Social Welfare before the Elizabethan Poor Laws: The Early Christian Tradition, AD 33 to 313

By Faherty, Vincent E. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Social Welfare before the Elizabethan Poor Laws: The Early Christian Tradition, AD 33 to 313


Faherty, Vincent E., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Current social welfare history texts in the United States tend to cover quickly the time periods before the passage of the Elizabethan Poor Laws in 1601. This is an unfortunate informational gap since what is labeled social welfare today has been organized and delivered for centuries before 1601 through the rich religious traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and thousands of other traditional religions throughout the world. This article provides a broad historical overview of the organization, the roles, and the services provided by the social welfare system in Christian communities, during their first three centuries, throughout what is now considered Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. This article also encourages scholars representing the other major religious traditions to also chronicle their unique social welfare heritage.

Keywords: Christian Social Welfare, Early Social Welfare, Organization, Roles & Services, Early Christian Social Welfare History, Early Social Welfare History

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Philanthropic activity can never be understood (or defined) except against the background of the social ethos of the age to which it belongs (Hands, 1968, p. 7).

This article outlines the basic framework of the social welfare system as it existed by the beginning of the 4th century AD in what is commonly referred to as the Christian world--that remnant of the vast Roman Empire encompassing parts of what is now known as Western & Southern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. (1) This study intends to augment the historical coverage provided by many social welfare textbooks which tend to over-concentrate the period following the passage of the 17th century Elizabethan Poor Laws, therein providing only a bare outline of the organized efforts to help those in need as chronicled during the more than 7000 years of recorded human history. (See, for example, Axin & Stern, 2001; DiNetto, 2003; Jansson, 2001; Piven & Cloward, 1993; Popple & Leighninger, 2002; Trattner, 1999; and, Zastrow, 2000) Admittedly, Day (2003), as well as Dolgoff & Feldstein (2000), do describe in broad terms some of the beginnings of social welfare in early societies, in the later Greek city-states, throughout the Roman Empire, as well as in Eastern cultures. Clearly, what is constructed as social welfare today has been organized and delivered for centuries before 1601 through the rich religious traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and thousands of other traditional religions and cultural practices embraced by humankind throughout the world.

In this context, the reader is urged to re-imagine the history of social welfare as beginning with the dawn of the human race, and to conceptualize social welfare as those organized structures and processes of caring for vulnerable members that were advanced by every clan and tribe on earth, no matter how primitive these social groups might appear to modern view. To underscore this point with the obvious rhetorical questions: would human groups throughout history typically reject an orphaned child or ignore the needs of its sick, injured and aged members? Or would an observer discover a set of fundamental, culturally relevant and historically appropriate social welfare mechanisms, which were in place to deal with these predictable life-situations?

The final introductory note has to do with scope. This study of social welfare history employs a wide breadth of vision, rather than a narrow depth of analysis. Any research endeavor which purports to chronicle more than 300 years of human activity, even one that operates under such a condensed rubric as social welfare, risks mockery and rejection unless it admits to being general, rather than specific, in its orientation and presentation. Thus, it must be stated quite clearly at the outset, that this article offers a broad view of the entire horizon of movements and events, not a detailed analysis of any one of the points or people found on that horizon. …

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