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The Church and Poverty

1897 — Western Unitarian Conference


Mr. Gannett, in one of his searching and illuminating essays, describes “The Three Stages of the Bible’s Growth.” First, we have the Bible as loved and revered literature; second, we have it petrified into a quarry of dogma, and, third, we have it as loved and revered literature again, only loved and revered with all the ethical discrimination and the refinement of feeling which have accrued unto us in more tan a millennium of human life.

Someone might write an analogous history of “The Church and Charity.” While the inspiration of the church was an ideal life, the life of Jesus, but yesterday live din the midst of men and tomorrow to return unto them again — a life of human tenderness which exemplified the teaching, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” — the members of this church were attached not alone by the bonds of a common spiritual experience and a common expectation of a future heavenly society; they felt intensely the social bond of their common humanity and became willing stewards over one another’s wants and weaknesses. The initial impulse toward generosity and self-sacrifice given by Jesus’ teaching and example was, it must be admitted, to a great extent, relieved of natural obstacles by the early doctrine that the present world-society was soon to end, and what, then could it profit a man to be seeking preferment and laying up treasure in this perishable world? However, the primitive Christian communism was a quite natural outcome of the influences that were strongest and best in the early Christian Church. “For we are members of one another”; “if eating meat maketh my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world stands”; “if I have all faith so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing” — these are quite natural expressions of the feeling of one ness among the members of the primitive church. And the exclamation of the Pagans — “See how these Christians love one another!” — was a tribute to the genuineness of that exceptional manifestation of the truly religious life.

In those times and among those people, poverty was not regarded as it is today. The Ebionite doctrines, which gloried in poverty for its own sake, had still weight, the early converts were most of them poor, and the very genius of their religion was to share with each other all they had — need being the title to help. As long as the Christian brotherhood was real — vitalized by the Spirit of Him who said, “He that has two coats, let him impart to him that hath none” — the church had no problem of poverty in the modern sense within its borders. And the attitude toward poverty and misfortune without is disclosed by the Emperor Julian’s efforts to inaugurate a Pagan charitable movement, “because,” he said, “it is a scandal that the Galileans should support the destitute not only of their religion but of ours.”

But when the Christian Church, released from persecution, had acquired the power to persecute; when, abandoning the hope of Christ’s early return to establish the Messianic kingdom, it conceived the new motive of building up a temporal kingdom for him and his chosen ones; . . . when the compassionate Man of Galilee was apotheosized into an inhuman god, commanding, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels,” then the Church took thought of the saving quality of charity, of such words as, “Whoever giveth a cup of cold water only shall in no wise lose his reward,” and “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the last of these, ye have done it unto me,” and “He that hath pith on the power lendeth to the Lord.” The giving to the poor went on, but it was largely divorced rom the sprit of love and brotherhood which made Paul exclaim, “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing!”

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The Lady Bountiful, dispensing loaves to all who come, “no questions asked,” or those two duchesses who went about craving the privilege of performing the most menial and loathsome tasks for sick paupers (merely as a means of spiritual grace until themselves), these are the conspicuous types of Christian charity through many centuries, though we cannot doubt that the real charity, which is love and which vaunteth not itself and seeketh not its own, lived on in the heart and life of many a devout follower of the religion of Jesus, and so the torch was handed down.

Today we are entering upon what Miss Jane Addams has happily named “the renaissance of Christianity.” Beginning with the worship in spirit, then continuing for long in the worship of the letter, the text, the dogma, Christianity is now swinging back again into the spirit of its founders; just as the Bible has passed from literature through dogma back to literature again.

But, as our estimation of the Bible has added to it all the insight and ethical discrimination of many hundreds of years, so modern Christian charity, at is best is a return upon a spiral, back to, but yet far above that of the earliest time.

Today there is some zeal, according to knowledge dearly bought Today the Church realizes that she has been through centuries contributing to create the poverty that now confronts her, and the more enlightened members of that church no longer contend for a distinction between Christian charity and human charity; no longer kindly apply first century precepts to nineteenth century problems. All true philanthropists, whatever their names or antecedents, rest back upon that fundamental principle, which was laid down by Jesus and others, that men should love and serve each other; and Christian charity and scientific charity are becoming one.

Today the Church, in so far as it is wise, seeks the causes of evils it would remedy. Not so often to give unto him that asks as to contrive that he shall not need to ask. Regarding poverty as a symptom of physical, mental, moral, or industrial disorder or disease, the problem is how to find and apply the remedy. A few churches of today (and it will be many churches of the future) engage in this high and holy task — a task so great that it overflows Sunday and fills every day of every week. Preaching from the pulpit those eternal principles of human right and brotherhood which are at was with every form of oppression and slavery and slothfulness and those truths of self-reverence and worship of the highest which would life men out of mean and ignoble ways of life; seldom seeing to commit the church as a church to specific schemes of Reform, but seeking to so enlighten the minds and touch the hearts of the people that they, as business men or lawyers or doctors or editors or legislators or aldermen or laborers, as women in public or domestic life, shall commit themselves, according to their several consciences, to whatsoever things make for the common good. 

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O, but to help the worthy is not so hard! To make a loan, to find employment, to give cheer in times of hardship and discouragement — this will do.

But the unworthy! Here is the task of the Church and of the world. To relive poverty of manhood, of motive, of hope; to sting into life the deadened purpose; to cure locomotor ataxia of the spirit; to life upright the cringing pauper soul (whether these problems are associated with physical destitution or not), her is the task of church and state, of man and God! To give food and clothing — what avail? Nay, it is dire need like this which demands the costliest gift in human power.

Out of the chasm that opened in the Roman Forum, so the legend reads, came forth and awful voice, demanding that the most precious thing in Rome be cast thereon ere the fearful hollow would be closed. And men brought their stores of gold, and women their jewels, and cast them in. And still the chasm yawned, till the noblest Roman youth of them all came to the brink and looked in and cast himself into that pit, and it was closed.

And here and there a man, a woman, has read and understood this parable and has cast a pure, true, rightly-yearning life into the yawning gulf of direst human need; has lived or died, as need might be, for others’ weal. And whether it has been Father Damien on the leper island, or Clara Barton ministering to the outraged Armenians, or Booker T. Washington among the benighted negroes of the Black Belt of the South, or Arnold Toynbee or Jane Addams, or the Salvation Army lassie amid the forsaken ones in the slums of a great city, or the humblest father and mother making sacrifices that their children may enter into a richer life, or the countless mother, father-hearts that yearn over the unmothered, unfathered little ones, all these testify that her in the self-forgetting life is the more excellent way; and they hear  the voice of one who greatly loved, saying:

“Children, love one another, love another! For love is of God!”



Source: Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universality Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936, ed. Dorothy May Emerson (Skinner House Books) 1999, pp. 519-523.