Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Motivation for Giving
Traces charity back to the 4th Century roots of "agape," translating love for mankind to a concern for their welfare.


The dictionary defines charity as almsgiving; the private or public relief of unfortunate or needy people; benevolence. The most common connotations are love, kindness, and affection with some notion of generous or spontaneous goodness.

Historic Roots

The English word "charity" can be traced back to the 4th Century when St. Jerome translated the Bible from Greek into Latin. The Greek word "agape" was used in the Bible as a noun, verb and adjective. Agape appeared over 312 times in the New Testament (Peck, 6). Prior to the Bible, "agape" had only been used sparingly in the Greek classics. For example, a review of Homer's works finds that "agape" was only used about ten times and was used only three times in Euripides' works (Peck, 6). Today the most common translation of "agape" is love, not charity. There really was not one precise meaning of the word "agape" in the Bible because of the multiple uses of the word. The implied meaning, of course, affected the word(s) chosen for the translation. St. Jerome chose the word "caritas" or "charitas" as a synonym for "agape." The Latin word "caritas" already existed and by using the word in the translation of the Bible, the word was given a religious meaning as well as a secular meaning.

Most interesting is the Protestant translation of the New Testament of the Bible. Protestants do not believe that the word "charity" adequately describes the intent of certain passages and have substituted the word "love" instead. The most famous passage is Corinthians 13:13 where ".faith, hope and charity and the greatest of these is charity" was the original translation. Charity was the concern for all mankind, a love for others promoting a concern for the welfare of others. Today the passage in Corinthians is often used in marriage ceremonies to celebrate the love of one person for another, a commitment of one person to another, rather than a commitment to mankind.

The ancient Greeks had created a system of charity to help the working poor because these people were essential to the economic vitality of the community. Yet, the destitute and beggars were abhorred. Wealth was a virtue and so the virtuous were charitable toward the impoverished. Poverty implied no status.

The concept of charity, especially the attitude toward poverty, changed with Judaism. Judaism emphasized tzedakah, or almsgiving, which stresses not only the obligation of the wealthy to give to the poor, but also the right of the poor to receive these gifts. So Jewish charity is more of a duty than a voluntary action by the privileged. The poor are seen as equally virtuous as the rich. Charity is kindness shown to the needy. The Jews were charitable to all those in need, those in the community and strangers. The economic implication is the redistribution of wealth so that everybody can become more prosperous and the quality of life can be improved for all, both rich and poor.

Christianity continued the theme of helping those less fortunate. Christ's teachings were a more radical departure because they emphasized self-sacrifice for the greater good. Relieving the needs of the poor became the responsibility of the entire community, not just the wealthy. Many scientific historians consider religious charity to be the predecessor to modern social welfare, including both government-supported programs and private philanthropy.

Jewish and Christian philosophy influenced early Muslim thought. Muslims implemented compulsory almsgiving (zakat) and voluntary giving (sadaqah) for social welfare. All three religions emphasize the notion of private stewardship, or private responsibility, for the poor.


Although the word itself has not changed much over the centuries (charitas to charity), the connotations have changed significantly. Charity has always meant the relief of the poor. Some researchers view charity as the foundation of society. Societies cannot grow and prosper without helping the poor survive.

Two different ideologies have emerged from Christian charities. First, the Catholic Church has encouraged members to give alms (be charitable) as a means of redemption. So the Catholic Church today still controls many charitable institutions serving the community. The Protestant Reformers believe that man is justified by faith alone. Good works are not necessary to attain salvation; however, charity will always be present when faith is present. Protestant churches are less involved with organizing and operating charities, favoring secular administration with church personnel acting merely in a cooperative capacity (Peck; 353,354).

Charity is now equated with social work, social welfare and social justice. Charity work has become professionalized into social work. Today, social welfare more adequately describes the organized system of social services and institutions that have been designed to provide assistance to the needy. Charity alone cannot alleviate human suffering. Social justice is needed to economically balance needs and to assure that society continues to function.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Charity has dealt specifically with the problems of the poor. Philanthropy covers a broad spectrum of societal issues and concerns that aim to improve the quality of life for all. So charity is encompassed within the notion of philanthropy, with philanthropy being larger than charity.

Perhaps, the most famous charity is the Salvation Army, an international religious and charitable organization. William Booth founded the Salvation Army in London in 1865 to give both spiritual and material aid to those in need. A branch was established in 1880 in New York City. The movement has spread throughout the world. Today in the United States alone, the Salvation Army operates adult rehabilitation centers that enroll homeless people in a program of work and rehabilitation, children's camps, general hospitals, maternity homes and hospitals, children's homes and foster-care centers, residences for senior citizens and young working women, senior citizen centers, and centers for alcoholics. The Salvation Army depends upon charitable contributions. The Salvation Army is only one example of the thousands of charitable philanthropic institutions that serve the underprivileged.

Ties to American History

1601: The Statute of Charitable Uses. Queen Elizabeth I reorganized and codified the legal charitable uses of property. The statute became the legal foundation for charitable contributions in the United States.

British and Colonial Rule: No formal organized government prior to the Revolutionary War. Religious institutions were primarily responsible for helping those in need.

