Public Square

The Church and the Poor: Historical Perspectives

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Remembering the Poor

In the previous article, we looked at New Testament models of poor relief, noting that the early Christians were very generous in sharing what they had with those in need, but also that they were very careful about who was enrolled as dependents of the church. That said, the apostolic church considered “remembering the poor” to be among its most basic moral imperatives (Gal. 2:10).

Christians continued to take care of human needs over the succeeding centuries. Even prior to the legalization of Christianity, Christians took the lead in caring for the sick, even at great personal risk (as the Roman physician Galen attested). After Christianity was legalized, they, more than anyone else, fed the hungry (as the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate recognized); throughout history, the Church has also been heavily involved in education (as evidenced by the number of schools and universities that have been started by missionaries and churches).

In the Middle Ages, all organized charity was administered through the church or through para-church organizations known as confraternities. These lay religious institutions provided for the poor either generally or through targeted giving to specific causes, for example providing dowries for poor girls.

Medieval Monasteries

Perhaps the most interesting example of Christian efforts to aid the poor is found in the medieval monasteries. St. Benedict of Nursia, whose rules for monastic life were the foundation for nearly all Western monasticism, mandated that his monks take a vow of poverty and at the same time be engaged in work—understood primarily in agricultural terms as production of goods. There were two reasons for this: first, in the ancient world work was seen as demeaning, and thus having the monks work promoted humility; second, Benedict recognized that God gave Adam work to do in the Garden before the Fall, and so work was good no matter what society thought of it. And, as we have seen, the Apostle Paul also taught this.

But a curious thing happened. Although many of the monasteries became corrupt—little more than country clubs for the nobility, who lived in luxury whatever their vows said—other monasteries were vitally concerned with following a pure version of Benedict’s Rule. The Cistercian order is a good example of this. The Cistercians made sure that the monks were all engaged in productive labor and at the same time banned conspicuous consumption and luxurious living, insisting instead on a strict understanding of the vow of poverty.

Productive labor resulted in increasing profits. While some of that was given away, given the limitations on transportation and the relatively sparse population, there was still a surplus after giving to the poor. Since it was wrong to let the produce spoil, it was sold and the proceeds were used to purchase more land since the vow of poverty meant that the cash couldn’t be kept. This in turn increased the productive potential of the monastery. The thought was, if production is good, more production is better.

The monks themselves could not work all of the land, so they brought in tenant farmers who grew crops and gave a fixed amount back to the monastery. The monks thus provided employment for the lay people outside of the monastery, giving them meaningful work and a chance to benefit from their own labor.

The net result is that a strict understanding of the monastic vow of poverty led the Cistercians to become very rich, while also benefiting those who lived around the monasteries.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The monks understood that though work is good, drudgery is a result of the Fall and is therefore bad. Christ came to redeem us from the results of sin, and thus as His followers we need to work to restore meaning to work by eliminating drudgery. As a result, the monks also used their excess profits to find ways to harness technology to do repetitive, mindless work rather than having people do it.

Monks were the first to use waterwheels—a technology known to but never deployed by the Romans—to grind grain; the waterwheel was then adapted for a wide range of other uses outside of the monasteries, including operating bellows and trip hammers for forges, fulling cloth, and making paper. These technologies further increased productivity while at the same time eliminating some of the drudge work associated with production.

The monasteries were thus the beginning of many of the essential elements of capitalism, particularly the reinvestment of profits to increase production, motivated by a Biblical understanding of work and the image of God.

The unintended effect of all this was to raise the amount of goods available to people and therefore raise the standard of living in Europe across the board through the central Middle Ages. This also produced important social changes, including most notably the conversion of the vast majority of European serfs to free peasants.

Cities and the Poor

In the sixteenth century, cities began to see care for their own poor as a civic responsibility. The Reformation heightened this trend, since without the Catholic organizations, someone had to pick up the slack in caring for the poor. At the same time, many reformers continued to insist that this was an ecclesiastical function, with varying degrees of success.

At their best, town governments developed innovative and comprehensive approaches for dealing with the poor in a way the hodgepodge of confraternities and religious orders had been unable to do.

For example, when the city of Geneva converted to Protestantism in 1535, it replaced all of the Catholic relief organizations with a single “General Hospital.” The Hospital was a comprehensive social welfare institution that took care of all needs except communicable diseases. It used a vertically integrated, interlocking approach to provide for the needs of native deserving poor, orphans, the elderly, and those unable to work.

Orphaned, illegitimate, or abandoned boys would work on farms under the direction of the Hospital, thereby learning the skills needed to be farmers. The grain they produced was then brought to mills, where other boys were taught to grind the grain; it then went to bakeries, where other boys were taught baking. The bread was then distributed to the elderly and infirm who could not work for themselves. Girls were similarly given opportunities to learn skills that they would need later in life.

All of this was supervised directly by hôpitaliers and funded through the work of procureurs. When Calvin wrote the church order for Geneva, he identified these offices as deacons in the church, thereby baptizing existing Genevan practice and creating the kind of mixed church-state institution that is only possible in state churches.

Nonetheless, even in a world where church and state are separate, the Genevan model points toward a kind of church-state cooperation in social welfare that is actually practiced in many places in the US today.

More Than Just Feeding the Poor

These examples show that dealing with poverty involves more than just feeding the poor: it requires economic structures that promote human flourishing holistically. Significantly, this does not mean reorganizing society to shift wealth from those who produce it to those who do not; rather, it means providing opportunities to all to earn their own way and providing a safety net for those who cannot.

This all-too-brief history shows that biblical ideas about work, the image of God, property rights, and generosity lead to sound economic thought. And not surprisingly, those ideas also benefit society as a whole—including doing more to relieve poverty than any other economic system in history.

What is surprising is how few people in the church and the society today recognize the importance of the Biblical ideas, the role of the Church in economic thought, and the profound impact for good these ideas have had.

In the next and final article in this series, we will look at some specific principles we can glean from Scripture and history that can guide us in our approach to helping the needy.

Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship,

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