Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, oil on panel by the Master of Hoogstraten, c. 1510; in the Prado Museum.

Anthropology: How Did Christian Doctrines Influence Social Welfare?

As all of us know, poverty is not solely a modern reality. It is a social condition that has existed throughout human history and is persistent in its survival. World societies have strategized various ways of managing it, including charity, poverty relief systems, and welfare states’ social provision. Historians such as Philip Gorski, Ole Peter Grell, Kees Kersbergen, Barbara Vis, and Sigrun Kahl believe that different Christian social doctrines were at the roots of countries’ poverty relief systems.

In other words, they support the idea that “the differences between Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism have left their imprint on contemporary systems of social assistance”.[1]The question I pose is the following: how did Christianity’s doctrines, an early modern denomination, influence contemporary welfare states’ social provision? To answer this question, it is fundamental that one understands the concept of ‘poverty’ and ‘work’ in the different doctrines of Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism.

Image Source: Philanthropy Daily

The Christian Catholic concept of poverty and work

In Christian tradition, poverty was sacralized. Being poor and propertyless was considered the path of life closest to the one pursued by Jesus Christ, and, therefore, the way of living closest to God. According to the New Testament, Christ said: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. Throughout history, many people chose to live according to Jesus Christ’s ideals, such as hermits, cenobites, and monks. In the thirteenth century, with the emergence of the Mendicant Orders, the Dominican and the Franciscan, poverty acquired a new tone. These orders, particularly the latter, turned ‘begging’ into “the enactment of man’s relationship to God”, as if men were beggars before God.[2] Besides, through almsgiving, the rich were not only pleasing God but increasing their chances of getting into heaven by paying poor people to pray for their souls. Since the poor were closest to God, they were the best intermediaries between earth and heaven. Their prayers were, consequently, a means of achieving eternal life and of escaping purgatory.

As far as ‘work’ is concerned, it was viewed, in these times, in two contrasting ways. On the one hand, work was considered painful and shameful, associated with poverty and powerlessness. Also, rich people had a superior status that released them from the burden of work. On the other hand, the sacralization of poverty, the emergence of monasticism, and Mendicant orders shifted the negative concept of work, especially in clerical circles. The Benedictines, for instance, had the famous motto (“ora et labora”) as the essence of their rule.[3]

Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, oil on panel by the Master of Hoogstraten, c. 1510; in the Prado Museum.
Image Source: Britannica; Saint Francis of Assisi receiving the Stigmata.

The Christian Lutheran concept of poverty and work

According to Martin Luther, the founding father of Protestantism in the sixteenth century, each individual would achieve grace through their own individual faith and not by their deeds. In Sigrun Kahl’s words, “all human works were sins, as long as the person performing them was a sinner. He (Luther) thus strongly rejected the idea that generous donations could prevent sinners from eternal damnation and agony in fire and brimstone”.[4]

Therefore, the church’s glorification of the poor, the Mendicants, the beggars, would not influence people’s salvation, and poverty was no longer seen as grace. Nevertheless, the target of Protestant criticism was not poverty itself, but rather its ennoblement and the individual’s choice to seek it. Besides, Lutherans criticized the acceptance of indulgences through which the Catholic church and the regular clergy were making a fortune. These were, according to Luther, absolutely against the vital connection between Christ and poverty.

Adding to this, the Lutheran denomination had two essential values: faith (“all should pray”) and work (“all should work”). According to Luther, work was an individual responsibility that could take people out of poverty and help them to establish a respectable life. Poverty, on the contrary, was considered a moral failure, except for the deserving poor – the elderly, young, and disabled – who were entitled to charity.[5]

Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation.
Image Source: Pursuing Veritas

The Christian Calvinist concept of poverty and work

One essential difference between Calvin and Luther is that, for the former, the consequences of sinning were irreversible, whilst, for the latter, a sinner could always achieve grace through faith and humility.[6]  For Calvinists, faith did not have much power – self-control and self-discipline were instead the main focus of its theology. A high and strong level of self-discipline was mandatory for human beings to maintain their state of grace and to not fall into sin and disgrace.

