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ANY one attempting to describe the attitude of primitive Christians in social matters must above all be careful to distinguish between sayings, discourses, mere exclamations, and even theories, on the one hand, and deeds on the other—a difference not always sufficiently borne in mind. In theory and profession we find an inextricable medley of conservatism and radicalism—experimental ideas, so to say; everything seems to be pervaded by a radical sentiment, which was influenced by “pious indifference” and the prospect of the approaching end of the world. Therefore such sayings as these are often found: “Let no man call anything his own”; “We have all things in common”; “Forsake all earthly possessions,”
And in times of special stress and severe persecution, such words were here and there followed by deeds: some congregation, with a fanatic as leader, actually would sell everything, 23or go out into the wilderness. In Asia Minor, indeed, there were enthusiast prophets who, for the space of some twenty years, succeeded in overturning the natural order of things by persuading thousands of individuals and several whole congregations to forsake the world. The further tendency to organise a communism, obviously modelled on Plato’s “Republic,” is noticeable in various small heretical communities, without referring to the similar attempt at Jerusalem, of which we have no clear account. Such impulses are, however, no criterion of the general feeling of the time. In the main current of the development of the Church, the whole movement was calm, strong, purposeful—moderate in the best sense of the word. In the most authoritative and widely-read writings we find the subject treated in such terms as the following, taken from the “Epistle of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth.”22Lightfoot’s Translation. “So in our case let the whole body be saved in Christ Jesus, and let each man be subject unto his neighbour, according as also he was appointed with his special grace. Let not the strong neglect the weak, and let the weak respect the strong. Let the rich minister aid to the poor, and let the poor give thanks to 24God, because he hath given him one through whom his wants may be supplied. Let the wise display his wisdom, not in good words, but in good works. He that is lowly in mind, let him not bear testimony to himself, but leave testimony to be borne to him by his neighbour. He that is pure in the flesh, let him be so, and not boast, knowing that it is Another who bestoweth his continence upon him.” Could anything be more moderate?
But in one point, undoubtedly, all Christians worthy of the name were radical, namely, in their opposition to the world of idolatry, of impurity, of sensuality, of debasing pleasures, of cruelty and of hardheartedness, by which they were surrounded. “To keep themselves unspotted from the world” was for the early Christians the highest solution of the “social question in primitive Christian days.” To fight against this world of sin, to suffer and to die rather than be entangled in it—this was the fundamental principle. In this war against sin, they occasionally went a step further, and protested against all that in any way concerns the world and the flesh. But surely it is better that a man should despise the blessings of this life than disgrace himself by abusing them! Those ascetics and martyrs in the fight they 25fought were fighting for each one of us; they died in order that the world of immorality might perish, or at all events might hide itself in darkness; that at least the vilest and coarsest elements might disappear from the culture and the civilisation that we ourselves have inherited. Philosophers of the highest eminence had spoken and written in fine language of the dignity of man; but they had winked at idolatry, and they did not possess the force of Puritanism against either idols or open immorality. But now had appeared a society able to convert into power and action its message concerning the worth of the immortal soul and the divine sonship of all mankind.
Next to purity of morals, brotherly love was the outstanding characteristic of this society, and we find everything subordinated to the main purpose of binding together individual congregations and the whole body of Christians into one fellowship, ever ready to help its own members and the world around. It was with this end in view that the general organisation of congregations, to the extent of including bishops and deacons, assumed definite form, and developed with such wonderful precision and variety. The bond of brotherhood must not merely imply common worship, but 26must embrace all the relations of life. Nothing of the sort had yet been seen; and no institution could be compared with it except, perhaps, that of synagogues scattered about the kingdom; but these were limited to one nation, and were less closely bound together. From the religious standpoint there was a real levelling of nationalities, ranks and classes in the Christian congregation, and a true manifestation of that equality which consists in the common possession of spiritual and eternal blessings. Slaves were entrusted with the most influential offices in the Church, and the honour and dignity of women were protected, chastity being a fundamental principle in “renunciation of the world.” Only think, for example, to what tender treatment of female slaves certain of the “Acts of the Martyrs” testify! But above all, the Gospel really was preached to the poor; that is to say, for the first time a spiritual religion was brought within the reach of all, even of the humblest classes. In order to fathom the full meaning of this, one must study the controversies between the heathen Celsus and the Christian Origen. Celsus admits, and approves of the fact, that Plato wrote only for the educated and the virtuous; his view is that only those answering to the Greek 27“Aristocrats” can reach firm ground in regard to the highest questions of life. To Christians, on the contrary, the real proof of the superiority and truth of their religion lies in the fact that it applies to all sorts and conditions of men: it is not only the religion of compassion, but the religion of humanity. The eighteenth century simply rediscovered what had already been the possession of Christians in the second century.
