Ancient societies and religion were not known for their care for the sick and dying. Christians who often risked their lives to care even for non-Christians represented a radical difference in the values taught by the Bible than anything else known at that time.
It was common in ancient societies, including Rome, which saw the inception and rise of Christianity, to abandon the sick and dying. Roman religion did not teach followers to care for the helpless.
Destitute families lacking any resources to help sometimes even abandoned the chronically ill to die. In Rome, sick or elderly slaves were routinely left to waste away on Tiber Island. Unwanted children were often left to die of exposure. If a father decided that the family couldn’t afford to feed another child, that child would be abandoned on the steps of a temple or in the public square. Almost without exception defective newborns were exposed in this way. (Christian History magazine)
In ancient Greek religion, the god Asclepius was sought for healing, but there was no ethic of caring for the sick and dying that this god encouraged.
Against this backdrop, Christianity was a distinct contrast. The Bible teaches the intrinsic value of every human being, and this is what motivated early Christians to begin caring for their ailing. Church leaders followed the biblical admonition to visit the sick. Congregations and communities set up formal practices for care. And as this became common among Christians, they were challenged to care for non-Christians, as well.
In the third century AD, an epidemic swept across Northern Africa, Italy, and the western empire. As many as 5000 people a day were dying in Rome. The sick were abandoned in the streets and the dead left unburied. In Carthage, the Christians were blamed for the disease, and the emperor ordered Christians to sacrifice to their gods to end it. Carthage's bishop, Cyprian, encouraged Christians to care for the sick and dying. They buried the dead and risked getting sick by taking in the sick. This was repeated other times in the early centuries of the church during epidemics. Christians introduced a new concern and standard of care for sick people.
Rodney Stark, author ofThe Rise of Christianity, argues that some of the marked growth of the church in the early centuries can be attributed to care and compassion Christians showed for the sick. He tracks increased conversion rates during three plagues: the Antonine plague (2nd c.), the Cyprian plague (3rd c.), and the Justinian plague (6th c.). Christians demonstrated their love for God and biblical values, and they offered a very attractive witness.
Their example has been followed through the history of the Christian church. Catholic orders were devoted to care. Mennonites in Holland and Quakers in England formed societies to improve health care. Modern medical missionaries carry on in this mission today.
Today, we take for granted the responsibility to care for the sick regardless of religious convictions. It was Christians practicing what the Bible taught them that began caring for those in need.
You remember William Penn from history class. He was granted the colony of Pennsylvania by the king in payment for debts owed his father. Penn was a Quaker who converted to Christianity in his early 20s. Penn adhered to the biblical values of human equality and intrinsic value and dignity. These later influenced the governmental framework he proposed for Pennsylvania.
Because of his dissent from the Church of England, Penn was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his outspoken religious beliefs. Penn was close friends with George Fox, who founded Quakerism. By rejecting the church's authority over congregations, "Fox not only extended the Protestant Reformation more radically, but he helped extend the most important principle of modern political history – the rights of the individual – upon which modern democracies were later founded. Penn traveled frequently with Fox, through Europe and England. He also wrote a comprehensive, detailed explanation of Quakerism along with a testimony to the character of George Fox, in his introduction to the autobiographical Journal of George Fox. In effect, Penn became the first theologian, theorist, and legal defender of Quakerism, providing its written doctrine and helping to establish its public standing."
Penn's father banished him from his household for his religious beliefs. On his deathbed, Penn's father expressed his respect for his son's religious convictions and courage. He entreated the Duke of York, the future King of England, to protect his son.
Penn and other Quakers purchased land in America that became New Jersey. He encouraged a mass migration of Quakers to escape persecution and pursue practicing their religious freedom in peace. The King later granted Pennsylvania to Penn. "On March 4, 1681, the King signed the charter and the following day Penn jubilantly wrote, 'It is a clear and just thing, and my God who has given it me through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a nation.'"
