By John Angell James, 1822
Contentment with such things as they have, and an unmurmuring submission to the appointment of Providence, are most obviously their duty, and should be conspicuously manifested in all their deportment. It should not appear as if they thought it hard, that their lot was cast in the 'humble valley of poverty'. A cheerful resignation to the irremediable ills of their station, a frame of mind that looks as if they were so grateful for the blessings of 'grace'—as to be almost insensible to the privations of poverty, is one of the ways in which poor Christians may signally glorify God.
The poor should watch against an envious spirit. "But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your hearts, don't brag about being wise. That is the worst kind of lie." James 3:14.
The poor should be conspicuous for their industry, nor wish to eat the bread of idleness. "Even while we were with you, we gave you this rule: "Whoever does not work should not eat." Yet we hear that some of you are living idle lives, refusing to work and wasting time meddling in other people's business. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we appeal to such people—no, we command them: Settle down and get to work. Earn your own living." 2 Thes. 3:10-12. The poor have no right, therefore, to expect, that in consequence of their association with a Christian church, they are in any measure released from the obligation of the most unwearied industry. They are not to be supported in idleness, nor ought they to look for any financial allowance while able to provide for themselves and their family. The religion of Jesus Christ was never intended to establish a system of religious pauperism. It is to be feared, that not a few have entered into Christian fellowship on purpose to share its funds. This is a dreadful case, wherever it occurs, and should make all the poor members of our churches tremble at the most distant approximation to such a crime.
The only times in which Christians should feel that they have claims upon the funds of the church, are when sickness or old age has incapacitated them for labor; or when the produce of their industry is too scanty to procure the necessities of life. *
* It is a question that has been sometimes agitated, whether it is right for a church to allow the members to apply for assistance from the town. Such a question, however, may be set at rest by a law, which, where it really exits, allows of no farther appeal; I mean the law of necessity. Some churches are composed in a great measure of poor people, and even of the remainder who are not poor, there are few above the rank of small tradesmen. In this case, when trade is bad, and disease is prevalent, it is next to impossible, if not quite so, for the church to relieve all the needs of its members. But setting aside this extreme case, what law is violated, what obligation is broken through, by our members' applying for a portion of that property, which is collected for them no less than others, and to which they are legally entitled in common with others? There can be nothing wrong on the part of the poor themselves in applying for this relief, unless they are so well provided for by the church as not to need it. In this case their application would be manifestly an imposition. The only question is, whether a church, tolerably favored with affluent members, ought to allow such application. It would certainly be an act of great generosity in such a church, to render their members independent of assistance from the town—but I do not see by what law this is actually their duty. We stand in a double relationship to the poor, as fellow-citizens and fellow Christians; in our former connection we may ask for them a share of a civil fund, while in the latter we relieve them from a still more sacred source. The poor by entering our churches do not forfeit any of their civil rights, and since they are legally entitled to the assistance of their fellow-subjects; it is not necessary that we should take upon ourselves, as Christians, those burdens which others are bound to sustain as citizens.
The poor should not be exorbitant in their expectations of relief; and should the bounty of the church flow less freely towards them than they have reason and right to look for, they should not indulge in the language of reproach and complaint. Not that they are forbidden in mild and modest language to represent their situation to the deacons.
They should be particularly careful not to manifest an encroaching and begging disposition. I have known cases, in which the greatest disgust and the most unconquerable prejudice have been excited against individuals, by their proneness to beg of everyone who visited them, until at length their fellow-members, wearied too soon, it must be admitted, with the language of perpetual complaint and petition, have stopped visiting them altogether.
Cleanliness is a very incumbent duty of the poor. Their cottages may be lowly—but certainly need not be dirty! Filthiness is one species of vice, and cleanliness is not only next to godliness—but a part of it. The credit of religion often depends on little things, and this is one of them!