It is especially noteworthy that the arrangements for doing practical works of love were very closely associated with those of divine worship. In the same place in which heavenly gifts were received, earthly ones were given as well; in the same place in which people were called upon to offer their souls and bodies a living sacrifice to God, they offered their earthly gifts for the needs of the brethren. This was indeed an incentive to giving, and who need be ashamed to receive gifts straight from the hand of God! The same altar-table thus expressed the joint ideas of love to God and love to one’s neighbour. This was the very heart of the “philosophy” which won the admiration of the pagans; and this, together with private deeds of charity, became the most potent means of propaganda. 28“Where the common interest is concerned, they make no account of cost;” and again, “If one of them suffers, they regard it as something touching all.” This is the testimony of the “scoffer,” Lucian. No charitable institutions had as yet been established, but the whole body, the congregation, fulfilled the functions of a free institution for dispensing brotherly love and practical help.
At the same time the duty of work was inculcated. It was not that any special blessing was thought to rest upon labour, but work was recognised as a self-evident duty. Therefore it was incumbent upon the congregation to help the unemployed and poverty-stricken brethren to find work. “To the sick, give relief; to the sound, work,” is the advice given in an ancient document. No legal maxim of the early Christians can be deduced from this; it is a statement of brotherly obligation. No one was then thinking of far-reaching preventive measures against poverty; for poverty was regarded as a fate, which charity was bound to soften. For a similar reason, the deep mistrust of the Mammon of unrighteousness rarely or never led to the formation of any general rules, wealth too being regarded as a fate, the serious consequences of which had to 29be averted or at least mitigated by the exercise of love.
Political, legal and economic ordinances were in part recognised, in part merely tolerated. The subject was taught respect for the Emperor and for all in authority, and the slave for his master, while conversely the Christian master was to see in his slave a fellow Christian. As there were no republican tendencies in early Christianity, so too there were no efforts to bring about the emancipation of slaves. At the same time it is true that Tertullian did not think it possible for an Emperor to be a Christian, and slavery was included among the institutions destined to perish with the wicked world.
The Christian was, as far as possible, to leave public and political life alone; opinions and practice varied as to the exact degree in which he might take part in it, and could endeavour to reform it. Such disputes as could be decided without going beyond the congretion were not to be carried into the public law courts, and it was a matter of course that in questions concerning marriage and family life, the Church was to follow the principles of Christianity.
During the course of the second century a development of great consequence gradually 30took place. From the beginning there had been voluntary teachers and missionaries who had made special sacrifices for the sake of their calling, enjoying at the same time special privileges and esteem; but now these disappeared, and their place was taken by elected and official presidents. These did indeed take upon themselves some of the obligations of the teachers they replaced, and thus give evidence of a high standard of morality; but the privileges of the teachers were theirs also, and they tended more and more to become the leaders of the congregations. These latter, meanwhile, having grown in size, lost their former character, and no longer depended upon the free co-operation of individual members with their different gifts, but became communities of leaders and their flocks, with a bishop at their head. It was a natural and a necessary development, but it tended to encourage two propensities hitherto held in check—the indolence of some, and the ambition of others, under whose control came the whole power and property of the Church. At the same time it was the beginning of a new class-distinction within the congregations, altogether irrespective of religious and moral qualifications.31
Reference must still be made to one other point: brotherly love was not the sole motive for almsgiving; apart from that, to divest oneself of part of one’s property was accounted as something good in itself. The idea of renunciation of the world began to find its way into the work involved in love of one’s neighbour, and though it would be a mistake to be hypercritical in this matter (since living faith in a future world and in future bliss is always in itself a moral act, and such a faith was here the moving force), it cannot be denied that selfish aims and a false conception of “merit” were at work.
If we look further ahead, we find that the Church, which in the course of the third century had developed into a great, clerically-governed institution, entered in the fourth century into very close alliance with the State, and held in it a position of privilege.
In its theories with regard to property and economic arrangements, the Church was becoming more and more communistic, yet without going the whole length, and making the demand that men in general should give up all they possessed, or literally have everything in common. Almost all the great Fathers of the Church gave expression to utterances such as 32these: “Private property is the root of all strife;” “Possession in common, that is, equal ownership, is the natural and original order of things;” “Beyond what a man requires for his absolute needs, all that he has belongs to the poor;” “The luxury of the rich is robbery of the poor;” “What the poor ask is not thine, but their own.” But in the ultimate issue, all alike are unwilling to surrender the principle of voluntary action. Some, and notably Lactantius, do expressly speak of Plato’s communism as mistaken, and others do not scruple to defend riches when rightly used.
