Books > The American Woman's Home (1869) > XVIII. Giving in Charity

The American Woman's Home

XVIII. Giving in Charity.

It is probable that there is no point of duty whereon conscientious persons differ more in opinion, or where they find it more difficult to form discriminating and decided views, than on the matter of charity. That we are bound to give some of our time, money, and efforts, to relieve the destitute, all allow. But, as to how much we are to give, and on whom our charities shall be bestowed, many a reflecting mind has been at a loss. Yet it seems very desirable that, in reference to a duty so constantly and so strenuously urged by the Supreme Ruler, we should be able so to fix metes and bounds, as to keep a conscience void of offense, and to free the mind from disquieting fears of deficiency.

The writer has found no other topic of investigation so beset with difficulty, and so absolutely without the range of definite rules which can apply to all, in all circumstances. But on this, as on previous topics, there seem to be general principles, by the aid of which any candid mind, sincerely desirous of obeying the commands of Christ, however much self-denial may be involved, can arrive at definite conclusions as to its own individual obligations; so that when these are fulfilled, the mind may be at peace.

But for a mind that is worldly, living mainly to seek its own pleasures instead of living to please God, no principles can be so fixed as not to leave a ready escape from all obligation. Such minds, either by indolence (and consequent ignorance) or by sophistry, will convince themselves that a life of engrossing self-indulgence, with perhaps the gift of a few dollars and a few hours of time, may suffice to fulfill the requisitions of the Eternal Judge.

For such minds, no reasonings will avail, till the heart is so changed that to learn the will and follow the example of Jesus Christ become the leading objects of interest and effort. It is to aid those who profess to possess this temper of mind that the following suggestions are offered.

The first consideration which gives definiteness to this subject is a correct view of the object for which we are placed in this world. A great many, even of professed Christians, seem to be acting on the supposition that the object of life is to secure as ranch as possible of all the various enjoyments placed within reach. Not so teaches reason or revelation. From these we learn that, though the happiness of his creatures is the end for which God created and sustains them, yet this happiness depends not on the various modes of gratification put within our reach, but mainly on character. A man may possess all the resources for enjoyment which this world can afford, and yet feel that "all is vanity and vexation of spirit," and that he is supremely wretched. Another may be in want of all things, and yet possess that living spring of benevolence, faith, and hope, which will make an Eden of the darkest prison.

In order to be perfectly happy, man must attain that character which Christ exhibited; and the nearer he approaches it, the more will happiness reign in his breast.

But what was the grand peculiarity of the character of Christ? It was self-denying benevolence. He came not to "seek his own;" He "went about doing good," and this was his "meat and drink;" that is, it was this which sustained the health and life of his mind, as food and drink sustain the health and life of the body. Now, the mind of man is so made that it can gradually be transformed into the same likeness. A selfish being, who, for a whole life, has been nourishing habits of indolent self-indulgence, can, by taking Christ as his example, by communion with him, and by daily striving to imitate his character and conduct, form such a temper of mind that "doing good" will become the chief and highest source of enjoyment. And this heavenly principle will grow stronger and stronger, until self-denial loses the more painful part of its character; and then, living to make happiness will be so delightful and absorbing a pursuit, that all exertions, regarded as the means to this end, will be like the joyous efforts of men when they strive for a prize or a crown, with the full hope of success.

In this view of the subject, efforts and self-denial for the good of others are to be regarded not merely as duties enjoined for the benefit of others, but as the moral training indispensable to the formation of that character on which depends our own happiness. This view exhibits the full meaning of the Saviour's declaration, "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!" He had before taught that the kingdom of heaven consisted not in such enjoyments as the worldly seek, but in the temper of self-denying benevolence, like his own; and as the rich have far greater temptations to indolent self-indulgence, they are far less likely to acquire this temper than those who, by limited means, are inured to some degree of self-denial.

But on this point, one important distinction needs to be made; and that is, between the self-denial which has no other aim than mere self-mortification, and that which is exercised to secure greater good to ourselves and others. The first is the foundation of monasticism, penances, and all other forms of asceticism; the latter, only, is that which Christianity requires.

A second consideration, which may give definiteness to this subject, is, that the formation of a perfect character involves, not the extermination of any principles of our nature, but rather the regulating of them, according to the rules of reason and religion; so that the lower propensities shall always be kept subordinate to nobler principles. Thus we are not to aim at destroying our appetites, or at needlessly denying them, but rather so to regulate them that they shall best secure the objects for which they were implanted. We are not to annihilate the love of praise and admiration; but so to control it that the favor of God shall be regarded more than the estimation of men. We are not to extirpate the principle of curiosity, which leads us to acquire knowledge; but so to direct it, that all our acquisitions shall be useful and not frivolous or injurious. And thus with all the principles of the mind: God has implanted no desires in our constitution which are evil and pernicious. On the contrary, all our constitutional propensities, either of mind or body, he designed we should gratify, whenever no evils would thence result, either to ourselves or others. Such passions as envy, selfish ambition, contemptuous pride, revenge, and hatred, are to be exterminated; for they are either excesses or excrescences, not created by God, but rather the result of our own neglect to form habits of benevolence and self-control.

