Public Square & Theology 101

Two Proven Ideas to Help the Poor

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In alleviating poverty, we often talk about the need for solutions on the local and individual level. But what does this look like in reality?

In today’s post, I want to offer two examples of Christian men who were successful in alleviating poverty.

Two pioneering men stood out as examples of the voluntary principle in action. Thomas Chalmers, born in 1780, put the principle into action locally in his parish in Glasgow. Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, who lived from 1801 to 1885, did so in London and became a more national figure.

Thomas Chalmers

Chalmers was a pioneer of urban mission activity through his social experiments in his Glasgow parish of St. John’s from 1819 to 1823. Chalmers denounced all forms of ‘legalized charity’ (i.e. government-instituted aid) in articles in the Edinburgh Review in 1817 and 1818. He set out to show that even the poorest of communities could achieve self-help without government compulsion.

He was faced with the challenge of what to do about the poverty that he saw and experienced in his daily work. To do nothing was not an option. However, the area for which he had pastoral responsibility was too big for one man to cover.

Chalmers broke down his area into numerous smaller districts and put a lay volunteer – a deacon – in charge of the poor relief in the district. This individual would then, with the help of others, visit those in need. This ensured that voluntary care and relief was provided and further, there was no need for the state to intervene.

This became the basis of Chalmers’ response to poverty. He encouraged enterprise, savings, and mutual help. In regard to Chalmers’ style of economic development, Clifford Theis states,

His method was to treat each person’s need individually, seeking always to uplift the disadvantaged, distinguishing between the “deserving” and “undeserving poor,” and involving family and community in the fight against poverty. During the next century, followers would implement these ideas throughout Great Britain, the United States, and other parts of the English-speaking world.

If Chalmers found it more effective to split up his parish, how much more efficient would it be for poverty reduction to be attacked at the local rather than national level?

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury

Shaftesbury was an English aristocrat, politician, and devout Christian who spent sixty years in public life. He converted to Christianity in his mid-twenties. He presided over organizations that became the powerhouses of  evangelical response to poverty in nineteenth-century London.

As a politician, Shaftesbury was involved in Parliament; he campaigned against prostitution and poor housing while advocating for those who suffered the ravages of mental health breakdowns. However, he never viewed the state as the solution. He saw the role of government as extremely limited and potentially damaging to the wider Christian and social cause.

Keeping this in mind, Shaftesbury spent his life living out Jesus’ calling to serve the poor, mainly focusing on the voluntary principle. In his view, lay workers employed in voluntary societies were in the best position to assess social need. Shaftesbury utilized this principle in many different organizations such as the Ragged Schools Union.

The Ragged Schools Union oversaw hundreds of individual schools run by Christian volunteers. In these schools, faith and education were seen as inseparable. They provided food, and even lodging, to those in need. As well as teaching the poor to read and write, these schools also encouraged training and support in both wider social provision and in enterprise.

The Union was formed in 1844 and its first annual report noted twenty schools, 2,000 children, and 200 teachers. In 1868, it reported 257 schools with 31,357 scholars. By the time of its report in 1870, it had added many services to assist the students in their development of character, health, literacy, and entrepreneurial spirit. It had meal societies, libraries, penny banks, clothing funds, shoe clubs, barrow clubs, sanitary associations, libraries, and rag collecting.

These services show the holistic nature of development enacted by the Ragged School Union. Students were taught basic academics, but also learned about Christianity and ways in which to take care of themselves. However, the government passed the Education Act of 1870, which introduced compulsory state education. This Act tore the Ragged School apart, making it impossible for it to continue. With regard to this, Shaftesbury commented:

The godless, non-Bible system is at hand; and the Ragged Schools…with all their burning and fruitful love for the poor, with all their prayers and harvests for the temporal and eternal welfare of the forsaken, heathenish, destitute, sorrowful, and yet innocent children, must perish.

Shaftesbury recognized that government had a role in helping the poor, but that was only in the protection of the most vulnerable, not in the ongoing response to poverty on the ground. He believed that government was potentially damaging to Christian social witness. The government replaced the efficient, Christian, voluntary organizations with hierarchical and mildly ineffective processes.


As the stories of Chalmers and Shaftesbury indicate, working with people on an individual level is far more effective than dealing with hierarchy. Coupled with the voluntary principle that encourages the rich to care for the poor on the local level, this form of poverty alleviation is efficient, effective, and biblical.

Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from IFWE’s forthcoming book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, due to be released in early 2014.  

How can we help the poor on a voluntary, individual level today? Leave your comments here.

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