Alms and Advocacy: Lutheran Ministry with the Poor


[1] It is a pleasure to be a part of this convocation dealing with "The Church and Public Witness." This has long been an issue for Lutherans, stemming from its history in Europe and, to a lesser degree, in the United States.

[2] Today I want to tell part of that history in the hope that it will help us write a new chapter. In one sense it is a simple story, almost linear in its development, but there have been a few surprises along the road. Those unexpected twists give us hope that we too might be creative in our day as we face the persistent challenge that wealth poses to our Christian solidarity with the poor.

[3] I will be concentrating on the story of Lutherans here in America, but I want to begin with a quick reference to the earliest days of the Reformation in Europe, because it will anchor everything that follows.

The Reformation Attitude toward Poverty and Wealth

[4] From the beginning, the Reformation intended to carry on the long Christian tradition of charity. Today we look somewhat scornfully on the word "charity," because it has come to imply a supercilious attitude of tossing dimes to the poor. But it is simply the Latin translation for the "love" that Paul speaks of in First Corinthians 13, "and the greatest of these is love." In that sense charity is the highest of Christian virtues.

[5] The Reformation did not discard traditional care for the poor, but it did have a hard time adjusting to the new patterns of wealth it had created. Luther's call to Christian liberty was leading princes and other rulers to confiscate church property, but one of the beneficiaries of the income from that property had been the poor. Pious Christians had created charitable foundations to support monasteries, and those monasteries often did works of mercy as part of their mission. In a society where up to 30% of the population was destitute, such public charities were necessary. But when a ruler confiscated church property and took the income to fight his wars, a major source of "charitable dollars" was wiped out.

[6] Luther discovered these unintended consequences quite early and he moved to correct them. In the same year (1522) that he began his reforming work in Wittenberg he helped several cities deal with the welfare issue. We have an example of his work in the "Fraternal Agreement" for a community treasury in the village of Leisnig. The document opens by declaring,

…by the grace of the Omnipotent God, through the revelation of the Christian and evangelical Scriptures, we have been given not only firmly to believe but also profoundly to know that, according to the ordinance and precept of divine truth and not according to human opinion, all the internal and external possessions of Christian believers are to serve and contribute to the honor of God and the love of the fellow-Christian neighbor.[1]

I suspect that it took that many words to impress on everyone involved that "love of the fellow-Christian neighbor" was indeed a duty that every citizen should take seriously. It certainly leaves no doubt about the centrality of benevolence to the Christian life.

[7] Like many other communities, Leisnig had gone over to the Reformation and had assumed the administration of lands formerly belonging to a local monastery. The document of agreement stipulated that income from the confiscated properties should be used to support monks who had been displaced in the process and that the rest of the income was to be used for various community causes. In addition to the pastor, the sacristan and the schools, the document identifies the beneficiaries of the income as the aged and infirm poor, orphans and dependent children, the "working poor," and jobless newcomers. An elected committee of ten, consisting of "two from the nobility, two from the incumbent city council, three from among the common citizens of the town, and three from the rural peasantry," was to allocate the funds, and each of the four constituencies was to have its own key, so that no single group could open the chest without the consent and presence of the others.[2] [The Reformers always had a healthy respect for the power of sin.]

[8] Thus from its beginning, the Reformation took special pains to provide for the poor as a natural outcome of its understanding of God's will. But it also recognized the social context from which poverty arose. The Leisnig document and the preface Luther wrote for it mention the damage done by the practice of usury-lending on interest. Luther called it "an odious and hateful practice" that benefited the rich and further obligated the poor.[3] He was equally aware of the miserable effects of begging. The common chest explicitly challenged these practices by rejecting any endowments that had grown through profits from usury, and forbidding begging. The poor were to be cared for adequately so that begging would be unnecessary.

[9] I mention these elements of social policy because in the next generations they faded away. Poverty and social justice went separate ways, and it took a long time for Lutherans to regain the bifocal vision that clearly informed Luther's view of the poor.

Early Lutheran Poverty in the Colonies

[10] On this side of the Atlantic, it could be argued that most of the Lutherans who lived here in the 1700s were themselves among the poor. The oldest continually worshiping Lutheran congregation is in the Virgin Islands, where Danish mission work among African slaves had borne fruit. By 1800 the 1,000 Lutherans there were about equally divided between slave and free.[4] In Pennsylvania, many of the German immigrants who arrived before 1800 came as indentured servants; that is, they had agreed to work as virtual slaves for up to seven years in exchange for the price of a ticket to the new world. An early pastor wrote:

Our German Evangelical settlers in Pennsylvania are, for the most part, the most recent immigrants to this province. The English and German Quakers, Inspired, Mennonites, Separatists and the like small denominations came to this country in the earlier, good times when land was still very cheap. These people selected the best and most fertile regions and so enriched themselves that they and their heirs now have firmly established homes and estates. In later years, however, when the poor Evangelicals also found the way and came to this country in great numbers … most of them had to be slaves for several years to repay their passage and then make shift with the poorer lands and struggle to make a living by the sweat of their brows. But finally, even poor land was no longer to be had, so great numbers of the poor rented the surplus land of those who had been here first. The rich, however, are raising their rents so high that the poor are unable to hold out. Hence they are moving farther and farther into the wilderness. [Which meant central Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.][5]

Lutherans should not forget their own history when they consider why people are poor and how hard it is to break the cycle.

