I recently gave a lecture (sermon?) on the fascinating and inspiring story of Thomas Chalmers’ West Port Experiment in the slums of Industrial Edinburgh, from 1844-1847. You can listen to it here. Ad urbem!
In this quote, we see that while Chalmers’ was deeply concerned to alleviate poverty, yet there is a benevolence that is higher still!
“Does it never occur to you, that in a few years this favourite will die—that he will go to the place where neither cold nor hunger will reach him, but that a mighty interest remains, of which, both of us may know the certainty, though neither you nor I can calculate the extent. Your benevolence is too short—it does not shoot far enough a-head—it is like regaling a child with a sweetmeat or a toy, and then abandoning the happy unreflecting infant to exposure. You make the poor old man happy with your crumbs and your fragments, but he is an infant on the mighty range of infinite duration; and will you leave the soul, which has this infinity to go through, to its chance? How comes it that the grave should throw so impenetrable a shroud over the realities of eternity? How comes it that heaven, and hell, and judgment, should be treated as so many nonentities; and that there should be as little real and operative sympathy felt for the soul, which lives for ever, as for the body after it is dead, or for the dust into which it moulders? Eternity is longer than time; the arithmetic, my brethren, is all on our side upon this question; and the wisdom which calculates, and guides itself by calculation, gives its weighty and respectable support to what may be called the benevolence of faith.”
When Thomas Chalmers began the West Port Experiment in 1844, he delivered a series of four public lectures on the principles of the territorial or parochial method of evangelism. In it, he told his hearers how he had decided many years ago to disassociate all his parish labors from matters of public charity. To have combined them would compromise the great errand on which he labored. “I fairly cut my connexion with them all [the public charities]; I let the people understand that I dealt only in one article, and that, if they valued the advantages of Christian instruction, they were welcome to any approximation which I could make to them” (Memoirs 2:684). In short, Chalmers would distribute not the “bread that perishes,” but that which bread “endures to everlasting life.”
The Church must not get sidetracked from her calling. Christ gave the Church “one article” to distribute to the nations. She is given the keys, not to an earthly storehouse of perishables, but to the very kingdom of heaven.
Here is a sermon Thomas Chalmers preached to a benevolent society that sets forth his principles for Christian benevolence. He advocates at once a very practical, thorough-going humanitarianism, steering a course between the pitfalls of merely throwing cash at poverty on the one hand and a this-worldly focus on outward needs (anticipating the Social Gospel?). He was a stalwart evangelical, both ‘practical and pious.’
Again, remember that Chalmers’ sermons are nowhere near as generally accessible as other 19th century preachers such as Spurgeon and Ryle. If you haven’t read or listened to a Chalmers sermon, you may want to read my short intro under the ‘Audio’ tab. But while going through Chalmers can be hard work, it is work well spent!
Here is an excellent article on a contemporary of Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie. Like Chalmers, Guthrie (1803-1873) had a heart beating for the good of the souls and bodies of those downtrodden in Industrial-Age Scotland. He also embraced the parish plan of action. ‘Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work. Let us embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph, in a coat of many colours. Let our only rivalry be the holy one of who shall do most and succeed best in converting the wilderness into an Eden, and causing the deserts to blossom as the rose.’
Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was an early voice opposing the compulsory, state-managed poor relief, what would later evolve into the present monster of the welfare state. He argued that a compulsory, bureaucratized system tended to stop up four natural fountains of charity within society, fountains that had long adequately refreshed the poor in rural Scottish society for ages. In order, these fountains were (1) personal industry, (2) the kindness of personal relatives, (3) the sympathy of the wealthy, and (4) the sympathy of the poor for each other. Unstop these by eliminating the compulsory system, and in general, poverty is naturally relieved. A few words from Chalmers himself on each, from his Collected Works, Vol. 14:
(1) Natural fountain # 1: personal industry.
“We know not a more urgent principle of our constitution than self-preservation; and it is a principle which not only shrinks from present suffering, but which looks onward to futurity, and holds up a defence against the apprehended wants and difficulties of the years that are to come. Were the great reservoir of public charity, for the town at large, to be shut, there would soon be struck out many family reservoirs, fed by the thrift and sobriety, whichnecessity would then stimulate, but which now the system of pauperism so long has superseded;—and from these there would emanate a more copious supply than is at present ministered out of poor rates, to aliment the evening of plebeian life, and to equalise all the vicissitudes of its history” (402).
(2) Natural fountain # 2: the kindness of personal relatives.
“One of the most palpable, and at the same time most grievous effects of this artificial system, is the dissolution which it has made of the ties and feelings of relationship. It is this which gives rise to the melancholy list of runaway parents, wherewith whole columns of the provincial newspapers of England are oftentimes filled. And then, as if in retaliation, there is the cruel abandonment of parents, by their own offspring, to the cold and reluctant hand of public charity. In some cases, there may not be the requisite ability; but the actual expense on the part of labourers, for luxuries that might be dispensed with, demonstrates that, in most cases, there is that ability. But it is altogether the effeet of pauperism to deaden the inclination. It has poisoned the strongest affections of nature; and turned inwardly, towards the indulgences of an absorhent selfishness, that stream which else would have flowed out on the needy of our own blood and our own kindred. It has shut those many avenues of domestic kindliness by which, but for its deadening and disturbing influence, a far better and more copious circulation of needful supplies would have been kept up throughout the mass of society” (402-403).
(3) Natural fountain # 3: the sympathy of the wealthy.
By the state-managed system, the result is that the wealthy and the poor “stand to each other in a grim array of hostility—the one thankless and dissatisfied, and stoutly challenging as its due, what the other reluctantly yields, and that as sparingly as possible. . . Were this economy simply broken up, and the fountain of human sympathy again left free to be operated upon by its wonted excitements, and to send out its wonted streams throughout those manifold subordinations by which the various classes of society and bound and amalgamated together – we doubt not that from this alone a more abundant, or, at least, a far more efficient and better-spread tide of charity would be diffused throughout the habitations of indigence” (404-405)
(4) Natural fountain # 4: the sympathy of the poor for each other.
“In the veriest depths of unmixed and extended plebeianism, and where, for many streets together, not one house is to be seen which indicates more than the rank of a common labourer, are there feelings of mutual kindness, and capabilities of mutual aid, that greatly outstrip the conceptions of a hurried and superficial observer: And, but for pauperism, which has released immediate neighbours from the feeling they would otherwise have had, that in truth the most important benefactors of the poor are the poor themselves— there has been a busy internal operation of charity in these crowded lanes, and densely peopled recesses, that would have proved a more effectual guarantee against the starvation of any individual, than ever can be reared by any of the artifices of human policy” (405).