In deciding the rules of our conduct, therefore, we are ever to bear in mind that the development of the nobler principles, and the subjugation of inferior propensities to them, is to be the main object of effort both for ourselves and for others. And in conformity with this, in all our plans we are to place religious and moral interests as first in estimation, our social and intellectual interests next, and our physical gratifications as subordinate to all.

A third consideration is that, though the means for sustaining life and health are to be regarded as necessaries, without which no other duties can be performed, yet a very large portion of the time spent by most persons in easy circumstances for food, raiment, and dwellings, is for mere superfluities; which are right when they do not involve the sacrifice of higher interests, and wrong when they do. Life and health can be sustained in the humblest dwellings, with the plainest dress, and the simplest food; and, after taking from our means what is necessary for life and health, the remainder is to be so divided, that the larger portion shall be given to supply the moral and intellectual wants of ourselves and others, together with the physical requirements of the destitute, and the smaller share to procure those additional gratifications of taste and appetite which are desirable but not indispensable. Mankind, thus far, have never made this apportionment of their means; although, just as fast as they have risen from a savage state, mere physical wants have been made, to an increasing extent, subordinate to higher objects.

Another very important consideration is that, in urging the duty of charity and the prior claims of moral and religious objects, no rule of duty should be maintained which it would not be right and wise for all to follow. And we are to test the wisdom of any general rule by inquiring what would be the result if all mankind should practice according to it. In view of this, we are enabled to judge of the correctness of those who maintain that, to be consistent, men believing in the perils of all those of our race who are not brought under the influence of the Christian system should give up not merely the elegancies but all the superfluities of life, and devote the whole of their means not indispensable to life and health to the propagation of Christianity.

But if this is the duty of any, it is the duty of all; and we are to inquire what would be the result, if all conscientious persons gave up the use of all superfluities. Suppose that two millions of the people of the United States were conscientious persons, and relinquished the use of every thing not absolutely necessary to life and health. Besides reducing the education of the people in all the higher walks of intellectual, social, and even moral development, to very narrow limits, it would instantly throw out of employment one half of the whole community. The writers, book-makers, manufacturers, mechanics, merchants agriculturists, and all the agencies they employ, would be beggared, and one half of those not reduced to poverty would be obliged to spend all their extra means in-simply supplying necessaries to the other half. The use of superfluities, therefore, to a certain extent, is as indispensable to promote industry, virtue, and religion, as any direct giving of money or time; and it is owing entirely to a want of reflection and of comprehensive views, that any men ever make so great a mistake as is here exhibited.

Instead, then, of urging a rule of duty which is at once irrational and impracticable, there is another course, which commends itself to the understandings of all. For whatever may be the practice of intelligent men, they universally concede the principle, that our physical gratifications should always be made subordinate to social, intellectual, and moral advantages. And all that is required for the advancement of our whole race to the most perfect state of society is, simply, that men should act in agreement with this principle. And if only a very small portion of the most intelligent of our race should act according to this rule, under the control of Christian benevolence, the immense supplies furnished for the general good would be far beyond what any would imagine who had never made any calculations on the subject. In this nation alone, suppose the one million and more of professed followers of Christ should give a larger portion of their means for the social, intellectual, and moral wants of mankind, than for the superfluities that minister to their own taste, convenience, and appetite; it would be enough to furnish all the schools, colleges, Bibles, ministers, and missionaries, that the whole world could demand; or, at least, it would be far more than properly qualified agents to administer it could employ.

But it may be objected that, though this view in the abstract looks plausible and rational, not one in a thousand can practically adopt it. How few keep any account, at all, of their current expenses! How impossible it is to determine, exactly, what are necessaries and what are superfluities! And in regard to women, how few have the control of an income, so as not to be bound by the wishes of a parent or a husband!

In reference to these difficulties, the first remark is, that we are never under obligations to do what is entirely out of our power; so that those persons who can not regulate their expenses or their charities are under no sort of obligation to attempt it. The second remark is that, when a rule of duty is discovered, if we can not fully attain to it, we are bound to aim at it, and to fulfill it just so far as we can. We have no right to throw it aside because we shall find some difficult cases when we come to apply it. The third remark is, that no person can tell how much can be done, till a faithful trial has been made. If a woman has never kept any accounts, nor attempted to regulate her expenditures by the right rule, nor used her influence with those that control her plans, to secure this object, she has no right to say how much she can or can not do, till after a fair trial has been made.

