Thomas E. Peck


THIS is the great social problem of the age; a problem which has often been solved, to their own satisfaction, by philanthropists seriously concerned for the welfare of their race and appalled by the enduring and obstinate calamities which make its cry continually go up to heaven; by professional expounders of political economy anxious to vindicate, as by a crucial experiment, the validity, dignity, and practical value of the science; by socialistic philosophers forced to grapple with it by all that determines the specific direction of their labors; but all the solutions have failed in the one capital point of providing a remedy adequate to the evil. It has been clearly demonstrated, in mood and figure, that poverty ought not to exist. Statistical figures that cannot lie, parliamentary reports and society reports, make a melancholy exhibition of the idleness, improvidence, dissipation, and general wickedness of the laboring classes so called; they prove to us that there is no need, in ordinary seasons, for such a pressure of the means of subsistence upon the wages of labor; that in Great Britain, for example, the amount annually expended by the working classes, out of their earnings, for spirits, malt liquors and tobacco, is equal to the whole amount of the profits of capital in the hands of their employers, that is to say, “they waste annually as large a sum as their employers annually save,” and, consequently, “if the operatives saved like their employers, the annual addition to the fund out of which labor is remunerated (the available capital of the country) would be at once doubled.” And many other such like things they tell us. But the hydra-headed monster continues to rear his front and bid defiance to speculatists, philanthropists and statesmen. Whether it be an undiscovered fallacy in the theory, or an invincible obstacle in the way of its application, the fact is certain that the evil is growing. The furrows on the brow of the wise man become deeper and the heart of the good man becomes sadder, as the gloomy problem is revolved.

It is not worth while to discuss the question whether poverty can, by any means, legal, moral or religious, be prevented. The condition of human nature, as well as the clear statements of the word of God, may satisfy us that it must be a permanent element in the social economy of the race. The ignorance and general incapacity of some, the improvidence and prodigality of others, the low state of morals among the masses in most countries, and, above all, the sovereign constitution of him who does all things according to the counsel of his own will, setting up one and putting down another, and producing those great diversities of condition which practical atheism ascribes to chance or fortune, conspire to assure us that the poor shall always be with us, that they shall never cease out of the land. If men generally could be thoroughly indoctrinated with the lessons of political economy, and be made to understand the inexorable laws which govern the relations of capital and labor, we should doubtless have fewer disastrous strikes, and a more satisfactory distribution of the necessaries and even the comforts of life; and it is unquestionably the duty of every member of society to use his abilities for this end. Still, this can be only partially done, even with the most heroic effort; and where it is done the infirmity and sinfulness of our fallen nature will, in great measure, defeat the beneficent purpose. Evil passions and habits will be found too strong for argument. But poverty is not confined to the ignorant and the vicious. There is a large class of cases which has always baffled, and will always baffle, the shrewdest philosophy which leaves the wise sovereignty of God out of its calculations. Until the (lay dawn and the day-star arise upon the world, we may, therefore, expect to continue our struggle with this omnipresent calamity. The great question is, how shall the evil be mitigated, the sufferings of the poor be relieved?

1. If there be a man in whose breast the fountains of compassion have been wholly dried up, and who will assert that the poor deserve their fate and ought to be abandoned to it, we have nothing to say to him, as it is not likely that these pages will ever meet his eye. We have no fear, indeed, that, in any civilized nation, the poor will not, after some fashion, be cared for. Public policy, if nothing else, will prevent a total neglect of them; and the spirit of Christianity, which pervades with more or less power all modern civilization, is our security that what is (lone will be done, not in concession merely to stern social and political necessity, but in a good degree, also, under the promptings of humane and generous impulses. Whatever the voice of nature, stifled and perverted by the selfishness of sin, may say, the voice of God in his word is clear and explicit. There can be no manner of doubt as to our duty: “If there be among you a poor marl of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: but thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth. Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye he evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him naught; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, arid it be sin unto thee. Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this tiling the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto. For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” Such is the language of the law of Moses, that law which some men would have us to believe is the distilled spirit of austerity arid harshness. Would that the spirit of this law pervaded more completely the whole frame-work of society now!