Penn proposed a framework for the government of his colony that included some landmark features that influenced the U.S. Constitution a century later. He limited his own power under the legal framework. And he provided for amendments to allow the constitution to be changed over time. Other rights that were unique at the time:
the assembly could bring a request of impeachment of the governor before the council for its trial
unconstitutional laws should be invalidated, although it did not specifically grant courts the power to declare their unconstitutionality
capital punishment to be applied to a strictly limited scope of criminal offenses only, including murder and treason
freedom of worship in the colony was to be absolute
Penn vowed that he would not oppress the native population or the immigrants of Pennsylvania for his own benefit. He later attracted other persecuted religious groups from Europe to immigrate making Pennsylvania a place of religious toleration.
Penn insisted that the Quaker schools be open to everyone, so the colony had a high literacy rate. Philadelphia became a center for science and medicine. The Quakers improved treatment of the mentally ill. Prisons were places of reform where the inmates were treated better than was common at the time.
On November 28, 1984, President Reason on an Act of Congress declared William Penn to be an honorary citizen of the United States. He had favored unifying the American colonies.
Probably like most people, I wasn't interested in history when I was a child. My interest began as an adult. But there is one historical fact that has stuck with me since childhood, but not because of my history textbooks. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 AD at Runnymede. That fact has stuck in my mind because of an episode of My Favorite Martian – Tim and Martin accidentally ended up witnessing the signing of the great document because they dialed the year rather than the time in their time machine.
The Magna Carta is foundational human rights document because it was the first in history that imposed on the sovereign to respect the rights of citizens and limit the ruler's arbitrary will. It covered the rights of noblemen, not all citizens – but it was a beginning. It is the cornerstone that most modern constitutions are built on. It influenced the U.S. Constitution. The first clause of the Magna Carta protects the freedom of the church, and one of the key people responsible for the document and its signing was the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Stephen Langton was born in the 1150s and probably grew up aware of the conflict over religious freedom between Thomas Beckett and Henry II. These events may have planted ideas that influenced him later in his career. Langton became a priest, studied, and later lectured and wrote on theology in Paris from 1181 to 1206. He would have seen Notre Dame being built. He wrote commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, and is most likely the person who determined the chapter markers in the Bibles we use today.
He was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury in 1207 and returned to England in the middle of strife between King John and the English barons. He told the barons of a document he learned about in Paris signed by Henry I in 1031 that the king agreed to recognize certain liberties of the barons. With this precedent in mind, he and the barons drafted the document that would become the Magna Carta. After the rebels took London in 1215, John signed the Magna Carta and Langton's is the first signature of the witnesses. By this time, Langton was actually siding with the king and used his influence to get John to agree. He continued to act as a mediator finding peaceful ways to resolve disputes and protect the rights the king had agreed to honor. He later authored constitutions that became the basis of ecclesiastical law that have been used for centuries.
Langton died in 1228 and was buried at Canterbury Cathedral.
Gallaudet University, the first university in the United States focusing on educating deaf people, was named in honor of the founder's father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.
Thomas was born in Philadelphia in 1787. His father was George Washington's secretary when he was president. The family moved to Connecticut, and Gallaudet earned his masters degree at Yale University. He pursued theological studies in preparation to being a pastor.
In 1814, Gallaudet met a little girl named Alice Cogswell. She was deaf and Gallaudet was motivated to figure out how to teach her since there were no schools for the deaf in the U.S. He eventually learned sign language in France and returned to found the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Alice was one of the first students.
Gallaudet married one of the graduate of his school and they had eight children. The youngest, Edward Miner Gallaudet, established a national college for deaf students in Washington, D.C., receiving a charter from Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Another son, Thomas Gallaudet, became an Episcopal priest and also worked with deaf children.
William Wilberforce is well-known for his decades-long persistence getting legislation passed to outlaw the slave trade in the British Empire. He and a group of Christians called the Clapham Sect (because that is where they were from) were motivated by their Biblical belief in human value and the value of God's creation to pursue other ways of solving other social ills. Their campaigns were carried out through a variety of organizations and legislation that they backed. Their goal was to “eliminate public corruption and promote religion in the hearts of the people.... The movement emphasized the worth of the human soul and...the individual," and their goal was to spark evangelical revival.
