W. T. Stead (The Northern Echo, February 7, 1870)
The duty of relieving the poor has been acknowledged in every age. The universal heart of humanity has ever coincided with the dictates of religion in declaring that the deserving poor should receive assistance. Thousands who have never heard of the book Deuteronomy strictly obey its injunction, “Thou shalt open thy hand wide unto thy brother to thy poor, and to thy needy in the land.”
Sympathy and pity for the starving are co-universal with the existence of mankind. It is curious to note the various forms in which these world-wide sentiments have been expressed by the various religions which have found adherents in this world. The broad principle may be found in most of them – that if you give, it will not impoverish you; and if you do not, it will. The paradox is, we firmly believe, a universal truth. Solomon declares, “He that hath pity upon the poor, lendeth to the Lord; and that which he has given will He pay him again;” and, also, that “Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard.” The truth of these proverbs has been so many times tested, that it is almost needless to quote other authorities; but we may mention two or three. In the Talmud we read: “He that will not open his hand to the poor shall open it to the physician. To spring at a bound from the “tangled luxuriance of the Talmud to the harsh utilitarianism of the Mormon Church is a sudden transition; but they are agreed as to the necessity of the frequent exercise of charity. Readers of Mr. Dixon’s accounts of the church established in Utah will be aware that one of the most deeply-rooted principles of the Latter-Day Saints is, that every dollar given in charity will be duly repaid by the almighty in hard cash.” Hence, there is much anxiety to assist the poor as there is to invest in shares that pay ten per cent. But Jew and Mormon are left behind by the Moslem, in whose religious faith the duty of almsgiving occupies a primary place. The saying of the victorious Omar, under whose banner the Arabians entered the gates of Jerusalem, may be accepted as an instance of the public opinion of Islam upon the subject. “Prayer,” said he, “carries us half way to God, fasting takes us to his palace door, but it is alms that procures us admission.” Various passages in the Koran light up, with the lurid glare of Topeth, the fate of those who have neglected this important duty. One passage especially is remarkable for its almost grotesque horror. It is that in which the Arabian apostle threatens with the terrible punishments of futurity those who are covetous and heap up riches of gold and silver. “Then the tormentors,” he declares, will heat the treasures that they amassed life, to the neglect of God’s commands, in the fire of hell, and apply them glowing from eternal flames to the heads and bodies of the covetous, ever-repeating to the doomed: “This is what ye have treasured up for your souls; taste, therefore, that which you have treasured up.” It is refreshing to turn from those images of torture, wherein Mohommed equalled Dante, to the sublime utterances of the Man of Nazareth, who assures us “it is more blessed to give than to receive”; and His eternal words still echo through all lands. “Sell that ye have and give alms, provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treason in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.” Clearly, then, the duty of almsgiving has the sanction of many and diverse religions, as well as that of the heart of humanity. But there is another side to the question. We have abundant faith in the beauty of benevolence, in the might of magnanimity, in the benignant potency of a generous truthfulness. A liberal confidence in the better elements of human nature is rarely abused. It was a grand and glorious reflection that Shakespeare put into the mouth of the dying, ruined Brutus:
“My heart doth joy that yet, in all my life,
I found no man but he was true to me”
But what we wish to point out to our readers is, that there may be an overweening confidence in human nature, and that charity, injudiciously applied, creates the evils it ought to remove. Almsgiving at present existent in England, produces not good, but evil – curses instead of blessings; it debases instead of ennobling, and it is the fruitful parent of vice, indolence, ignorance, falsehood, and crime. This is by no means a haphazard assertion. The alarming increase of beggary is an evidence of its truth. There are, it is calculated, thirty thousand vagrants in this country who are maintained comfortably by the gifts of the charitable. They are dirty, vicious, drunken, and deceitful. Their capital is impudence and lying. They are a curse to the country, a terror to society, and the despair of social reformers. They rear children like themselves; they form the recruiting-ground for our criminal army; they are increasing daily; and why? Because they find begging pays better than working. And that result is chargeable to the indiscriminate almsgiving of the country. It is a very charitable average to say that one only in every ten beggars is really deserving. It is impossible to investigate every case; but if it is not done, nine impostors are fed for every honest man. They mendicants are astute, practical men, who can represent themselves as reformed drunkards, Christian ministers, collectors for trades’ unions, or distressed mechanics, as it suits them. They have an organisation of their own, a language of their own, with their own laws, signs and traditions. They are at war with society, and society is powerless. In one direction only can they be attacked, and that is by the power of organisation. Only by the adoption of a scheme for the suppression of mendacity, and the thorough organisation of charitable relief, can we free ourselves from the scourge of professional mendicants with which we are at present afflicted.