We turn next to the patriarch of Uz, whom the Lord himself pronounces to be a perfect man. With what satisfaction does he reflect, in the hour of heavy calamity, upon his kindness to the poor! With what confidence does he invoke the vengeance of the Almighty if he had been guilty of oppressing the helpless and despised! The recollection of his charities sent a thrill of joy through his heart while he sat in sackcloth and ashes, stripped of property, children and friends, with the terrors of the Almighty arrayed against him and the poison of his arrows drinking up his spirit; for he regarded them as tokens of the past favor of God, and they encouraged him to hope that his righteousness, though now enshrouded with darkness, should yet be revealed as the noon-day; that he who bestowed such rich grace would not always chide, nor keep his anger for ever; that the night of weeping should, sooner or later, be succeeded by a day of rejoicing. These charities revealed to him his conformity in character to the Son of God, whom, with the eye of faith, he saw standing at the latter day upon the earth, preaching good tidings to the poor, binding up the broken-hearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to the bound. “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. And I brake the jaws of the wicked, and plucked the spoil out of his teeth.” (Job xxix. 11, &c.) See, also, the striking passage in chapter xxxi. 16-22. We offer no apology for asking our merely literary readers to turn to a book which even Shelley and Byron kept constantly upon their tables to excite their poetic inspiration. But space would fail us to quote one-tenth of what the gloomy Old Testament contains of a like import.

When we open the New Testament we find our Saviour, in one of the earliest of his formal discourses, exhorting his disciples to imitate their Father in heaven in the largeness and comprehensiveness of their charity. We find him sustaining and enforcing his instructions by a life of unparalleled devotion in the relief of human suffering, arid, though supported by charity himself, requiring his followers to keep a fund for the necessities of the poor. And as if it were not enough that he had chosen the condition of poverty as his own, and thus dignified and exalted it, he condescended to make the poor the representatives, as it were, of himself, after he should have left the earth, in those memorable words, “Ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.” (Compare Matt. xxv. 40, 45.) He places alms-giving foremost amongst the acts of worship, concerning which he gives direction in the Sermon on the Mount. He solemnly warns the Pharisee that, with all his punctilious ritualism, nothing can be “clean” to him if he fail “to give alms of such things as he had.” He represents alms to the poor as time rental, so to speak, which is at once an acknowledgment of the rights of the great Proprietor of all, and the indispensable condition of the Pharisee’s own right to enjoy. (See Luke xi. 41, and compare 1 Tim. iv. 4, 5.) And in the last hour, amidst the excruciating agonies of the cross, expiring under the frown of God, in testimony of a love as comprehensive as the world, he did not forget to commend her who bare him to the affection and care of him who had leaned upon his breast.

After our Saviour’s ascension into heaven the promised gift of the Comforter was bestowed; and as it is his office “to take of the things of Christ,” to show them to his people, and to transform them into his image, we are not surprised to find that one of the first and most impressive exhibitions of the new life communicated to the church consisted in liberality to the poor: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul: neither said any that aught of the things which they possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” On so grand a scale was this primitive liberality that it became necessary to ordain officers whose whole time should be given to the business of distribution. And the deacon is, to this day, an essential element of every regularly organized church.

But these benefactions were confined to the Jews. After the Gentiles were incorporated into the church, the middle wall of partition having been broken down by the Man Christ Jesus, an interchange of kindly offices took place between those who had once been enemies. The grand idea of “fellowship” came more fully out; the idea of a common nature, a common blood, a common misery, a common salvation, a common Father, and a common inheritance, swallowed up all national prejudices and put to shame all hereditary alienation of feeling and interest, so far as these circumstances had the effect of annihilating natural human sympathies, and. Jew and Gentile contributed to the necessities of each other. God had long ago made a powerful appeal against the oppression of the poor, upon the ground that it involved a reproach upon himself as the Maker of all men; that the poor as well as the rich bore his image, amid that the true dignity of a man should be estimated by this consideration, and not by the number or splendor of adventitious distinctions; but now is gloriously brought out the related truth — a truth which had been overlaid and concealed by the Mosaic institute in its practical effect — that men were brethren, were time children of the same family, and therefore bound, as bearing at once the image of the same Father and the image of one another, to have all things in common so far as necessity might require.

But we cannot dwell longer upon the direct argument from Scripture. Enough has been said to show that time poor are never forgotten of God; that he takes them under his peculiar care, blesses those who do them good, curses those who oppress, or refuse to relieve them, and uniformly represents himself as their advocate, ready at all times to maintain and vindicate their cause. The conscientious performance of our duty to this unhappy class of our brethren, therefore, is the only safe course under the government of such a God as the Bible reveals to us. It is our highest interest as well as our indispensable obligation; and woe to the man who lives only to be “ministered unto,” who “liveth to himself.”

