalmers felt obliged to deal with the issues of the body because this was the only effective way to deal with the issues of the soul. And so Furgol observes,
His often clinical approach to poverty and its relief must be seen in the light of his growing conviction that the most important thing was to safeguard the eternal welfare of men’s souls. Having realized that he would not be free to concentrate on this until he had dealt with the problem of poor relief and its interference with a minister’s valuable time, as well as its detrimental effects on the morals and the Christian education of the people, he therefore turned to the task of evolving a specific plan to combat the evil. The main purpose behind the plan, however, was still the religious one of bringing the Good News to the poor, and it is vital to understand this when examining his later solution of the problem of poor relief and assessing its impact and success (128).
I wonder, in this connection, if Chalmers is so neglected in the present day precisely because he was too evangelical for the sociologists and too sociological for the evangelicals. It is a delicate balance to retain an evangelical priority in ministry and yet cultivate a meaningful, active humanitarianism.
At the same time, some within the Reformed world hold Chalmers up as an example for mercy ministries. Yet some seem to coordinate ‘word’ with ‘deed,’ shifting the center of gravity from the preaching of the cross to a middle position. From my reading, I don’t think Chalmers would have gone there.
That being said, perhaps the ‘mercy ministry’ movement in Reformed Christianity is only seeking to correct the excessive other-worldliness of 20th century fundamentalism that retreated from social action, scared silly by the Social Gospel. That is laudable. I only hope that the pendulum is not rushing past the golden mean.
(2) The focus on locality
If you have read this blog with any frequency, you will certainly recognize the following theme resurfacing here – locality. As any realtors worth their salt (if there are any left) will tell you, the three things that make a property desirable are: location, location and … location. Well, Chalmers never wearied of beating this same drum as well. Locality is vital to the enterprise of Christian benevolence.
For Chalmers, this simply meant that those who would bring the Gospel in word and deed to the poor must to be brought into regular contact with them. Locally. If they do not live in the area, they must regularly visit the area. But even prior to this, that area must first be defined and then assigned to certain benefactors. Without definition, there is no clear locus for intelligent compassion. The vastness of the problem will be daunting without a manageable, delineated territory. But once the areas are defined and parceled up, they must be allocated. An unassigned locality is just an abstraction. Its plight will have no real pull. But once it is assigned – or adopted, if you will – then the spiritually and economically privileged will have a tie to it, a workable plot of their own to cultivate. The rich and poor will be brought together in the locality of the poor, and the results should be evident in time. Multiply this thousands of times over across a nation, and you have Chalmers’ model for dealing with poverty. It is a grassroots solution.
McCaffrey comments on this, as well as on the influence of Chalmers’ locality principle:
Chalmers’ insistence on the need to reform the individual first in the locality, as the means to reforming society in general, continued to be remarkably vibrant in its appeal in both Britain and the United States. In both countries he found a ready audience in those reformers who sought the good society and who were increasingly chary of leaving its realization to the chance workings of unrestrained lasseiz-faire capitalism on the one hand or too extensive a state-imposed regulation on the other (53).
As I reflect on it, there is no question that the locality principle, bringing the benefactors into regular contact with the beneficiaries, goes against the grain of the urban situation. Cities are notorious for the evil of anonymity. Sin likes darkness; it retreats from community especially if community is viewed as an old socio-religious ball and chain that holds people accountable. Now, that is not to suggest that people always migrate to cities for sin. (Though I don’t think that 1 in 3 San Franciscans are gay because their gene pool is different.) Frequently, there are economic pressures that call individuals from field to factory. That is the way it was in Industrial Age Scotland; that is the way it is in 21st century China. But the reality is that cities not only afford more economic opportunity: they also facilitate sin. Sin loves options and hates the Sartre stare.
That’s not the only reason why the locality principle doesn’t easily fit with the urban context. There is also the socio-economic stratification of cities. Today, we call this ‘white flight.’ I’m not sure all of that is bad. People want to raise their children in peace and safety. Many who live in the slums aspire to get out. But it is a reality – almost a law. Distance between the privileged and the underprivileged just happens. Government has tried to change that, as with busing; but it never sticks. I would suggest that North American inner cities have become a kind of de facto social waste confinement area. We retreat from the problem and thus the Welfare State cannot but step in. Otherwise, there will be social unrest.
Yet, while the locality principle is like the syrup of ipecac to the city’s culture, it is medicine that must be swallowed. The spiritually and outwardly privileged must be brought into contact with the spiritually and outwardly underprivileged. And it won’t happen by some government program. It must happen through an army of volunteers. Volunteers who will bridge the geographic divide into needy localities.