[11] Even among these struggling new immigrants, the spirit of love and care for others did not die. Refugees from Salzburg in Austria founded an orphanage near Savannah as early as 1737. Colonists in Delaware and on the Hudson were urged to give to the poor and to help with calamities in families, such as the loss of a breadwinner. In 1750 the newly-founded Ministerium of Pennsylvania arranged for the appointment of a guardian for children who had been orphaned during the voyage to America to see "that they were not deprived of their rights by deceivers and unjust persons."[6]

The Era of Ministry to the Poor (1800-1914)

[12] As time went on, most of the immigrants improved their lot in this "land of opportunity", and within a few generations they had become middle-class. Now they were the ones who could invest some of their time and money in support of charitable causes. In the early 1800s, most of these causes were church-related and interdenominational, funded by societies with fairly narrow missions. There was the American Education Society, which provided scholarships for the poor-"indigent" they were called in those days-the American Temperance Society, various Anti-Slavery societies, and organizations working for the establishment of public schools, raising the status of women, and providing orphanages.

[13] Lutherans entered a new phase of concern for the poor when they moved from supporting interdenominational societies to founding institutions of their own. A leader in this transition was William Passavant, who had gone to seminary at Gettysburg and there absorbed the spirit of social action. As a student in 1841 he had published The Lutheran Almanac, an annual handbook whose profits he designated for support of seminary students. In later life he founded four hospitals, introduced deaconess work in America, established several orphanages, and began a college and a seminary. His influence among Swedish and Norwegian pastors in America prompted them to establish similar institutions among their immigrant constituencies. The importation of the deaconess concept from Europe certainly aided this development by providing skilled nurses and administrators for many of the new facilities.

[14] Industrial growth in the late 1800s led to new concerns about working conditions and the laboring classes. The Social Gospel Movement engaged this problem from both theological and practical sides, but Lutherans did not really get on board. They stayed on the margins, although some groups joined the Federal Council of Churches after its organization in 1908. Efforts to establish missions in the mill villages of the South, for example, seemed more defensive toward labor than sympathetic to it. The South Carolina Synod supported its mill village missions with a resolution that read in part:

In South Carolina alone there are one hundred and thirty thousand souls in the mill villages, and the Synod ministers to but three of these one hundred and eighty mills. Shall we let the golden day of our opportunity pass and wait supinely [for] years of terror and destruction at the hands of working men who are turning away from the Church and its institutions?[7]

When it came to questions of political action or social justice, Lutherans saw little role for the church. A report of the General Synod in 1913 observed "that the church can best contribute its great share to the solution of the various social problems By holding itself strictly to the faithful preaching of the Gospel"[8] After all, as another report put it, "Christ is the Savior of the soul, His relation to society is through the individual soul and through the community of saints But He is not an abolisher of outworn forms of society, a reformer of its evils, or an adjuster of its economic distresses."[9]

[15] In summary, up to World War I, Lutherans typically saw the poor as objects of institutional charity, who should be helped by caring Christians on an individual basis. And within that framework, Lutherans did pretty well.

Charity at Home and Abroad (1914-1950)

[16] The two World Wars of the twentieth century stimulated Lutherans to create a new method for meeting human need-the national funding appeal. In the First World War the money first went to Soldiers and Sailors Welfare, and then, through Lutheran World Service, to helping Europeans with dollars and clothing. In its first ten years, this program raised over eight million dollars and involved one in four U.S. Lutherans. Eventually, some of the money went to help "orphaned" mission fields that had been cut off from their European sponsors by the war. In the Second World War, the same method, used for the same purposes, proved so effective that it became a regular part of the church's life. Lutheran World Action, the fund-raising program, can trace its roots back to 1939, and Lutheran World Relief, the vehicle for material aid, began in 1945. Twenty years later, Lutheran World Action had raised over eighty million dollars. These efforts also motivated concern for refugees, first within Europe and later around the world. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has now provided new homes for at least 300,000 refugees in the United States and has participated in the resettlement of many others overseas.

[17] Bracketed by these successful efforts to raise money and clothing for suffering people overseas, it is strange that the Depression of the 1930s did not evoke similar efforts on behalf of suffering people here at home. But the church devoted its fund-raising efforts to salvaging imperiled institutions and keeping its own programs operating and seemed to have no energy left over for poverty in general. Nor did it speak out on social issues like collective bargaining, minimum wages, or even prohibition. It pursued social change in the old fashioned way--one Christian at a time.