In attempting such a trial, the following method can be taken. Let a woman, keep an account of all she spends, for herself and her family, for a year, arranging the items under three general heads. Under the first, put all articles of food, raiment, rent, wages, and all conveniences. Under the second, place all sums paid in securing an education, and books, and other intellectual advantages. Under the third head, place all that is spent for benevolence and religion. At the end of the year, the first and largest account will show the mixed items of necessaries and superfluities, which can be arranged so as to gain some sort of idea how much has been spent for superfluities and how much for necessaries. Then, by comparing what is spent for superfluities, with what is spent for intellectual and moral advantages, data will be gained for judging of the past and regulating the future.

Does a woman say she can not do this? let her think whether the offer of a thousand dollars, as a reward-for attempting it one year, would not make her undertake to do it; and if so, let her decide, in her own mind, which is most valuable, a clear conscience, and the approbation of God, in this effort to do his will, or one thousand dollars. And let her do it, with this warning of the Saviour before her eyes—"No man can serve two masters." "Ye can not serve God and Mammon."

Is it objected, How can we decide between superfluities and necessities, in this list? It is replied, that we are not required to judge exactly, in all cases. Our duty is, to use the means in our power to assist us in forming a correct judgment; to seek the divine aid in freeing our minds from indolence and selfishness; and then to judge, as well as we can, in our endeavors rightly to apportion and regulate our expenses. Many persons seem to feel that they are bound to do better than they know how. But God is not so hard a master; and after we have used all proper means to learn the right way, if we then follow it according to our ability, we do wrong to feel misgivings, or to blame ourselves, if results come out differently from what seems desirable.

The results of our actions, alone, can never prove as deserving of blame. For men are often so placed that, owing to lack of intellect or means, it is impossible for them to decide correctly. To use all the means of knowledge within our reach, and then to judge, with a candid and conscientious spirit, is all that God requires; and when we have done this, and the event seems to come out wrong, we should never wish that we had decided otherwise. For this would be the same as wishing that we had not followed the dictates of judgment and conscience. As this is a world designed for discipline and trial, untoward events are never to be construed as indications of the obliquity of our past decisions.

But it is probable that a great portion of the women of this nation can not secure any such systematic mode of regulating their expenses. To such, the writer would propose one inquiry: Can not you calculate how much time and money you spend for what is merely ornamental, and not necessary, for yourself, your children, and your house? Can not you compare this with the time and money you spend for intellectual and benevolent purposes? and will not this show the need of some change? In making this examination, is not this brief rule, deducible from the principles before laid down, the one which should regulate you? Every person does right in spending some portion of time and means in securing the conveniences and adornments of taste; but the amount should never exceed what is spent in securing our own moral and intellectual improvement, nor what is spent in benevolent efforts to supply the physical and moral wants of our fellow-men.

In making an examination on this subject, it is sometimes the case that a woman will count among the necessaries of life all the various modes of adorning the person or house, practiced in the circle in which she moves; and, after enumerating the many duties which demand attention, counting these as a part, she will come to the conclusion that she has no time, and but little money, to devote to personal improvement or to benevolent enterprises. This surely is not in agreement with the requirements of the Saviour, who calls on us to seek for others, as well as ourselves, first of all, "the kingdom of God, and his righteousness."

In order to act in accordance with the rule here presented, it is true that many would be obliged to give up the idea of conforming to the notions and customs of those with whom they associate, and compelled to adopt the maxim, "Be not conformed to this world." In many cases it would involve an entire change in the style of living. And the writer has the happiness of knowing more cases than one, where persons who have come to similar views on this subject, have given up large and expensive establishments, disposed of their carriages, dismissed a portion of their domestics, and modified all their expenditures, that they might keep a pure conscience, and regulate their charities more according to the requirements of Christianity. And there are persons, well known in the religious world, who save themselves all labor of minute calculation, by devoting so large a portion of their time and means to benevolent objects, that they find no difficulty in knowing that they give more for religious, benevolent, and intellectual purposes than for superfluities.

In deciding what particular objects shall receive our benefactions, there are also general principles to guide us. The first is that presented by our Saviour, when, after urging the great law of benevolence, he was asked, "And who is my neighbor?" His reply, in the parable of "the Good Samaritan," teaches us that any human being whose wants are brought to our knowledge is our neighbor. The wounded man in that parable was not only a stranger, but he belonged to a foreign nation, peculiarly hated; and he had no claim, except that his wants were brought to the knowledge of the wayfaring man. From this we learn that the destitute of all nations become our neighbors, as soon as their wants are brought to our knowledge.