According to Calvinist theology, there are two signs of a person’s salvation. The first one – the doctrine of predestination – is based on people’s quality of life. If people are elected to be saved by God, their lives on earth will be pleasant and affluent. Whereas, if condemned by the Holy Father, their life will be miserable and arduous.

In other words, if someone was rich, they were destined to go to heaven; if someone was poor, they were a sinner, condemned to hell.[7] Sigrun Kahl points out that this was not explicit in Calvin’s writings. However, Calvinists were looking for signs of salvation or damnation, and being rich or poor was, indeed, one.

The second sign of a person’s salvation is the work ethos and individual obedience to the will of God by self-discipline. Having a strict work ethic and engaging in labor brings people closer to God. As Calvin once said: “In the things of this life, the laborer is most like to God.”[8] If one accepts the incentive of salvation and works hard, with discipline, and accumulates wealth in life, then one can be sure of a place in heaven.

To sum up, Calvinism believed poverty and misery were a punishment for sin. Therefore, one of the most famous biblical quotes from its theology was: “He that will not work, let him not eat.”[9]

John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism.
Image Source: Calvin University

Poor relief systems after the Christian Reformation

As Ole Peter Grell asserts, “in an age profoundly dominated and shaped by faith, it is difficult to accept that religion should not have shaped the public and private approach to the way the poor/sick should be treated.”[10] After the Reformation, some clashes divided Christianity into different social doctrines and its social organization is still present to this day. The different Christian concepts of poverty and work ultimately originated distinct ways of relieving the burden of poverty. The result was different legislation in countries with different predominant doctrines. For instance, the Leisnig Ordinances, passed in 1523, and recommended by Luther as a model, forbade begging by the Mendicant orders and made the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor.

The Catholic city of Ypres, in turn, forbade begging in 1525 but did not extend it to the regular clergy.[11] Another good example is in early modern Germany. In the Catholic city of Wangen, the most important institution for poor relief was the Hospital – Heilig-Geist-Spital – which encouraged people to do good deeds at the end of their lives. As a result, many people would donate food to the hospital on the anniversary of their relatives’ deaths. In return, the recipients would pray for the salvation of the donors’ souls.[12]This did not happen in German Protestant cities, which was not a mere coincidence.

Of course, there were some exceptions. However, even if Catholic countries tried to forbid wandering beggars, they were not as implacable as Protestants.

Martin Luther displaying the 95 Theses.
Image Source: CNN, Martin Luther displaying the Ninety-five theses.

Outdoor relief and indoor relief according to Christian doctrines

This distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor was an underlying principle for the organization of countries’ poor relief systems. They were of two kinds: outdoor relief (monetary help) and indoor relief (hospitals, shelters, workhouses), both strongly influenced by religious doctrines.

Outdoor relief was targeted at the deserving poor. Lutheran countries, for example, were supporters of a common chest that provided monetary help to the poor. These systems initiated an early process of secularization and centralization, which, ultimately, were at the roots of modern social insurance. Catholics, on the contrary, held on to the traditional manners of religious charity.

As far as Calvinists were concerned, Lutheran relief was an incentive to poverty – “it pauperized individuals”, instead of improving their work ethics. [13] Therefore, they invested in indoor relief: workhouses, which were instruments of punishment and correction for deviant individuals. The first one,  Bridewell, was founded in London (1555). In Bridewell, the vagrants and beggars were “forced to grind corn, fashion nails or spin thread as part of a program of normal and spiritual reform”[14]. The second one, called Tuchthuis, was established in Amsterdam in 1595, and the undeserving poor had to work in rasping dyewoods (also called the Rasp House) and had to meet production quotas.

