History of attitudes towards poverty and the churches.
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Sun Jul 17, 2016 at 03:11:18 PM EST
Jesus is said to have stated that "The Poor will always be with you" and some Christians have used that to refuse to try to help the poor, because "they will always be with you" meaning (in their minds) that it's a lost cause - even though that's not in line with the rest of the Bible.  There are plenty of examples throughout the Bible where poor people are mentioned, usually in denouncements of the rich about their treatment of the poor, and demands that the poor be treated justly with kindness, mercy, and generosity (I've read multiple articles stating that there are literally thousands of lines of this nature - while there are only a small handful of lines thought to be dealing with homosexuality*; this is revealing when you consider the attitudes of those churches referred to as dominionist).  Comparing the modern attitudes found in the more fundamentalist churches towards poverty to the actual scriptures is enlightening.  The reality is that modern attitudes towards poverty are a relatively recent thing and not in line with what the person called Jesus taught or the teachings of the early church.
These attitudes towards people who are poor date back to Calvin, and the early Calvinist teaching that "God rewards the good people {the elect, or those predestined to go to Heaven} with wealth, health, and good things, and punishes the wicked sinners {those headed for hell} with poverty, illness, and misery".  (I've heard it put many different ways, but the central idea of wealth = God's blessing, poverty = God's punishment/curse is in all versions.) (Davies 1966, Hill 1952)  Another early Calvinist teaching is that hard work was one's calling and to not be working hard was showing a wrong attitude towards God (Hill 1952).  These negative religious attitudes towards the poor, essentially starting with Calvinism, were in essence using them as a negative reference group (Kusmer 2002).

An interesting point is that this all also started after the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.  Starting with the Master-Apprentice system which at the time defined most working relationships, a master would provide for his apprentices while training them in a trade.  The apprentices provided very cheap labor, while the Master provided training and often food and shelter.  This system was widely abused (Wikipedia 2006a, 2006b).  Apprentices and Journeymen would run away from the abuse, and would in essence be homeless.  At the same time, yeoman farmers were being dispossessed of the land their families had been on for generations, in order for the rich elites to run sheep on their (previous) farms.  They had nowhere to go and would end up homeless and wandering, looking for a place to live and employment (which was hard to come by for someone who'd been a farmer all their life).  In essence, homelessness was not a major problem before that period but became an issue as the numbers of unemployed and homeless people skyrocketed.  Going back to the Calvinist ideas about poverty, these people were singled out as a threat to the social order and held to be lazy and sinners.  (At the same time, an informal underground economy developed among the newly poor, which was considered a threat to the middle class and property values in the cities, and this economy did sometimes involve behavior considered sinful by the better off (DePastino 2003, Kusmer 2002, Rossi 1989).  William Perkins (a Calvinist theologian of the time) demonstrated how the economic and religious attitudes were intertwined in the attitudes towards people who were poor in his statement about them "wandering beggars and rogues" were to be "taken as enemies of this ordinance of God" (Kusmer 2002:19).  It's interesting how even today, economics are conflated with religion and people think God ordained the economic system (no matter how much harm and misery it actually causes).

These attitudes and beliefs about poverty resulted (in England) in the passing of the Henrician Poor Laws (starting in 1536), which defined the "undeserving poor" as anyone who was able to work (who defines that?) but not working, and the deserving poor as anyone unable to work (again, who sets this standard?) - and provided severe penalties for any 'undeserving poor' who didn't work (Littles 2003).  The laws regarding the "undeserving poor" even provided (for a number of years) for enslavement of anyone who wasn't obviously working hard (excepting the rich, but they were also expected to be 'hard at work' - in effect demonstrating their 'godliness') and even children were expected to be hard at work and could be enslaved.  It took testimony (as I remember the descriptions of the laws and how they worked) from two people to forcibly enslave the observed to the the complainants.   I wonder how many rich people gained free slaves like that.  (Note: I don't have the notes in front of me, but the research articles and books I refer to contain this information.)  In any case, the treatment of the poor was very harsh and abusive, and it goes back to what could easily be labeled Calvinist Heresy.

Poverty and homelessness are problems that came to this continent in the earliest years.  By 1640, "vagrant persons" were listed as being people that law enforcement were to apprehend for punishment (Kusmer 2002), and there are indications that poverty and homelessness had impacted on the attention of the authorities throughout the colonies.  When you consider that the Pilgrims, those vaunted oh-so-Christian immigrants to this continent (I consider them proto-Dominionists, and they do fit the profile) were militantly Calvinist and who had been driven from Europe by their actions, it is easy to see how these attitudes came to roost in this continent.  The fact is, the Pilgrims were here to get rich, because they believed they were the Elect plus they believed that hard work (and God's blessing) would mean wealth (refer to the sources mentioned, there are many others who also point this out).  Thus, if you weren't rich (or "Following God's Law by demonstratively working hard" to use the sort of language they might have used), you were a sinner - maybe even thought of in a similar light as non-Christians are thought of in many churches today - as someone who is contagious and a threat to the "righteous".

