One of the central problems with so much of the aid given to the poor today, whether it be that given to third world countries or to individuals, is that it lacks any transformative power. Money given without gospel care is like the old comparison of fish given without teaching anyone how to catch their own. Once the thing is eaten, nothing remains. Give another and another and soon no one will be inclined to ever learn. Aspirin helps remove pain but it does not heal the wound.
Thomas Chalmers was rector of St. John’s Parish in Glasgow in the early 19th century as well as chair of Philosophy at St. Andrews. He fought indiscriminate aid given by the state because it didn’t cure poverty but rather perpetuated it. The solution was not less money necessarily, but given with much more.
First, Chalmers insisted on a distinction between pauperism (a state of unnecessary dependence, characterized by intellectual lassitude and spiritual malaise) and poverty. Second, he argued that legal or statutory relief tended to pauperize because it removed the need for self-help and discipline. Third, he stressed the biblical obligation of the better-off to become personally involved with the poor. Fourth, he argued that those who were poor because of their own failings needed to indicate a willingness to change modes of thinking or acting that were dragging them down; if they did not, those who wished to help were to step away for a time, renew the offer, and be willing to step away again for a time if hearts had not changed.
Chalmers lost the political battle in Glasgow generally but gained permission to try his alternative plan in a specially created ten thousand-person district–an early enterprise zone–officially titled the Parish of St. John. Chalmers said he would meet the expenses of all needed relief in the district, one of the poorest in Glasgow, by asking parishioners for donations. His only stipulation was that state authorities and others who wanted to give indiscriminately agree to stay out. They did, and Chalmers divided his parish into twenty-five districts, putting a deacon in charge of each. When anyone asked for relief, the appropriate deacon investigated in order “to discriminate and beneficially assist the really necessitous and deserving poor. . . .“
The result was extraordinary. Chalmers’ Sunday evening church collections for deaconal purposes increased, for givers were confident that the funds would be used wisely. The cost of relief also dropped as better-off church members used personal counseling and established savings banks and work exchanges to “foster amongst the poor the habits of industry, providence, frugality, saving and honest desire to rise in the world, and simple dependence on their own exertions.” (The Tragedy of American Compassion, Olasky, 24-25)
This sort of poverty relief is as necessary as it is difficult. The deacons over every district in the parish worked closely with the elders in the church, men qualified to be officers, bringing not just aid but there own lives to the deserving and undeserving poor. This approached was described as Christian in its severities and its generosities, liberal to the deserving poor and encouraging to the wasteful, Chalmers claimed his success resulted from God’s blessings and man’s management. He didn’t set out to simply take care of struggling church members but everyone in the districts, the majority of which were not Christians. Only the church could provide such a wholistic solution to the problems of poverty, and the call to minister to the hurting would be felt by every parish member.