Incidentally, the old scheme of parish visitation was built on the locality principle. One cannot care some someone that he doesn’t see, with whom he does not come into contact. And that visitation must be regular if it is to be meaningful.
(3) Voluntary relief
For Chalmers, the cure of ‘pauperism’ – the 19th century term for dependency on the state – lies in a voluntary program. He firmly believed that involuntary schemes (state programs) are doomed to failure for four reasons, according to Checkland:
First, people become systematically trained to expect relief as a right, thereby destroying the connection which nature has established between economy and independence and between improvidence and want. Second, neighbours and kindred of the poor lose their private sympathies and abstain from providing relief. Third, as the number of poor increases they will be less comfortably relieved, since the allowance per pauper tends to decrease. Fourth, an artificial system tends to be wasteful, both in terms of increased expenditure on paupers caused by their demands for relief as a legal right and by the increase in the number of individuals needed to administer relief. It was Chalmers’ belief that every extension of the poor’s fund is followed by a more than proportional increase of pauperism, and he contended that there should be no compulsory assessment, no certainty on the part of the poor that they would obtain relief, and no possibility of the numbers in receipt of relief being infinitely augmented (131).
And Hilton supplements this evaluation of Chalmers’ thought here, explaining, “State poor laws and organized charity transformed beneficence from a thing of ‘love’ and ‘gratulation’ to a subject of resentment on the part of the rich, dependence on the part of the poor, and ‘angry litigation’ between the two” (146). Leaving the old voluntary model is a recipe for class wars.
Next, education is absolutely vital. Writes Checkland, “He believed that education was the fundamental need of the lower orders, transcending in importance and, indeed, canceling out the need for most poor relief” (131). Since the Reformation under John Knox, education had been of paramount importance in Scotland. It was no different for Chalmers. Education furnishes the key for the self-improvement of the poor. Time and money are better spent in providing this form of benevolence.
This is why Chalmers was such an advocate of ‘Sabbath’ or ‘Sunday Schools.’ In their origin, they were not Bible classes for the young of middle-class churches as they are today. They were the only forms of education that many poor people had at all in those days. Sunday Schools were very much agencies of benevolence.
(5) Intelligent benevolence
Which leads us to the distribution of monetary benevolence. Obviously, education is a long-term investment, and some people require immediate help. Chalmers’ response was to lay down certain guidelines, which he both followed and instilled within his diaconate at St. John’s.
Furgol enumerates these guidelines in a survey of his diary entries:
These entries reveal how Chalmers was striving to put into practice his convictions that people should be encouraged to be as independent as possible, that if relief were given it should be minimal, and that is must at all costs be made obvious that no regular official relief system could be automatically depended on in the event of a simple plea for help. Moreover, a letter written to William Johnson of Lathisk at this time reveals two more aspects of his ideas being put into practice: that friends and relatives should be called upon to respond in a spirit of Christian charity, and that any relief given should only be in cases of extreme and deserving want (124).
Dare we call this ‘compassionate conservatism?’
On this basis, some have strongly criticized Chalmers for idealizing a cold, clinical brand of philanthropy. Cheyne writes in his introduction that the strongest criticism that has been made was “a strange heartlessness [that] underlay the treatment of poverty worked out by Chalmers and his supporters” (20). Nor was Chalmers without his critics during his own lifetime. William Pulteney Alison opposed Chalmers’ dogged adherence to strict voluntary relief. He even critiqued the St. John’s model as dealing harshly with the poor under the guise of Christian stewardship. And so Checkland quotes Alison, “The grand object kept in view by almost every parish is the possibility of evading the duty of relieving the poor” (133). Ouch!
Now, it is hard for me to evaluate the degree of truthfulness in these criticisms. Was there a knee-jerk reaction to open-handed benevolence in extreme fears of giving to the ‘undeserving?’ Did they err on the side of thrift and not on the side of liberality? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the case. And if so, was there some degree of discontinuity between the proverbial Scottish benevolence before Chalmers and that of Chalmers’ more business-like social experiments? And was it called for, given the great demographic shifts from the rural areas to bustling cities?
Having been reared in evangelicalism, I often heard that the concern for our nation’s poor is the responsibility of the Church. The Welfare State exists because we won’t feed the poor. And prior to my own study of Chalmers, I was under the impression that the St. John’s experiment – what little I knew of it – was proof that Chalmers thought it was. But now I’m not so sure.
The following is a thesis that needs confirmation, so I put if forth tentatively. But certain things seem to be emerging as I read him for myself.
