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Archive for the ‘Benevolence & the Diaconate’ Category

Here’s a really helpful introduction to Thomas Guthrie (1803-1873), a prominent minister in the Church of Scotland and later Free Church of Scotland and a champion of biblically sound poor relief.

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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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