Thomas Chalmers, the 'Godly Commonwealth', and contemporary welfare reform in Britain and the USA



Smyth J (2014) Thomas Chalmers, the 'Godly Commonwealth', and contemporary welfare reform in Britain and the USA. Historical Journal, 57 (3), pp. 845-868.

Current prescriptions for welfare reform and increased reliance on the voluntary sector often base their appeal on the lessons of history, in particular the apparent successes of Victorian philanthropy in combating ‘pauperism'. This article looks at how this message has become influential in the USA and the UK among the ruling parties of right and left through the particular prism of the neo-conservative appreciation of the work of Thomas Chalmers, the early nineteenth-century Scottish churchman and authority on poverty. The attraction of Chalmers, both to the Charity Organization Society then and neo-conservatives today, lies in the practical application of his idea of the ‘godly commonwealth' in Glasgow and Edinburgh where voluntary effort, organized through the church, replaced the statutory obligations of the poor law. While Chalmers, and his followers, declared his ‘experiments' to be great successes, modern Scottish historians have revealed these claims to be false and his efforts failures. Only by completely ignoring the evidence presented by this historiography and continuing to rely on Chalmers's own writings and earlier hagiographies can the neo-conservative approbation of Chalmers be sustained. Such wilful neglect raises questions both about their approach to history and their proposed remedies for tackling poverty today.

Historical Journal: Volume 57, Issue 3

Publication date30/09/2014
Publication date online2014
PublisherCambridge University Press

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Dr James Smyth

Dr James Smyth

Senior Lecturer, History