Monday, 25 July 2016

Chalmers and Guthrie on the 'Charity of Kindness'

What is charity?  Is it just the widespread and indiscriminate distribution of money? How effective has this been over the last 50-60 years in our own country?  Is there a connection between poverty and morality?  Well as we saw in a previous article 'Dr Guthrie and the Blind Organist', Guthrie believed that the effect of the gospel which should create self denial, frugality (thriftiness, carefulness) and discipline could have a significant effect on a poor household.  Guthrie believed that there could be exceptions to this rule but generally speaking he held to the principle of Psalm 36 v 25: 'All my life I have not seen the righteous left forsaken, or begging for food.'  As he says: ‘I have made extensive enquiries; and feel perfect confidence in asserting that foresight and frugality would place our people, save in a few exceptional cases, beyond the reach of want or the need of charity.  It is the want of these that makes Poor Laws necessary – if they are necessary.’

Like all great social reformers Guthrie challenged sin as much as encouraging virtue.  He was like William Wilberforce who fought on the one hand against slavery but on the other fought for a reformation of manners.  We have a slightly idealised view of the Victorian era.  The reality was that as Eric Metaxas says in his biography of Wilberforce, Victorian society was particularly 'brutal, decadent, violent and vulgar.'  Like Wilberforce, Guthrie fought on various fronts to see a better society.  The simple provision of mercy was never enough for Guthrie, he sought a complete reformation of society at a moral and spiritual level.  It was a natural progression for Dr Guthrie to go on to become a fighter for temperance because he saw the huge damage that alcohol did among the working classes.  It was a development of his earlier views while still at Arbirlot (1830-37) where he established a savings bank.  As he says in his Memoirs: [this bank] ‘was a great success; training up the young to those habits of foresight, self-denial, and prudence, which are handmaids to virtue, and, though not religion, are nearly allied to it.’  Guthrie maintained that while we should fight the injustice of poverty at every turn, as he did, poverty can be compounded by addiction.

In his Second Plea for Ragged Schools Guthrie addresses himself to those who have, as yet, given nothing to the cause of Ragged Schools.  He quotes the verse in Proverbs 19 v 17: ‘He that lendeth to the poor, lendeth to the Lord, and he will repay.’  He then says: ‘The money which is lavished on sturdy beggars on the wasteful slaves of vice, on the reckless and improvident, you have no right to expect payment of.  These are not the poor.  On the contrary, they plunder the poor, and prey on poverty; and hardening men’s hearts by their frauds, inprovidence, crimes, and detected impostures, against the claims of real poverty, they deserve not charity, by chastisement.’  He continues: ‘It is a scandal and a shame that such devouring locusts are permitted to infest our city, and swarm in its streets.  The vices of a system which the police strangely tolerate, and our charity unwisely maintains, are visible in the blotched and brazened features of those thriving solicitors.  The very breath with which they whine for charity smells of the dram shop.’   To me this is the problem we have today with a faceless and bureaucratic welfare system.  Far from helping many people it traps them in a cycle of poverty where they simply exist rather than being given the help they need to realise their full potential.  While is seems harsh to our 21st Century sensitivities to hear Guthrie saying that a particular group are 'not the poor', he would have been the first to help those addicted to alcohol if they genuinely sought help.  Far from writing them off, Guthrie was seeking to bring them to their senses by not indulging their addiction.

Rev Thomas Chalmers
It was Thomas Chalmers who proved with the revived 'Parochial' or 'Territorial' system that voluntary charity could almost always achieve greater results than state welfare.  This was because it was local, more personal, better tailored to people’s needs and more flexible to changes. When Thomas Chalmers was appointed to St John’s Parish, Glasgow in 1819 he agreed along with the Town Council that all new cases of destitution would be met out of the church funds.  Thomas Chalmers divided the Parish into 25 areas and appointed an elder and deacon to minister to both the spiritual and temporal needs of each area.  The instructions were few but clear:

‘When one applies for admittance through the deacon upon our funds, the first thing to be inquired into is, if there be any kind of work that he can yet do so as either to keep him altogether off, or as to make a partial allowance serve for his necessities; the second, what his relatives are willing to do for him; third whether he is a hearer in any dissenting place of worship, and whether its session will contribute to his relief.’  

Along with the introduction of Sunday Schools and widespread education it is little wonder that the rate of Poor Relief was drastically reduced in the Parish of St John’s. As Rev William Hannah says:

‘The drunken were told to give up their drunkenness, and that until they did so their case would not even be considered; the idle were told to set instantly to work, and if they complained that work could not be gotten, by kindly applications to employers, they were helped to obtain it; a vast number of primary applications melted into nothing under the pressure of a searching investigation.’  

After three years of this experiment, and despite St John’s accepting all the poor who had been on the sessional role of all three parishes that made up St John’s, the whole cost of ‘pauperism’ reduced from £1400 per year to £280.  As Chalmers says in his works: ‘our proposal was not met with an incredulity which was all but universal.’

Dr Guthrie and Rev Chalmers didn’t believe in ‘casual charity’ but in charity that offered hope and transformation.  This is why they both believed so passionately in the parochial or territorial system.  This is why Guthrie so passionately furthered the cause of Ragged Schools.  His aim was not just to relieve the suffering of ragged children but to offer them a new life.  

Psalm 41 commands us to ‘wisely consider the case of the poor’ not simply to franchise our responsibilities to the state.  Poverty is not just caused by a lack of money so our response can never be simplistic.  Poverty involves much more than financial poverty - it involves marginalisation, isolation, stigmatisation and being disenfranchised from others in society.  Chalmers and Guthrie show us that poverty relief must be personal, robust, bespoke, generous, enduring and always with an eye on long term transformation.  As Chalmers said in the General Assembly of 1822: ‘a safe and easy navigation has been ascertained from the charity of law to the charity of kindness; and, therefore, be it now reviled, or be it disregarded as it may, we have no doubt upon our spirits, whether we look to the depraving pauperism or to the burdened agriculture of our land, that the days are soon coming when men, looking for a way of escape from these sore evils, will be glad to our own enterprise, and be fain to follow it.’

Given the rampant poverty that we have today, might this be a moment when we look to experiments like St John's and perhaps think of a better way than the indiscriminate distribution of money? Benefits can be suspended almost on a whim and people are left utterly destitute.  Wouldn't a more personal, compassionate system, delivered in partnership with faith based, Third Sector Charities make for a better system?  Wouldn't it be better to be honest about the challenges people have (such as addiction) and offer them real help rather than ignoring it for years?  Shouldn't we provide the charity of kindness rather than the charity of law?

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