Against the Infinite Stimulus of Greed: Martin Bucer’s Reformation of Welfare

Shepherd Tending His Flock, by Jean-François Milet, early 1860s

By Bradford Littlejohn

Note: This essay was first published in the print edition of Ad Fontes.

I. Introduction

In the clarion call of the Reformation, Luther writes, “man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others and not for himself.”[1]  Because one of the primary dimensions of earthly existence is economic—buying, selling, owning, giving, and taxpaying—Protestants keen to understand and apply this legacy of the Reformation must understand the Reformers’ economic thought.

Unfortunately, seen through the laissez-faire eyes of modern conservatism, this thought is often seriously misrepresented. True, against the backdrop of the medieval spiritualization of begging and mendicancy, the Reformers did stress the importance of hard work and the need to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor. But they did not call for the privatization of charity—in fact, since mendicant beggars exploited private charity most effectively, they often sought quite the opposite. Many Reformers called for bold institutional action involving both church and state to care for the poor, lift them out of poverty, and even, in some cases, to regulate the economic activities that were driving increasing numbers into poverty.

“Many Reformers called for bold institutional action involving both church and state to care for the poor, lift them out of poverty, and even, in some cases, to regulate the economic activities that were driving increasing numbers into poverty.”

One of the boldest voices belonged to Martin Bucer, who called for the English crown to enact robust policies regulating economic activity and providing strong, institutional poor relief mechanisms; the crown should, he argued, aim to ensure the survival, welfare, and flourishing of every member of society without giving quarter to voluntary idleness.

Bucer’s economic proposals in De Regno Christi thus offer a fascinating perspective on Christian ethics and political economy that fit uneasily, if at all, on our modern political spectrum, challenging assumptions of both left and right. Of course, Bucer’s theological acumen hardly ensured that he was an adept economist; as we shall see in this study, he was as prone as modern Christian ethicists to misjudge real needs and the best ways to address them. But the principles guiding his prescriptions, I shall argue, should continue to challenge and inform us today.

II. Three Levels of Context

In order to understand what Bucer is up to, we need to get quite a bit of context.

First then, for those unfamiliar with this largely neglected but immensely important Reformer, Bucer was born in 1491 and entered the Dominican Order before encountering Luther’s theology in 1518.[ Intrigued by what he read and heard, and influenced also by many leading reform-minded humanists, Bucer left the Dominicans in 1521 and by 1523 was a reformer in the strategic south German city of Strasbourg. Bucer turned Strasbourg into a key Reformation hub and played a pivotal, though unsuccessful, role as mediator between Luther and the Swiss in their eucharistic disputes. Seeing the appeal of the Anabaptists, Bucer recognized the Reformation would never succeed long-term without a comprehensive reform of morals and a robust Christian community life.[2] Involving both clergy, ordinary laity, and civil magistrates, and stressing both positive mutual edification and appropriate penalties for sinful conduct, Bucer aimed to make Strasbourg into a godly society with a strong institutional church, heavily influencing Calvin’s subsequent work at Geneva.

Martin Bucer by German School, circa 1650-1689

Unfortunately, Bucer’s work at Strasbourg was cut short in 1547–48 by Charles V’s crushing victory over the Protestant princes at the Battle of Mühlberg. Providentially, just before Mühlberg, Edward VI, aged 9, had been crowned in London, ushering in a period of rapid Protestant reform in England. Archbishop Cranmer and his allies invited beleaguered continental Protestant leaders to take refuge in England, and Bucer was among those who took him up on the offer. There he played an important role, as Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and a theological advisor to Cranmer until his death not in 1551, just after completing the De Regno Christi.[3]

The DRC (as we’ll call it from now on) reflected Bucer’s lifelong vision for a collaborative, comprehensive reform of church and society. Many of Bucer’s proposals proved impractical in this larger island-wide context, but he seems to have quickly gotten himself up to speed on the basic political, economic, and cultural situation of his new home. Learning sometime in mid-1550 of the custom of presenting a book to the king at the beginning of each year, he went to work quickly on the DRC and sent the manuscript to his friend at court, Sir John Cheke, on October 21.[4] The wide-ranging work epitomized Bucer’s lifelong labors toward and reflections on church reform. There is evidence that young Edward did in fact read and appreciate the work, and proposed implementing some of its policies; unfortunately, his untimely death in summer 1553 diminished the impact of  Bucer’s work .[5]

