Archive for the ‘Benevolence & the Diaconate’ Category

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.

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469px-Jacopo_Bassano_-_The_Good_Samaritan_-_Google_Art_ProjectHere 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!

Psa. 41:1 – “On the Blessedness of Considering the Case of the Poor”

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200px-ThomasGuthrie1870sHere 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.’

The author of this article, Andy Murray, blogs at Ragged Theology.  Andy also tells me that he’s just published a Kindle version of Guthrie’s memorable The City: Its Sins and Sorrows.

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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).

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As I was on a walk in the woods with my youngest daughter, the path occasionally turned too muddy for her.  Naturally, I picked the curly-headed motor up in my arms, carried her for a ways, and then plopped her down to resume her walk.  Not only was it natural to me, but for her as well.  She wanted to walk as much as she could – and I didn’t want to carry her longer than I had to! 

It occurred to me that benevolence, when natural, helps neither too much nor too little.  It aims to strike a happy medium in burden bearing.  Sometimes it seems like the easy and the most gracious thing to carry someone when they really could be walking.  But in reality, it not only harms them (“use it or lose it”), it also excessively weighs down and so harms the helper.  Carrying when there should be walking is a lose-lose proposition, aside from being just plain wrong.  But alternatively, we must steer clear of a sink-or-swim kind of indifference to others.  We cannot justify heartless unconcern for the suffering under the pretence of promoting independence.

The Apostle Paul said it best in the parallel dictums, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. . . For every man shall bear his own burden” (Gal. 6:2, 5).  Ah, the challenge of intelligent benevolence!

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Here’s a good post over at Feeding on Christ on practical guidelines for helping the poor.  Thankfully, there are still people out there in favor of intelligent charity!

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The following essay by A. T. Pierson, successor to Charles Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, is a nice little overview of Dr. Chalmers’ heroic Christian labors among the urban poor.  Before wading into Pierson, two observations from the essay. 

While I’m very familiar with the old West Port story, one of Pierson’s statements raised yet another angle on territorial outreach that I hadn’t considered in awhile.  The old, Reformed territorial plan helps reduce evangelistic recidivism. 

Second, I’m reminded of how Chalmers’ care for the unchurched aimed to ‘elevate’ that culture, if you will, into the culture of the Church.  Here’s a positive model for modern Reformed missions.  Cultural sensitivity, o.k.  But faithful mission ultimately means the inculturation (reformation?) of the outsider.  That may seem patronizing; but then again, so is mission.  For more on that, read on!

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By A. T. Pierson, D.D. (Presbyterian), Philadelphia.

Dr. Thomas Chalmers is a name especially worthy of a permanent record, as one of the men who led the way in the practical solution of that great problem of our civilization: How to deal with the masses in our great cities.

At his sixty-fifth year we find this greatest of Scotchmen on fire with all his youthful ardor, in this mission to the masses in Edinburgh, in which, as in Ephesus, the gold, silver, and precious stones of the sacred fanes and palaces were in strong contrast to the wood, hay, stubble of the huts and hovels of the poor. With sublime devotion Chalmers at this advanced age, when most men retire from active and arduous toil, entered upon the most difficult experiment of his life, that he might demonstrate by a practical example what can be done for the poor and neglected districts in a great metropolis.

The West Port, in the “old town” of Edinburgh, was the home of a population, whose condition may be described by two words, poverty and misery.  He undertook to redeem this heathen district by the Gospel, planting in it schools and a church for the people, and organizing Christian disciples into a band of voluntary visitors.  The name “territorial system” was attached to the plan as he worked it, and has passed into history under that sonorous title.

In St. John’s parish, Glasgow, he had already proved the power of visitation and organization.  Within his parochial limits he found 2,161 families, 845 of them without any seats in a place of worship.  He assigned to each visitor about fifty families.  Applications for relief were dealt with systematically, and so carefully yet thoroughly that not a case either of scandalous allowance or scandalous neglect was ever made known against him and his visitors.  There was a severe scrutiny to find out the fact and the causes of poverty, to remove necessary want and remedy unnecessary want by removing its cause.  The bureau of intelligence made imposture and trickery hopeless, especially on a second attempt.  And not only was poverty relieved, but at a cost which is amazingly small.  While in other parishes of Glasgow it averaged £200 to every 1,000 of the population, and in many parishes of England it averaged a pound for every inhabitant, in St. John’s it was but thirty pounds for 1,000 people!

It was an illustration of heroism in these latter days, when a man passed threescore years, whose public career both with his pen and tongue had made him everywhere famous, gave up his latter days to elevate the physical, mental, moral and spiritual condition of a squalid population in an obscure part of the modern Athens.  His theory was that about 400 families constituted a manageable town parish, and that for every such territorial district there ought to be a church and a school, as near as may be, free to all.  This district in West Port contained about this number of families, which were subdivided into twenty “proportions,” each containing some twenty families.