This whole subject, in the aspect in which we have endeavored to present it, affords a beautiful illustration of the power of Christianity in subduing the consuming selfishness of time human heart, and thereby promoting the exercise of those affections upon which the comfort of men’s social condition almost exclusively depends. Writers on morals make a distinction between duties of perfect and duties of imperfect obligation: the former embracing that class of duties which imply corresponding rights on time part of others to enforce a performance; the latter constituting that class which do not imply such rights. This distinction, of course, has reference only to our social relations with one another; in our relations to God all obligation is perfect. Now it is important to observe that while duties of the first class are indispensable to the being of society, and therefore are the great objects to be secured by human law with its apparatus of pains, penalties, and disabilities, those of the second class are indispensable to the well-being, the comfort of society. Truth and justice, to adopt the common division of the social virtues, are secured by law, so far as the existence of the social state demands; benevolence lies beyond the reach of law, as do the virtues of gratitude, filial affection, and reverence for worth or age. But what would society he without these? Society is not a mere juxtaposition of human beings; there is no society in hell. There must be a pulsation of sympathy, heart with heart; benevolence on one side, gratitude on the other. The true idea of society was illustrated in the famous apologue of Menenius Agrippa, and still more beautifully in the twelfth chapter of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. A chartist, an agrarian, a socialist, will doubtless assert that aid to the poor is of the nature of a right which the poor may demand; and we have heard some unwary people, who abhor chartism and agrarianism, take the same ground in their zealous pleadings for the poor. But this is all wrong; benevolence must not be confounded with justice, in the nature either of God or man. The poor have a right before God; that is to say, God has a right to require those who have more to help those who have less, and the man who refuses to acknowledge this obligation makes himself obnoxious, as we have seen, to the displeasure of his Maker; but this is a very different affair from the right of the poor to exact. Property is an institution of God; let time rights of property, therefore, be sacred, always and everywhere; but let those who hold it be mindful of their abiding responsibility for the use of it, and beware lest their poor brethren “cry unto the Lord against them.”

We cannot conclude the illustration of this part of the subject without alluding to a consideration intimately connected with the statements in the last paragraph, and which may serve as a motive to activity in the whole business, at least to all who value the stability of society. The systematic relief of time poor diminishes the danger of revolution and agrarian violence. Providing for them by law will not do it, as we shall see; nor will voluntary associations, with paid agents, answer the purpose, for the reason that they are practically liable to the objections which lie against legal methods of relief. The poor have, in most communities, a majority; they will one day have it in ours. In most countries they are restrained by military force, and are destitute of political power. Here there is no such force, and the ballot-box is in their hands. It is well known how anxiously great statesmen have studied the question, whether and in what manner the right of universal suffrage can be made to harmonize with the safety of a commonwealth governed by law and not by an army. Further, the feelings of envy, jealousy, and even hostility, commonly entertained towards the rich by the poor have been the occasion of serious convulsions. These feelings have been particularly strong in populous communities, the large cities, for example, because the contrast between the two conditions is more obvious and striking; because the poor are more conscious of their numbers and strength; and because the social affections, which are our greatest safeguard, in their existence and operation, against popular violence, are weaker in cities, being more divided, on account of the number of objects on which they are to be exercised, being thwarted by the selfish passions commonly vigorous in commercial places, and not fortified, to the same extent as in small towns, by the beneficent influence of home. Verbum sat, etc.

2. Having dwelt so long upon the duty of aiding the poor, we have space only for a statement of the leading points under the other topic upon which we had intended to enlarge, which is, the method in which this aid should he afforded.

That method is the best which shall most effectually subserve the great moral ends of that constitution of society which creates the necessity for any aid at all. There are wheels within wheels in the vast scheme of providence; there are connections, gradations, and dependencies; there are forces, mechanical, chemical, vital, and moral; and these in their order, rising one above the other, all conspire to declare the glory of God in the restoration of man, and in his preparation, by a course of wonderful discipline, for the destiny before him. Inorganic matter is subservient to the uses of vegetable life, and this, in its turn, subserves the interests of animal life, and all are subordinate to the purposes of the immortal spirit. All social relations have the same end. Husbands educate their wives, and wives educate their husbands; parents their children, and children their parents, and so on through the whole round, and during our whole lives, down to the last gasp, we are educating one another. God has made individuals dependent upon one another in the same political community, and by this mutual dependence maintains the feeling of brotherhood. He has by diversity of soil, climate, and other conditions made nations dependent upon each other, and thus created commerce, which, next to Christianity, is the most powerful instrument of civilization, the most effectual means of developing the sentiment of brotherhood among the various branches of the family of man, and of preparing them for their final union under the Man Christ Jesus. In like manner he has ordained that the rich and poor shall exist together, and side by side; that in the exercise of kindly offices on the part of the one, the feeling of compassion, of sympathy, springing out of a common nature, may be drawn out and strengthened, may emerge from the condition of a mere impulse, or passive sensibility, into the condition of a permanent, active, moral habit; that, by the reception of these kindnesses on the part of the other, the sentiments of gratitude and humility may be excited and confirmed; and, on the part of both, that the feeling of dependence upon God, and of thankfulness for his mercies, may be enlivened and invigorated.