From our perspective, it may be difficult to understand why Bucer wrote detailed proposals for church reform to the king. For the magisterial reformers, though, civil magistrates, as the chief laymen in a church in which all believers had a priesthood to exercise, had a responsibility to oversee not merely the earthly welfare of their subjects, but to help reform the church and protect it from false teaching and disorderly conduct. As Bucer memorably put it,

“The kings of this world also ought to establish and promote the means of making their citizens devout and righteous who rightly acknowledge and worship their God and who are truly helpful toward their neighbors in all their actions. For this purpose, the kings of this world ought also to be ready to undergo any dangers, exile, and even death itself.”[6]

The magisterial Reformers, it must also be stressed, did not share modern conservatism’s concern for limited government—due to different philosophical and theological assumptions, but also in part perhaps because technological realities meant that that even a government hell-bent on micromanaging society labored under significant practical limitations in doing so. Thus, Bucer’s vision in DRC is startlingly comprehensive, ranging from the education of godly ministers to the reform of marriage law to how to usefully employ criminals. Martin Greschat summarizes:

“he aspired to nothing less than the radical, comprehensive renewal of England that was to begin with religious reform and would be followed by a reshaping of social and moral conditions, as well as a recasting of the economic and administrative structures of the country. This is what Bucer meant when he spoke or wrote about spreading and consolidating the rule of Christ in England. In other words, he wished to establish the Reformation in the broadest sense and have all areas of life subjected to the lordship of Christ—and not merely organize a church.”[7]

“The magisterial Reformers, it must also be stressed, did not share modern conservatism’s concern for limited government.”

 There is no question that England was in the midst of a social and economic crisis when Bucer took up his pen. In fact, the previous year, a series of massive rebellions broke out in a few major counties. The rebels were defeated by late summer 1549, but victory was not a foregone conclusion, and Protector Somerset was subsequently ousted for his perceived mismanagement of the crisis.[8] The Western Rebellion was incited by Catholic traditionalists, partly in response to new Protestant liturgical reforms; but economic and social concerns were also driving factors, as Peter Martyr Vermigli recognized, reprimanding both landlords and peasantry for their covetousness.[9] In the year leading up to the rebellions, a significant party at court had drawn urgent attention to the worsening plight of the poor and agitated for significant reform to provide for their needs and restrain their oppressors.[10]

For most historians of the twentieth century, the chief culprit for the economic distress and political discontent was the so-called enclosures. Subsequent scholarship has shown that, in fact, much bigger and more complicated economic forces were the real problem, with enclosures simply making a convenient scapegoat. However, since Bucer himself was among those who honed in on the enclosure problem, let us examine it before naming larger forces.

In medieval England, after the abolition of serfdom, land ownership and access was governed by a complex set of property- and use-rights. A local nobleman would preside over a manor consisting of lands he owned outright, lands farmed by lifelong tenant-holders who paid rent to the lord, lands that might be let for shorter-term tenancies, and commons—land to which the community had shared access for grazing and farming, thus providing means of sustenance to even the poorest members of the community.[11] Beginning in the mid-fifteenth century, these common lands were gradually enclosed into smaller tracts of private property; this generated more efficient and profitable land use, fostering steady economic development and long-term prosperity—but sometimes at the expense of the poorest classes. The great economic historian R.H. Tawney argued that the enclosed lands were largely used for very profitable and less labor-intensive sheep raising, resulting in massive unemployment. The unemployed, lacking access to the commons, were left to become wandering vagrants or beggars, and concentrated in urban areas.[12]

