Philanthropic Traditions through Christian History: Common Themes and Contestations
A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444).
Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (31 May 2018) | Viewed by 41098
Interests: faith-based organizations, religion and philanthropy, global Christianity, evangelical missions, relief, and development
While there has been a revival of academic interest in the history and current practice of philanthropy, scholars have often portrayed it as a secular enterprise and undervalued religion’s role in modern philanthropy. Today, in the United States, 32% of all giving goes to congregations, denominations, and missionary societies. By far the largest charitable sector, it makes up twice the percentage of the second ranking sector, higher education. When shifting the focus from institutions to individuals, surveys indicate 55% of Americans saying their religious or spiritual values motivate their philanthropic giving. If philanthropy is a worthy topic of research and if the study of philanthropy is a burgeoning sub-field in historical studies, then interest in the history of religious philanthropy cannot also not be ignored in order to understand its past or present.
This special issue seeks to explore traditions of philanthropy throughout Christian history. Far from a monolithic movement, the history and practice of philanthropy were often contested. Debates over the purpose and practices of religious philanthropy shed light not only on Christians’ debates within their own broad tradition but also through interactions with empire and state, amidst the formation of various markets structures, and in conversation with various religious and global contexts.
Understood broadly as “the love of humanity,” philanthrōpia originally served as a contested space for Christian communities to defend their actions and define their boundaries. It marked sites of competition or cooperation with empire and the state. Debates over who were worthy recipients of religious charity led to defining rules of engagement with the poor, refugee, and the faithful of other religions. From the very beginning, debates over the practice, meaning, and motivations of “Christian” philanthropy led to the defining of institutions, communities, and traditions.
The question of philanthropy was not just yes or no—did you participate in it or not—but more importantly how it also shaped these often broader questions. In addition to serving as sites of contestation and identity formation, philanthropy often did not fall under the auspices of traditional institutions. In fact, it often served as an agent for innovation (whether supporting leper colonies, international disaster relief, or family foundations). Likewise, scholars on philanthropy in Christian history must attend to how they present the agents of philanthropy—sometimes these agents were rich white men, but other times they were religious minorities such as Quakers, and most often women who found agency through the common Christian practice in their local congregations and communities.
How might these papers engage the power dynamics that philanthropy so often forces us to consider between the haves and have-nots; insiders and outsiders; co-religionists or those of different faiths or no faith, between government and the independent sector. What about relationships? What do we know not only of givers but of recipients—how does this form community or construct new walls? Finally, how does philanthropy shape local and global imaginaries? The growing field of global Christianity has rightfully turned attention to questions of agency, exchange, and indigenization. Scholars of philanthropy in Christian history should probe understudied topics such as philanthropy among Filipino Catholics in the Asia, Afro-Latinos in South America, and new Protestant immigrant in the West. These questions are complicated through the way philanthropy, wealth, and power affects these exchanges through enterprises such as international missions and indigenized Christian communities.
Finally, a new history of religion and capitalism by nineteenth and twentieth century American historians provides space for religion and philanthropy to enter the discussion. Christian charity has served as the foundation for much of the tradition of western philanthropy, but it did not simply disappear in the twentieth century. Professionalized philanthropy did not secularize but often took new forms outside of congregations, denominations, and missionary societies. Humanitarian agencies, secular foundations, and the fundraising enterprise are vital for understanding the history of Christian philanthropy as well as understanding the religious rationalities of some of our nation’s most powerful secular institutions today.
Addressing the broad sweep of the history of Christian philanthropy allows for attention to particular case studies as well as efforts to synthesize themes explored across historical periods, global contexts, and institutional forms. This special issue also seeks to spark other scholars to address additional research questions in this nascent field of study.
Prof. Dr. David Daniels
Prof. Dr. David King
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