A careful census, taken by visiting, revealed that of 411 families forty-five were attached to some Protestant church, seventy were Roman Catholics, and 296 had no church connection.  Out of a gross population of 2,000, 1,500 went to no place of worship; and of 411 children of school age, 290 were growing up entirely in ignorance.  It is a curious fact that these 411 families averaged one child each of appropriate age for school; and that of these 411 children there were about as many growing up untaught as there were families without church connection.  This careful compilation of statistics revealed that the proportion of ignorance and of non-attendance at church correspond almost exactly; in other words, families that attend a place of worship commonly send children to school, and the reverse.

Another fact unveiled by this effort at city evangelization was that about one fourth of the inhabitants of this territory were paupers, receiving out-door relief, and one-fourth were habitual, professional beggars, tramps, thieves, and riff-raff.

Here was a field indeed for an experiment as to what the Church could do in her mission among the masses. Chalmers was hungry for such an opportunity; it stirred all his Scotch blood.  So he set his visitors at work.  But he did not himself stand aloof.  Down into the “wynds” and alleys and “closes” of West Port he went; he presided at their meetings, counselled them sympathetically, identified himself with the whole plan in its formation and execution, while his own contagious enthusiasm and infectious energy gave stimulus to the most fainthearted.  He loved to preach to these people, not less than to the most elegant audiences of the capital, or the elect students of the university.  He would mount into a loft to meet a hundred of the poorest, as gladly as ascend the pulpit of the most fashionable cathedral church, crowded with the elite of the world’s metropolis.  And those ragged boys and girls hung on his words with characteristic admiration.

Two years of toil, with the aid of Rev. W. Tasker, enabled Dr. Chalmers to open a new free church in this district; the Lord’s Supper was administered, and out of 132 communicants one hundred were trophies of the work done by him and his helpers in that obscure district. With a prophetic forecast Chalmers saw in this success the presage of greater possibilities, and a practical solution of the problem of city evangelization; and hence he confessed it was the joy of his life, and the answer to many prayers.

The plan pursued by Dr. Chalmers was not at all like the modern evangelistic services, an effort spasmodic if not sporadic, preaching for a few weeks in some church edifice or public hall or tabernacle, and then passing into some other locality, leaving to others to gather up results and make them permanent.  From the most promising beginnings of the sort, how often have we been compelled to mourn that so small harvests have been ultimately gleaned!  He organized systematic work that looked to lasting results.  The plowman and the sower of seed bore his sickle and watched for the signs of harvest.  And whenever the germs of a divine life appeared, they were nurtured, cherished, guarded, and converts were added to the Church, set at work, kept under fostering care, and not left to scatter, wander at will, or relapse into neglect.

As to his mode of dealing with pauperism, the sagacious Chalmers saw that while a ministry of love to the poor, sick, helpless, was a first necessity, it would be unwise and hurtful to their best interests to encourage them to depend on charity. The Church must not be an asylum in which indolence and incompetence and improvidence should take refuge. The poorest must be educated to maintain, not to sacrifice, self-respect, and must be compelled to form and maintain habits of self-help, industry, economy, thrift. Instead of clothing the poor with the half-worn garments of the better classes, he would have them taught to save money worse than wasted on tobacco, drink and vicious indulgence, and buy their own garments.  And the results of this wise policy were seen in the gradual and rapid improvement in appearance of the attendance at church—rags gave way to respectable raiment, and it was not the castoff clothing of their betters, either.

Chalmers had no less an ambition than to ameliorate and finally abolish pauperism; and his success in St. John’s parish, Glasgow, had proven that he was master of the situation; and no one can tell what results might have followed but for the poor law, enacted in 1845, which, by the admission of a statutory right to public relief, encourages improvidence, weakens family ties among the poor, conduces to a morbid satisfaction with a state of dependence, and thus sows the seed of the very pauperism it professes to relieve and reduce.

[Taken from The Pulpit Treasury: An Evangelical Monthly, Vol. 5, 1887-88]

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D. A. Carson has a great message recently placed on the Gospel Coalition’s website, entitled Is the Culture Shaping Us or are We Shaping the Culture?

Among other useful things he says, he gives a good caution to evangelical men concerned about balancing Word-ministry and Deed-ministry.  He simply says, makes sure that it is the Gospel that excites you.  If the Gospel becomes our ‘given,’ with social consciousness what excites us, then there is reason to be concerned.   As usual, Carson puts things quite well.

