Poor, Care of
Organized care of the poor was unknown in the pre-Christian era; it is a product of Christianity. The Old Testament frequently emphasizes the duty of aiding and supporting the poor according to ability, but only in the New Testament do we find congregational care of the poor. This was the object of the ordination of the seven deacons in Acts 6. In the second century the provision was fully organized. The necessary funds were raised by voluntary donations, partly gifts in kind given at the communion service; there was no compulsion. II Corinthians 9:5. Only those really in need and worthy of help received support. Special provisions were made for widows and orphans. In the original Christian church none suffered want. This orderly provision for the poor came to an end when, after Constantine, the church accumulated greater and greater wealth. Ineffectual mass provision for the poor followed.
In the Reformation the Anabaptists were pioneers in the care of the poor. They made it one of their first obligations from the very beginning, at a time when the established churches let other duties have priority over the care of the poor, even though the Anabaptists had no church or monastery property to draw on as the large churches had. They appointed deacons to manage funds voluntarily given for that purpose. The first of these deacons were probably those chosen by the nonresistant group who left Nikolsburg in the spring of 1528; they were Jakob Mändel and Franz Itzinger.
The opponents of the Anabaptists disliked and frequently attacked this arrangement, charging the Anabaptists with rating good works above faith. Even in the more recent literature the purpose of this provision for the needy is completely misunderstood; Hermann Hering of Halle, for instance, says about the Mennonites: "More than in true baptism, their interest lay in other ideals, which, playing in apocalyptic and eschatological colors, had as their end happiness in this life." In Augsburg the Protestant clergy argued that the Anabaptist practice of caring for the poor was dangerous to the state. Friedrich Roth (p. 399) has shown the invalidity of this charge: "There was among them [Augsburg Anabaptists] no thought of proposals that would tend toward community of goods ... yet the common purse from which the funds were taken to provide for the poor—not only those of their own brotherhood—was in the eyes of the council an absolutely illegitimate arrangement, because it interfered with civic care of the poor and still more because it attracted foreign Anabaptists and other sectarians."
The principle that no one should suffer want in a Christian brotherhood has always been considered a sacred duty in the Anabaptist-Mennonite churches. Wherever there was need, brotherly love gave aid. It was the particular task of the deacons to take an interest in the poor and to supervise their relief. The larger congregations in Holland and Germany built homes to take care of their poor. (See Homes for the Aged in Europe.)
The Chortitza Mennonite Church, the largest and oldest in South Russia, maintained the institution of caring for the poor to the end. Deacons managed the funds given by voluntary donation, and gave an annual report, usually between Christmas and New Year, on their work and their use of the money. Chortitza had no building dedicated to this care, since it was thought better to provide for the poor in private homes, for which suitable remuneration was given. Though the other congregations did not have so thorough an organization for this purpose, there was some provision everywhere. The congregations of the Molotschna settlement built a large home for their needy aged. The provisions for orphans in orphanages were similar and based on a long tradition dating to the early days in Holland. These institutions and practices were transplanted from Russia to the prairie states and provinces of North America and to Mexico and South America, where they are perpetuated in similar or modified forms. (See also Alms, Homes for the Aged, Mutual Aid, Orphanages.)
Beck, Josef. Die Geschichts-Bücher der Wiedertäufer in Oesterreich-Ungarn. Vienna, 1883; reprinted Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1967: 75.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: I, 84.
Hering, Hermann. "Die Liebestätigkeit der deutschen Reformation." Theologische Studien und Kritiken, 1885.
Loserth, Johann. "Die Wiedertäufer in Steiermark," in Mitteilungen des historischen Vereins für Steiermark (1894): 127.
Mennonitische Blätter (1896): 87.
Roth, Friedrich. Augsburgs Reformationsgeschichte II. Munich, 1904: 399.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 202. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Hege, Christian, Christian Neff and David H. Epp. "Poor, Care of." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 19 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/poor_care_of.
APA style: Hege, Christian, Christian Neff and David H. Epp. (1959). Poor, Care of. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/poor_care_of.