(Never mind that the pilgrim's wealth came from taking land, crops, and so on from local Native Americans or moving in to fields abandoned because of death due to introduced diseases.  If it wasn't for some intertribal politics and devastation due to European diseases, they wouldn't have found a place to live - this continent had a far denser population than most Americans realize (estimates as much as 10,000,000 people just before Columbus).  It's also not that well known outside of tribal circles and historians, but the first cash crop from New England was Native American slaves, sold to the Caribbean to work the plantations.  Africans quickly replaced Native Americans because they weren't acclimatized and died quickly.  So some of that wealth also came from slavery - of people driven from the land that the Pilgrims/Puritans lusted after.)  It wasn't nearly as pretty as the public would like to believe - and it finally resulted in King Phillip's war.

In the early years of this country, there were actual laws that people who weren't demonstratively working hard (living an "idle and riotous life") would be bound out as servants (Kusmer 2002:14).  A person who did not work could be said to be defying the "proper order of things" and in rebellion against God. This belief is reflected in an attitude as reported by Kusmer (2002) on page 14: "Bostonians complained that among some people "the sin of idleness (wch is the sin of Sodom) doeth greatly increase".  People who weren't working were considered a potential threat to the social order (Hill 1952).  An interesting point is that no consideration was taken that many of those people who were homeless became that way because of war (such as King Phillip's War) or economic changes (Kusmer 2002).  One final point regarding the early years of Europeans on this continent: the idea of being "settled".  The deserving poor were (in essence) defined as also being from the local area - and anyone from outside the area did not fit the "deserving" label.  If unemployed, they were automatically undeserving (Rossi 1989).

Poverty and homelessness continued to be a vexing problem after the early years, and as upward mobility became restricted, working people and ex-servants (those who were indentured) found themselves in "an increasingly marginal existence" (Kusmer 2002:15).  Kusmer relates that during the period when slavery existed on this continent (it still does but is a major violation of law), there were many escaped slaves and indentured servants who also escaped the abusive situation they were in among the homeless.  An interesting point he mentioned is that homelessness was less prevalent where slavery was more common.

In essence, the historicity of the attitudes towards the homeless and very poor added up to an attitude driven by a demand for low-cost labor, instead of personal failings being the root of homelessness and poverty (Kusmer discusses this at length.)

This is really brought home by the situation in the 19th century.  While denouncing and demonizing the homeless, business owners were at the same time employing labor agents to seek out transient laborers - in essence trying to get people living and laboring on farms to leave and move to the cities (and become homeless in the process).  The real reason was to provide a source of cheap labor, so that they could drive down wages for those living in the area and who were steadily employed (Depastino 2003).  Just as with the roots of the attitudes and treatment found in England after the start of the Industrial Revolution, GREED was and always has been at the real root cause of poverty in this country.  Not greed of the working people or the poor - the greed of the rich (and the wannabe rich) has caused poverty.  There is plenty of research that makes this point clear.  The fact that (and this is well documented) business owners were soliciting for people to become homeless, while at the same time demonizing the homeless and denouncing them is revealing.  Thus it's also shown that poverty is also connected to these actions - because the presence of the homeless was used to push down wages.  (That's certainly true today!)

Thus, it could be argued that poverty is a construct based on greed - and the fact is, throughout history poverty has been caused primarily by the greed of elites, followed by natural disasters (where it could be argued that elite greed made things far worse) - NOT PERSONAL FAILINGS.  If you look at the history of the attitudes of the more militantly fundamentalist churches, you will find strong echoes of early Calvinist heresies and greed for wealth.   It's no wonder that they ignore the findings of science - scientific thinking is a relatively new thing in many ways, and the things that scientists are finding counter the beliefs based on medieval thinking.  For instance, one research project (at Berkeley in California) demonstrated that the rich are greedier and more crooked than the rest of society.  We now know that the idea that people are inherently lazy is FALSE.  We know that people's attitudes towards the poor are being manipulated and shaped to fit a certain narrative (which is in itself false).  This narrative is punitive and manipulative - it discourages questioning authority (the fundamentalist preachers and ministers) and critical thinking, while encouraging a false belief in "hard work and doing without will make you wealthier" (no, it just makes the rich wealthier).  That false narrative also encourages the internalizing of blame and absolving those who are actually responsible.

People are responsible for the harm they do to others.  How on earth can anyone with half a brain believe that people are responsible for the harm that is done to them (unless it can be clearly shown that there is a connection between behavior and harm)?  Yet you'll hear sermon after sermon about "How you're responsible for everything that happens to you!" - I've never heard a preacher, priest, or minister (outside of the UU churches) say "You're responsible for the harm you did to others!"  If you know where all of this comes from, it's obvious - it hearkens back to old Calvinist heresy!

Here is a final point that many Christians don't consider.  If you look at the history of poverty and the history of their religion, it could be argued that the person they claim to follow was well aware of the reality of poverty and what caused it.  Recent research and understanding undercuts the theological ground the dominionists (and fundamentalists) stand on, and brings back the validity and power of the Social Gospel.  The fact is, we COULD end world hunger.  We COULD end poverty.  Not by making the rich poor, but by making things more equitable.  Science disproves many of the things they take as Gospel, as a "given".  Maybe if they'd stop trying to hold onto old heresies and false ideas, and started thinking, examining the Bible (which contains much good mixed with error) critically and in context, and trying to understand what the person they claim to follow REALLY was trying to say, maybe this world would be a better place - and they wouldn't be harming so many innocent lives.  (Plus maybe they'd stop trying to make everyone else live according to their beliefs, and start focusing on living them themselves.)