1630: John Winthrop: "A Model of Christian Charity." This speech emphasized the obligation of the rich to care for the poor, with the poor being obligated to do the best they could. A social contract between rich and poor.

1710: Cotton Mather: "Essays to do Good." Charity should be the voluntary actions of the community, not government.

1644-1780: William Penn. Although he only lived in the colonies for four years, he influenced Quaker ideology. Penn firmly believed that wealth was not to be wasted upon self-indulgence and lavish entertainment, nor hoarded away, but spent on helping others.

1706-1790: Benjamin Franklin. Mather and Penn influenced him. However, he was more interested in preventing poverty. Relief to the poor should enable the poor to become self-sustaining.

After the Revolution, the obligation for the poor was transferred from the Church to municipalities, counties, and states. The federal government had no direct responsibility for providing relief to the poor. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights included the Establishment Clause separating church and state. The Church was precluded from receiving government funding for charitable works.

1835: Alexis deTocqueville: Democracy in America. The First Amendment also established freedom of association. Associations formed to provide charitable relief to those in need, and to discuss and offer solutions to societal problems. De Tocqueville noted that early America had no distinct class of wealth that could be turned to in times of need to relieve suffering. Associations necessarily formed to create the means to deal with problems and reflected a compassion for all those in trouble.

1861: The U. S. Sanitary Commission is formed. The Commission was privately financed to spread information about proper sanitation and medical treatment throughout camps and hospitals during the Civil Wars in order to prevent needless suffering and loss of life through disease. It was the forerunner of the American Red Cross.

1881: Clara Barton organizes what is to become the American Red Cross, an agency established to help people suffering from natural disasters (e.g., fires, floods), epidemics, and major railway and mining accidents.

The traditional concept of charity included meeting the immediate needs of the unfortunate. Charity was the giving of money, time, or services to those in need. In small communities, this usually implied helping your neighbors and friends when they were in trouble. Helping neighbors and friends helped the community to thrive and prosper.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, this form of spontaneous, sympathetic charity was thought to do more harm than good. The desire to do good was no longer enough. Charity was becoming more organized with less direct contact between those in need and those donating time, talents and money. Many feared that direct relief would lead to life-long dependency. Charity began to focus on the causes of poverty and how to eliminate those causes.

The stewardship movement became very popular and controversial at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Mainstream Protestantism used the phrase to justify giving to charities, particularly churches. But many interpreted stewardship as the rich having responsibility for the poor. Just because the rich knew how to earn money, this knowledge did not necessarily qualify the rich as trustees for the poor.

1889: Andrew Carnegie: "The Gospel of Wealth." Carnegie believed in helping the poor by extending opportunities to rise out of poverty rather than giving out food and clothing directly to the poor. He also thought it disgraceful to die wealthy. He promoted libraries, universities, hospitals, and public parks as "ladders upon which aspiring people can rise." These public facilities would help even out the "temporary unequal distribution of wealth."

1889: Jane Addams establishes Hull House , a settlement house in Chicago's West Side slums, to relieve the suffering of the poor. Miss Addams becomes the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

The early twentieth century witnessed the rise of large charitable organizations. The emphasis is on rationality and effectiveness rather than compassion. This is the era of scientific philanthropy. Staff were hired and paid to investigate the facts about the specific causes of each individual's needs. Charity becomes professional, organized, and bureaucratized. Funds are distributed to the staff as salary rather than directly to the poor.

1913: Cleveland Community Chest. Community chests consolidated giving for social services. Competition for charitable donations decreases and funds available for distribution increases. Community chests would spread to over 350 cities and towns by 1929. They would eventually become The United Way agencies.

1929: The Depression. Private charities could no longer meet the needs of so many suffering from the effects of the Depression. The federal government expanded into public welfare. No government had ever spent so much money in peace time. Roosevelt recognized that getting people back to work, even in federally funded jobs, would help businesses to recover, too.

1935-1980: The Welfare State. The federal government provides funding for social services through the collection of taxes. The nonprofit sector contracts with the government and delivers the services to those in need.


Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull House, New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1981.

Bremner, Robert H. American Philanthropy, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Carnegie, Andrew. The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays. New York, 1900.

DeTocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Ed. Thomas Bender. New York: Random House, 1981. First published 1840.

Hall, Peter Dobkin. "A Historical Overview of the Private Nonprofit Sector, "in The Nonprofit Sector, Ed. Walter W. Powell, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, 2-26.

Pearson, Birger A. Ancient Roots of Western Philanthropy: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian.

Peck, F.M.M., Sister Mary Paula. The Concept of Charity: A Study of Value Patterns in Contemporary American Culture, New York: Fordham University, 1967.

Scott, Austin. Select Cases & Other Authorities on the Law of Trusts, Cambridge, 1940. (The Statute of Charitable Uses)

Maimonides. The Eight Stages of Tzedakah.

McChesney, Robert D. Religion and Philanthropy in Islam: Institutionalizing the Call to do Good. Essays on Philanthropy, No. 14. Indianapolis: Indianapolis University Center on Philanthropy, 1995.

Wuthnow, Robert. Religion and the Voluntary Spirit in the United States: Mapping the Terrain.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.