[18] To point out this omission is not to disregard the continuing work of social ministry institutions throughout the century. In 1945 the social welfare department of the National Lutheran Council was working with 461 social ministry organizations, contacting more than a million people with services, spending 161/2 million dollars annually, and involving more than 18,000 people as employees, board members and volunteers.

Developing a Holistic Attitude toward Poverty (1957-2002)

[19] In my view, the year 1957 marked a turning point. In that year a three volume symposium called Christian Social Responsibility appeared. In the words of William Lazareth, it introduced two innovations: "corporate church involvement in social action and moral justification for civil disobedience to unjust laws." For the first time, the twin strands of the Reformation tradition-care for the poor and advocacy for social justice-were united. And just in time. The 1960s were, as most of us remember, a decade of social upheaval. Civil rights, the war on poverty, Viet Nam, and the questioning of established authority all stirred up emotions and called for new solutions. This time the church was ready to participate fully.

[20] In the '60s both the ALC (1961) and the LCA (1964) spoke out on race relations. They also issued statements on capital punishment, conscientious objection, and the criminal justice system. In 1968 both church bodies raised money to address the urban crisis. Churchwide staff and congregations took an active part in the Wounded Knee confrontation of the '70s and the sanctuary movement along the Mexican border in the '80s. The churches also took difficult decisions on divestment of holdings in companies doing business in a segregated South Africa. These actions would have been unthinkable a few decades earlier. Social justice had become part of the mission of the church.

[21] In 1974, a year of drought in Africa and soaring wheat prices, Bread for the World went national in the United States, and Lutherans launched a two-year Hunger Appeal. As we all know the Hunger Appeal lasted beyond that immediate crisis to become the principal means of generating support for needy people here and overseas. In one sense it was a continuation of the Lutheran World Action appeals, but it also wove together traditional charitable goals with a new emphasis on addressing root causes of hunger and poverty. This "feedback loop" within the Hunger Appeal strategy once again honored the Reformation tradition of charity and social justice. Although some opposition to this use of hunger funds for political advocacy arose in the church bodies, both the ALC and the LCA continued the practice, and the LCA began to organize advocacy groups on the statewide level.

[22] The formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988 provided the institutional framework for continuing the double emphasis of the '60s and '70s. Its Division for Church and Society was given the constitutional mandate to respond to human need "through direct human services and through addressing systems, structures, and policies of society, seeking to promote justice, peace and the care of the earth" (ELCA Constitution 16.11.E91). In that role the DCS has shepherded Social Ministry Organizations and assisted in the formation of an umbrella organization, Lutheran Services of America, in 1997, and at the same time has guided the development of a statement on economic life, "Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All," adopted by the Churchwide Assembly in 1999. It has also cooperated with other parts of the churchwide organization in promoting programs addressing the needs of "Women and Children Living in Poverty" (1993) and of other groups.

[23] Recently the ELCA has focused more energy on poverty and its causes. Two of the initiatives adopted by the 1997 ELCA Churchwide Assembly laid the groundwork for an approach to poverty that saw the church as empowering people living below the poverty line. Pilot projects introduced the concept of asset mapping to groups involved in faith-based community organizing, and the "Help the Children" initiative aimed at changing the attitudes of middle-class Lutherans toward those who lived in poverty. Rural poverty was a factor in the creation of a program for Rural Ministry Resources and Networking in 1999. In the same year the Church Council designated three million dollars for poverty-related programs at home and overseas, and in order to use that money wisely, an inter-staff group called Ministry Among People Living in Poverty (MAPP) was organized. Meanwhile the Conference of Bishops was developing its own statement on poverty, which was completed in March of 2000. As a result the bishops appointed their own MAPP committee to ensure that the cause of the poor remains central to synodical planning and budgeting.

[24] In summary, our church has the possibility of recovering the holistic attitude of Luther toward poverty and its causes. We have made some important changes in our attitudes and assumptions lately, and we need to permeate the church with those new concepts. There is still more we need to learn and envision; if we don't, who else will?

This article was originally given as an oral presentation to an ELCA consultation on "The Church and Public Witness" in Chicago on February 18, 2003.

[1] "Ordinance of a Common Chest," Luther's Works, Vol. 45, p. 177.

[2] Ibid., p. 182.

[3] "Trade and Usury" (1524), LW 45, p. 296.

[4] L. DeAne Lagerquist, The Lutherans, (Praeger, 1999), p. 32.

[5] Theodore G. Tappert and John W. Doberstein, eds., The Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, (Muhlenberg, 1942), pp. 141-2.

[6] Documentary History, Ministerium of Pennsylvania, (Philadelphia, 1898), p. 31h.

[7] South Carolina Synod, Minutes, 1909, pp. 48-9.

[8] General Synod, Minutes, 1913, pp. 150-1.

[9] General Council, Minutes, 1911, p. 228.


©May 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 5