Note:  This essay was written based on a paper I wrote for a class several years ago.  It's not the best cited, but all of the things in it can be traced to research and pubilshed articles and books.  It's something I threw together in a couple of hours... didn't spend much time at all and didn't even dig into my personal library, much less the hundreds of thousands of books and articles available to me.  However, I felt it important to point out the historicity of the attitudes towards the poor and the error behind those attitudes.  Poor people aren't lazy, they're not SINNERS!, they're PEOPLE, and it can be shown that poverty is something applied from outside rather than stemming from "personal failings" (SINS in the eyes of the judgmental).

*- Several years ago I ran into a couple of websites where the author actually counted and listed all of those lines.  The length of the list was gigantic - and while I've forgotten the number, it was obviously over a thousand.  At the same time, they listed only (as I remember) FIVE lines of scripture that had anything remotely to do with homosexuality (and those lines, as I understand, were probably mistranslations).  I chose to not go back to try to find those sites - I'm tired of wading through all of the Christian propaganda in trying to find the kernels of truth.

References and useful sources :

Davies, C. S. L.
    1966 Slavery and Protector Somerset; The Vagrancy Act of 1547. The Economic History Review 19(3):533-549
DePastino, Todd., 2003  Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press
Hill, Christopher
    1952 Puritans and the Poor. Past and Present 2):32-50
Kusmer, Kenneth L., 2002   Down & out, on the road: the homeless in American history. New York: Oxford University Press
Littles, Spigner
    2003 Lecture II History of Helping, Elizabethan Laws and Five of the Helping Professions. Electronic Document, http://www.ou.edu/cas/hr/online/hr-intro/lecture2.htm, accessed Nov. 12, 2006
Lyon-Callo, Vincent
    2004 Inequality, Poverty, and Neoliberal Governance: Activist Ethnography in the Homeless Sheltering Industry. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press.
Rossi, Peter Henry
     1989  Down and out in America: the origins of homelessness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
    2006a  Indentured Servant: from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Electronic Document, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indentured_servant, accessed Nov. 12,2006
    2006b  Apprenticeship: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
. Electronic Document, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apprentice, accessed Nov. 12,2006b

Thanks for posting this.  We need more people who can drum it into Bible-believing Christians' heads that right wing attitudes toward the poor are NOT Biblical.

However, I question some aspects of how you blame Calvinism for these attitudes.  Although historians generally believe that Calvinism did facilitate the development of capitalism, and although I think this is true to some extent, it seems to me that many writers have overemphasized and/or misinterpreted it as a causative factor.

For example, you mention "the passing of the Henrician Poor Laws (starting in 1536)."   The 1536 Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars can't possibly have been a result of Calvinism because, in 1536, Calvin's work as a Reformer had just barely gotten started, and his influence certainly had not spread to Britain yet.

The structure of Calvin's Reformed Church in Geneva included "deacons" whose specific job was to help the poor (and not by enslaving them, as far as I am aware).  And Calvin did NOT teach that people automatically get what they deserve, in this life or the next.  On the contrary, his theology emphasized the unmerited grace of God.

To the extent that Calvinism did aid the development of capitalism, it seems to me that it did so mostly indirectly, as follows:

  1. The Reformation-era Protestant (NOT just Calvinist; Luther taught this too, originally) doctrine of "unconditional election" led many people to look for ways to determine whether they themselves were in fact "elect."  Although Calvin's theology itself did not specify this as far as I am aware, many Protestants apparently concluded that being hardworking and thrifty were among the chief signs of being "elect".  (A more Biblical answer to this question would have been: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" -- Galatians 5:22-23.)

  2. Protestantism's (and especially Calvinism's) emphasis on faith over good works made it all too easy for many churches to neglect the good works.  Today, many Calvinist churches have "deacons" who are deacons in name only.

  3. Calvinism's rejection of prior church tradition, in favor of "sola scriptura," made it relatively easy for Calvinist churches' moral views to change with the times, for better or worse -- sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse (at least by our standards).

  4. By having a relatively democratic church structure (whereas Lutheran and even Anglican Protestantism retained a Catholic-style top-down hierarchy), Calvinism fit in naturally with the democratic revolutions that swept away feudalism and paved the way for classical liberalism (which had both good and bad aspects as far as the poor were concerned).

BTW, today's "Prosperity Gospel" preachers are not Calvinist, but are typically part of the "New Apostolic Reformation" -- which has reverted to a more authoritarian church structure and is considered heretical by many Protestants -- including Calvinists -- as well as Catholics.

Back in the 1500's and 1600's, almost ALL Christians, including Catholics as well as the nascent Protestant movement, had the attitude that all non-Christians were ipso facto fair game for conquest and enslavement.  To the extent that the British were more brutal toward the indigenous Americans than the Spaniards were, it seems to me that the main reasons had little to do with which flavor of Christianity they believed in and more to do with the British government's decision to exile a huge portion of its own population to its colonies, resulting in more British-born mouths to feed on American soil, resulting in more outright slaughter and dispossession of the indigenous Americans, as opposed to just enslaving them as the Spaniards tended to do.