In 1787, the Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue punished drunkenness, vulgarity, gambling, and immoral books.
The Philanthropic Society tried to prevent crime by trying to deal with the secondary causes. London's streets were filled with huge numbers of homeless children who committed crimes. One quarter of the unmarried women in London were prostitutes, many were underage.
The Climbing Boys Society worked to outlaw the practice of children who were sold or kidnapped and forced to work as chimney sweeps, treated as property.
The Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debt pursued prison reform. Early in the 19th century, 3/4 of prisoners were imprisoned for owing small amounts of money, and the conditions were horrible. The Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and The Reformation of Juvenile Offenders also attempted to improve these circumstances.
The Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor helped correct the abuses of the workhouses. It also introduced policies to improve the economy, hoping to improve conditions for the poor.
Wilberforce and the Clapham group also promoted Sunday School as a way to teach children how to read, to educate them in order to improve their conditions, and so they could read the Bible and learn moral virtue that would serve them well in leading good lives.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals worked to pass legislation to end cruel practices and sports. One example was a "sport" called "bull baiting." A bull would be tethered with a long enough rope to give him free movement. Dogs, bred for fighting, would be unleashed on the bull, and the animals would fight, each tearing the other to pieces.
Wilberforce and the Clapham sect were Christians. They believed salvation was through Jesus and good works did not earn God's forgiveness. But they believed in common grace – that society should promote the common good by pursuing objective virtues and morality. Not only are these goods in themselves, they also promote the inherent dignity and value of God's creation.
You may be familiar with Wedgwood pottery. One of the most distinct of Josiah Wedgwood's designs is jasper ware – most commonly with blue or green glaze with classic figures applied in white. He was a well known potter in the 18th century, and was also an abolitionist and innovative business man.
He was born in England in 1730 to a family of potters. They were dissenters of the Church of England, and his biblical values ran deep.
He opened his own pottery and experiments with glazing techniques and colors that became famous. Wedgwood invented the pyrometer to control the temperature in the kilns to ensure consistent quality of his pottery. He introduced a production line in his factory. "He is credited with creating the first illustrated catalogues, employing the first modern traveling salesmen, and pioneering direct mail marketing. He offered money-back guarantees, free delivery, and self-service in his shops. He even set up 'buy one, get one free' sales for his products." As a result, he became a very successful businessman, and his pottery was purchased in the royal palaces of Europe, as well as middle class homes.
Because of his Christian convictions, Josiah Wedgwood had a high view of the intrinsic value of all human beings, and this led him to become involved in the abolition movement in England. He asked one of his designers to create an emblem for the movement. It was a kneeling slave with the caption, "Am I not a man and a brother?" The design became a wildly popular symbol of the abolition movement in England and even America. It could be seen on snuff boxes, pipes, cuff links, and women's jewelry. The jewelry gave women a rare opportunity to express their social and political views when that was very uncommon. Wedgwood helped promote the cause of abolition that led to the end of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807.
Titus Salt was a contemporary of of John Cadbury, whom I wrote about last Thursday, and there are similarities in their stories.
Salt expanded his father's wool manufacturing business and became quite successful. He innovated a method of manufacturing alpaca wool, which Charles Dickens even mentioned in one of his books.
Salt was motivated by his Christianity to improve the social and natural environment his employees lived in. He became mayor of Bradford with the goal of improving the poor standard of living. He attempted to innovate ways to diminish the intense air pollution that England's manufacturing spewed out during the industrial revolution. He used a burner in his factories that produced less smoke and tried to persuade other manufacturers to use it, but to little success.
He had more success improving the lives of his employees. Like George Cadbury, Title Salt built a village in Yorkshire he called Saltaire. He moved his factory there and built homes, parks, churches, and shops for his employees. "He was a great philanthropist of the age, helping his workers have unprecedented living standards for the time."
