Acton Institute Powerblog

When the Church Was the Center

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Bruton_Church,_WilliamsburgThis summer I made a visit to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, and on a tour of churches, I heard a fascinating explanation of how society functioned when the church was the place where the poor had their material needs met, not the government. The Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg is one example.

According to church records, Burton Parish formed in 1674 following the merger of several colonial parishes originating as far back as 1633. As a Church of England congregation, this Anglican parish church was the center of life and culture. For example, during the era of the American Revolution men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry attended the church. Not only did prominent people in politics attend the parish church, the church also served the central location for providing social services for the poor.

In 17th and 18th century Williamsburg, Virginia helping the poor was assumed, as a social norm, to be the responsibility of the church, not the state. In the Bruton Parish, the vestrymen, in addition to managing the affairs of he parish, were responsible for all poverty related social services. In the Anglican church, the vestry was established as a committee elected in local congregations to work with the wardens of the church to meet various needs. During the colonial era, if a person did not have adequate housing, adequate food or clothing, if women were widowed and children were orphaned, and so on, it was simply an assumption that the church would meet the needs of those on the margins locally and personally.

In the early 1990s, Marvin Olasky challenged Americans to re-think the role of the church and faith-based organizations in meeting the needs of the poor by reminding us that before FDR’s “Great Society” programs, “Human needs were answered by other human beings, not by bureaucracies, and the response to those needs was not compartmentalized,” writes Olasky. These “human beings” from the colonial period, through the end to 19th-century, were primarily operating directly out of the church or out of a faith-based organizations. The first orphanages, hospitals, food pantries, and so on, in America were all faith-based organizations. They were all derived from the models like the ones lived out in Colonial Williamsburg.

While America is not likely going back to an era where the church was the center of local communities (which is also not the goal given the fact that such a structure brought other negative externalities as well) Americans in the 21st-century should consider the differences between people receiving help solely on the basis of their material and psychological needs versus people receiving on the basis that they are persons with minds, bodies, and souls. Humans persons are created to live a certain way in order to be truly free and properly human. When the church was the center, spiritual and material needs were addressed with concurrently. Government social services can only help people on the basis of them existing in an anti-supernatural, non-spiritual world and absent of souls.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Russ Neal

    I am more and more thinking that the welfare state is the root cause of all of our ills.

    It can be argued that the welfare state is founded on a violation of the eighth commandment. “Thou shalt not steal.” Welfare, as opposed to charity, begins with the government taking money from people who have earned it and giving it to people who have not earned it by force. If this is so it is problematic at its core and cannot be fixed by tinkering.

    A conscious plan to unravel the welfare state would begin by ending welfare for the rich (crony capitalism), then end welfare for the middle class (Social Security, education) and last by ending welfare for the poor (welfare). Such a plan would require generations given how entangled with everything we do our welfare state is now.

    Perhaps there is an opportunity for the Church to model an alternative self supporting network.

    • Mary Flynn

      This is Lord Acton who supported the confederacy during the American Civil War. Wonder if his underlying philosophy is objectivism–good friends with Paul Ryan it seems like. Well I agree whatever charity or welfare–the rich get richer and the poor poorer. Lord Acton says power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely—same goes for money. Christ calls us to love and mercy for the powerless and indigent–not the current welfare of the wealthy we have now. Can’t quite see the Vatican responding to Jesus of the Gospel, selling all it has and following Him. In the 21st century as in Acton’s 19th century, there is no Church with secular power so using the power of love we call all persons, including those “personhoods of corporations” to wipe out the growing economic inequality. (I consider personhood of corporations a legal fiction to rob individual humans and rape the earth—human beings create corporations, governments etc–only God creates all life).

  • Hominid

    The church has never been up to “meeting the needs of the poor” – that’s why the nanny state emerged and has grown.

  • montanajack1948

    Just as soon as I finish constructing my time machine, I’ll take Anthony Bradley and Marvin Olasky on a spin back to 17th century Williamsburg. I’ll make sure the three of us arrive destitute, uneducated and unskilled (easy enough in my case!), with no social connections or social standing–at least one of us will be female and one of us will be black–and we’ll see how it goes. The church at the center? Maybe that was what Yeats had in mind when he wrote “The center cannot hold…”

    • g795

      Yes, he must be kidding. Take him back and see how good slavery is for him.

  • crossdotcurve
    • DPierre

      What an ugly smear of Bradley’s column by Michael Sean Winters at the National “Catholyc” Reporter. Winters airs a number of outright falsehoods, which are emblematic of the rampantly ugly and dishonest journalism over there.

      1. Winters wrote, “[Bradley] seems completely unaware of the fact that Bruton Parish was an Anglican parish and, just so, part of the Established Church of England in the colonial era.”

      Did Winters even read the article?!?

      In the second paragraph, Bradley clearly states, “As a Church of England congregation, this Anglican parish church was the center of life and culture.”

      How could he miss that?!

      2. Winters also wrote, “[Bradley] wishes that things today were as they were then.”

      Yet in the last paragraph of his piece, Bradley writes that returning to this era is “not the goal given the fact that such a structure brought other negative externalities as well.”

      Winters’ dishonesty is off the charts. But, again, this is literally typical for the National Catholic Reporter, a disgraceful publication if there ever was one.

  • H. Kirk Rainer

    Yes, more at the center of community, commerce and compassion. So what went wrong?

  • H. Kirk Rainer

    …and how does the church move more at center, again?