Charity and Social Welfare

The Dynamics of Religious Reform in Northern Europe, 1780-1920

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Leen Van Molle
  • Leuven, Belgium: 
    Leuven University Press
    , March
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The social upheavals experienced throughout Europe in the 19th century wrought immense change in the way the church and the state engaged poverty, sickness, and relief. This volume, the fourth of six, tracks these transformations across the breadth of Northern Europe. This work seeks to explore the ways in which Northern European Christendom understood and responded to societal changes, especially poverty. The contributors to this anthology address these topics through both national and denominational lenses.

This comprehensive work begins with an introduction by the volume’s editor, Leen Van Molle, which lays out a compelling case for this anthology and its place in the larger series produced under the auspices of the Documentation and Research Centre for Religion, Culture and Society of the Catholic University Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) in Belgium. Central to this book are the ways in which religious and theological traditions combined with national character, influenced the rise of the nation-state in regard to charity and the poor. The authors seek to untangle the knot of culture, religion, and economics that comprised the social problems of the long 19th century. Geographically, the book moves counter clockwise, beginning with the British Isles, through the Low Countries, up through Germany, and finally ending with the Nordic nations.

Frances Knight leads the discussion of the United Kingdom with her chapter, “Social Welfare and the Churches in England, Scotland and Wales.” Knight focuses on the evolving efforts of Victorian Christians to meet rising social challenges with a mixture of individual effort, self-sacrifice, will power, and divine aid. Their focus on the role of personal responsibility had mixed results, simultaneously motivating the wealthy to be charitable while placing blame on the poor for their dire circumstances. Dáire Keogh complicates the British narrative with her contribution, “Social Welfare in Irish Perspective.” Keogh outlines the complexities brought about by Ireland’s colonial status in the United Kingdom as well as the religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics that resulted in Catholic hegemony in relief for the poor.

The conversation then turns to the Low Countries with Leen Van Molle’s analysis of the Belgian Catholic Church’s pragmatism and flexibility in “Social Questions and Catholic Answers: Social Reform in Belgium.” Working in conjunction with lay worker’s movements, the ecclesiastical authorities charted a middle way between socialism and reaction, crafting a Catholic social movement that successfully managed discontent and shaped the emerging Belgian welfare state along Christian democratic lines. H.D. Van Leeuwen and Marco H.D. Van Leeuwen explore the dominance of the Dutch Reformed Church in their segment, “Church, State, and Citizen: Charity in the Netherlands.” Several attempts to establish state run poor-relief are recounted, along with the alternatives proffered by the Dutch Reformed Church. Annelies van Heijst expands the analysis of the Netherlands to include medical care in “Reforming Apart Together: Dutch Health Care in the Maelstrom of Religious and Professional Rivalry.” The roles of the Catholic minority, religious women, and Protestants in health care in the Netherlands, and the subsequent competition that arose between them are discussed. Van Heijst argues that this competition was a driving force in the Dutch health care reform movement.

The scene changes again as both Catholic and Protestant Germany are mined for insights. Bernhard Schneider tackles this topic over the course of the first half of the 19th century with “Poor and Sick Relief in Catholic Germany from the Enlightenment until the Revolution in 1848.” Contrary to earlier accounts of the history of charity, Schneider posits that the early 19th century was not a “dark time” for Catholic charity. Instead, it can be viewed as a dynamic time period in which new charitable orders and activities charted a course for poor relief in Germany. Andreas Holzem picks up the German Catholic story with his essay, “Social Welfare in Catholic Germany 1850-1920.” Responding to the anti-Catholic bigotry unleashed by Bismark’s kulturkampf, German Catholics rallied together to form a “Catholic Milieu” that would form the basis for a Catholic social theory that forcefully advocated for the poor. The Protestant side of the German story is relayed by Katharina Kunter in “Diakonie (Welfare and Social Work) and Protestantism in Germany: C. 1780-1920.” The Protestant answer to the social question was largely religious, anti-liberal, and revanchist. Protestant leaders believed that only private charities along with a recommitment to the traditional faith of the German volk could address the rising social unrest facing the nation.

The book concludes with a series of case studies from the Nordic Countries. Nina Javette Koefoed begins the discussion with her contribution, “Social Responsibilities in the Protestant North: Denmark and Sweden.” The three estates of Lutheranism—church, state, and household—created a vertical framework for social responsibility with the King-Father seen as responsible for the provision of his children. The church’s role was primarily one of moral improvement. Aud V. Tonnessen concludes the volume in Norway with “Christian Social Work in an Age of Crisis and Reform: The Case of Norway.” The story of the Norwegian Lutheran church’s role in social relief is parabolic in nature: initially subservient to the King, then increasingly a force for public engagement, and finally a complementary actor alongside the increasing role of the state.

Charity and Social Welfare succeeds in providing a meticulously detailed view of Northern European religious charity in the 19th century. Each individual chapter serves as an invaluable resource for scholars of social reform writ large as well as those who are interested in church-state engagement in a particular nation. However, the work’s specificity and anthological form necessarily detracts from its generalizability. Each contributing author is a master of their craft and subject matter, but a single unifying narrative remains elusive. More than positing a simplistic answer to religion’s role in the social question, this work revels in the complexity inherent when studying phenomena across countries and cultures. Graduate students may benefit from selections that correspond to a particular course as well as the useful bibliographies that accompany each chapter. The richness of this volume recommends it to all scholars of 19th century society regardless of discipline.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James Berry is a graduate student in religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Leen Van Molle is full professor of social history and member of the research group MoSa (Modernity and Society, 1800-2000) at KU Leuven. Her research focuses on the history of Belgian and European social identities, social movements and social policy, and in particular the history of the rural world.


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