I had a frustrating experience the other day you've probably had. A family member thanked me for being nice to her lesbian friend. My relative said she appreciated that since she knows how I feel about her lifestyle. I said, "You're welcome" and mentioned that I can be nice to people even if I think they're sinning.
In fact, we're all sinners. If I was going to be rude to sinners, I'd be rude all the time – including to myself.
Sadly, many people, even Christians, have a hard time distinguishing between believing someone is wrong and treating them with kindness and respect. At least when it comes to homosexuality. Obviously, those two principles are at the heart of classic tolerance, and people usually don't have trouble with them in most other contexts. But when it comes to homosexuality, the culture and many Christians have absorbed the idea that to love someone you must accept their sexuality.
It wouldn't have occurred to my relative to thank me for being nice to, for instance, another relative who is living with her boyfriend. It hasn't occurred to her to thank me for being nice to relatives who have divorced. That isn't surprising to her, but it is when it comes to homosexuality. The main reason, of course, is that there's constant cultural pressure to not just respect, but accept homosexuality as normal. And a lot of Christians yield to the pressure. Especially when they have family and friends who are gay.
Actually, I'd never said anything about the friend directly. The couple of times I'd said something was in response to my relative talking about how she admired her friend for the courage it took to be true to herself regarding her sexual attraction, ending her marriage and leaving her family. My comments to my relative (who is a Christian) were about her admiring someone for pursuing her sin, not specifically about her friend.
The fundamental biblical view is that we're all sinners. That's something every Christian has admitted personally. The Bible also teaches us to be respectful of others because they're made in God's image. We love people while at the same time maintaining that they are sinning. After all, every single one of us is a sinner. Why is homosexuality the sin most often talked about? Because it's the sin currently being normalized, just as divorce and living together have already been accepted.
I'm sure most everyone reading this blog understands that. But it's a distinction we have to be very careful and deliberate to maintain to help people understand. And if we're going to offer sinners living in rebellion to God reconciliation with Him as we've experienced.
It's hurtful to be misunderstood, even by those closest to us. It's hard to be ridiculed and marginalized in the culture. It's painful when it leads to divisions in families. But we have to continue to keep making this distinction for people, and maybe it'll sink in sooner or later. And even if it doesn't, we have to be faithful to the Bible.
Cadbury Chocolate was founded by a Quaker, John Cadbury, who has a strong sense of social responsibility motivated by his Christian convictions.
His family were anti-slavery and campaigned for abolition. John opened a grocery store in 1824 and hoped that selling drinking chocolate would be an alternative beverage to alcohol. He was concerned that alcoholism led to poverty when people couldn't work. He devoted himself to social causes after handing over the business to his sons 35 years later.
Richard and George struggled to improve the business and their product, and continued find ways of improving people's lives. At a time when factories were dismal and dangerous places to work, the Cadburys made sure theirs were safe and humane. George was committed to social reform, and in 1893, they bought up land around their factory to build a community for their workers, named Bournville Village. They wanted to provide a safe, pleasant place to live as an alternative for grimy cities. Each home was comfortable and had a plot of land to grow vegetables. They built a community for families to enjoy activities. They provided their employees with good wages, medical treatment, educational opportunities, and pension plans, which was very unusual for the time. They introduced the 5-1/2 day work week and closing for bank holidays. The factory had sports facilities for the employees. In 1918, the Cadburys organized elected work councils, made up of equal numbers of wokers and management. The councils, one for men and one for women, oversaw the welfare of workers and their families.
George said of his plans: "If each man could have his own house, a large garden to cultivate and healthy surroundings – then, I thought, there will be for them a better opportunity of a happy family life."...The brothers set new standards for working and living conditions in Victorian Britain and the Cadbury plant in Bournville became known as "the factory in a garden."
George and his wife used their fortune to benefit their community, opening a hospital, building a camp for city children to holiday, and donating land for parks. Their home is still used as Europe's only Quaker study center.