Here in the U.S.A., Calvinists today span a political spectrum from Christian Reconstructionists on the extreme right to the relatively progressive PCUSA.

(Disclosure:  My father was a pastor in a middle-of-the-road Calvinist denomination.  I was brought up to believe that Calvinism was, first, and foremost, a democratic revolution within Christianity.  I am no longer a Christian of any kind.)

Be that as it may:  I'm glad to hear from you, and I hope you succeed in getting through to at least a few right-wing Christians that their economic attitudes are contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

by Diane Vera on Mon Jul 18, 2016 at 07:13:39 PM EST

I received a different history, which included (as an example) Calvin promising Michael Servetus safe passage to Geneva in order to debate him, and then burning him at the stake for heresy when he came in response (one story saying that he ordered green wood to be used so it would prolong the suffering), and one of Calvin's theologians/preachers denouncing "the Lord's Prayer" as an instrument that took people to hell.  I think that we're seeing two different sides of the same coin.  I'm reminded of how people viewed the Episcopal church and King Henry VIII (hero within the Episcopal church - upstart and worse in other churches).  I do know that there is a major connection between Calvinism and the attitudes towards the poor... that's been well established (the Pilgrims were violently Calvinist, and their attitudes were directly based on the old heresy - and that DOES connect to later ideologies about poverty and wealth like the "prosperity gospel").  There is also strong evidence that the start of the industrial revolution, modern capitalism, and the ideologies regarding the poor all seemed to happen about the same time - during Calvin's lifetime.  I suspect it all ties together like usual - a relationship where each aspect affects and changes the others - and is in turn affected by the others at the same time.

The idea of the elect - nothing I read connected that with Luther at all (just Calvin and his followers)... although Luther was a bit of a monster from the books I have read (a godly hero in others), for instance that his opposition to the anabaptists (a slur) was because they insisted that conversion at the point of a sword was sin (something he and a number of other early Christians supported - and is actually historic to the religion itself for many centuries before that time).

Interesting point about the dates - I hadn't compared them (a real failure on my part), but there probably was an interplay between Calvin's forming theology and the treatment of the poor in England (and it does take time for attitudes to form - the process can be fast but still - at least a decade or two IMO).  I'll have to look back at what was written again.  In any case, I've come to the conclusion that when it came to the different churches (and church history), much of what was written was apologetic in nature, and tended to ignore all the evil done throughout the millenia by the "heroes" - some of which are described in glowing terms within their church but really demonized by others.  I too am no longer Christian (because of the terrorism and abuse we've suffered - ditto for my wife) and I've read a lot of things in the last decade that really called everything I learned while Christian into question.  Indeed, as I tell people - I'm having to "un-learn" the things taught to me over decades within the church.  

From the descriptions given in other churches, Calvinism didn't come across as democratic or supporting freedom at all (the Roundheads certainly weren't really all that democratic, although their opponents weren't either).  I'm not surprised at the different views of history - in archaeology we find that to be a very common occurrence, and often our discipline disproves parts of (or entire) historical records while supporting others.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jul 18, 2016 at 08:26:12 PM EST

I was aware of the Geneva Calvinists' burning of Servetus at the stake, an incident that most modern Calvinists consider shameful.  Back then, it seems that all the major branches of Christianity believed they had an obligation to burn people they considered heretics, and the Calvinists were no exception.

However, I never heard any story about Calvin being personally treacherous to Servetus, pretending to welcome him.  Googling around for info about Servetus, I am unable to find that particular story anywhere.  Where did you run into it?

Regarding Calvin's social attitudes, I just now found the following, in a heavily-footnoted article by a black South African Calvinist:

The extension of Calvinism to all spheres of human activity was extremely important to a world emerging from an agrarian, mediaeval economy into a commercial, industrial era. Unlike Luther, who desired a return to primitive simplicity, Calvin supported the newborn capitalism and encouraged trade and production, while at the same time opposing the abuses of exploitation and self-indulgence. Industrialisation was stimulated by the concepts of thrift, industry, sobriety and responsibility which Calvin preached as essential to the achievement of the reign of God on earth. His theology contributed to societal revolution. Calvin equated earthly labour and production to a calling performed in direct service to God himself. No theologian before him had spoken of labour in such a positive way! Furthermore, Calvin dismissed the ban on interest, which then cleared the way for the modern market economy. He considered it unthinkable that a rich man would keep on enriching himself while witnessing poverty around him. In his view, the rich man had, according to the Bible, a duty to help the poor and certainly the refugees in his vicinity. It is for this reason that Calvin in his sermons sometimes ranted relentlessly against frivolity and decadence because the money spent on such things would be better spent on the poor. So Calvin's renowned rationality has its origins in his endeavour for social justice!


And for us not to be condemned as thieves by God, Calvinism suggests that there be free medical care for the poor, price control of bread, meat and wine, regulation of the daily labour time, compulsory primary education, erection of public industries and re-education of the jobless, and help should be given to the refugees passing through the city.

