Puritans and the rise of the underclass

There seems to be a surge in the UK at the moment of the American idea of the existence of the underclass, not only in the usual right-wing circles (see e.g. ‘Glasgow: the new Gaza’ in the Business newspaper, but also among such people as the maverick Labour MP Frank Field (http://society.guardian.co.uk/futureforpublicservices/story/0,,1683204,00.html). It also seems to be lurking in some of the Government’s pronouncements on Something for Something and threats to cut benefits. The underclass tends to be defined ostensibly as some feral sub-section of the poor, who have rejected the positive values of society and any sense of responsibility. (It’s noticeable, however, that discussions soon slide into criteria of being on Invalidity Benefit long term, drug statistics and the like, which have no necessary connection with a person’s lack of moral framework, but are easier to measure).

The first historical analogy which came into my mind was the Victorian distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. I know about this mainly from George Bernard Shaw and Pygmalion. Alfred Doolittle in this is the proud representative of the undeserving poor. (This also shows how the concept mutates over time: Doolittle drinks too much, has fathered Eliza out of wedlock and is vaguely criminal, but he is employed). But I wasn’t sure if the Victorians had invented the concept. Then I came across a chapter in Christopher Hill’s Puritanism and Revolution on ‘William Perkins and the Poor’. (It was also in Past and Present (1952), issue 2 ).

Perkins ‘was the first systematic Calvinist theologian in England who also had a clearly defined attitude towards social problems.’ He was influential in the reign of Elizabeth I both as a writer of treatises and even more as a teacher. Hill places him squarely in the middle of a change of ethics between a ‘traditional mediaeval catholic economic morality on the defensive’ and ‘a Protestant and capitalist ethic on the offensive.’ The Puritan response to increased vagabondage in sixteenth century England is interesting. People were increasingly driven below the poverty-line by a combination of reduction of feudal households and those driven off the land by rising rents or simply evicted. The growth of capitalism broke personal bonds between lords and tenants to replace it with an impersonal labour market. There was no gain from charity for the new small businessmen and the concern shifted to poor relief, provided that it didn’t interfere with productive forces.

The belief was that in the long-term these productive forces would solve the problems of poverty. Hill comments:

In the meantime the poor must be prevented by coercive measures from revolting, and, by relief, from reaching a stage of destitution that would make them socially menacing. But the main problem was to transform the mental outlook of the lower orders so that they no longer waited at the rich man’s gate for charity, but went out to offer their services on the labour market. Hence the sharp distinction drawn by the poor laws between the impotent but deserving poor and the ‘sturdy rogues’. …indiscriminate charity, from the point of view of Puritans and employers alike, was a social menace. It prevented the poor from realizing their responsibilities and seriously looking for employment.

The result was a national programme of compulsion and discipline: houses of correction, family means tests, forcible apprenticing of pauper children to a trade. This attitude of mind and this programme survived until the early twentieth century in the Poor Law (and the workhouse). What Perkins and his like provided was a theological backing to the capitalist economic demand for the creation of the wage system. As Hill puts it: ‘it is very much nicer for a business man, finding himself under strong economic pressure to indulge in actions traditionally held to be sinful, to be told that those actions are in fact in accordance with the will of God.’

Perkins starts from the idea that every person has some ‘calling’, and must therefore labour industriously in that occupation. If they do so, they will have sufficient. Why are there therefore so many vagabonds? Perkins says ‘They are (for the most part) a cursed generation…They joyne not themselves to any setled congregation for the obtaining of Gods kingdome, and so this promise [of having sufficient for this life] belongs not to them.’ Those who are not part of the settled community are outside the church and this in itself is evidence of divine disapproval. It is only those with a minimum of worldly property and security who can therefore hope to be saved. Perkins, of course, has to read the Bible in a peculiar way and deduce that ‘When Jesus told us not to lay up treasures upon earth he did not intend altogether to forbid the fruition and possession of goods and riches; but only covetousness and excess.’ (He then shows his true middle class nature – the judgement of what is sufficient is to be made by the godly man himself).

Hill comments:

The problem of creating a new mental outlook was not solely or even primarily a matter of re-educating the paupers themselves. The whip and the branding-iron, and the pressure of starvation, would no doubt have done the job in time. Nor was there any insuperable difficulty in persuading the rich to close their purses, or at least to divert their charity into new directions. The real problem was…the artisan and peasant majority of the population…few villagers, few artisans near the poverty line would lightly believe that original sin was the sole cause of vagabondage.

Similarly, if you’re among the working class, even now, it’s not hard to imagine yourself sinking down into the chronically unemployed and the lost. If you’re in the prosperous middle class it’s all too easy to imagine it will never happen to you and that thus those at the bottom must be indicating their moral failings.

I don’t know how much purchase the idea of the underclass will get in the UK, which is far less Calvinist that the USA. I hope that memories of the last great attempts at Workfare will limit its introduction: New Labour, New Workhouse? I want to write more about the specifically modern aspects at a later date, but I thought this historical background might be illuminating.


3 thoughts on “Puritans and the rise of the underclass

  1. Very illuminating. What I feel what it shows, irrespective of socio-economic realities, is the temperament of those passing judgement. I quote from Anthony Storr (1990): Persons of obsessional personality are meticulous,scrupulous, accurate, reliable, honest and much concerned with control, order & cleanliness.
    I think this could be said of both William Perkins and Frank Field and probably all Calvanists in and outside the USA. Maybe it would help to have a few more hysterical, depressive and schizoid personality types in government.


  2. There’s certainly a common streak of authoritarianism there, but there are also some subtle differences between the Puritan and the modern view. William Perkins and his like were, at least in theory, concerned with sin wherever they found it in society. Their first object of scrutiny was themselves – they saw disciplining of others only as preliminary to those other people developing their own inward sense of self-discipline. Hill also shows that Perkins’ view were potentially hostile to the upper classes as well. If everyone had a calling to some work, the idle rich were equally rebellious to God, along with the idle poor. (This gets downplayed in Perkins’ work, but is visible in some later Evangelical views).

    In contrast, the modern view of the underclass focuses on the burden to the state imposed by them. This potentially gives rise to moral double standards. If drug-taking and promiscuity are wrong for the poor, why is it acceptable for the middle classes and employed to do such things? A focus solely on costs to the state also leads you onto murky moral territory. Suppose a woman knows that her unborn child will be handicapped, but nevertheless chooses to continue with the pregnancy. Should the state have to pick up the extra costs to it for her choice? That example alone shows that you can’t just work out morality on cost principles.


  3. It’s good to know that Perkins was so even handed, targeting the rich as well. I suppose this came out later in Hogarth.

    Had his idea that – every person has some ‘calling’, and must therefore labour industriously in that occupation; if they do so, they will have sufficient – actually worked there would be no problems, we could see at a glance which of the poor were ‘deserving’.

    As we know the poor are a mixed bag of those who do want to work but can’t use their qualifications in the place where they live, those who have been discouraged by years of failure and whatever the modern term is for sturdy beggars. Unless we find some way of sorting out who is what it would be more humane to treat everyone as being honourable, in practice the government is treating everyone as potential skivers – even setting up free phone lines to ‘rat on a rat’.

    Of course we can’t work out morality on cost principles but in the field of medicine I feel we’ve given ourselves extra headaches by providing so many choices – fertility programmes suggesting we have ‘rights’ to a child, and heroic medical measures suggesting death can be cheated. Perhaps we should limit NHS spending on extremes, tell people they can’t have everything and concentrate on a reasonable standard of all over-care.


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