Another general principle is this, that those who are most in need must be relieved in preference to those who are less destitute. On this principle it is, that we think the followers of Christ should give more to supply those who are suffering for want of the bread of eternal life, than for those who are deprived of physical enjoyments. And another reason for this preference is the fact that many who give in charity have made such imperfect advances in civilization and Christianity that the intellectual and moral wants of our race make but a feeble impression on the mind. Relate a pitiful tale of a family reduced to live for weeks on potatoes only, and many a mind would awake to deep sympathy and stretch forth the hand of charity. But describe cases where the immortal mind is pining in stupidity and ignorance, or racked with the fever of baleful passions, and how small the number so elevated in sentiment and so enlarged in their views as to appreciate and sympathize in these far greater misfortunes! The intellectual and moral wants of our fellow-men, therefore, should claim the first place in general Christian attention, both because they are most important, and because they are most neglected; while it should not be forgotten, in giving personal attention to the wants of the poor, that the relief of immediate physical distress, is often the easiest way of touching the moral sensibilities of the destitute.

Another consideration to be borne in mind is that, in this country, there is much less real need of charity in supplying physical necessities than is generally supposed by those who have not learned the more excellent way. This land is so abundant in supplies, and labor is in such demand, that every healthy person can earn a comfortable support. And if all the poor were instantly made virtuous, it is probable that there would be few physical wants which could not readily be supplied by the immediate friends of each sufferer. The sick, the aged, and the orphan would be the only objects of charity. In this view of the case, the primary effort in relieving the poor should be to furnish them the means of earning their own support, and to supply them with those moral influences which are most effectual in securing virtue and industry.

Another point to be attended to is the importance of maintaining a system of associated charities. There is no point in which the economy of charity has more improved than in the present mode of combining many small contributions, for sustaining enlarged and systematic plans of charity. If all the half-dollars which are now contributed to aid in organized systems of charity were returned to the donors, to be applied by the agency and discretion of each, thousands and thousands of the treasures, now employed to promote the moral and intellectual wants of mankind, would become entirely useless in a democracy like ours, where few are very rich and the majority are in comfortable circumstances, this collecting and dispensing of drops and rills is the mode by which, in imitation of nature, the dews and showers are to distill on parched and desert lands. And every person, while earning a pittance to unite with many more, may be cheered with the consciousness of sustaining a grand system of operations which must have the most decided influence in raising all mankind to that perfect state of society which Christianity is designed to bring about.

Another consideration relates to the indiscriminate bestowal of charity. Persons who have taken pains to inform themselves, and who devote their whole time to dispensing charities, unite in declaring that this is one of the most fruitful sources of indolence, vice, and poverty. From several of these the writer has learned that, by their own personal investigations, they have ascertained that there are large establishments of idle and wicked persons in most of our cities, who associate together to support themselves by every species of imposition. They hire large houses, and live in constant rioting on the means thus obtained. Among them are women who have or who hire the use of infant children; others, who are blind, or maimed, or deformed, or who can adroitly feign such infirmities; and, by these means of exciting pity, and by artful tales of woe, they collect alms, both in city and country, to spend in all manner of gross and guilty indulgences. Meantime many persons, finding themselves often duped by impostors, refuse to give at all; and thus many benefactions are withdrawn, which a wise economy in charity would have secured. For this and other reasons, it is wise and merciful to adopt the general rule, never to give alms till we have had some opportunity of knowing how they will be spent. There are exceptions to this, as to every general rule, which a person of discretion can determine. But the practice so common among benevolent persons, of giving at least a trifle to all who ask, lest perchance they may turn away some who are really sufferers, is one which causes more sin and misery than it cures.

The writer has never known any system for dispensing charity so successful as the one by which a town or city is divided into districts; and each district is committed to the care of two ladies, whose duty it is, to call on each family and leave a book for a child, or do some other deed of neighborly kindness, and make that the occasion for entering into conversation, and learning the situation of all residents in the district. By this method, the ignorant, the vicious, and the poor are discovered, and their physical, intellectual, and moral wants are investigated. In some places where the writer has known this mode pursued, each person retained the same district, year after year, so that every poor family in the place was under the watch and care of some intelligent and benevolent lady, who used all her influence to secure a proper education for the children, to furnish them with suitable reading, to encourage habits of industry and economy, and to secure regular attendance on public religious instruction. Thus, the rich and the poor were brought in contact, in a way advantageous to both parties; and if such a system could be universally adopted, more would be done for the prevention of poverty and vice than all the wealth of the nation could avail for their relief. But this plan can not be successfully carried out, in this manner, unless there is a large proportion of intelligent, benevolent, and self-denying persons, who unite in a systematic plan.

But there is one species of "charity" which needs especial consideration. It is that spirit of kindly love which induces us to refrain from judging of the means and the relative charities of other persons. There have been such indistinct notions, and so many different standards of duty, on this subject, that it is rare for two persons to think exactly alike, in regard to the rule of duty. Each person is bound to inquire and judge for himself, as to his own duty or deficiencies; but as both the resources and the amount of the actual charities of others are beyond our ken, it is as indecorous as it is uncharitable to sit in judgment on their decisions.