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Christians want to be generous, and that's as it should be. But we can learn from our predecessors who emphasized that generosity is only the first step. If we act without discernment, our generosity may actually be selfishness that gives ourselves a warm glow but hurts others.
We can learn from the oldest charity still existing in the United States, the Scots' Charitable Society of Boston, founded in 1657. The Society from its start resolved to "open the bowells of our compassion" but to make sure that "no prophane or diselut person, or openly scandalous shall have any part or portione herein." They viewed poor people not as standing at the bottom of a ladder but halfway up, capable of ascending to independence and even wealth if they saw themselves as created in God's image and were willing to live and work accordingly, but likely to descend into abject dependence and despair if they started to see themselves as animals.
Boston pastor Cotton Mather three centuries ago asked his church members to be charitable but also careful not to "abuse your charity by misapplying it." A half-century later prominent pastor Charles Chauncey instructed leaders of the Society for Encouraging Industry and Employing the Poor to be careful in "the Distribution of Charity" so they would not "dispense it promiscuously" and "bestow upon those the Bread of Charity, who might earn and eat their own Bread, if they did not shamefully idle away their Time."
We tend to think of generosity in a linear way as the opposite of selfishness, but there's actually a spectrum: Generosity is in the middle, the selfishness of not giving at one end, and the selfishness of giving that warms the giver's heart but hurts the recipient, on the other. Jesus' parable in Matthew 25 emphasizes that "as much as you did to the least of these, you did to Me." That cuts both ways: A person who offers help is helping Jesus, but a person who gives money that goes for drugs is shooting heroin into Jesus' veins.
Two centuries ago Americans did not subsidize others in self-destruction. Some 23 Boston charity societies declared in 1835 that recipients should believe it "disgraceful to depend upon alms-giving, as long as a capacity of self-support is retained . . . [To] give to one who begs . . . or in any way to supersede the necessity of industry, of forethought, and of proper self-restraint and self-denial, is at once to do wrong, and to encourage the receivers of our alms to wrong doing." The groups declared that "Christian alms-giving" means that relief should be given only after a "personal examination of each case," and "not in money, but in the necessaries required in the case."
Similarly, the Boston Provident Association (established in 1851) gave food, clothes, and coal to those willing to work but in temporary need. The association refused requests from drunkards and asked supporters to give beggars not money but cards proposing a visit to the Association's offices, where volunteers would examine needs, make job referrals, and provide food and temporary shelter. It also developed a list that in 1853 contained 201 names of "impostors"-able-bodied persons who refused to work.
If these groups had developed such rules as a way to hold onto their funds tight-fistedly, we would be right to scorn them today. But the records indicate a generosity that flowed more regularly when contributors felt assured that their donations would help rather than hurt those in need. Pastors regularly exhorted listeners to give both with generosity and discernment. Leaving out either one or the other was wrong.
Later in the century, charities emphasized jobs for adults "able and willing" to work, or "able and willing to do more." Help in finding work also went to "the improvident or intemperate" who "are not yet hopelessly so." The "shiftless and intemperate" who repeatedly refused work gained classification as "Unworthy, Not Entitled to Relief." In this group were "those who prefer to live on alms," those with "confirmed intemperance," and the "vicious who seem permanently so."
Charitable organizations did not pretend to know from momentary observation the categories into which applicants fell: Instead, they offered "work tests." Agencies gave an able-bodied man an ax and asked him to chop wood for an hour or to whitewash a building. A needy woman generally took a seat in the "sewing room" (a child-care room often was nearby) and sewed garments that would be donated to the helpless poor or sent through the Red Cross to families suffering from the effects of hurricanes or tornadoes.
In 1890 woodyards next to homeless shelters were as common as liquor stores are in 2009, and the impact was sobering: Work tests allowed charity managers to see whether applicants who held out signs asking for work were serious. Work tests also allowed applicants to earn their keep and to realize that they could help others: The wood went to widows or others among the helpless poor.
Groups kept records to show their donors that poor individuals were earning most of their meals through labor. The New Orleans Charity Organization Society described its woodyard as a place "where heads of families can earn household supplies, and the homeless food and lodging," with assistance given "in a way that does not pauperize." At the Friendly Inn in Baltimore, the count was 24,901 meals worked for in 1890 and 6,084 given without work.