They were rewarded if they exceeded them, and punished if they failed to achieve them.[15] They were not allowed to swear, fight, gamble, and their free time activities were reading, writing, and exercising.[16] It was no coincidence that these workhouses appeared in England and the Netherlands independently, both cities with a strong Calvinist tradition. Lutheran countries also established workhouses to complement their outdoor relief, but later and to a lesser extent. Finally, the Catholic countries were the latest in establishing workhouses. It was not part of its theology to punish and correct poor individuals who were still considered an imitation of Christ.

Tuchthuis (Rasphuis), workhouse in Amsterdam.
Image Source: Wikipedia. Tuchthuis, Amsterdam’s workhouse.

Religious impact on 20th-century welfare states’ social provision

As a consequence of industrialization and modernization, poor relief systems were soon insufficient in responding to social needs. Social insurance and social assistance replaced the former systems. Sigrun Kahl finds a coincidence between the timing of social insurance and social assistance and the historically predominant Christian confessions of the states.

Accordingly, countries where the Lutheran tradition is strong, like Germany and Scandinavian states, were the first to establish social insurance. According to Kahl, this was due to their early invention of a common chest, the outdoor relief.[17] On the contrary, countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, the U.K, and the United States had, with a powerful Calvinist community, and characterized by an anti-state pro-indoor relief system, established social insurance far later. Finally, in the Catholic countries of Southern Europe, the central role of the Church in poor relief caused the later emergence of social insurance.

The timing of social assistance was slightly different. Lutheran countries, like Germany and Scandinavia, established it later than Calvinist states. The formers already had a strong outdoor relief system, a safety net to cover eventual needs. Therefore, the need for social assistance was felt later than in countries where indoor relief was the prevalent poverty relief system.[18] Traditional Calvinist regions, for instance, established national social assistance quite early, since monetary relief did not improve work ethics.[19] That said, social assistance as a last resort was established at an early stage since it was the preferred solution for extraordinary cases of people in need. 

Finally, in Catholic countries, social assistance arrived late and, in some regions, did not arrive at all.[20]. The powerful role of the church and its charity may have delayed state intervention in social provision. 

Cartoon illustrating the welfare state.
Image Source: China Daily.

Significance in social anthropology: Religion as a central agent in social organization

Even though other factors were crucial in defining welfare states’ social provision, such as socialism, social democracy, capitalism, among others, it is hard to imagine them without their foundational religious values. If the Christian Reformation had not occurred, social provision in traditionally Christian countries would have taken a completely different direction.

Religion has always been a definitive agent in social organization, and indeed, Christian philosophy and theology have occupied a fundamental role in the development of western human societies throughout history. Its values are part of a collective process, which influences how we think, behave and organize ourselves collectively. It is a fundamental element to consider in any meaningful sociological research.

[1] Kees Kersbergen, van and Barbara Vis, Comparative Welfare State Politics: Development,

Opportunities, and Reform (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 33.

[2]Thomas Max Safley, The Reformation of Charity: the secular and the religious in early modern poor relief (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers), 19.

[3] Leen Van Molle, Charity and Social Welfare: the dynamics of religious reform in Northern Europe 1780-1920 (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2017), 15.

[4] Sigrun Kahl, “The Religious Roots of Modern Poverty Policy: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Protestant Traditions Compared”, European Journal of Sociology 45 (I), 103.

[5] Molle, Charity and Social Welfare, 14.

[6] Kahl,  “The Religious Roots”, 106.

[7] Philip S. Gorski, The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 20.

[8] Kahl,  “The Religious Roots”, 106.

[9] Molle, Charity and Social Welfare, 14.

[10] Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham, Health care and poor relief in Protestant Europe 1500-1700 (London/New York: Routledge, 1997), 3-4.

[11] Gorski, The Disciplinary Revolution, 127.

[12]Safley, The Reformation of Charity, 83.

[13] Kahl,  “The Religious Roots”, 109.

[14] Gorski, The Disciplinary Revolution, 131.

[15] Ibid., 63.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kahl,  “The Religious Roots”, 283.

[18] Ibid., 114.

[19] Ibid., 112.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Molle, Charity and Social Welfare, 13.

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