Part I of this series, I summarized the theory of Sigrun Kahl, who argues that European states have shaped their welfare policies in part because of the influence of Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist doctrines regarding poverty.
In Part II of this series, I explained how the social landscape of the Roman Empire shaped Catholicism’s doctrinal approach to poverty.
In Part III, I explained how the social landscape of early-modern Germany shaped Martin Luther’s theology on poverty.
In Part IV, I explained how Jean Calvin’s experience with temporal powers, his own as well as those of various European leaders, shaped his theology on poverty.
In this post I will explore how the development of England’s poor laws reflected Calvin’s theology of poverty.
In England, Calvin’s teachings were adopted by Puritans during a time of great social upheaval. The Reformation in England was a messy business, spanning the reigns of eight monarchs and one Lord Protector. It took the lives of queen consorts, bishops, and counselors. Reformation led the English to behead King Charles I and forced the abdication of King James II. Tens of thousands of people living in England, Scotland, and Ireland died as a direct result of Reformation-inspired violence.
But how did the Reformation change England’s attitude toward the poor?
Before the Reformation, monasteries and churches cared for the poor and sick in England. But after Henry VIII broke with Rome and declared himself head of the English Church, he disbanded monasteries and redistributed their land to families loyal to him. The dissolution of the monasteries led to thousands of homeless nuns and monks wandering England and no system to care for the poor and sick.
Parliament passed a series of poor laws in the 16th century to address the problem of the uncared-for poor in England. Englishmen paid a compulsory tax paid to parishes. Some of this money was used to distribute charity in the parish. However, churches reduced hospitality for the poor and sick. This meant that the poor and sick had no place to take shelter. In addition, Parishes began to distinguish between impotent poor and sturdy beggars. Sturdy beggars were those deemed healthy enough to work. They were whipped, put in the stocks, and run out of town for burdening the parish with their need. The impotent poor, those who were too young, too old, or too sick to work, were given licenses to beg. It is important to note that people during this era were not allowed to settle in a town of their choosing or work in a profession of their choosing. Agricultural labor was temporary and paid lower wages to people who did not live in the village.
The 16th century saw an increase in vagrancy and subsequently crime as both sturdy beggars and the impotent poor turned to theft and fraud as a means to survive. In time, all strangers came to be feared as criminals. During the Elizabethan era, a series of reforms were enacted to assist the impotent poor such as outdoor relief (charity that did not require taking the poor into one’s home or church) and almshouses. Sturdy beggars were branded so parishes would know not to offer charity to them. Overseers of the Poor were hired to keep track of the deserving poor and undeserving poor.
The workhouse movement began at the end of the 17th century. Both the impotent poor and sturdy beggars were placed in workhouses. Orphan houses took in both true orphans and children whose parents could not afford to take care of them.
In the 17th century, the practice of enclosure (restricting land use to one owner and eliminating common pastures and farms), the industrial revolution, and a sharp increase in mortality led to poverty becoming a serious problem in England. Indentures and vagrants were shipped off to the colonies, hanging for even petty theft became common, and drug and alcohol use increased dramatically. It was under these conditions the Puritans developed their negative attitudes toward poverty and the poor.
As England’s agrarian economy turned to mercantilism and industrialization, there was certainly more opportunity for people born into poor families to gain riches or at the very least, a life without want, through work. However, the majority of people in 18th-century England still lacked the basic education, skills, and capital that allowed one entry into the professional class. Still, poverty became associated with one’s choices rather than one’s circumstances. And always the choices that led to poverty were sinful – drink, gambling, sex, laziness, ignorance, and lack of self-respect.
Despite the negative attitudes the ‘haves’ had against the poor, attempts were made by some to save impoverished children through religious and academic instruction. In the late 18th century the Church of England established free grammar schools. Schooling became compulsory in the 19th century and in the 20th century, England established the National Health Service to provide affordable healthcare to its citizens.
The reform movements that swept England took root in urban centers in the United States, where poverty was more obvious and unsettling. However, the U.S. is much more inclined to treat poverty as a personal problem than a social one. This topic I will address in Part VI of this series.