Ranmore Common, England

Recent research has largely discredited this narrative. In reality, enclosures in the 1530s and 1540s were limited compared to other periods in English history, and most enclosures proceeded legally by agreement of all parties concerned (though naturally the most powerful parties tended to benefit disproportionately).[13] So where did the unemployment and migration problem, lamented by contemporaries of the period, come from? A population boom. England’s population nearly doubled in the sixteenth century, as the reigns of the Tudors brought relative peace and stability following the chaos of the Hundred Years’ War and Wars of the Roses.[14] The growing population caused a spike in food prices (exacerbated by inflation) and a simultaneous decline in real wages.[15] And increased agricultural productivity, due in part to the enclosures, amounted to even fewer rural jobs for a rapidly growing workforce. All of this meant a spiking poverty rate and an increase in wandering beggars and urban poor; it is no surprise that many at the time, lacking a grasp of the larger macroeconomic forces, blamed the enclosures.

III. Bucer’s Proposal for Agrarian Reform

Bucer’s discussion of enclosures is situated in chapter 49 of the DRC, “On the Restoration of Various Crafts.” It is striking that Bucer was unafraid to continue to write against the enclosures even in 1550, after the 1549 rebellions had led to a strong conservative backlash. He exhorts the king to oversee thoroughgoing economic development that will put all the people of England to work in labor profitable both for themselves and the whole kingdom. Bucer’s chief concern with enclosures, then, is not the matter of private vs. common ownership but the fact that so many enclosures were for the sake of sheep grazing. 

Bucer begins his discussion by remarking, “It is apparent that this island has been adorned by the Lord with such good soil and climate that it should be able to produce far richer farm products than it now does.” That God has given England natural resources and that it has a God-given responsibility to develop them as fully as possible sounds like the familiar Weberian “Protestant Work Ethic.” However, Bucer continues, the goal of this cultivation should be maximal human flourishing, not private profit. The land, he says, “should be cultivated on its own merits and for the good of the commonwealth, at the expense (at least partial if not entire) of the profit in wool. Insofar as this profit provides only harmful pomp and luxury, it should be turned over to the purpose of giving sustenance to human beings who are the sons of God.”[16]

“Insofar as . . . profit provides only harmful pomp and luxury, it should be turned over to the purpose of giving sustenance to human beings who are the sons of God.”

This is a fascinating argument, even if we might critique it for being economically short-sighted. In fact, English agricultural productivity was generally increasing in Bucer’s time (just not nearly fast enough to keep up with the population boom), and the profitability of the wool industry aided long-term economic development which, over the course of centuries, gave unprecedented sustenance to all.[17] Still, in the near-term, wool profits were largely privatized while the resultant poverty was socialized, so Bucer had a point. “They say,” Bucer went on in a hyperbolic echo of More, “that this trade in wool has now so increased that in most places one man uses as much land for the pasture of his sheep as was used a short time ago to support the life of more than a thousand men.” Bucer’s concern is probably with the sheep industry’s impact both on the ever-tight food supply and on employment—even if enough food were still being produced, thousands no longer had any way to buy it since they had lost their means of honest labor.

For Bucer, this situation was an urgent moral and theological concern because he held the flourishing of human life, not the pursuit of private profit, to be the ultimate purpose of an economy. “But what person not completely destitute of the mind of Christ,” he fumes,

“can fail to acknowledge that Christian princes must make it a major project that there should be as many good men[18] as possible everywhere who live for the glory of God; therefore such princes must in every way be on guard lest a few evil and harmful men, such as they all are who try to advance their own interests more than those of the commonwealth, excited by the infinite stimulus of greed, should displace men from the lands, and rob the state of its greatest riches and ornaments, namely, good citizens, and deprive the Church and heaven of worshipers praising God.”[19]

