|Poor Relief the Puritan Way
In his Book of Martyrs, John Foxe describes two visits he paid to Bishop John Hooper. Both times, he saw Hooper’s table “spread with good store of meat and beset full of beggars and poor folk.”1 Upon further enquiry, Foxe discovered that Hooper’s daily practice was to feed the poor of the city in this way. In this, the bishop exemplified the charitable practices of the English Reformers and Puritans.
During the sixteenth century, a number of factors contributed to increased poverty in England. The practice of enclosure, whereby common land was fenced off for sheep farming or crop cultivation, meant that much common grazing land was lost. Often rents were greatly increased, forcing tenants out of properties. In addition, the country suffered from high inflation.2 Unemployment and vagrancy were therefore high. The English Puritans sought to address the issue of poverty by applying scriptural principles.
The Puritans were marked by a genuine social concern, grounded in obedience to God’s command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, springing from the new birth.3 Nevertheless, the Puritans regarded indiscriminate giving as a menace. They saw it as inefficient: wasting money, and not benefiting the poor. They did not advocate government-led poor-relief. Rather, they were committed to taking individual responsibility for the needy.
The typical Puritan minister asked only for a living wage, but this did not prevent him from being generous: “He opened his purse to needy prisoners, assisted struggling students through the university, and sold his crops to the poor below the market rate.”4 Additionally, they organized poor relief locally, arguing that the local church should care for the poor within its own parish. In this way, the church could assess those requesting relief.
The Puritans recognized that long-term unemployment and dependency on charity led to unwillingness and inability to work.5 They distinguished two types of poor person: the incorrigibly idle and the involuntarily unemployed. The former were not to be encouraged by almsgiving, and the latter would, of course, prefer to work if given the opportunity. Ideally, therefore, unless someone was old or physically incapacitated, relief should take the form of employment, rather than alms, as this discouraged idleness, offered dignity to those without work, and benefited society.6
Poverty is a terrible ill, and the Bible calls Christians to be generous to the poor. While the Puritans are often accused of being “other worldly,” they had a biblical strategy for engaging poverty. This approach required individuals and churches to take responsibility for the poor in their area. Those who were financially able provided for those less well off, but in a discriminating way that did not fritter away money. Such charity provides for those in genuine need and offers opportunities for them to learn to provide for themselves.
||Quoted in Leyland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 177.
||Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th Century (London: Panther, 1958), 216.
||Marshall M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 344.