As for Calvinism and democracy:  Churches of Calvinist tradition are democratic in structure, much more so than the churches of most other branches of Christianity.  Typically each local church is run by a "consistory," a body of "elders" (a.k.a. "presbyters") and "deacons" who are elected by all the adult members of the congregation.  The consistory has the power to hire (and fire) the pastor.  In contrast, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and even the Anglican and Lutheran churches, have a top-down authoritarian structure, with archbishops appointing bishops, who in turn appoint local priests/pastors.  I am under the impression that the "New Apostolic" so-called "non-denominational" churches also tend to be authoritarian, with churches being founded by pastors who run them as dictatorships -- is that accurate, in your experience?

by Diane Vera on Tue Jul 19, 2016 at 05:33:59 AM EST

But they really aren't.   A democracy can be manipulated into something else entirely.

The Episcopal church has a democratic structure too... no less (and I'd say no more) than the Calvinist churches you're talking about - and just as easily manipulated as the dominionist churches.  The church leadership are selected by the churches (they're congregational) who then are in charge.

I'll tell you a couple of stories that will illustrate what I'm trying to say.

When I was in the Assemblies (which bragged and prattled loud and long about how they're democratic in structure), I hung out with "ministry students" (the ones who were being trained how to infiltrate and take over other denominations - we had long discussions on "ways and means", and it was very specific in what to say and do for each denomination -and what NOT to say and do).  One of the problems in that church I heard about during that time was engagement-by-rape.  A male ministry student would pick a girl, rape her, and she'd become pregnant.  Then she'd be forced to marry 'because abortion is such a sin, dont'cha know' - to her rapist.  A person I know (female ex-AoG ministry student) who related that the problem was actually quite pervasive today, said that they'd been told that having a young family would mean a much easier time "getting a church" (being selected by the churches' selection committee, which was supposedly chosen by the people in the congregation) so he'd select a pretty girl in the church that was attractive to him, date and rape, and thus have that young family.  I've met women off and on through the years, who were divorced from pastors (that doesn't seem to have hurt the men that much unlike the females from those churches) who'd been put through that.  To a person, they'd left the Pentecostals and while some belonged to other churches, others... changed religions altogether or became atheist.  The church hierarchy was well aware of what was happening in the 'engagement-by-rape' - but it was one of those "nudge-nudge wink-wink" problems.  Some pretty big-name preachers have a history from what i've been told, if you can get past the barriers they put up to doing research.

Oh, and if they catch an ordinary member trying to find out the pastor's history, if you aren't excommunicated, you're told that the person was forgiven and you HAD to forgive them too (and forget about it!).  In other words, a taboo subject altogether and it's a taboo with teeth.

So the process there was supposed to be rather democratic but as I related, easily manipulated.  (The search committee and feedback from the congregation on day to day matters via the elected church board is the congregational form of church structure - common to many denominations.  In practice, however... not all are really that congregational.)

This second little 'story' (I don't need to make anything up and wouldn't) - involves an Episcopal church we belonged to.  The pastor of the church died suddenly, and a search committee was put together.  The Dominionist (AoG in their cases) moles and "converts" were able to get the committee packed with their own people.  They selected a "priest" who was to THEIR liking - supportive of the rich and subtly dismissive towards anyone who was poor (treatment we experienced), friendly to the fundamentalists and dominionist ideologies, hostile to LGBT people (although he claimed the church doesn't take a stand), VERY conservative politically, and so on.  He was also a racist bigot as we found out - when he learned we both had American Indian ancestors, he almost excommunicated us altogether and threw us out of the church (told we weren't welcome there any more).

A couple of years later, after he'd made some pretty big changes in the church (towards being really conservative, but the last I heard the Dominionists weren't happy because he didn't introduce all of the changes they 'really REALLY wanted!'), he was caught committing adultery with his new church secretary.  Turns out that he had a long history of adultery - divorce original wife, marry new person (new church secretary), lather, rinse, repeat - over and over again.  The search committee didn't do their job and conveniently ignored the clues that were available because he was so much like what the dominionists were seeking in trying to 'save' that church.  He was stripped of his priesthood and left the church.  The last I heard, he was a used-car salesman.  (The church is still rabidly conservative.)

He caused a lot of harm to a lot of innocent people... even physically threatening an elderly man (thirty or more years older than he was) because he wouldn't obey the priest's dictates and who openly disagreed with him.  Us... imagine being thrown out of a church because of race.  (We were driven from a second Episcopal church because of our 'race' and our refusal to assimilate and be their token-Indians-but-ashamed-of-our-ancestors, combined with catching the pastor in some pretty big lies told to keep us quiet and in our place.)

The UU churches are, on the other hand, VERY democratic, and the pastors work for the church and say so and are adamant about it.  They're chosen in much the same way, but the congregation has a great deal more input on it and the process is far more open than other churches.  The process can be manipulated of course (as I related above), but to a far lesser degree than we observed in other churches.  (Laugh) the congregation even has a say in what is taught and spoken in the church - within limits (common-sense ones IMO).  There is also a lot more input in the directions the church takes - with direct input from the people.

Getting back to the manipulation - I also know that the AoG churches used to get their marching orders from the hierarchy - the authorities (regional and national) would tell churches what to preach on and what not to mention - and it varied from church to church.  I also learned that back when I was in that cult.  The actual control structure was all very hush-hush stuff (much even kept from the students until after they 'took a church', just as the types of training that their ministry students actually got - well, I was warned to NEVER but NEVER speak of it - or else.  (My ex-ministry-student 'friend' even said that they'd gone beyond "how to invade other churches", to how to block and harass groups and organizations the church didn't like - to the point of even exactly how to approach a table set up by the other group in a public venue so as to block access to it and then how to verbally attack people without getting caught.)