This striking line of argument, stripped of its specifically theological elements, was to later find one of its most eloquent exponents in Victorian English social theorist John Ruskin, who, in his 1860 masterpiece, Unto This Last,argued that “there is no wealth but life”—that, logically, the only meaningful purpose of material wealth must be to achieve the maximum flourishing of human life. For Bucer, though, the theological dimension is essential. The more Christian men and women there are, the more worshippers will fill the Church on earth and the halls of heaven. Godly rulers thus must ensure both that as many of their people as possible become Christian and that they have as many people as possible—“be fruitful and multiply” is, as it were, a political imperative as well. And this means that they must manage their economies to ensure the broadest possible distribution of the means of sustenance, rather than allowing wealth to multiply a few hands, stymieing the multiplication of men and women. Bucer concludes, “The saying of Prov. 14:28 must be pondered: It is to the greater glory of the king if his people increase and multiply; it is a measure of diminishing majesty if his people diminish and decrease in number.”[20]

“Rulers must . . . manage their economies to ensure the broadest possible distribution of the means of sustenance, rather than allowing wealth to multiply a few hands.”

Of course, it may be that Bucer’s particular concern was misplaced; indeed, as we now recognize, it was precisely the rapid increase of England’s people at this time that was largely responsible for the intense economic pressures being experienced. However, his principle was sound, and it was only through vigilant government attention to the dangers of private aggregation at the expense of the commons that early modern England succeeded in continuing to steadily increase both its population and its standard of living.

IV. Bucer’s Proposals for Poor Relief

But even if Bucer’s proposals for agrarian reform had been entirely on-target and had been implemented, what about the meantime? What to do with the growing masses of beggars and landless, out-of-work poor? There is no doubt that poverty was on the rapid increase during the Tudor era, an unsurprising result of a population rise that outstripped productivity gains. Existing medieval institutions and practices for caring for the needy (nearly all of whom had physical or mental disabilities) were profoundly over-stretched by the 1540s—not, as often claimed by Catholic historians, because of the dissolution of the monasteries and their poor relief initiatives, but because of these larger economic pressures.[21] Indeed, if anything, monasticism was seen as part of the problem, with mendicants resented as lazy and unproductive drains on society. With thousands in desperate poverty crowding England’s cities and wandering through its villages, various initiatives were proposed for addressing the problem. Bucer’s proposals were in line with the general tenor of those being put forward at this time, but they were more comprehensive and forward-thinking than any laws yet established. There is even some evidence that they influenced later Elizabethan poor relief legislation.[22]

The Beggars, by Sébastien Bourdon, between 1635 and 1640

Bucer frames all his proposals around the need to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor. This was not a new feature of English poor relief policy, but a frequent point of emphasis in late-medieval legislation, which, in the words of Marjorie McIntosh, “made a clear distinction between people who were unable to work for their own support and able-bodied vagrants who chose to move around the region or country living off alms.”[23] The latter were subject to arrest and (depending on the ebb and flow of the laws and the mood of the local constable) potentially severe punishment. The former could apply for begging licenses, which they could display when seeking alms to demonstrate that they were genuinely needy. In practice, local residents were apt to ignore whether or not someone had a begging license, particularly given the meritorious nature of almsgiving in the late medieval church.[24] The poor or disabled could also enroll at one of several hundred small hospitals or almshouses, semi-monastic institutions where residents generally worked or offered prayers for their benefactors in return for daily sustenance.[25] Before the sixteenth century, though, widespread chronic poverty was rarely a problem.[26]

“Bucer frames all his proposals around the need to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor.”

As poverty increased and became highly visible during Henry VIII’s reign, and as both Catholic and Protestant humanists expressed increasing concern about justice toward the poor, church and government looked for new ways to address the problem. The older medieval approach was fatally flawed because, since many automatic spiritual benefits were earned by helping the poor, there was little incentive to distinguish between the truly needy and fraudulent beggars. Attempts to address the problem generally focused on empowering the parish church as the center for charitable giving and distribution.[27] And this was precisely what Bucer sought to expand upon with his proposals.