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“A Plea and Plan for a Coöperative Church Parish System in Cities,” by Walter Laidlaw

In this essay, published in the American Journal of Sociology (1898), Walter Laidlaw advocates among the Protestant church a voluntary ‘cooperative parish system’ in the large cities of the United States for the spiritual, moral, and socio-economic benefit of the people. His argument is threefold. First, it is the mandate of Christ to seek the entire well-being of men, both body as well as soul. Secondly, Laidlaw contends that the Church owes it to the taxpayers to seek the ‘moral uplift’ of the working classes. They ought not receive tax exemption for nothing in return. Quite an interesting take on the role of the Church in relation to a non-establishmentarian state! Last, the particular plan he advocates is the surest way to satisfy the mandates both of heaven and of earth.

Map of Lower Manhattan, 1847Positively, I think the article reproduces both the zeal of Thomas Chalmers on the need of Church to evangelize (and that wholistically) the burgeoning modern cities and his level-headed practicality in how the work ought to be done. Energetic, cooperative territorialism is the answer. While Chalmers is not mentioned, his fingerprints are all over it.

Further, Laidlaw certainly continued this legacy by endorsing the elevated philanthrophy that gives intelligently.

My only qualm is the faint note of evangelicalism throughout. It is there, but it is too subdued for my comfort. Presently, I’ve not found out much about Laidlaw’s theology (if anyone can shed some light, I would welcome it). I’m not sure whether he was an advocate of the Social Gospel or whether he retained a distinctive evangelical stance. But the essay is almost altogether devoted to the cooperative parish plan for the relief of outward human misery. I would say ‘Amen and Amen’ to Laidlaw if he unequivocally made the efficient dissemination of the apostolic Gospel the ultimate justification of the system. But right now, I’m at just one ‘Amen.’

Below are some great quotes, with a few comments interspersed.

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“Originated by the Holy One from one of the largest cities of Judah, commissioned in Palestine’s largest city, her literature christened with the names of the ancient world’s greatest cities and city, her social ideal a city let down from heaven, the church has the opportunity to take the primacy, beyond all question, in altruistic movements, by the institution of a coöperative parish system in cities” (796).

Lamenting over the relative failure of Protestant over Roman Catholic churches to retain their adherents in the large cities, Laidlaw writes,

“Protestantism’s families are not in Protestantism’s church because Protestantism’s church representatives, attending to the people on their communion and pew rolls, scattered all over the 13,000 acres of Manhattan island, have not time or plan to discover and recover the families found on no communion or pew roll.

“It should be a humiliation to Protestantism in New York that three Roman Catholic churches get at more families in the district than do ninety-five Protestant churches, among which are three resident churches. It is idle to ascribe the difference of efficiency in the district to denominational tendency, or national characteristics. It is rather due to the difference between regimentation and somnambulism [sleepwalking]. “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain,’ says Protestantism; and she does on underestimating human wide-awakeness and gumption through her admirable reverence for divine grace. She walketh in a dumb show of saving the city for herself or her Lord” (799-800).

Appreciating the work of the Evangelical Alliance (itself a brainchild of Chalmers) before him in seeking to bring the Gospel wholistically to the cities, Laidlaw critiques the over-idealism of a previous plan that had doomed it to failure. That plan failed in part precisely because of an overemphasis on cooperation:

“It is too ideal … in intermingling denominational visitors. The first step to be taken would [rather] seem to be to induce the churches to regard a geographical area as a special responsibility, and many a church would undertake this if, as a church, it were held responsible for the area, when it might not be willing to share the responsibility with workers from other churches. Spiritual life is systole and diastole indeed, both organization and individual discharging both organic functions at time, but if the church is a divine organization, we must concede her arterialism and assume that individuals are venous” (801).

“Christianity’s warm heart will say to her cool head, when she sees that her alms and uplift must be with both left hand and right hand: ‘Had, you must direct this business for me, or I shall fail in meeting this need. The Master himself did not feed the multitude by Galilee as a mob. He divided the five thousand into companies, and gave each of the twelve his sections to care for. And they did all eat and were filled, no one was overlooked. And they gathered up twelve baskets of fragments, a basket for each disciple, more food than they started with. Head, this need is so great that some hungry one is sure to be underfed, and some greedy one is sure to be overfed, unless there is method.’ And when Christianity talks in this strain, it will not indicate a cooling heart, but a glowing one, one that responds to the Redeemer’s desire, and ‘mind and soul, according well, / will make one music as before’” (803).

Last, Laidlaw gives a number of guidelines for such a cooperative parish system. Cooperation is more than inter-church – it also involves cooperation with civic officials for the ultimate blessing of the community. He gives one interesting instance of such cooperation in New York City during his time:

“For instance, the committee on parks recently circulated a petition, signed by everyone of the pastors in the area, asking the city authorities to locate a small park in the region. When the park is actually opened, it cannot but advertise throughout the whole neighborhood the fact that the church is interested in the people’s well-being” (806-7).

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Here’s a great piece written by Dr. David Apple, Director of Mercy Ministry at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  For anyone who has had experience trying to show mercy to those whose sin and folly patterns are deep, many of these guidelines will ring quite true. Here’s a link.

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