Meanwhile, however, the general feeling seems to have tended towards a communism in which the wants of life should not be felt. How is this to be explained? Brotherly love was not the one clear, prominent motive; other motives were included. First, there was the old esteem for the contemplative life, with its few wants as compared with the active life; and the influence of Aristotle’s “Law of Nature,” and Plato’s “Republic,” in spite of the criticism to which the latter was subjected. Then there was the stern exigency of the time, which made it appear almost a deliverance to be rid of one’s all at a single stroke. Even those who loved their wealth, but were groaning under the 33unendurable pressure of taxation, might in the end prefer to cast away their fortune with their own hands rather than be ruined by slow degrees. Moreover, existing social conditions were so tyrannical and at the same time so precarious; the rich men, forming a new caste which was then growing up, were often so inhuman; and the old hereditary failing of the Romans, avarice and love of gain, had reached such a pitch that a person with a moderate degree of sensibility might well find life in such a world intolerable. Further considerations that must be taken into account are the old Christian distrust of the mammon of unrighteousness; the difficulty of answering the question as to the amount that ought to be given in charity; the conviction that all giving is meritorious, and effectual for the saving of the soul of the giver; and finally the supposed example in the Bible of the communistic Church at Jerusalem. All this is sufficient to explain the tendency towards communism and renunciation of the world.
But, as already pointed out, the result was not communism, but only voluntary almsgiving and donations, together with what was perhaps most important of all, a certain modification of the selfish Roman idea of proprietorship. 34Property is a trust, held under definite moral conditions; this conception was forcing its way in. It is in history as in nature: an apparently enormous expenditure of power is required in order to produce a new result which is seemingly insignificant.
The practice of the Church itself was not at all in keeping with its communistic theories. Rather does it appear in the light of a great conservative power, itself embracing all the old ordinances, and so defending at the same time the economic order. Indeed, one may go still further, and say that when all else besides itself was falling into ruin, the Church, as a firmly established institution, was eventually able to turn to its own almost exclusive advantage the legal and economic order of the decadent Roman Empire. Thus, when slavery was becoming too costly an institution, and, in spite of the efforts of the State to prevent it, serfs were gradually taking the place of slaves, the Church, while pressing upon its individual members the good work of emancipating slaves, was perhaps itself the last slave-owner. This was because it had gradually become the wealthiest landed proprietor, having obtained great privileges during the stormy times of the great migration of nations, when all private tenure was imperilled. 35It was an age of dissolution. “Populus Romanus moritur et ridet;” and amidst the general decline, the Church was the guardian of the former culture, and, like a great insurance company, treasured up all such wealth—spiritual, intellectual, and temporal—as was capable of longer existence, and, without arbitrarily changing it, transmitted it to new nations. That, it may now be said, was the social function of the Church at that time. It did not reform, but it preserved. From that day to this, the Church, as an organised body, has felt called upon rather to discover and preserve the good forces yet extant in old and moribund institutions than to disengage forces full of new life. Thus it took no part in determining the issue of the great economic revolution of that time, for one can scarcely ascribe any special influence to its prohibition of usury, which was commonly ignored.
The question suggests itself, How did it reconcile its practice with its theory? First, by means of a kind of fiction: we mean, the idea that it itself, with all its wealth, was nothing but an enormous society for the relief of the poor; and, secondly, by very great liberality in face of increasing poverty, together with numerous beneficent institutions, founded especially 36during the period from the fourth to the sixth centuries, in aid of the destitute of every kind. These great institutions, which excited the admiration even of the Emperor Julian, by degrees relieved the congregations of the work of caring for the poor; but the congregations as such were gradually disappearing, and were being replaced by episcopally governed parishes. In Germany, for example, congregational Christianity was never even seen. Such institutions did undoubted good, but they had entered upon a struggle with the misery of the masses, of which none could foresee the end; and among individual Christians the feeling that each one is responsible for the condition of his brother was becoming increasingly weaker. The more the Church dictated to the laity in religious matters, the more egotistical its religion became. A church which is only a church, and not also a congregation, isolates even its most pious members, and so makes them selfish.
It is, however, impossible to speak of the Church in the days of Imperial power without mentioning its momentous influence upon Roman legislation previous to the downfall of the Roman Empire. This was a great opportunity for social work, and the Church made 37use of it. It was not only in cases of flagrant wrong that noble arid courageous bishops faced cruel and unjust emperors and officers of state, and protected the innocent, the weak, and the helpless; but from the days of Constantine onwards they also exercised a most salutary effect upon actual legislation. In the Roman code of Justinian I could enumerate a long list of laws the origin of which was influenced by the action of the Church. Among these were enactments dealing with the defence of the weak, the moral elevation of whole neglected classes, the sanctity of marriage, the protection of children, the care of prisoners, public morality, Sunday rest, and even questions of property.
In spite, however, of this influence, the alliance between the Church and the world was regarded by the very devout as an evil; and, in consequence, people who had practised asceticism in an isolated way formed themselves into communities. From the end of the third century dates the growth and spread of monasticism, the devotees of “apostolic life” aiming at the way of perfection and the sure salvation of their own souls, but still without departing from the principle of Christian liberty. Thus, while the Church of the world recognised 38the monastic orders, they in turn acknowledged this worldly Church to be a Christian institution of second rank. This development ensured what had long been imminent—the abandonment of the attempt to introduce effectively into the national life of all countries the highest Christian ideal of life, as it was then understood. Such monasticism, born of “pious indifference,” was not originally founded with a view to works of charity, and had for long little to do with charity; but it soon became an economic power, and that in quite a different direction from what might have been expected.