The story of Servetus and Calvin's direct participation was taught in the churches connected to Servetus (he was very Unitarian in theology - a way of thinking I very strongly agree with).  I think there is even documentation supporting that (from the period).  I'm not surprised that the Calvinist churches would not like that being mentioned and would overlook it.  Yeah (Laugh!), the early churches - with a few exceptions such as the anabaptists and the non-trinitarian ones (from what I've read) were very much into killing the opposition if possible.  It was considered very Godly to do so.  That form of religion - they can have it if they want it, I want it kept far away from me and keep it to themselves.

That's part of the reason why we want to get away from this hellhole and the fundamentalists/dominionists who dominate around here.  That's where Christian terrorism springs from - an evil that the more fundamentalist churches never admitted to, much less rejected and eliminated.

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Jul 19, 2016 at 11:31:50 AM EST

The stories you've told of rape by AoG ministerial students are really something!  I hope that at least some of their ex-wives are networking with each other, with the aim of eventually reaching sufficient critical mass that they can safely expose this publicly, if indeed it is a widespread problem.

Regarding all these churches and preachers you've run into who despise poor people:  Did some or most of these churches feature what is known as "Prosperity Theology" or the "Prosperity Gospel"?  See:

Many mainstream evangelicals have condemned the "Prosperity Gospel."  See, for example:

The following article notes that prosperity preaching is especially popular in the "Sun Belt," including Florida, and also notes a high geographic correlation between prosperity preaching and housing foreclosures during the 2008 crash:  Did Christianity Cause the Crash? (The Atlantic).

I'll reply on other issues in a separate comment.

by Diane Vera on Tue Jul 19, 2016 at 06:25:18 PM EST

People have literally said that "Poor people are poor because God is punishing them for their sinfulness, and that doing anything to help them is going against God because you're lifting the punishment a little" (it's something we've talked about in discussions of poverty and homelessness and it's been the basis for how some groups treat people).  That's been preached, and that attitude has been expressed many times in different ways.  Poverty researchers have traced the evolution of the attitudes back to the "God rewards the good people with health, wealth, and good things, and punishes the sinners with poverty, suffering, and misery" - there is a pedigree going back to the Pilgrims regarding those attitudes and the treatment of the poor in this country (as mentioned in the citations I'd posted).  That has been argued to be the core of the Prosperity Gospel - if you do things right, God will prosper you.  If you sin, well, you will suffer.  So, if you are rich, you're also right with God.  Getting right with God (by giving money to the preacher) means that you will get money in return.  Yada yada yada... you know the song and dance.

Here's a little tidbit I learned from one of the biggest names in poverty research while chatting about the 'great recession' (Note: Poverty/homelessness and race issues were my M.A. study and research area): that many of the more fundamentalist (and minority) churches were encouraging their people to get involved in the housing bubble - usually second mortgages.  The pastor would get a kickback from the bank exec who came to the church to 'sign people up', and when the bubble burst, people lost their homes (and the pastor walked away with piles of money in his pockets).  There IS a strong connection between prosperity preaching and foreclosure, but even more so, between fundamentalism and foreclosure.  Poor people often get sucked into fundamentalist churches (because they're seeking some sort of hope) - and through that lost everything because they trusted what their preacher and the banker told them.

Where she was working and doing research, it caused quite a stir and no little conflict.  As I remember the conversation, the banks were able then to gobble up major chunks of land, which were turned into high-priced developments.

by ArchaeoBob on Wed Jul 20, 2016 at 01:20:55 AM EST

You wrote:
People have literally said that "Poor people are poor because God is punishing them for their sinfulness, and that doing anything to help them is going against God because you're lifting the punishment a little."

and earlier:
... you'll hear sermon after sermon about "How you're responsible for everything that happens to you!"

Such an attitude was not always popular among Christians, even among conservative Christians -- at least not here in the northeast.  Perhaps the attitude you're describing has come and gone at various times during Christian history?

When I was young (in the 1960's and 1970's), I never heard anyone in my church say such a thing, nor did I ever see such an attitude in any of the Christian literature my parents had around the house, nor did I ever hear it even on any of the conservative Christian radio programs my mother listened to a lot.  There was a debate between liberals and conservatives over whether the poor should be helped via government programs vs. whether the poor should be helped primarily (or even exclusively) via church charities.  There was no debate on whether the poor should be helped at all, just on how and by whom.  Our church had a "benevolence fund" that was donated to charities that helped the ppor.

The first time I ever encountered a statement like "You, and only you, are responsible for everything that happens to you!" was NOT in a Christian context, but in a paperback book, given to me by a friend of mine, written by two hypnotists who at that time were leading nonreligious self-help seminars that (as I later found out) were a knock-off of EST (Erhard Seminars Training), which had that same slogan.  I remember being utterly shocked by the lack of compassion implicit in that slogan.  The alleged purpose of the seminars was to help people gain more control over their lives -- a worthy aim, but it seemed obvious to me that the seminar promoters greatly exaggerated what's possible for most individuals to accomplish on their own without any help from society as a whole.

