Where Does Compassion and Charity Come From?

Charity did not have its origin in the world of antiquity. Its origin is in Jesus Christ and his followers. In fact, historians evidence this fact.

Plato (427-327 BC) said that a poor man (usually a slave) was who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die. He even praised Aesculapius, the famous Greek physician, for not prescribing medicine to those he knew were preoccupied with their illness (Republic 3.406d – 410a).

The Roman philosopher Plautus (254 – 184 BC) argued, “You do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for more misery” (Trinummus 2.338-39).

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Thucydides (ca. 460-44 BC), the honored historian of ancient Greece, cites an example of the plague that struck Athens during the Peloponesian War in 430 BC. Many of the sick and dying of the Athenians were deserted. (Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 128-29)

The Romans did the same until they were shamed into changing their ways by the behavior of Christian who took in their sick. This inspired their enemy, Emperor Julian the Apostate to say,

“The impious Galileans relieve both their own poor and ours…It is shameful that ours should be so destitute of assistance.” (Epistles of Julian 49)

With the advent of Christianity came:

Hospitals and asylums and refuges for the sick, the miserable and the afflicted grow like heaven-bedewed blossoms in its path. Woman, whose equality with man Plato considered a sure mark of social disorganization, has been elevated; slavery has been driven from civilized ground; literacy has been given by Christian missionaries, under the influence of the Bible. (“The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield”)

Forgetfulness regarding the difference that Christ has made has seized us. Schmidt reveals that,

“In the United States the spirit of charity in voluntary associations is greater among church members than among those who are not. According to a nationwide study conducted in 1987. Those belonging to Christian churches also give more financially to non-church charities, and they give a higher proportion of their income to such charities.”

Schmidt claims that this is the heritage of several hundred years of vigorous church preaching on charity:

“With these early American precedents, it is not surprising that astute foreign observers noted that the United States has, virtually from its inception, been a shining example of a charity-minded country…When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831, he astutely observed: ‘If an accident happens on the highway, everybody hastens to help the sufferer; if some great and sudden calamity befalls a family, the purses of a thousand strangers are at once willingly opened and small but numerous donations pour in to relieve their distress.'”

In the 1890’s, Amos Warner identified the churches as “the most powerful agent in inducing people to give.” Even as late as the 1940’s, Gunnar Myrdal remarked:

“No country has so many cheerful givers as America.” He attributed this cheerful giving, or “Christian neighborliness,” as he called it, to the “influence of the churches.” 

Historically, charity and Jesus are inseparable. In The Charity Organization Movement in the United States, Frank Dekker Watson concluded that:

“It is difficult to understand the great influence that charity exerted on the acts of man unless one realizes how religion, especially Christianity, has reinforced by its teachings the instinct of sympathy and altruism.”

Schmidt claims that this “cheerful giving” is still among us to some degree. “The amount that they gave to the poor and needy in 1991 amounted to $650 per American household. And in 1998 American church members contributed more than $24 billion to their churches, amounting to $408 per member.”

What has given the West its incredible vision and vitality? Carlton Hayes states,

From the wellsprings of Christian compassion our Western civilization has drawn its inspiration, and its sense of duty, for feeding the poor, giving drink to the thirsty, looking after the homeless… (Christianity and Western Civilization, 56)

Schmidt writes that before the advent of Christianity there were “no established medical institutions for nursing and ministering to the general populace.” He points out, that “as the growth of hospitals spread across the nation, it was predominantly local churches and Christian denominations that built them…[However], the Christian identity and background of many American hospitals is now being erased.”

The physician and medical historian Fielding Garrison once remarked, “The chief glory of medieval medicine was undoubtedly in the organization of hospitals and sick nursing, which had its organization in the teachings of Christ.” Thus, whether it was establish hospitals, creating mental institutions, professionalizing medical nursing, or founding the Red Cross, the teachings of Christ lie behind all of these humanitarian achievements. It is an astonishing mystery that the Greeks, who built large temples…never built any hospitals.

The same was true for Rome, prompting historian Philip Schaff to conclude, “the old Roman world was a world without charity.” Schmidt therefore remarks, “Every time that charity and compassion are seen in operation, the credit goes to Jesus Christ. It is he who inspired his early followers to give and to help the unfortunate, regardless of their race, religion, class or nationality.”

Historian and physician Fielding Garrison recognized that “the credit of ministering to human suffering on an extended scale belongs to Christianity.” (An Introduction of the History of Medicine, 118).

Today, we credit secularists with compassion. However, Sociologist Alvin Schmidt reminds us that they “had grown up under the two-thousand-year-old umbrella of Christianity’s compassionate influence.” Had they instead been Romans, their sentiments would have been very different. Likewise, Josiah Stamp claims:

“Christian ideals have permeated society until non-Christians, who claim to live a ‘decent life’ without religion, have forgotten the origin of the very content and context of their ‘decency.’” (Christianity and Economics, 69)

Secularists are quick to claim credit for these advancements. However, historian Rodney Stark contradicts their claim, arguing:

“the West is said to have surged ahead precisely as it overcame religious barriers… Nonsense, the success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.” (The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, xi)

Indeed, we find a direct connection between the moral and material rise of the West and the teachings of the Bible:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col. 3:12-13)

As we watch Christian values as they continue to erode, we should also expect to see the erosion of everything based upon these values – relationships, trust, cooperation, diligence, business and even science. The crimes and financial scandals of today may look like nursery games compared to those of tomorrow.

Christians can rejoice and be glad. Charity offers hope, rooted in the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ.


Daniel Mann

Daniel Mann has taught theology, Old Testament, and Apologetics at the New York School of the Bible for 24 years and has written several books, including Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God’s Way. He is a contributing writer for the Christian Research Journal. Follow him: MannsWord.blogspot.com, or join his Facebook groups, Apologetics for Today, Seekers with Questions about Christianity, Christians with Vexing Issues Seeking Truth and Straight Talk.

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