The Church reached the Germanic peoples, and, in place of the Romans, there appeared the Romance nations. These races were the first that might fairly be described as children of the Catholic Church, and it was consequently among them, and in the Middle Ages, that the Church, no longer having a rival in the ancient order of society, was able to make really authoritative its theory and practice. Ideas suggested wholly by the contemplation of another world ruled both spiritual and intellectual life; fear of that other world, and of purgatorial fire, together with hope of future bliss, held universal sway. “Pious indifference” to earthly concerns and anxiety for individual salvation effectually 39checked all thoughts of this world’s natural claims. The idea was predominant that earthly things are never more than means, form, empty show—if nothing worse. All who thought and reflected at all lived in the other world—and how intimate their acquaintance with it!—while the rest lived in naïve worldliness, though they suffered from a bad conscience.
In the social system corporate life alone prevailed; the individual was no more than a member of a class to which he belonged. It may easily be imagined that in such a state of society the nomadic life was a hard one. Those in possession of power enforced it sternly; but their subordinates were not only governed, but, as a rule, taken care of, and regarded their service simply as a law of nature. It was only the inequality of wealth and its arbitrary administration that introduced into the iron order of social caste some trace of freedom and variety. For that very reason this intractable element, and particularly commerce, became an object of suspicion.
The Church did not interfere with the slow process of economic development, whereby money as a medium of exchange was substituted for primitive payment in kind; on the contrary, as a landowner on a large scale, its 40own position was radically affected by this change—a fact no less true of the monastic orders. Even the great reforms of western monasticism may, as Uhlhorn has recently pointed out, be regarded as illustrating the economic development of the age. Thus the system of the Cluniac order was an indication of general economic reorganisation in France after the break-up of the Frankish kingdom of the Carlovingians. By that time only great monastic foundations—centres, as they were, of important agricultural communities scattered all over the country—were in a position to provide for the people a new mode of existence; while, on the other hand, the forms taken by the mendicant orders corresponded to the development of town life and the general use of money. The great monastic corporations formed in many parts a kind of agricultural circle, within which there was patriarchal care for the inhabitants; and, till the thirteenth century, clergy and monks alike everywhere belonged to the ruling classes. The services they rendered to civilisation, and their philanthropic work, were not, as a rule, determined by brotherly love, but rather by a desire to maintain their economic position as lords and patrons.41
But although the Church was now fully developed as a hierarchical institution, supreme above all, it continued to prescribe to others an attitude towards property the very opposite of that adopted by itself, and it still hid this inconsistency under the fiction that it was the embodiment of charity. And as long as it did, in the persons of its great Popes, defend justice and right, and really was a civilising and educative, helpful and protective power, men bore with this contradiction between theory and practice.
The theologians of the Church proclaimed community of possessions to be the natural and ideal order, and generally proceeded from this to the further ideal of freedom from possessions and desires; extolled a contemplative life spent in voluntary poverty, and saw in work especially a punishment for sin. But when it came to practice, how could this Church fight vigorously against involuntary poverty as an evil, when it declared voluntary poverty to be a blessing, and deemed even involuntary indigence necessary, that there might be scope for the virtue of almsgiving? How could it promote activity and work, when its highest ideal was still passive contemplation? Almsgiving was all it could really 42encourage; for it was only the existence of misery in the world that made it possible for busy people and men of property to be saved. There was, indeed, a certain attempt at progress in the endeavour to specify the exact extent to which those who are possessed of means are really bound to give as a duty. It was recognised that there is such a duty, and that was of the highest importance. But the precise directions which were drawn up were only rules upon paper, which led to pharisaic casuistry, and deadened moral feelings. They encouraged the illusion that a man does enough if he gives a little of his superfluous wealth to such of his neighbours as are in the last extremity of want. This was, of course, not the intention of those schoolmen who set themselves to trace in bold outlines a Christian-Social state, but many understood it so. How instructive it is that the only attempt known in the history of the Church to define the extent to which it is a positive duty to exercise charity and share one’s wealth with others, only succeeded in restricting and paralysing love!
In process of time the result of all this was that rigid and selfish ideas of personal property were gradually relaxed, giving place to lavish almsgiving and a purposeless profusion of 43liberality. The Middle Ages are sufficient proof that alms cannot cure pauperism. At the same time it was during these very Middle Ages that charity often proved itself capable of breaking the spell of “pious indifference” and “deeds of merit.” There were continually appearing great, saintly, self-sacrificing men, who preached not only repentance, but also mercy. There was a constant succession of these from the eleventh century till Savonarola in the fifteenth. They did what is rarely done now even by those who are most self-sacrificing: they themselves lived as the poor did. And yet these pious and compassionate souls were purposely helping to keep open the very wounds they sought to heal, and it soon came about again that personal ministration, the duty of neighbour to help neighbour, was passed on from one to another, until it was left to the very poorest class, who had not strength to take it up.
