What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the
faces of the poor?
The Churches considered it wrong to attempt to eliminate poverty,
since Jesus himself had given an assurance that the poor would always
be with us. Churches taught that poverty was something that had
to be accepted with humility, as part of the divine plan. As one
papal encyclical put it:
Let the poor, and all those who at this time are facing the
hard trial of want of work and security of food - let them in
a like spirit of penance suffer with greater resignation the privations
imposed upon them by these hard times and the state of the society
which Divine Providence, in an inscrutable but ever-loving plan,
has assigned to them
In Christian countries little effort has been made by the Churches
to eliminate poverty (a blasphemous intention) or even to ameliorate
it since poverty was "natural". In the Middle Ages Senior
clerics lived in luxury, and even ordinary monks ate up to three
pounds of red meat each day. No one thought it odd that they should
do so while homeless people starved to death nearby. Secular society
now ensures that people no longer starve in the street, but otherwise
things are not very different. With a few notable exceptions (such
as the Salvation Army) the overwhelming majority of clerics are
content for their churches to remain empty for six or seven days
a week while the homeless sleep on the streets outside.
No mainstream Churches have a good record in providing substantial
help to the poor, and in Britain their traditional approach is best
represented by the infamous Victorian Poor Laws. So it is that the
expression "as cold as charity" makes perfect sense to
most of us, yet would be a meaningless oxymoron in any but a traditionally
Christian culture. Oppression of the poor and aged has been common
in all Christian countries. Charity, when given at all, was offered
only to those who accepted the current religious orthodoxy, 2 John
10 being interpreted as saying that it was sinful to help those
with different beliefs. Clergymen taught that neither food nor shelter
should be given to a starving man unless his beliefs were orthodox
On the other hand Churches have traditionally provided wealth
and power to the younger sons of noble families whatever their beliefs.
Bishops' thrones and cardinals' hats were routinely distributed
as sinecures. How blatant this practice was can be illustrated by
a few examples. In the first part of the tenth century Pope John
X confirmed the appointment of a five year old child as an archbishop.
Benedict IX was a "mere urchin" when he was elected pope
in 1032 (according to Raoul Glaber, a monk from Cluny, he was only
11 years old). Giovanni de' Medici, born in 1475, was made an Abbot
at the age of 7 and a Cardinal at 13. He later became Pope Leo X.
Early in the sixteenth century King James IV of Scotland appointed
his nine year son, Alexander Stewart, to be Archbishop of St Andrews
. The poor saw rather less of the huge Church revenues than such
churchmen. It is fair to say that for most of its history the Church
has been a sort of huge international charitable fund for the already
wealthy, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Throughout
Christendom the poorest were liable for a range of Church taxes.
The nobility, who provided almost all senior ecclesiastics, were
Discrimination did not stop at funding. Not so long ago the rich
sat at the front of the church and the poor at the back. Sometimes
the rich took communion on a different day from the poor, and sometimes
the rich and poor were offered wine of different qualities. Some
priests even preached that there were different heavens for the
different sections of society . In the Roman Church discrimination
extended to the provision of patron saints. There are patrons for
persons in authority, judges and magistrates, governors, rulers
and kings . There is even one for the Spanish high command and one
for the French monarchy, who must be at something of a loose end
now. Almost everyone has been given a patron saint. St Bona is the
patron saint of air hostesses, St Martin of Tours of geese, St Joseph
of house hunting and St Venantius of jumping and leaping. Yet there
were no patron saints for the poor, or for slaves, or for oppressed
women, or the victims of religious persecutions.
Churches have changed their ideas since secular principals of
equality have become widely accepted. Few of them now use the third
verse of the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful although its truth
was unimpeachable within living memory:
The Rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them, high and lowly
And order'd their estate.
As in so many other areas of social improvement, the dynamos of
change were almost all outside the mainstream Churches, and were
condemned by those Churches for daring to try to change the natural,
divinely ordained, order. The same minority groups who advocated
other reforms also advocated impartial care for the poor and aged:
freethinkers, Utilitarians and Quakers. Thomas Paine advocated a
welfare state and old age pensions as early as the eighteenth century.
Bentham, whose maxim was "Maximise morals, minimise religion"
had already published his Situation and Relief of the Poor in 1797.
The ill treatment of the poor was brought to public attention by
atheist economists like Marx and Engels, and attempts to ameliorate
it were pursued by Quakers and socialist freethinkers.
Working conditions were no concern of the Churches. Apart from
a measure of concern that industrial workers often rejected the
Christian religion, there seems to have been minimal interest in
them. Christians opposed all attempts at reform, saying that existing
conditions were natural, and reform was contrary to the bible. Churchmen
in the nineteenth century opposed the reduction in working hours,
protection for women and children, and even safety legislation.
Agitation to improve industrial working conditions came from freethinking
Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stewart Mill
(1806-73). Ideas like safe and hygienic factories, education for
workers, and infant schools were pioneered by the philanthropist
Robert Owen, who had rejected all religions at the age of 14 after
reading Seneca. The Anglican Church opposed factory reform at every
turn, and the only Christian employers to earn a lasting reputation
for good employment practices were Quakers like the Frys, Cadburys