I eventually came up with the following joke about a gunman who robbed an EST seminar:  After he took everyone's wallets and watches, he yelled:  "Now everyone, don't complain!  Remember, you create your own reality!  You, and only you, are responsible for everything that happens to you!"

I don't mean to deny your experience, nor do I mean to deny whatever historical evidence you've dug up about such attitudes existing among Trinitarian Christians in the past.  But such attitudes toward the poor have NOT been a continuous tradition among Trinitarian Christians, even among Calvinists.  Calvin himself did not espouse such attitudes, nor did even the most politically conservative people in the church I grew up in.  Even among Calvinists, such attitudes must have been at most a heresy that crept in now and then, perhaps numerous times -- most likely a heresy promoted by greedy rich people for their own self-interested reasons, or perhaps by greedy colonists to justify their ill-treatment of indigenous people.

by Diane Vera on Wed Jul 20, 2016 at 05:52:14 PM EST

but poverty researchers run into that attitude all the time, although few have focused on it beyond exploring the historical aspects.  It used to be worse (people avoided homeless shelters like the plague in the early 1900s because of attitudes and blaming), got better starting in the 60s (instead of blaming, people went to insisting that poor people needed fixing), and then in the last 20 years or so, got a whole lot worse.  The fact is, when people actually applied scientific research to the issue, they found that poverty is caused primarily by elite greed and lust for power, followed by other aspects usually beyond the control of the victim.  Yet the treatment given by most shelters is based on old, FAILED thinking (at least, the religious ones who don't listen to science).  Note:  There ARE programs that work and are based on science, they're called "Housing First" and they work - compare 90-95% and better success rates with 5% and worse for the old "continuum of care" (some report better but their analysis is generally considered questionable).

I believe Vincent Lyon-Callo even discusses it a bit in his work on the medicalization of homelessness - the idea that people are homeless because they have something wrong with them.  (His work in general is a good read on poverty, Carol Stack another, Susan Greenbaum a third person I'd recommend - especially her newest book on the Moynihan report.)

I got to where I didn't like listening to the people at the church we attended for the longest period (not the UU one) if the subject of poverty or homelessness came up because of the blame game.  (One big name person in the church bragged about his son telling a homeless man on the street "Get a job, you looser!" - and encouraged that behavior.)  I've heard it on Christian radio stations several times in the years I lived here and was Christian, in the homeless shelters where I did research, in one that I worked at for a while... and heard many MANY complaints about the more fundamentalist-leaning shelters regarding the blaming (plus they also have a terrible reputation of stealing from the homeless) FROM people who were homeless, while I was involved with shelters.  It's really an old thing - with plenty of evidence that it was a significant issue (and the blame game was involved) throughout American history.  Problem is, most people don't see it and don't like the purity of their precious nation and religion besmirched (in reality - the truth exposed).

I'm really surprised that you DIDN'T hear it or encounter some version of it.

by ArchaeoBob on Thu Jul 21, 2016 at 12:27:35 AM EST

I guess I didn't hear it because I grew up during the period (1960's and 1970's) when, as you say, attitudes toward the poor got temporarily better.  Also, I grew up in New York City -- perhaps that makes a difference?

I encountered some really awful attitudes toward the poor later, in the 1980's, though not in a religious context.  By that time I had left Christianity (for various reasons, most of which are off-topic here).  I remember getting into an argument with someone who insisted that homelessness couldn't possibly be caused by anything other than laziness, even though it was obvious to me that, in many parts of NYC, rents were rising beyond the ability of low-income people to afford.

I have no desire to protect Christianity.  I just think it's important to make sure that any criticisms we make, either of Christianity in general or of specific denominations or churches, are accurate and not over-generalized.

by Diane Vera on Thu Jul 21, 2016 at 11:22:44 PM EST

I'd heard about NYC rents before (in my studies)... and it is considered symptomatic and where cities could get if they aren't careful.  What is really interesting is that living in NYC, you knew about that.  Most people aren't aware of how difficult it is to afford a place to live, even in their own town... and I might add that I've encountered the blame game since the 70s - in Virginia and Florida (I even bought into it in the 70s through 1982, and still thought that way a little after I'd walked for a few years), and read about problems with the attitudes in many other states (there are several research articles on attitudes towards homelessness/poverty).  Some tie it back to the "God blesses/God curses" stuff, but others just examine it under the labeling/stigma problem and don't make that connection (but it's there).

I'll see if I can find some of the articles/books that specifically connect the "God punishes" stuff to the attitudes.

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I consider the recent epidemic of steeple-jacking to be a separate topic from the several-hundred-year-old history of Protestant church structure.

A sufficiently large and well-organized conspiracy of steeple-jackers can abuse just about any structure, as you've noted.  Perhaps the more democratic structures are even more vulnerable?

Perhaps the Unitarians are LESS vulnerable for non-structural reasons?  For example, perhaps the Unitarian churches attract a more intellectual crowd and for that reason are better equipped to resist the agenda of would-be steeple-jackers?