The reaction began in the fourteenth century. The Church, whose wealth consisted wholly in kind, failed to keep pace with the change by which money became the medium of exchange; and the monasteries, as wealthy landed estates, became impoverished. The Roman Curia was then gradually transformed into a 44financial department conducted without re-11 ference to charity. This it was that gave the impulse to traffic in indulgences. At last the laity of different countries discovered the contradiction between the preaching and the practice of the Church, with the result that, as a financial institution, the Church fell into discredit.
At the same time opinions with regard to work, property and poverty began slowly to change, not from any principle, but owing to the force of altered circumstances. Men began to feel a vague, yet overmastering consciousness of an urgent social duty which could not be fulfilled hi the cloister or the cell. So it came about that the mendicant friars were no longer monks properly so called, for they now have their place and their work in the world. This feeling led to further steps in the same direction, and there resulted a kind of semi-monachism and even a class of what might be called “fourth-part monks,” forming independent religious communities, who bound themselves by some of the monastic rules, but meanwhile worked for others in all manner of ways, and held that feeding the poor was better than a passive life of contemplation.
At this time, too, owing to the gradual 45emancipation of the different states and nations from the secularised theocracy of Rome, attention began to be drawn to the special and peculiar duties of States and towns as regards the earthly welfare of the citizens—so much so, that a branch of scholastic theology was actually devoted to these points. Furthermore, it was then that, in place of the class-divisions and castes of the Middle Ages, the idea arose of individual personality, its rights and its value. In the towns, both the happiness caused by vigorous work on the one hand, and the pressure of want on the other, helped men to recognise that earthly welfare is in itself good, that it has a significance of its own, and yet is closely connected with morality and with eternity. With such a conception, the object of charity once more became simple and straightforward, while at the same time new methods were demanded, so that in this direction, as well as in others, the way was being paved for the Reformation.
But all effort was still held in check by the fear of the other world and the idea of reward, which argument and persuasion were alike unable to overcome. Apart from some attempts at municipal relief of the poor, everything as regards social and charitable work 46was, at the close of the fifteenth century, in exactly the same position outwardly as it had been during the thirteenth century. Mendicancy still ranked as a profession, as an art even, and as “work;” while aversion to labour was still a widespread evil, encouraged by the endless holidays of the Church. The moral consciousness of the time had not as yet come to regard want and misery in a new light. The large displacement of wealth during the period of transition to the new money currency, the tremendous fluctuation of prices, the ruin of whole classes and their subsequent concentration of effort upon the re-establishment of their own position—all this tended to provoke great economic crises; malcontents indulged in bitter cursing of ecclesiasticism, and saw in the prevailing conditions of Church and State the kingdom of Satan and of Antichrist. But all they could set up in its place was at best the old communistic ideal, of which the Church, in its monachism, had long ago made unsuccessful trial. More often it was a strange and naïve medley, in which the Franciscan freedom from earthly needs was mingled with very terrestrial covetousness, seeking to satisfy itself by force, on the ground that the existing order was near its end. It was only towards the 47close of the period that there began to emerge certain demands capable of realisation and full of promise for the future.
At this juncture came the Reformation. Its political and social teaching took its tone entirely from the conditions which had been growing up during the two preceding centuries, and from these it would almost be possible to infer the views of the Reformers with regard to social and economic questions. But the novel feature was that they now claimed the authority of the Gospel, and thus for the first time rested upon a religious basis. What were these ideas, and in what practical results did they issue?
The underlying theories found expression in Luther’s “Sermon on Good Works,” his “Letter to the Nobility of Christendom,” his “Treatise on Christian Liberty,” and others of his writings. Serious as he was, he too did full justice to that fundamental idea which, in the primitive Church and in the Middle Ages, had shown itself as “Pious Indifference;” only he understood it in its purest, simplest, and most vigorous sense, that is, as unshakable confidence and trust in God; arid for that very reason it no longer appeared merely as a quietistic element, leading to renunciation of the 48world, but also as an active motive, able to overcome the world: the faith of a Christian makes him free, and gives him the mastery over all things. That is one point, and the other is a return to brotherly love, in place of the selfish refinement to which almsgiving had been reduced. By simplifying the idea of brotherly love, new depth was given to it, and it came to mean: “A life freely given to others, in glad and willing service.” The Reformation sapped the very foundations of the pretended “merit” of good works, by insisting that only by grace and through faith can we have any dealings with God. Consequently alms and good works ceased to be regarded as worth anything in themselves, but were accorded their due value in a life of steady work at a useful calling, the main point being that a man should not live to himself, but unto God and for his fellow men, since through love a Christian shall be servant of all. Moreover Luther appreciated the fact that love of God and of one’s neighbour are inseparably connected. Only he differed from those who had gone before him in recognising more fully their inner unity, for to him all secular work, performed in faith, and of public utility, was worship. Charitable and social work of every 49kind thus became one special side of a general course of action, prompted by a constant frame of mind, and finding scope in the ordinary business of life. Luther’s indignation against useless and excessive almsgiving was extended to that so-called “Love” which was content to wait until the sufferer was at the last extremity, and then to do such a minimum as would satisfy the bare demands of duty. He also recognised that earthly blessings are blessings, although of a minor order; and work, when done in the right spirit, was valued more highly by him than by the theologians of the Middle Ages, inasmuch as it was no longer regarded as mere “negotium,” the negation of “otium,” but rather as a joyful exercise.
