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The rise & fall of Christian charity

A 19th-century text speaks to 21st-century care of the poor


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The rise & fall of Christian charity
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"Make new friends but keep the old" goes for books as well as friends. "Some are silver and some are gold." In this issue and throughout the year we emphasize new books, but in May I ran across a golden oldie, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church (1883). The author, Gerhard Uhlhorn, was a German Lutheran theologian and historian who described how ancient Romans thought of work and charity, how the coming of Christianity changed attitudes and behavior, and what went wrong as the ancient church slouched toward medievalism. Readers may make their own judgments as to whether history is repeating itself.

Uhlhorn begins by describing how, in the early A.D. years, "the Roman populace became more and more a work-hating, pleasure-seeking crowd, which cheered every new leader in the hopes of new largesse." People began seeking a handout rather than a hand up: "The Roman of that day would much rather busy himself as a beggar and sycophant in the hall of some great man, than stick to any ordinary and regular work."

Roman charity was self-interested: "Of the duty of love . . . of such a compassion as is self-sacrificing for the sake of others, we hear nothing. Even in the making of gifts and presents, it is not the individual, but the State, the town, the citizenship that is regarded. There is plenty of liberality, but no compassion; plenty of good deeds, but none of the works of charity. While one furthers the interests of the State, one furthers one's own interests, for one depends upon the State; without it, one is nowhere. Here again we find selfishness at the bottom of all."

Uhlhorn grounds the lack of charity in a worldview that did not see humans as possessors of eternal souls: "If the individual man be only a passing shadow, without any everlasting significance, then reflection quickly makes us decide: Since it is of no importance whether he exist or not, why should I deprive myself of anything in order to give it to him? For the rule of life soon becomes this, that every one makes himself as comfortable in this life as possible; and this implies that he need not trouble himself about the poor and needy, whose existence or non-existence is at bottom a matter of no importance."

Uhlhorn connects the beginning of a change in thinking about charity, 2,000 years ago, with a spreading realization of God's sovereignty: "The rich gave what he gave to God, and the poor received what he received from God. Thus the temptation of the rich to exalt themselves above the poor, and the humiliation of the poor at being obliged to receive assistance from others, were removed, while at the same time discontent and murmuring, as well as insolent demands and presumptuous requests, were done away with."

Through this process both rich and poor learned humility: "The rich became conscious that he only gave back to God what he had first received. . . . Gifts had not the effect, so often occurring in other instances, of separating between rich and poor by increasing and rendering still more prominent the chasm existing between them, but were a bond which united them in God, by making them conscious of their oneness in the one Lord." As Clement wrote late in the first or early in the second century, "The rich give to the poor, the poor praises God, for sending to him someone by whom his wants are supplied."

Discernment in giving was as important then and now. Basil, a fourth-century bishop in Cappadocia, noted, "Great experience is required to distinguish between those who are really poor and those who beg only that they may collect money. He who gives to a distressed and sick person gives to God, and will receive a reward. But he who gives to a vagabond and parasite . . . gives it to men who deserve contempt for their audacity, rather than pity for their poverty." Ambrose, Basil's contemporary in Milan, described "the arts of pretended beggars" and emphasized the need "to take care lest the portion that belongs to the needy becomes the prey of rogues."

Discernment was possible because church deacons "rendered a great individualizing possible in the relief of the poor. Every one received the assistance that his necessities required. Efforts were above all made to render the poor again capable of work, and to put them in a condition to earn their own livelihood. They were directed where to find work, and were furnished with tools. Where there were still connections or relatives, their aid was first requested; they were not to suffer the Church to be burdened with those whom it was their own first duty to help."

Uhlhorn's summary of early Christian charitable practice: "At no time has the Church more strongly insisted on the duty of assisting the poor in love, but at no time also has she more decidedly pronounced that all is love and to be done with justice. Never has she more highly reverenced the poor, more kindly and lovingly treated them; never also has she been farther from fostering beggary, and making their life easy to idlers."

It was important for the wealthy to work, save, and give. Conspicuous consumption was wrong: "Simplicity, contentment, moderation, are required of every Christian. All luxury, all wantonness met with the more disfavor, the more the surrounding heathen world had at that time sunk into an immoderate voluptuousness, a frequently senseless luxury. The first particular by which a woman who had become a Christian was distinguished from her former female friends, was her simple life and renunciation of luxurious dress. The Christian family was distinguished from the heathen by the great simplicity which prevailed in furniture, in domestics, in eating and drinking."