Bucer wanted each church equipped with as many wise and godly deacons as possible, who would be responsible, first, to “investigate how many really indigent persons live in each church for whom it is equitable for the church to provide the necessities of life.” They should exclude from this number any who could “sustain themselves by their own powers” but preferred idleness. Moreover, whenever possible, the needy should be cared for by close friends and relatives who have the means, thus “spar[ing] the churches in order that they may have more to nourish and assist those who have no home or family who would want to or could help them.”[28] This diaconal task will not be an easy one, requiring constant attention, detailed investigations, good record-keeping, and frequent checkups on those receiving aid to see how they are making use of it. This may sound a bit harsh, stingy, or paternalistic, but it should be noted that the background issue was the overwhelming of churches by more poor than they could effectively care for. Judicious use of resources was therefore crucial.

The deacons must also, says Bucer, keep careful account of all expenditures and of all the funds that come in, that they can be above reproach.[29] He exhorts the King and the government to see to it that any resources once given for the relief of the poor and later abused for the excesses of the Roman clergy be restored to their proper use, and that in parishes with excessive clerical salaries, these be reduced to a more reasonable level to free up funds for the poor. Finally, since charity will now be handled in this more institutional fashion, begging is to be outlawed altogether, and there will be no more need for individual almsgivers to try and figure out whether a particular beggar is able-bodied or not.

In fact, Bucer is keen to emphasize that individuals must not do so, so much so that that “if anyone is caught giving anything privately to the needy,”[30] he will be liable to church discipline. This is perhaps one of the most striking and, to our minds, disturbing features of his treatment. Bucer recognizes that many “will object that it is inhuman that the hands of the faithful are closed so that they cannot do good according to their own judgment to those whom they have found to be really in need; for there are to be found excellent men among the poor, who are ashamed to seek the Church’s alms.”[31] Bucer, however, is concerned about the problem caused by those who can earn a living but will not, or who squander what they receive, hoodwinking well-intentioned Christians into giving resources that should be reserved for the many who are truly needy. He notes that “a private person cannot…investigate the poor as certainly as those who, as they are given this duty by the churches, daily meet it with utmost effort.”[32] Poor relief should be in the hands of wise and experienced men who handle this complex business day-in and day-out. Bucer’s antipathy to private charity also seems motivated by the late medieval context, in which individuals sought to gain private spiritual merit for their almsgiving, and by the pervasive human problem of pride. Rebuking the “arrogance” of private almsgivers, Bucer appears to be aware of how often the motive for private giving, rather than anonymously through the church’s common fund, is gaining recognition from others and making the recipients feel indebted to their benefactors.[33]

“Poor relief should be in the hands of wise and experienced men who handle this complex business day-in and day-out.”

This does not mean that Bucer ignores the concern about the poor feeling too ashamed to seek aid. As a wise and experienced pastor, he is keenly aware of this challenge, and notes that, in such cases, those well-acquainted with the needy person can bring their need to the attention of the deacons. The deacons must also “take into consideration not only the need of various persons but also their faintness of heart,” offering assistance in such a way that “in no case they add the affliction of shame to the affliction of poverty.”[34] Moreover, churches should foster an atmosphere in which poverty is never accounted a reason for shame.

One final feature of Bucer’s advice for poor relief deserves attention. As before with agrarian reform, Bucer recognizes that mundane and spiritual concerns cannot be separated. Bucer does not want the poor to merely be enabled to “live” but to “live to the Lord.”[35] He expounds on this at the end of his treatment: “Nor is it sufficient for the kindness of Christians to give food, shelter, and clothing to those in extreme need”; rather “they should give so liberally of the gifts of God which they have receive,d” that poor girls unable to marry for lack of dowry may do so, that promising boys may be able to study for the ministry, and that “faithful men who are unemployed…can make a living by their trade and feed their children and educate them in the Lord and show themselves more profitable citizens of the commonwealth.” “For,” he goes on, “it hardly suffices for the churches of Christ that their people should merely be alive but it must also be provided for them that they live to the Lord for a certain and mutual usefulness among each other and within the State and the Church.” To this end, the church’s charity should include providing the education, skills, and training to enable every member of the community to eventually “contribute something to the common good and prove himself as a true and useful member of Christ.”[36]

Unfortunately, Bucer’s proposals for the reform of the diaconal office were never put into effect; the Church of England continued to treat the office of deacon as more of a preaching and liturgical office than one specifically concerned with care for the poor. However, parish-based poor relief became the norm in Protestant England, with significant positive results even as the general problem of poverty worsened with continuing population rise.[37]

