Material History of American Religion Project

The Law of Divine Beneficence

In the last few years, in an effort to "end welfare as we know it," politicians and policy-makers have suggested looking to the churches to provide social services to the poor and sick, as they did until the early years of the twentieth century. This article argues that such beneficence dates to the earliest years of the Christian movement.

In the 1850s the American Tract Society issued a series of tracts stressing the important role of the church in social beneficence. In The Divine Law of Beneficence, the Reverend Parsons Cooke of Lynn, Massachusetts, looked at the biblical precedents for alms-giving, and found the heart of the "Law" in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week, let every one of you lay by him in store, as God has prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come." In the excerpt here, Cooke points to the "example of the primitive church" as a precedent for nineteenth century action. The early Christians were a rebuke, not just to the pagans around them, but also to the stingy Americans of the nineteenth century.

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The example of the primitive church may instruct us in this duty. The type of benevolence that appeared in the pentecostal revival, was nobly sustained in the church for several ages. The church first gathered at Jerusalem being scattered abroad, went everywhere preaching the word and kindling the fires of their own zeal and love; and apostles testified of the new churches reared in Gentile nations, that "their deep poverty abounded to the riches of their liberality," and that they extended their gifts even "beyond their power." Next to bringing their own minds into captivity to the obedience of Christ, their chief care was the conversion of others.

The history of the first two centuries of Christianity abounds with remarkable facts, showing with what zeal and entireness of soul, the church went into the work of converting the world. Those who perilled their lives and suffered the loss of all things in preaching, were not the only ones who made sacrifices for the spread of the gospel. Some spent all besides a bare support of themselves, to furnish the means of evangelizing others; those who had no property gave the avails of their labor; and it is recorded of one man that he sold himself as a slave to a heathen family, to get access to them for their conversion, and for years cheerfully endured the labor and condition of a slave till he succeeded with the whole family, and took his liberty from the gratitude of the converts. The same person, on a visit to Sparta, again entered himself as a slave in the family of the governor of Sparta and served two years, and again succeeded in his design. The fires of such a benevolence, burning wherever a company of Christians was gathered, could not fail soon to overspread the world, and in the space of one generation most of the nations then known to the civilized world, were more or less evangelized. And if such a tone of benevolent action could be now restored to the church, another generation would not pass before the earth would be " full of the knowledge and glory of God, as the waters cover the sea."

And their kindness to the poor was boundless. Christians felt as much bound to this as to prayer, or to the hearing of the gospel. Contributions and actual exertions for their relief, were made indispensable parts of Sabbath exercises. At the close of public worship, lists of the needy, the widows and orphans, were produced and considered, and additions were made from time to time as new cases occurred; and the wants of these were supplied from the funds gathered by free contributions. No heart-stirring appeals were needed to awake dormant sympathies. The spontaneous flowings of the fountains of their benevolence supplied every stream. There were no hospitals for the poor and sick except of their creating, and few of the heathen ever entered abodes of suffering on errands of mercy. The Christians supported not only their own needy, but bore the burden which hardness of heart in their heathen neighbors cast upon them; and the zeal with which they entered into every labor of love is well-nigh incredible. Ladies of highest rank acted as nurses for the sick, exposing themselves to contagions, and devoting their purse, their toil, their prayers, and their instructions, to pour consolation into the cells of extremest wretchedness. It was a day when scenes of wretchedness specially abounded--when the world was often visited by famines and pestilences, and the heathen had become shockingly corrupt in morals, and desperate and reckless under the fearful visitations of heaven; and the miracles of Christian benevolence shone brighter through the darkness, and contrasted strangely with the cold indifference of the heathen towards their nearest friends. For instance, in the time of Cyprian, the plague came upon Carthage with fearful and protracted visitations. The heathen abandoned their sick and dying. The highways were strewed with corpses which none dared to bury. But Christians faced every danger, and often sacrificed life in alleviating sufferings and burying the dead, whether of Christians or heathen. While, among the heathen, parents deserted their own children, and children trampled on unburied corpses of parents.

But one of the greatest taxes on primitive benevolence was laid by persecution which now and then went through the church like a tempest. No sooner did the report go abroad that a fellow-Christian was in a dungeon, than crowds of Christians came around the prison doors begging admission, meekly bearing the insults of surly guards, and using every means to procure the prisoner's release. Some would beset the prison-walls days and nights, praying for the deliverance, or the triumphant death of the imprisoned martyrs. When any were doomed to waste their lives in toil in distant and unwholesome mines, contributions were sent for their relief, by the hands of those who undertook long journeys to convey the sympathies and offerings of the church. To show the temper of the times, a party set out from Egypt in the depth of winter, to relieve some brethren in the mines of Cilicia. They came to Cesarea, and there the heathen seized a part of them, put out their eyes, and horribly mutilated them. But in spite of such dangers, such journeys were often performed. No floods of persecution could quench the desire to convey consolation to those suffering for Christ's sake. And those who lived to return and tell what they had seen of martyrs in the mines--how they toiled, and bore their chains, and honored their Redeemer, were loaded with many honors.

To supply resources for this great variety of pressing calls for charity, there was the Sabbath contribution, commenced by order of Paul, in which all, rich and poor, concurred. Then, in case of great public calamities, the people held fasts, and gave to the church what they saved by abstinence from food. In pressing emergencies, the plate which the church had acquired in more prosperous days was melted down and sold. Others bound themselves to set apart a certain portion of their income; others held

periodical fasts, devoting the saving thereby to the church. Some wealthy individuals, when converted, sold their whole estates, and betook themselves to manual labor for their own support. Others managed their estates, devoting the whole income to the cause.

Indeed, so much did the first Christians excel in acts of charity, that these constituted their peculiar characteristic, and the wonder of the heathen world. If the church had any thing whereof to boast, it was this. This is illustrated by the well-known act of the deacon of the church at Rome, in the time of the emperor Decius. The tyrant demanded that the treasure of the church should be surrendered. The deacon required one day's time to gather it. In that time, he assembled all the blind, lame, sick, and poor, that were supported by the church, and then called in the emperor, and said, these are the treasures of the church! In the time of Chrysostom, the church under his care had on its catalogue of sick and poor, three thousand regular beneficiaries, besides extraordinary applications every day for assistance.

Indeed, so glorious and impressive was the robe of Christian charity worn by the primitive church, that Julian the apostate, seeking to effect in his day a resurrection of the prostrate heathen institutions, endeavored to put this robe upon paganism, expecting that it would, like the bones of Elisha, give life to the dead. Here is the ever-memorable testimony of that crafty and politic emperor: "Let us consider that nothing has so much contributed to the progress of the superstition of Christians, as their charity to strangers. I think we ought to discharge this obligation ourselves. Establish hospitals in every place. For it would be a shame for us to abandon our poor, while the Jews have none, and the impious Galileans provide not only for their own poor, but also for ours."

Parsons Cooke, The Divine Law of Beneficence (New York: American Tract Society, 1850?), 78-84.

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