Darrow Miller and Friends

From Compassion to Pity: A Brief History of Charity, part 2

  1. From Compassion to Pity: A Brief History of Charity
  2. From Compassion to Pity: A Brief History of Charity, part 2
  3. From Compassion to Pity: A Brief History of Charity, part 3

Horace Greeley was America’s leading journalist of the 19th century. A Universalist, Greeley believed that people were naturally good and that every person has a right to both eternal salvation and temporal prosperity. While Greeley considered himself a Christian, he rejected the biblical idea that a man’s sinful nature leads toward indolence. He saw no problem with supporting able-bodied poor who did not work.

End evil by redistributing wealth

These radical new ideas entered the mainstream through a series of newspaper debates that Greeley conducted with his former assistant editor, Henry Raymond, who later founded the New York Times. Raymond was a Presbyterian who believed that the way to fight poverty was through personal moral transformation of individual men. For his part, Greeley tried to show that the centerpiece of Christianity was communal living and material redistribution. He stated that “Evil flows only from social repression or subversion. [If human beings are allowed] full scope, free play, and perfect and complete development, then universal happiness must be the result … Create a new form of Society in which this shall be possible … then you will have a perfect Society; then you will have the Kingdom of Heaven…”[1] The lines could not be drawn more sharply. Greeley believed that “the heart of man is not depraved: that his passions do not prompt to wrongdoing, and do not therefore by their actions produce evil.”[2] In one if his final contributions to the debate, he reiterated that “social distinctions of master and servant, rich and poor, landlord and landless,” were the cause of evil. The way to end evil was to redistribute wealth so that all receive an equal share; one way to begin would be to have the state tax the better off and distribute food and funds to those less well off. Raymond concluded his portion of the debate by stating that the whole spirit of Greeley’s position “is in the most direct hostility to the doctrines of the Bible. It recognizes no absolute distinction between right and wrong … It is the exact antagonist of Christianity; it starts from opposite fundamental principles and aims at precisely opposite results.”[3]

Soup-kitchen charity surges

The public debate between Greeley and Raymond pushed Social Universalist ideas on to the domestic stage. Greeley was particularly effective in winning over his journalistic soup kitchen charitycolleagues, who then promoted the ideology through their editorial decisions. In Boston, the Waltham Sentinel maintained that the poor generally should claim government “provision as their right…”[4] As ideas changed, their consequences emerged. By the late 1850’s, one analyst noted “reports from many communities in widely separated places all agreed that the number receiving outdoor and poorhouse relief was unprecedented.”[5] The practice of providing indiscriminate soup-kitchen charity surged.

Accompanying these changes in practice came a whole raft of negative and unintended consequences.  As the poor were developing exaggerated notions of their claims to support, the well off became increasingly demoralized in their giving. Greeley’s philosophy in practice suffered from a severe backlash. Officials and writers increasingly argued that outdoor relief led to rampant depersonalization: “Bread, more bread, soup, more soup!” The poor, increasingly treated as a class of citizens rather than individual people, become more and more dependent on free handouts. Reports circulated of schemers hopping from agency to agency, shopping for the best handouts. Some who became adept at working the system were said to receive aid from many different groups, with income related to the number of tears shed and false stories told. Bad charity competed with, and eventually drove out good charity as the poor searched for the easiest dole they could find. It was in this climate of compassion abuse and compassion fatigue that the poisonous ideology of Social Darwinism—not coincidentally—began to pick up adherents.

Solve poverty by discouraging childbirth

Herbert Spencer, the British leader of Social Darwinism (which equated the economic struggle among humans with the struggle of survival among animals) wrote, “The unfit must be eliminated as nature intended, for the principle of natural selection must not be violated by the artificial preservation of those least able to take care of charity meant discouraging poor people from procreatingthemselves.”[6] Americans bought 368,755 copies of Spencer’s books, according to one count. At its core, Social Darwinism posits that idleness and indolence are hereditary, and vigorous efforts must be instituted to break the line of pauper decent. This anti-compassionate ideology picked up steam in America the 1870s and 1880s, primarily through two books; William Graham Sumner’s What Social Classes Owe to Each Other and Simon Newcomb’s Principles of Political Economy. Sumner explicitly dehumanized poor people: “Nature’s remedies against vice are terrible. She removes the victims without pity. A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be, according to the fitness and tendency of things. Nature has set upon him the process of decline and dissolution by which she removes things which have survived their usefulness.”[7] In a similar vein, Newcomb’s solution to poverty and hunger was to prevent the poor from being born: “Love of mankind at large should prompt us to take such measures as shall discourage or prevent the bringing forth of children by the pauper and criminal classes. No measure of repression would be too severe in the attainment of the latter object.”[8]

Government as the ultimate charitable organization

While Social Darwinism quickly picked up strong opposition, especially from the church, its core ideology has continued to survive and prosper, even to the present. Its thread can be traced through the efforts of the American eugenics movement, and on to Margaret Sanger and the founding of Planned Parenthood and our modern abortion rights movement. In fact, much of our present-day population control ideology is rooted in Social Darwinism—that is, it is based on the belief that the best way to combat poverty is to prevent the poor from being born.

