Lay People and Philanthropy

  September 06, 2021   Read time 3 min
Lay People and Philanthropy
After the Reformation, when people ceased to give or bequeath money to the poor to pray for the swift passage of their souls through Purgatory, money was given or bequeathed for charitable causes in acknowledgement of biblical exhortations.

In a Christian society such as early-eighteenth-century England, charity was central to Christian life. A good Christian and citizen was expected to be 'a daily Frequenter of Public Worship' and 'a Generous Promoter of every Good Work'. Almsgiving was a Christian obligation. It has frequently been recognised that the early eighteenth century was an age of philanthropy but it has frequently been forgotten that the motivating force for this philanthropy, was Christian piety.

There is little evidence to identify the philanthropy of the period with a Puritan ethical ideal. People of all shades of theological and ecclesiastical opinion expressed their faith through charitable activities. It was Christian faith that motivated generosity to the poor, the ignorant, the destitute, the mad, the sick and the fallen, and swelled a tide of voluntary charitable foundations of schools, almshouses, libraries, hospitals, asylums and refuges. Eighteenth-century diaries reveal lay people and clergy giving money and goods as a matter of course.

Apart from the provisions for relief imposed on parishes by the seventeenth-century poor laws, the only source of social welfare was Christian charity. Charity was not merely a voluntary act: it was regarded as a duty for the giver and a right for the receiver. Holy days, such as All Saints' Day, St Clement's Day, St Catherine's Day, St Andrew's Day and St Thomas's Day, provided opportunities for the poor to perambulate the parish seeking charitable donations in the form of food, drink or money, and if these were not forthcoming, they sought revenge by ploughing the offender's dunghill or throwing potsherds at his house. Charity was part of the social and communal fabric emphasising the responsibility of the better-off for the less well-off. The less well-off were well aware that it was their labour or rents that enabled the better-off to give to charity. John Thomlinson, the curate of Rothbury complained in 1717 that 'When one tells these men of uncle's charity in building the school, etc., they reply, what is that? He made us pay for it, he has raised the rent and squeezed it out of us.'

Givers of charity were well aware of Gospel criticisms of ostentatious charity, and many donations were from an 'unknown lady' or a 'gentleman'. However, anonymity failed to offer examples to encourage others in charitable activities. Church monuments were often used to provide illustrations from among the dead, who no longer required the cloak of anonymity. The sentiment is explicit on the memorial to two sisters, Mrs Dorothy Beckett and Mrs Anne Sargent, in All Saints' Northampton. It records that 'They jointly settled an Estate in Trust for cloathing and teaching Thirty poor Girls of this Parish' and that Mrs Sargent had bequeathed £150 'to adorn the Church'. The memorial is surmounted by the relief of a girl charity scholar holding a scroll inscribed 'Go and do thou likewise.'

Similar sentiments prompted large boards in parish churches inscribed in gold lettering, recording charitable donations by parishioners. These lists of annual payments in money, bread or warm clothes to the poor, for the education of poor children, for almshouses for the elderly, of silver plate for use in the sacraments of the Church served as an insurance against loss or misappropriation, as a reminder to the poor of their rights, and a reminder to others to emulate their examples.

After the Reformation, when people ceased to give or bequeath money to the poor to pray for the swift passage of their souls through Purgatory, money was given or bequeathed for charitable causes in acknowledgement of biblical exhortations. Charity in the form of expressing loving kindness, if necessary in a tangible form, for one's neighbour was a natural activity for all Christians, however rich or however poor. During the first half of the eighteenth century countless sermons pointed out that almsgiving, directed by the spirit of sacrifice, was essentially a self-regarding religious act. Charity was an act of devotion, involving the giver and God. It redeemed sins and ensured a blessing. Charity was seen as reinforcing communal solidarity; 'as we are all Children of the same Father', so we cannot help being 'affected with the Wants and Miseries of our Fellow Creatures'.