Other Baltimore groups emphasized self-help for the poor and material transfer only to those unable to work. In 1890, the Thomas Wilson Fuel-Saving Society helped 1,500 families save on the purchase of 3,000 tons of coal. The Memorial Union for the Rescue of Homeless and Friendless Girls offered free rooms in private homes for teenagers and young women until long-term housing and jobs could be found. The Presbyterian Eye, Ear and Throat Charity Hospital offered free beds and Bible readings to the poor and illiterate.
Terms such as "worthy" and "unworthy poor" tend to be used today only with scorn, but organizations during the 1890s were careful to indicate that they were evaluating only willingness to work, not spiritual standing. For example, at Boston's Associated Charities in one typical year, 41 percent of all applicants were considered worthy of relief because of old age, incurable illness, orphan status, accidents, illness, or short-term trouble. Another 33 percent were to be helped to find jobs, and the remaining 26 percent were "unworthy" of support largely because work tests and investigation had indicated that they were without "desire to change."
Annual reports from Associated Charities in the stacks of the Library of Congress show that in a typical year 817 clients found and accepted jobs that year and 278 refused them ("98 refusals with good reason, 170 without"). In addition, the Associated Charities gave loans to 81 persons (the repayment rate was 75 percent), legal aid to 62 persons, and medical help to 304. Volunteers helped 185 families to save money, influenced 53 relatives to offer aid, and pushed 144 alcoholic breadwinners to make progress in temperance. Volunteers worked with 600 children and found adoptive families or guardians for orphans, influenced truants to attend school more often, and placed other children in private day nurseries or industrial schools.
The New Orleans Charity Organization Society also emphasized "personal investigation of every case, not alone to prevent imposture, but to learn the necessities of every case and how to meet them." Some 1,328 investigations in a typical year there led to the classification of 926 individuals as worthy of help, 276 as "unworthy," and 126 as doubtful. In the "worthy" category were 271 individuals found unemployed but willing to work, 252 who had jobs but wanted additional work, 205 who were ill, and 64 who were aged; 48 women had been abandoned by their husbands. Among the "unworthy" were 41 drunkards and professional beggars uninterested in changing their conduct, 143 who were "shiftless" and unwilling to work, and 72 found not to be in need.
Generosity and discernment were to go together like sodium and chloride to produce salt. Baltimore charity manager Mary Richmond wrote that it was hard to teach volunteers "whose kindly but condescending attitude has quite blinded them to the everyday facts of neighborhood life." Volunteers had to learn that "well-meant interference, unaccompanied by personal knowledge of all the circumstances, often does more harm than good and becomes a temptation rather than a help."
Discernment by volunteers, and organizational barriers against fraud, were important not only to prevent waste but to preserve morale among those working hard to remain independent. One charity worker noted, "Nothing is more demoralizing to the struggling poor than successes of the indolent or vicious." St. Louis volunteers were "to give relief only after personal investigation of each case. . . . To give what is least susceptible of abuse. . . . To give assistance at the right moment; not to prolong it beyond duration of the necessity which calls for it. . . . To require of each beneficiary abstinence from intoxicating liquors. . . . To discontinue relieving all who manifest a purpose to depend on alms rather than their own exertions for support."
The New Orleans Charity Organization Society tried to impress on its volunteers maxims of discernment by printing on the back cover of its annual reports statements such as, "Intelligent giving and intelligent withholding are alike true charity," and "If drink has made a man poor, money will feed not him, but his drunkenness." One official emphasized that "the question which we try through investigation to answer [is,] Are these applicants of ours ready to work out with us . . . some plan which will result in their rescue from dependency? If such elements are entirely lacking-no basis of good character, no probability of final success-then we do not assume the responsibility of asking societies or churches or private persons to help."
Discernment was also important among individuals approached by beggars-and teaching that proved to be a very difficult task! Charities Review once asked the designer of an innovative program whether its success satisfied "the 'gusher' who desires to give every evening beggar 25 cents." S.O. Preston responded, "No, nothing satisfies the 'gusher'; he will persist in giving his (or someone else's) money to the plausible beggar as often as he appears." The magazine was filled with criticism of "that miscalled charity which soothes its conscience with indiscriminate giving."
