Library Collections: Document: Full Text

American Charities

Creator: Amos G. Warner (author)
Date: 1908
Publisher: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York
Source: Straight Ahead Pictures Collection

Next Page   All Pages 

Page 1:




The science of political economy, as we know it, is hardly more than a century old; while the art of aiding the poor has been practised from time immemorial. When the patriarch Job was justifying himself, he spoke of his work for the unfortunate in language which is still considered suitable for describing an ideal philanthropist, and which in part is now used as a motto by several charity organization societies. (1) Before Christianity was a power, and far beyond the influence of the Hebrew faith, the instinct of sympathy for those in distress prompted to kindly acts which philosophers commended and religious leaders enjoined. An imposing array of texts exhorting to charity, and prescribing the methods of it, may be gleaned from the pagan writers of antiquity. The beggar is known to almost all literatures with which we are acquainted, and where beggars are, there must also be those that give. In China, long before the Christian era, there were refuges for the aged and sick poor, free schools for poor children, free eating-houses for wearied laborers, associations for the distribution of second-hand clothing, and societies for paying the expenses of marriage and burial among the poor. (2)

(1) "When the ear heard me, then it blessed me; and when the eye saw me, it gave witness to me: because I delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him. The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me: and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. ... I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. I was a father to the poor: and the cause which I knew not I searched out."

(2) See Crooker, "Problems in American Society," chapter on "Scientific Charity," for this and other references to antiquity.


Intermittently from the first, the altruistic instinct seems to have been reenforced, or its acts counterfeited, by egoistic instincts, originating in educational, or political, or religious considerations. The first of these subsidiary motives was doubtless the weakest of the three. The desire to promote self-culture by development of the benevolent impulses is largely a modern form of selfishness, and yet we find traces of it among the ancients.


Formerly, as now, political considerations frequently led to acts of charity when the motive was absent. Free or greatly cheapened corn for the Roman people, though nominally only rendering to them what was their own, was, in fact, a mischievous gratuity; and while sympathy for the people undoubtedly actuated many who favored the largesses, yet the efficient cause of their continual increase was political self-seeking. (3) So the legislation for the better care of exposed infants, and for the support of young women with children (Puellae Faustinianae), of the later Roman Empire resulted partly from sympathy for the unfortunates, and largely from a wish to fill up the depleted ranks of the Roman and Italian population.

(3) The indiscriminate granting of pensions to the Union soldiers of the Civil War results from the same mixed motives, among which political considerations are the final and efficient cause of mischievously reckless disbursements.


The commonest and most powerful incentive to benevolence has been everywhere and at all times that supplied by religion. Any impulse or habit that is for the good of the race is likely in the course of time to be fixed and intensified by religious sanctions. Almost all customs, including the organization of the family and of the government, and even habits of dress, diet, and cleanliness, have been thus confirmed. For present purposes we need not bother ourselves with teleological considerations, nor inquire whether the useful impulses and habits originated in a divine command supernaturally revealed, or whether they had their origin in spontaneous variation or rational adaptation, and were then seized upon, and perpetuated by the religious instincts. To whatever source we may trace the sentiment of pity and the desire to relieve the destitute, it certainly had not been in existence long before its cultivation was enjoined by religious authority.


Religion, however, like the subsidiary motives based on educational or political considerations, has too frequently substituted self-seeking for self-sacrifice as the motive power in aiding the poor. Mr. Crooker well says that the charity of antiquity was very largely "a means of obtaining merit." "The riches of the infinite God," says the Vendidad, "will be bestowed upon him who relieves the poor;" or, according to a Hindu epic, "He who giveth without stint food to a fatigued wayfarer, never seen before, obtaineth merit that is great." It was when Job was justifying himself that he enumerated his works of mercy.


On the other hand, while rewards were offered for benevolent work, punishments were promised for hard-heartedness. The grim threat of the Talmud, "The house that does not open to the poor shall open to the physician," is typical of many passages that might be quoted from the earlier religious writings. Under the influence of such threats or of more direct ones, believers felt constrained to aid the poor for purely selfish reasons, to do some overt act that seemed to have been prescribed, in order that it might be accounted to them for righteousness. Subjectively considered, the act itself was not one of charity, but of penance; its motive was not a desire to aid the distressed, but to propitiate a more or less unreasonable deity or fate.

Next Page

Pages:  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26  27  28  29  30  31  32  33  34  35  36  37  38  39  40  41  42  43  44  45  46  47  48  49  50  51  52  53  54  55  56  57  58  59  60  61  62    All Pages