By the turn of the century Social Darwinism had fallen out of vogue. The promise of the new century brought with it a renewed idealism that didn’t mix well with the determinism of Social Darwinism. Behind the scenes, principled biblical charity continued throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, having weathered the storms of indiscriminate charity and Social Darwinism. In fact, by the turn of the century, biblically based charity was enjoying a renewed, if not brief, surge of appreciation and acceptance. Writer after writer lauded what church groups had accomplished in the charitable realm. In light of their successes, the question that seemed to be on everyone’s lips was “why not do more?” In response, biblically based charities claimed that the one-by-one approach was the only sure way of helping some and not making life worse for others. However, they were more often than not blamed for failing to alter the lives of the masses in their preoccupation with individuals. If scientific progress during the nineteenth century could be so spectacular, why not social progress during the twentieth? Pundits claimed that churches were now confronted “by a problem infinitely biggergovernment became the biggest dispense of charity than they can handle—a problem so big indeed that no institution short of society itself can hope to cope with it.” Ignoring the experience of the 1860s and 1870s, and hearkening back to Horace Greeley, the majority faith at the turn of the century was clear: It was time to end poverty by making government the greatest charitable organization of all.

The problem is the environment, not the human heart

With its combination of theological liberalism and political socialism, Social Universalism was back in vogue. Professor Richard Ely, founder of the American Economic Association, was one of the more popular spokesmen for universalist ideas, including his own belief in the “exercise of philanthropy” as “the duty of government.”[9] Books praising the ideas of Social Universalism began to pour off the presses. These books had in common a high-minded earnestness, a desire to help, and a willingness to do more, as long as the “more” could be universalist and unconditional. Their theology emphasized God’s love but not God’s holiness, and thus urged charity without challenge. Ely, and others argued that challenge was not necessary because individuals who needed to change would do so as soon as they were placed in a pleasant environment so that their true benevolent natures could come out.” One book, William G. Fremantle’s The World as the Subject of Redemption asserted “Government alone can embrace all the wants of its members and afford them the universal instruction and elevation which they need … When we think of [the Nation] as becoming … the object of mental regard, of admiration, of love, even of worship… we shall recognize to the fullest extent its religious character and functions.”[10] The Nation was the new Church, and as such was to take on the church’s traditional functions of charity.

Political action, not religious reformsHull House charity in Chicago

One of the products of the revitalization of Social Universalism in America was Jane Addams’s Hull House, begun in 1889. Hull House, describing itself in a Chicago charity handbook, proclaimed with some huffiness, “There are no religious affiliations.” Out went the hymns and testimonies and in came political action. Those who came to live in the settlements were often good-hearted people—but they wanted to save the world, not the individual. Addams herself stated in her memoirs in 1910 that “one of the first lessons we learned at Hull House was that private beneficence is totally inadequate.”[11] Deletion of the idea of a sinful nature and delight in utopian hopes worked hand in hand, for if hand-outs were no longer corrupting, mass transformation down a broad highway of material redistribution became not only possible, but preferable. Hull-House (and the settlement house movement which it spawned,) through its emphasis on the material over the spiritual and the political over the personal, became the inspiration of governmental social work programs of the 1930s and community action programs of the 1960s.

  • Scott Allen

… to be continued

This paper was originally produced in December 2005.

[1] Courier, March 5, 1847.

[2] Courier, April 16, 1847.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Waltham Sentinel, March 12, 1858.

[5] Benjamin Joseph Klebaner, Public Poor relief in America 1790-1860, Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1951, chapter six (no page number; typescript published in 1976 by Arno Press, New York.)

[6] Walter Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Public Welfare in America, third edition (New York: Free Press, 1984), p. 81.

[7] William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe To Each Other (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1974), p.114; originally published in 1883.

[8] Simon Newcomb, Principles of Political Economy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), p. 536.

[9] Richard Ely, Social Aspects of Christianity  (New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1889), p. 92.

[10] William G. Fremantle, The World as the Subject of Redemption (New York: Longmans, Green, 1895, second edition), p. 278-279.

[11] Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (New York: Macmillan, 1910), p. 310.

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Scott Allen serves as president of the DNA secretariat office. After serving with Food for the Hungry for 19 years in both the United States and Japan, working in the areas of human resources, staff training and program management, he teamed up with Darrow Miller and Bob Moffitt to launch the DNA in 2008. Scott is the author of Beyond the Sacred-Secular Divide: A Call to Wholistic Life and Ministry and co-author of several books including, As the Family Goes, So Goes the Nation: Principles and Practices for Building Healthy Families. His most recent book is Why Social Justice is Not Biblical Justice. Scott lives with his wife, Kim, in Bend, OR. They have five children.


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