Such convictions necessarily gave rise to new principles for the guidance of social work. Of these I shall mention only the most important: first, real and effective assistance must be rendered, genuine help being the ultimate, and indeed the only, object; secondly, it is to be given not to the lazy, but to the helpless; thirdly, the aid given must be duly proportioned, and not excessive; fourthly, there must be method in relief; fifthly and lastly, such social ministration is especially incumbent upon municipalities: authorities generally, and, in 50short, the whole civil power, for to its care God has committed the temporal welfare of the people, though, first of all, it must recognise its own Christian standing, and act accordingly.
During the Reformation period a certain beginning really was made towards carrying out all these ideals. Here and there existing means of relief were combined and centralised, guardians of the poor were appointed, a general relief fund was started, and poor rates were levied. But unfortunately the final results may he summed up in a word: in the end nothing of importance was achieved. Indeed, it must further be admitted that the Roman Catholics are justified in asserting that theirs, not ours, was the revival of charitable work in the sixteenth century, and that, as far as Lutheranism was concerned, the practical social problem was soon in worse plight than before. How is this disappointing fact to be accounted for? How was it that the movement which had led to the formulation of new and better principles, did, as a matter of fact, produce hardly any improvement?
There is, even now, a great deal to be learned from the answers to these depressing questions.
In the first place, it must be remembered 51that in spite of the high esteem in which Luther had always held civic authority and the State, his original intention was to reconstruct the Church on the simple basis of government by the congregation. He had visions of a congregational life founded upon fellowship, and on principles of Christian liberty, fraternity and equality. It was further his idea that the national element should find free expression—only the nation then meant the Roman Empire of German nationality—and he had in view an improvement in the general economic condition of the country, an increase in its culture, and the upraising of down-trodden classes. Not that those were in his eyes separate and independent ideals; rather he was convinced that a return to the Gospel would inevitably bring about their realisation. Therefore there was no immediate need to press them; he could afford to wait, if necessary; only the Gospel must have free course.
But he could not expect that this conception would be generally understood. His message was hailed by classes numerically powerful, though still groaning under the oppression and want which they were no longer sufficiently servile to tolerate. These were the peasantry of Southern and Central Germany, and the 52poorer class of artisans. It was just at that time too that their demands had become articulate, and their strength and their deserts both seemed to entitle them to claim from the privileged classes a recognised status of their own. The time seemed, moreover, to be nearly ripe for the realisation of that ideal state in which all ranks should be knit together in one great bond of brotherhood; the privileges of the clergy, of the nobility, and of the guilds be curtailed; and the nation be established on a new social basis. No wonder, then, that the downtrodden and oppressed hailed with gladness the works of Luther, and understood them to confer upon the deliverance that had been planned the sanction of the Gospel. “It is the will of God;” this was the interpretation put upon his writings.
You know how it ended. All were to blame, but most of all those princes, rulers and cities by whose authority the movement, having become revolutionary, was quenched in streams of blood. Nor was Luther himself innocent. One may draw a fine distinction and say: “He committed no fault, yet he was not innocent;” or it may be asked in return how he ought to have acted; but, in spite of all excuses, one fact is obvious, that ever since the days of the 53Peasant-War both the German State and the German Evangelical Church have had a debt to pay and an obligation to fulfil. Unless appearances are utterly deceptive, in those days a great opportunity was wasted.
Nothing came of the programme, which had aimed at making the congregation the broad basis on which to build up the Church, and at knitting together in brotherly unity all classes, sharing equal privileges; and the new Church that had suddenly come into being was destined to be organised and managed by the secular authority, the princes of the land, and by theologians.
