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Reforming Religion Includes Poor Relief

What is wrong with giving only to the deserving poor? Any discomfort with the word - deserving - stems from the subjective nature of determining who are the deserving poor. The concern is that charity and generosity have become exclusive or exclusionary or it is simply not clear who is included. Yet, the sixteenth-century reformers, such as Johannes Bugenhagen, one of the three key Wittenberg reformers, had a clear sense of the deserving poor and it included more than it excluded.

Selection of Sources
The methodology includes the examination of Church Orders as religious sources that also had both legal and political authorization. Although these normative and often prescriptive sources may not provide a complete picture, they are among the historical documents that religious reformers, political rulers, and legal councils all reviewed and approved as law. The multiple levels of approval necessary for these Church Orders make them stand out as helpful examples for understanding the broadly-accepted social ideals for reforming the laws for poor relief among top religious and political leaders in early modern Europe. In particular, Bugenhagen’s Church Orders provide one of the most extensive sources for poor relief in the early years of the Reformation. So let us take a closer look at his first Church Order.

Bugenhagen on Poor Relief
When Duke Christian won the civil war in Denmark in 1536, he envisioned a reform for his kingdom that would align with Lutheran Protestantism and requested the services of Bugenhagen to assist with the reform in Denmark. Because of his linguistic and organizational abilities, Bugenhagen traveled to multiple cities and territories to mediate the transition spurred by the Reformation from Catholic to Protestant lands. His first Braunschweig church order (1528), often used as a blueprint for subsequent orders, started with the provision to set up schools for boys and girls and envisioned a system of poor relief to meet a broad range of needs. For Bugenhagen, this priority of caring for the poor contributed to the service of the holy gospel, brotherly love, discipline, peace, and unity. His major concern was to establish common chests with church properties and other gifts so that ecclesiastical office and the needs of the poor could be supported.[1] The notion of the common chest had emerged earlier from other Wittenberg reformers, namely Martin Luther and Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. However, Bugenhagen sought to create two common chests so that one chest could be designated solely for the poor. While the maintenance of two chests, one for church maintenance and one for poverty alleviation, gradually clasped into one chest, the organization of two chests revealed Bugenhagen’s desire to ensure that some of the funds would be earmarked for poor relief.

Broad Range of Poor Relief
Bugenhagen’s vision for poor relief included a broad range of services as outlined in his guidelines for various constituents of aid and to his discussion of the deserving poor. While the designation of the worthy poor could often be used as a limitation to exclude certain people from city aid, a closer look at Bugenhagen’s definition of the deserving poor reveals a surprisingly wide range of deservedness. Bugenhagen identified common recipients of aid as those either unable to help themselves or merely temporarily hindered from becoming self-sufficient. His understanding of work influenced his definition of the deserving poor, which he categorized into three groups. The first group comprised of the working poor or the employed local poor, as well as artisans and workers who work diligently and yet encountered misfortunes that led to suffering from a lack of basic necessities. This category of poor also included impoverished maidens and honorable women servants who had a good reputation, but were often overlooked. In a long letter to Hamburg (1526), he criticized those who let the underemployed poor go to ruin with hunger, cold, and other needs. These poor deserved assistance because they worked but did not earn a sufficient income to support themselves or their family. The second category of poor included retired elderly, widows, and orphans who were not able to work and had no friends to assist them. Third, the poor were also those who could not acquire anything because of sickness and the failure of their limbs. These poor should be helped so that they might recover from their sickness and not fall to their demise because of poverty.

His definition of the deserving poor was adaptable enough to recognize economic injustices that led to poverty. He advocated for fair wages for work, including women’s work that he believed was integral to social order. In the Braunschweig Church Order, women were an integral part of the poor relief system as both recipients of care and as providers of service, especially through midwifery and nursing. Bugenhagen called for a substantial annual honorarium for midwives. The Braunschweig Church Order expressed concern for mothers and children, especially for poor women who could not obtain good help during labor and delivery, and he sought to ensure that midwives would be available even for poor women.

Concluding Remarks
For Bugenhagen, the deserving poor as defined by Scriptures included a broader, more expansive range than most city councils wanted to admit. In particular, his definition included those who were not represented or otherwise ignored, such as foreigners, religious refugees, and working women. While Bugenhagen’s later church orders tended to focus more on the practical arrangement adapted to local or territorial realities, he never lost the sense that the proper use of wealth meant supporting churches, schools, and poor relief.


[1] Bugenhagen, The Christian Order of the honorable city of Braunschweig in Hendel 2:1185-86.