Clement put this clearly 1,900 years ago: "The handmaids of Christ should love simplicity. Simplicity is the forerunner of holiness. It smoothes out the inequalities of property. A holy ornament should surround your wrists, the joy of giving and the diligence of the housewife. On your feet should glitter untiring zeal in well-doing, and walking in the ways of righteousness. Your necklaces and chains are modesty and simplicity. Such jewelry comes from God's workshop."

But this did not mean a refusal to enjoy the good things God provides. As Uhlhorn notes, "even Tertullian, with his strong tendency to despise the world, describes Christians as possessing and enjoying the good things of earth: 'We are no Brahmans or Indian gymnosophists, no wild men of the woods, and separatists from life. We are mindful of the gratitude which we owe to the Lord our God, and do not despise the enjoyment of His works. We only so moderate it as to avoid excess and abuse.'"

By the fifth century, though, the church based in Rome had changed: "Alms had totally changed their character. They were no longer a moral, but a religious duty; men no longer gave with regard to their neighbors, to serve and to help them in love, but with regard to themselves, to exercise an influence upon their own relation to God, to gain a reward for themselves. 'Certainly every one of us does himself and his own soul the greatest benefit, whenever he relieves the distress of others,' preaches already Leo the Great; and this motive of benefiting oneself and one's family was ever after more and more strongly brought forward in place of self-denying, self-sacrificing love."

Personal involvement by deacons became rare: "A multitude of needy persons, who had formerly been visited and tended by the deacons in their own homes, now found shelter in the hospitals, the poorhouses, while in the case of those who did not require such care, assistance was confined to regular gifts, the dispensation of which was now the task not of the deacons, but chiefly of the head manager of the Church property, the steward. Ministration to the poor in their homes everywhere fell into the background, the diaconate lost in importance, and after the latter half of the fifth century its gradual decay is clearly perceived."

Behind these practical changes lay theological drift: "Nothing more effectively promoted this propensity than the thought that the sin-atoning power of alms reaches also to the other world. It may be said that the doctrine of purgatory . . . determined more than anything else the charity of the entire medieval period." Uhlhorn criticizes "a generation only too much inclined to release themselves from the moral demands of Christianity by external works . . . gifts by which the individual members of the church hoped to obtain the intercession of the martyrs for themselves or for the dead. To give or bequeath anything to the Church was esteemed a specially good work, and one sure to secure the favor of God."

In Uhlhorn's summary, "The former Church care of the poor was such no longer. The beneficence of the bishop [was like] the distributions of the emperors and the Roman nobles. When Gregory the Great [Roman Catholic pope from 590 to 604] had corn, oil, wine, meat distributed every month, when he had carts full of provisions driving through the town for the relief of the poor, this looks more like a revival of the old distribution of corn than of the relief of the poor by the Christian Church. The Bishop of Rome had come into the place of the Emperor, the bishops into the place of the Roman nobles; Christian caritas has assumed a suspicious similarity to the ancient kind."

Over time, Uhlhorn shows, church leaders "despaired of the moral transformation of the people in general" and placed more "claims upon those who desired to be perfect Christians. As the universal priesthood of all Christians was replaced by the hierarchical priesthood of the few, so was the holiness of all by that of some few saints." Soon arose "a double ethic, a distinction between perfect and imperfect Christians. . . . Living an avowedly Christian life was now a demand made only of monks or of those who lived a monkish life. Others were indeed Christians, but Christians of a lower grade. Christians properly so called, were only those who had renounced the world-widows, virgins, those who had taken vows of chastity, monks, ecclesiastics. . . . A separation of this kind must have had a destructive effect upon Church life. A Church life like that of the first centuries became thereby impossible."

Why should we care what happened so long ago? Uhlhorn's conclusion is important for modern Christians: "A healthy charity is only possible where healthy moral views of work and property prevail. . . . A healthy charity can neither be attained to where there is an over-estimation of property, where wealth is regarded as the supreme good, poverty as the greatest evil, nor where property is undervalued and wealth looked upon as no real good, poverty as no real evil. For in the former case no one can feel bound to sacrifice his earthly good, for the sake of a higher good, for the service of his neighbor, and the gifts and alms will fail. In the latter these will not indeed be wanting; on the contrary, almsgiving will be enormous, but its right application will fail."

In WORLD we try to emphasize effective compassion, that which helps a person to come out of poverty. Uhlhorn shows the mindset to be fought: "If to be poor is no evil, if, on the contrary, it denotes a higher moral condition than to be rich, the task of charity cannot consist in opposing and alleviating poverty. Almsgiving then becomes a good work in itself, a good work complete in the act of giving and the renunciation of property therein involved, without regard to the application of the gift and the end attained thereby."


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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