Anyhow, back to the other topic of church structure and its history:

I was not aware that the Epispocal Church has a democratic structure.  So I just now looked at the Wikipedia article on the Episcopal Church.  It appears that they actually have a hybrid structure:  "Subject to the approval of its diocesan bishop, the vestry of each parish elects a priest, called the rector, who has spiritual jurisdiction in the parish and selects assistant clergy, both deacons and priests."  I wonder how this compares to the organization of Anglican churches elsewhere.  In any case, it appears that the bishops have ultimate authority and veto power over the local congregation's decisions.  Is that not correct?

The afore-mentioned Wikipedia article also says that the Episcipal Church "was organized after the American Revolution, when it became separate from the Church of England, whose clergy are required to swear allegiance to the British monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England."  In any case the section on "structure" begins with:  "As its name suggests, the Episcopal Church, as are other Anglican churches, is governed according to episcopal polity with its own system of canon law. This means that the church is organized into dioceses led by bishops in consultation with representative bodies."

The Wikipedia article on episcopal polity says:

An episcopal polity is a hierarchical form of church governance ("ecclesiastical polity") in which the chief local authorities are called bishops. (The word "bishop" derives, via the British Latin and Vulgar Latin term *ebiscopus/*biscopus, from the Ancient Greek επίσκοπος epískopos meaning "overseer".) It is the structure used by many of the major Christian Churches and denominations, such as the Roman Catholic, Eastern (e.g. Eastern Orthodox), Anglican and Lutheran churches or denominations, and other churches founded independently from these lineages.

Churches with an episcopal polity are governed by bishops, practicing their authorities in the dioceses and conferences or synods. Their leadership is both sacramental and constitutional; as well as performing ordinations, confirmations, and consecrations, the bishop supervises the clergy within a local jurisdiction and is the representative both to secular structures and within the hierarchy of the church. Bishops are considered to derive their authority from an unbroken, personal apostolic succession from the Twelve Apostles of Jesus.


For much of the written history of institutional Christianity, episcopal government was the only known form of church organization. This changed at the Reformation. Many Protestant churches are now organized by either congregational or presbyterian church polities, both descended from the writings of John Calvin....

This agrees with my perception that the more democratic forms of church government were originated by Calvinists and subsequently copied by other Protestant denominations that were founded later.

Likewise, the Wikipedia article on Presbyterian polity says that the Presbyterian polity was originated by the Geneva Calvinists, and the Wikipedia article on Congregational polity says that the Congregational polity was originated by the Puritans and later copied by other denominations -- including the Unitarians.

I've replied on other issues in a separate comment.

by Diane Vera on Tue Jul 19, 2016 at 06:52:38 PM EST

It appears to me that the democratic structure was rather widespread and started in multiple churches about the same time - including the Episcopal church (and churches in other countries) - if my memory serves me right, some of the proto-Unitarian churches (eastern Europe for the most part) started using a democratic structure in the 1400s and maybe earlier (and there are other forms of Christianity that may have been democratic even before that - in areas other than Europe).

Yeah, the Episcopal church has a dual structure, which is meant not for political control (although that happens and actually happened here) as much as making sure that the new clergy are properly trained and vetted and to prevent what would be in essence steeplejacking (usually by an individual rather than a group).  Episcopal oversight sometimes can be very lax, and it's not like the Bishop is dictating to the churches or the people.  The thing is, a Bishop is also elected to that office (at least in this country).  It's rather complicated in a way - rather like the real structure of the US government.  The word Bishop means overseer (you probably already knew that) and that's a major chunk of what they do.  More or less, keeping things within decent bounds and helping to redistribute resources.

Steeplejacking of more democratic churches happens when people don't have sufficient education and knowledge of the aspects of the Bible many churches ignore - history, how theology formed, evolved, and because what it is today, some understanding of the difficulties of translating from one early culture to a modern one with completely different languages, and so on.   A democratic structure IS easier to steeplejack IMO, but it can happen in strictly hierarchal churches as well - the approach is different - more of a focus on slowly converting the clergy and taking over the structure around them (I vaguely remember conversations to that effect when I was AoG - that they had to change the clergy rather than focusing more on the people in the church).  Since dominionists work through emotions rather than logic, even the most educated and rigorously trained priest (or even Bishop) could be vulnerable - and if they can get hold of the purse strings, they can control the clergy and the entire diocese itself quite effectively.  I've heard of bishops that made the mistake of allowing Dominionists to gain the positions around them (a lot of positions in the church are actually non-ordained) and came to strongly regret it as they gained control over the entire diocese.

As far as the UU churches - (LAUGH!)  I think they were afraid of them more than anything - afraid they'd 'catch demons' or something like that.  The fact that critical thinking is a central value in the church makes them very resistant to steeplejacking - that and the fact that a lot of UU churches have people rather like us in them, who have been made sensitive to the inroads of dominionist thinking and ideology.  More than anything, the fact that dominionism is intolerant of dissent or disagreement (or even questions or doubts) means that their ways run opposite of those in the UU churches - where these things happen (and questions are strongly encouraged).  Like I've heard many times in different venues - "Just because we practice tolerance, doesn't mean we have to tolerate intolerance!"  You're not permitted to try to dictate the beliefs or ideology of anyone else in the church, although we insist that if science disproves something, that is a settled issue.

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