Now apply these principles, as a rule of judgment, to the methods of relief most commonly employed: 1. All poor laws, it will be perceived at once, are open to the objection that they are out of harmony with the above-mentioned moral ends of poverty. A poor tax, like all other taxes, is paid, if not with grumbling, at least without cheerfulness; no feeling of compassion is brought into play; and the tax is none the better man for it. The poor, upon whom the bounty is expended, know no benefactor but the abstraction called the state, or the corporation, or the stern business man who represents it, and who is the proximate almoner of its bounty. All legal “out-door” relief is beset with thus additional disadvantage, that it increases the evil it is designed to remedy. All public institutions for the relief of mere indigence, as Chalmers has clearly shown in his able paper on this subject, give encouragement to idleness and crime. The history of the operation of the English poor laws is positively frightful in its details. The essay of Chalmers, just referred to, is entitled “Time Distinction, both in Principle and Effect, between a Legal Charity for the Relief of Indigence, and a Legal Charity for the Relief of Disease.” It is founded upon the example of the Saviour, who never, but on two occasions, worked a miracle to feed men, and yet never, on any occasion, refused to heal the infirm and the diseased. Anything is a sore evil which discourages men from work; but men will not cut off their hands or legs in order to be sent to a hospital. The “in-door” relief, it may be added, furnished in our almshouses, can only be defended upon the ground that, in regard to the able-bodied. paupers, it is a relief in the way of work, and is, therefore, in a manner, a method of correcting or punishing vagrancy; and, in regard. to the infirm and helpless, is of the nature of hospital care. The policy of these institutions is, in some measure, justified by the very great repugnance the poor feel to going there, and their anxiety to get away.

2. Voluntary Associations. First, The church is a voluntary association, in the sense that all its members are such without compulsion or constraint from human authority. In another and a higher sense, all men are bound to be members of it — such being the command of God. It is a part of the church’s duty to care for the poor. Now, we must bear in mind that the temporal necessities of men are only among the subordinate things that the church is to provide for; that this department of her liberality has been entrusted by God to officers of his own appointment, elected by the people, ordained by the spiritual officers to their work, amid responsible to these spiritual officers; that the bounty of the church is to be dispensed for spiritual ends, being itself a part of the worship of God; that it is intended chiefly for its own poor, as a testimony of the fellowship and communion of all the members of Christ’s body, one with another, in and through him. Let these things be remembered, amid it will he seen that this method of relieving the poor does fulfil the moral ends before stated, and yet is not exposed, as a public charity, at least in any great degree, to the perils incident to such charities. But it cannot reach all the poor; and. we must, as members of society, resort — Secondly, to voluntary associations, in the common sense of that term. These associations may either be permanent, with paid agents, or temporary and occasional, as the exigencies of the poor may demand. The objections which lie against legal relief lie in almost their full force against associations of the first class, such as “The Associations for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor,” in Baltimore and other large cities; and besides, they are very expensive. According to the Sixth Annual Report of the Baltimore Association, which lies before us, nearly twenty-five per cent, of the whole amount contributed was expended on “salaries, office-rent,” etc. Now, if the agents of this society are qualified for their office, they are men who could take care of themselves without this salary in some other employment; and yet they absorb nearly one-fourth of a charitable fund! More than this, it is our deliberate judgment, from not a little observation and information, that the really “deserving poor” would be better taken care of without this association. At the same time, we judge its affairs to be as well managed as those of any other similar institution in the country. We blame the system, not the men who administer it. As to associations of the second class, occasional and temporary, such as the Baltimore institution was substantially at first, whose object it is, by dividing the population into districts small enough to be visited and personally examined in order to a judicious and kind distribution of alms, and by some common bond or medium of communication with other districts, to equalize the burden and the relief; in a word, the combination of the “charities of the neighborhood,” the charities of the weeping eye, the tender heart, the open hand, which build up the benevolence of the giver and the gratitude of the receiver, bind each to other as of one bone and one flesh, and from both make the incense of thanksgiving ascend unto the Giver of all — these constitute the surest reliance of the poor.


Tomas E. Peck (1822-1893), preacher, writer, ‘beloved instructor’ at Union Theological Seminary, Virginia, was one of the leaders and masterminds in the same school of Southern Presbyterians as J.H. Thornwell and R.L. Dabney in the second half of the 19th century. His biblical convictions made a unique contribution to the thinking of this school. First brought together by T.C. Johnson in 1895-1897, his writings contain much which remains relevant today on such topics as Worship, Church and State, Revivals of Religion, the Moral Law and Roman Catholicism.

This article appeared in the January volume, 1856,  of the Presbyterial Critic.

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