I think Chalmers thought that it was the concern of the state to make sure that all its citizens were cared for, physically and spiritually. Those in government are fathers. Citizens are children. The state ought to seek out a Church and finance it for the spiritual instruction of its people, much as a wealthy aristocrat would hire a tutor for his son [see my essay on Chalmers and establishments].
Being a believer in liberal economics, the best way to care for the people, generally speaking, is to avoid interference in the marketplace. But what of the poor, the victims of the unfeeling free market? The state has a duty to care for them as well. Only, this is not to be done by legal assessments (i.e., legislated ‘wealth reallocation’). It should be left voluntary, on the lines of the old Scottish model.
But the state should support the poor by supporting the Church of the poor – the establishment, which is first of all the spiritual instructor of the people. By subsidizing a religious establishment, lives are changed. Drunkards are sobered, prostitutes are made chaste, thieves go to work, and spendthrifts turn frugal. That is how the state may and ought to care for the poor, Chalmers contends.
But further, the state ought to aid the poor by providing for universal education. The spiritual education of the established Kirk is the first and most important prong of that agenda. But the second is not far behind. Education is the key to self-improvement, and consequently, the improvement of the nation. ‘Give a man a fish, and you have fed him for a day: teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.’
Yet, Chalmers wasn’t blind to the fact that the state has to do more for the poor than providing spiritual and secular education. The state cannot say, ‘be ye warmed and filled,’ yet do nothing immediately for the hungry. It should not leave the poor altogether to the whim of, well, whoever. Rather, it should take an active role in encouraging and facilitating neighborly benevolence, particularly the benevolence of the wealthy.
This is best and most efficiently done through the mechanism of the established Kirk. The Kirk, after all, operates territorially and already competently cares for the poor of its own number. The Kirk performs this care best because it operates on the soberest principles. “If a man will not work, let him not eat.” The Kirk already has assumed the spiritual care, the cura animarum, of the people, and the state only acknowledges that reality, honoring it in a pecuniary way. She also cares for the body of the unchurched throughout its parishes since love comprehends the whole man, body as well as soul. Why not, then, outsource ‘welfare’ to her? If I am not mistaken, that is exactly how Chalmers sought municipal cooperation in the St. John’s experiment of Glasgow.
If this is Chalmers’ view of the role of the Church and the care of the poor, then he obviously thinks it is a responsibility of the Church when and only when the state explicitly contracts with her. It happens when she enters into a partnership with the state as a religious establishment. Before that, the state does not recognize the Church. She is not chosen to care for the souls of a nation’s citizens or their bodies, for that matter. She has no special obligation to the poor, other than the law of love to one’s neighbor.
If I am right on my assessment of Chalmers, and if Chalmers is right (and, surprise of surprises, I lean that direction), then we as an organized Church have no special responsibility for the poor. We have no formal authorization, because the state wishes to retain management of this beast directly.
Yet, I am hardly suggesting that the Church has no responsibility for the nation’s poor, or that Chalmers thought that unestablished Churches may wash their hands of this great civic duty.
Generally speaking, I wonder if it is not so much the obligation of the Church qua Church to care for the nation’s poor as it is the duty of the nation, which comprises also the Church. The care for the poor is our duty not as the Church, but as citizens. And, of course, our Christian principles all the more compel us to our neighborly duties. It is not the Church’s problem per se. But it is the Christian citizens’ problem, collectively with the rest of the nation.
This is a collective problem. We as Christians are called to “seek the peace of the city” where He has placed us in our earthly exile, and to “pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall [we] have peace” (Jer. 29:7). We are Christians first, yes. But we are also citizens of an earthly order. I am a citizen of Rhode Island. Our prison system has swelled to an overflow. Our unemployment rate is the highest of any state in the nation. This is not someone else’s problem. This is my problem, because I am a citizen of Rhode Island. It is not the Church’s problem, directly. Yet it is the Church’s problem, insofar as the Church in secular matters holds it citizenship on earth.
Very practically, I think that what we have before us is an opportunity for volunteers. The state will not ask us to educate its people in the truths of Christianity. Nor will it ask us to care for their bodies (except on April 14). Yet it presently will not interfere with us if we choose to volunteer.
That we volunteer to care for souls is just another way of describing evangelism. But volunteering for social improvement beyond the community of faith can be sticky. The ministry of the Church should not “leave the word of God, and serve tables” (Acts 6:2). And while we must “do good unto all men,” we are “especially” to do so for “the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Let us not forget that one great apologetic argument for the authenticity of our faith is the love that Christians have for each other (Jn. 13:35).
Yet to some degree and in a very tangible way there must be concern for our neighbor. He has a body, and not just a soul. So let us follow Chalmers as he followed our Lord, “who went about doing good” (Acts 10:38).