But even though the original ideals were abandoned, how did it happen that so deplorably little was accomplished in the way of social work—in some directions less even than before? Why did not the newly-formulated principles I have mentioned bring forth at least a scanty harvest? The fact is that a variety of reasons contributed to this result. In the first place, theologians had dwelt too exclusively on pure doctrine, and their tenet, that no amount of good works can in themselves be anything but defective, was not calculated to inspire men with energy and self-sacrificing zeal. They were right in excluding the theory 54of merit, only they required first of all to educate their hearers up to a higher conception. The lazy and selfish were glad to be told that God cares nothing for good works. In the second place, the collapse of the congregational idea soon caused the sense of fellowship to fail also; and without that, nothing on a large scale can ever be accomplished. It became a familiar notion that those in authority ought to do everything, although they were in fact doing less and less. Moreover, the general distress again increased after the Peasant war. The number of idlers, voluntary and involuntary, was immense; and no joy in work could be awakened in a people that was not free. Yet another reason lay in the financial position of the Lutheran country churches, which before long became exceedingly embarrassed. Without means of their own, and soon reduced to mere dependencies of the State, they were often obliged to be content with a wretched endowment for clergy and schools. The “general fund,” where there was one, dwindled away, while the immediate care of the poor, undertaken without experience and with untrained forces, was as before transferred from one to another until it became nobody’s duty. Furthermore, the new prerogatives 55of German princes and the introduction of Roman law enabled the Roman idea of private ownership to force its way in again, and to oust existing and better views on property. Finally, spiritual poverty and paralysis were everywhere characteristic of the later representatives of Lutheranism. Everywhere their horizon was of the narrowest; how then could anything of importance be accomplished in any direction? That was the state of affairs when the Thirty Years’ War broke out, and almost cost our nation its life.
But things looked very much better in the Reformed than in the Lutheran Church. For in the Reformed Church congregational control really did exist; its members were more actively energetic, because they did not confine themselves exclusively to preaching the pure word of God, and because they were generally not in a position to rely upon the secular authority. They borrowed New Testament institutions and points of view for the conduct of their ecclesiastical and social affairs; they revived the original diaconate of the early Church; they sought, in contrast to Roman Catholicism, to train up a new and really Christian society, and they succeeded in doing so.
Lutheran Protestantism produced nothing 56to be compared with the spectacle of refugee communities of the Reformed Church, Presbyterians in Scotland, and Huguenots in France. These revealed the growth of an evangelical people, who did not stop short at mere care of the poor and charitable effort—a people in whose midst religion knit all classes together with brotherly bonds of unity, and who really did create a new social order of fellowship without communism. The Puritans, indeed, who founded the States of New England, were for whole generations a standing proof that a community in which religion and morality are as powerful as law, is possible upon earth.
Here in Germany the immediate consequences of the Thirty Years’ War showed themselves in the lamentable growth of the divisions that separated class from class, and in the establishment of an absolute government, supported by the nobility. It may be that in no other way could even the small amount of culture that was left have been preserved. It was then, however, that the Lutheran Church showed that it was not yet powerless, but possessed, as it were, hidden treasures, only waiting to be brought to light. This brings us to the first beginnings of the present epoch, 57for we are still in the process of development that commenced with the appearance of Pietism on the one hand, and of the Enlightenment on the other.
Pietism it was that revived the dormant consciousness of Protestantism, together with the sense of philanthropic obligation. By treating religion as an all-important and personal matter, and encouraging warmth of feeling, it at once brought into prominence the neglected duty towards one’s neighbour. To the founders of Pietism we owe the great impulse then given to active charity and care of the poor, on the part of municipalities as well as of private individuals and societies. To their example is mainly due all the work of Christian charity performed by Christian associations from that time to this. But the Pietistic movement was always confined within somewhat narrow limits, and selected its methods in deference to a one-sided principle. It was determined to accomplish everything by means of institutions, and it made no use of congregational organisation, of which, indeed, only a wretched travesty survived. The need of trained forces everywhere, rather than of a few amateur dispensers of charity, was not understood, nor yet the fact that the whole 58nation had to be educated and elevated; the magnitude of this task was for the most part beyond the intellectual horizon of the Pietists; and at that time, indeed, where was the German nation? Another power was required to give impetus to such a work as that.
In the whole of history there is, perhaps, nothing more remarkable than the rise of the Enlightenment movement towards the end of the seventeenth century, and the story of the changes it underwent before it became the Socialism of to-day—a gradual evolution which furnishes more than one example of the phenomenon known as direct and retrograde motion.
The starting-point of the movement was the idea of absolute government—primarily in the sense of the absolute power of the sovereign —together with that of the supreme right and duty of the State to care for the welfare of the citizens. Under pressure of this idea, all that remained of the rights of the Diet, and of historic forms and institutions generally, was swept away, excepting only such formalities as were connected with the Court. But from their very ruins there arose, like the phoenix from the ashes, the idea of humanity. The ideal which ancient philosophers had long ago declared to be the natural 59system, and which in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had seemed to be on the point of realisation—only to be lost again in the din of theological conflict—now reappeared and attached itself to the new conception of the rights of man, as proclaimed and expounded by the inspired prophet of this doctrine, Rousseau. Whatever the history of its growth, the idea was there, gained ground, and succeeded in raising out of the darkness of world-weariness and pessimism into the radiance of the gladdest and most confident optimism all the ideals that had hitherto passed muster in religion, transferring them from the history of the past into a glorious future, to which it looked for their realisation. Only one step, it promised, and the victory would be won! If individuals and nations would but consider their own interests, if they would but will it, they could at a single stroke make happiness their own; freedom of development would be possible to each one, the highest sense of well-being would be attained, and every one might then with joy and gladness reach out his hand to his brethren, sharers in a free self-realisation. Liberty, Humanity, Happiness—these were the watch- words, and this was the Gospel preached. Meanwhile our country was wretchedly poor, 60its lower classes being uneducated, in bondage, destitute of rights, always on the verge of starvation! The nobility first took up the new idea, and toyed with it; but its mighty power was soon reflected in literature. Then it caught hold among the middle classes, forced its way in the most developed country, France, and penetrated by degrees to every nation in Europe.