Our late-19th-century predecessors saw as unethical what many today see as humane. Charity leader Humphreys Gurteen called giving money to alcoholics "positively immoral" and argued that if givers could "foresee all the misery which their so called charity is entailing in the future," they would "forgo the flutter of satisfaction which always follows a well intentioned deed." New Haven minister H.L. Wayland criticized the "well-meaning, tender-hearted, sweet-voiced criminals who insist upon indulging in indiscriminate charity."
Similarly, Charities Review criticized "that miscalled charity which soothes its conscience with indiscriminate giving," and proposed that individuals and groups restrict "material relief to those cases in which such relief would be given by the true friend." True friendship was not encouraging "lazy imposture . . . such mercy is not mercy: it is pure selfishness." Instead, true friendship meant helping to deliver a person from slavery to a bottle, a needle, or his own laziness.
Charity leaders frequently checked their own assumptions about the availability of work; they were not so foolish as to insist on employment when none was available. In 1892 charity experts from several major cities, asked whether honest and sober men would spend more than a short time out of work, all said such a situation was "rare" or "very exceptional." Most of the able-bodied poor accepted the work obligation, partly because of biblical teaching and partly because they had little choice. A New Haven mission manager reported that fewer than one out of a hundred refused to work in the woodyard or sewing room, perhaps because "there is no other institution in this city where lodging can be secured except by cash payments for same."
Hang tough, charity leaders demanded, or else problems would worsen: New York charity leader Josephine Lowell wrote that "the problem before those who would be charitable, is not how to deal with a given number of poor; it is how to help those who are poor, without adding to their numbers and constantly increasing the evils they seek to cure."
The typical 19th-century approach-generosity plus discernment-garnered strong support from many Christians but criticism from others. Some called for governmental welfare, but late-19th-century pastors typically opposed governmental welfare because, as Amos G. Warner wrote in American Charities, "It is necessarily more impersonal and mechanical than private charity or individual action. . . . There is some tendency to claim public relief as a right, and for the indolent and incapable to throw themselves flat upon it."
Minister Joseph Crooker noted that "it is very easy to make our well-meant charity a curse to our fellow-men." Social worker Frederic Almy argued that "alms are like drugs, and are as dangerous," for often "they create an appetite which is more harmful than the pain which they relieve." Governmental welfare was "the least desirable form of relief," according to Mary Richmond, because it "comes from what is regarded as a practically inexhaustible source, and people who once receive it are likely to regard it as a right, as a permanent pension, implying no obligation on their part."
Perhaps the most credible observer of the entire era was liberal reformer Jacob Riis, author in 1890 of How the Other Half Lives. Riis, who had been a penniless immigrant himself, lived his concern for the New York poor by hauling heavy cameras up dozens of flights of tenement stairs day after day to provide striking photographs of dull-eyed families in crowded flats. Riis documented great misery, but he also saw movement out of poverty and concluded that "New York is, I firmly believe, the most charitable city in the world. Nowhere is there so eager a readiness to help, when it is known that help is worthily wanted; nowhere are such armies of devoted workers."
Riis wrote of how one charity group over eight years raised "4,500 families out of the rut of pauperism into proud, if modest, independence, without alms." He noted that another "handful of noble women . . . accomplished what no machinery of government availed to do. Sixty thousand children have been rescued by them from the streets." He compared such success with material distribution to the able-bodied that led to "degrading and pauperizing" rather than "self-respect and self-dependence."
With the understanding that anti-poverty progress was incremental and tied to economic growth, Riis pointed to problems but declared, "The thousand and one charities that in one way or another reach the homes and the lives of the poor with sweetening touch, are proof that if much is yet to be done . . . hearts and hands will be found to do it in ever-increasing measure."
Riis and his contemporaries were not arguing that the war on poverty a century ago was won, or was even winnable in any final sense: Riis wrote that "the metropolis is to lots of people like a lighted candle to the moth." Those who climbed out of urban destitution were replaced quickly by others awaiting trial by fire. But dreams then were alive: The poverty-fighting optimism among Americans then contrasts sharply with the demoralization among the poor and the cynicism among the better-off that are so common now.
Edward T. Devine perhaps put it best in an article in an issue of The Charities Review published in that turning-point year, 1900. The goal, he insisted, was not "that poor families should suffer, but that charity should accomplish its purpose." Thoughtless generosity was akin to selfishness if it made charity misfire. Generosity plus discernment was key.
(Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the parable quoted is from Matthew 25.)