V. Conclusion

Fast-forwarding to our own day, the secular character of our civil government renders the close partnership that Bucer envisioned between church and state anachronistic and perhaps unworkable, though George W. Bush’s Faith-based Initiative was a worthwhile attempt in this direction. The results of this separation can be seen in the breakdown both of the kinds of careful discrimination between the genuinely and fraudulently needy that Bucer called for, and of the holistic attention to material and spiritual needs that any successful approach to charity must involve. It is also worth noting that, assuming as he does an almost complete overlap of church membership and citizenry, Bucer does not provide us much insight on the thorny matter of how to prioritize the needs of the saints and the needs of those outside the church. However, three enduring lessons should at least be distilled from Bucer’s recommendations.

First, an economy can never be viewed as amoral, and it must be assessed on its ability, not to generate private profit, but to increase the number and flourishing of the “sons of God.”

Second, although Americans often prefer the flexibility and control of direct personal charitable giving, Bucer makes a strong case for the value of centralized (though still local) institutions that collect and distribute to meet the most urgent needs.

Third, the purpose of charity is not merely to prevent those who bear the image of God from starving. Rather, it is to recognize our solidarity with every member of society, especially those within the church, and thus to equip every man and woman to be a productive and educated member of the social body, capable of mutually blessing one another and building up the kingdom of God.

Dr. Bradford Littlejohn is President of the Davenant Institute and a Senior Fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation. He is the author of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty, along with numerous other essays and written articles on Reformation political theology. He lives in Leesburg, VA with his wife, Rachel, and four boisterous children.

[1] Martin Luther, The Freedom of the Christian, in Reformation Theology: A Reader of Primary Sources with Introductions (Davenant, 2017), 221.

[2] See Jake Meador, “That No One Should Live for Himself,” in W. Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan Tomes, eds., Beyond Calvin: Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition (Davenant, 2017): 1-20.

[3] See Constantin Hopf, Martin Bucer and the English Reformation.

[4] Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2004), 239.

[5] Hopf, Bucer in the English Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946), 100.

[6] On the Kingdom of Christ  in Wilhelm Pauck, ed. and trans., Melancthon and Bucer (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2006), 180.

[7] Greschat, Martin Bucer, 239.

[8] For the fullest recent study, see Andy Wood, The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England (Cambridge: CUP, 2007).

[9] See full text and discussion in W.J. Torrance Kirby, The Zurich Connection and Tudor Political Theology (Leiden: Brill, 2007), ch. 3.

[10] Wood, 1549 Rebellions, 31-38.

[11] See Eric Kerridge, Agrarian Problems in the Sixteenth Century and After (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969), chs. 1-3 for a thorough overview.

[12] Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Burt Franklin, 1912).

[13] Wood, Riot, Rebellion, and Popular Politics 83

[14] Barrett L. Beer, Rebellion and Riot: Popular Disorder in England in the Reign of Edward VI (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2013) 19.

[15] Beer, Rebellion and Riot 19-21.

[16] DRC 338.

[17] Kerridge, Agrarian Problems, 127-28.

[18] Plurimi (very many) appears in the Latin text but is omitted by oversight in the English translation.

[19] DRC 338.

[20] DRC 338.

[21] Marjorie McIntosh, Poor Relief in England, 1350-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 115-16.

[22] Hopf, Bucer, 100, 120-21.

[23] McIntosh, Poor Relief, 41.

[24] McIntosh, Poor Relief, 42, 45-52.

[25] McIntosh, Poor Relief, ch. 3.

[26] McIntosh, Poor Relief, 48.

[27] McIntosh, Poor Relief, 127.

[28] DRC 307.

[29] DRC 309-10.

[30] DRC 311.

[31] DRC 312.

[32] DRC 312.

[33] DRC 311.

[34] DRC 313.

[35] DRC 308.

[36] DRC 315.

[37] McIntosh, Poor Relief, 138.