Whatever be thought of this movement, there are two points on which all will agree. In the first place, the eighteenth century clearly II bestowed upon us certain blessings that can never again be taken away, namely, the recognition of the rights and personal value of each individual, and a sense of the dignity of humanity as a whole. These blessings are, indeed, contained in the Gospel. They had been brought to light again by the Reformation; but it had failed to turn them into living realities. Secondly, it will be admitted that it was a frail foundation on which the Enlightenment sought to establish these blessings; further, that they were never obtained, but always involve a problem ever new, and that their realisation demands sacrifices—very substantial and personal sacrifices—of which the Enlightenment did not even dream. Its promoters 61failed to see that the stumbling-block in the way of the “happy man” is no less formidable an obstacle than man himself—that is, the natural, selfish man.
We do not deny to the Enlightenment credit for the blessings to which I have referred. On the contrary, we acknowledge with gratitude that to it is due the recognition of these truths, together with the origin of many convictions, laws and institutions, both social and political, the existence of which seems to us a matter of course. This movement it was which first indicated a real departure from the standpoint of the Middle Ages, and through it the whole aspect of society was changed from top to bottom. We confess with shame that there is some truth in the poet’s parodox, that Rousseau turned Christians into men. But in spite of all we owe it, we do criticise the spirit in which the Enlightenment has worked, and still works. We join issue with its idea of natural Rights, and see in it a dangerous illusion; for helpless man does not come into the world with any Rights, but his very existence is dependent upon the love he finds there. To the one-sided interest in temporal welfare, encouraged by this movement, we oppose higher interests—the well-being 62of the soul, the living God, the blessings of eternity. Lastly, we protest against that blindness which cannot see that all the ideals of the Enlightenment must end in empty schemes, or even become the terrible means of a general disintegration of society, if the selfishness in man be not overcome by the action of mighty forces of good, bringing gladness in their train. To this the ready answer is returned “Yes, of course—altruism; but once the general conditions of life are ameliorated, that will come of itself as a result either of self-interest rightly understood or of a sort of inborn good nature, or of the social instinct.” Of all falsehoods and delusions, this is about the worst and most mischievous. We shall have long to wait before an economic scheme is . framed in which selfishness can play no part, or which can make the love of humanity a natural outflow of the human heart. The French Revolution and all subsequent experiences show that this Enlightenment movement by its own strength alone can produce nothing permanent; and that unlimited freedom is not constructive, but destructive. It was not until a return was made to the old historic lines, and to religion, law, and custom, that form and durability could be given to the true and 63valuable elements in the ideas of the Enlightenment.
It must be admitted that during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century this process was anything but an edifying spectacle, for amidst the endless obstacles due to a fierce reaction all progress was bitterly and wearily contested. The Church was generally on the wrong side, a fact which still rankles in the memory of the nation, and is not without influence on the economic struggles of the present day. The relations between the different classes, and the state of the country generally, might perhaps be happier to-day were it not for this dark shadow over the immediate past. Not even the greatly increased interest of the Church in philanthropic work during this last century, and the grand extension in the scope of its efforts, can suffice to blot out that reproach. Just as in the days before the Peasant war, so in those succeeding the wars of Independence, a great opportunity in our nation’s life was allowed to slip by unused, with precisely the same effect as before, namely, that of estranging thousands from the Church. Meanwhile, a complete change of policy had taken place in one section of the Enlightenment movement.64
The simple truth had at length been recognised, that so long as men are endowed or equipped with different powers, absolute liberty must necessarily lead to the most complete suppression of the weakest. Natural science had at the same time come to be regarded as the only true form of knowledge possible to man, and, under its influence, anything in Rousseau’s ideals that did not bear upon material existence was entirely brushed aside. “The struggle for existence” became an all-powerful magic phrase. This development led to a reaction in which the original idea of the absolute supremacy of the State again came to the fore: out of Individualism arose a demand for Socialism, as being the only possible means of satisfying the pretensions of the individual-a result not to be achieved by means of unrestricted liberty, or, in other words, by Anarchy. Our Social Democracy of to-day is—at least in part—merely a modified and disguised form of the eighteenth century Individualism, and knows no higher ideal than the temporal well-being of the individual, and no forces superior to the instinct of self-preservation and the universal right of suffrage. The word “Social” is introduced partly to conceal, partly to facilitate, 65the unlimited pursuit of a merely individual and earthly happiness. But we are all acquainted with this last development, which has made rapid way with the march of machinery and increased facilities of world-wide intercourse.
The question now before us concerns our position and our duty at the present time.66
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