Christianity: A History of Charity and Compassion

Author: Andrew Alleman


For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

-Matthew 25:35-36


Where charity is not, justice cannot be”

-Saint Augustine



From its earliest days Christianity has been a source of selfless charitable compassion, not only evident by todays worldwide ministries but also since ancient times. What began as the world’s example of serving others selflessly through Christ, quickly spread throughout Rome and continued through the so called “dark ages” of medieval times. Many of todays well-known, international charitable organizations were founded in the 19th century through Christian ministers. The Church not only led the way in caring for others out of the heart, and not out of compulsion, but also originated the model for what would eventually develop into our core fundamental western values. Everyone enjoys the results of these modern social standards, but many have never heard the story of how they came to be.


The inward transformation and outward manifestation of God’s compassion by the gift of righteousness through Christ brought a moral posture to the early Church, because of which they were severely persecuted. Attributing this new Way of life exclusively to Christ was not appreciated or permitted according to the general religious standards of ancient times. Christians were imprisoned, despised, discriminated against, tortured, and killed until Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., also known as the Edict of Toleration. The penultimate value of human life and sanctity was brought to Rome, brought by the newfound biblical Spirit and belief as man being made in the image of God and thus coming to Earth in human form in an ultimate act of humility and self sacrifice.


The first instance of a document organizing a relief effort for the poor is found in the Didascalia Apostolorum found in the Apostolic Constitutions, dating to the 3rd century. Early Christians had a common fund to which they gave without compulsion on a specific day of the month or whenever they wished to contribute. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem from the 5th century, “sold treasures and ornaments of the church for the relief of a starving people, and Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester from the 10th century, sold all of the gold and silver vessels of his cathedral to relieve the poor who were starving during a famine.” Callistus of Rome gave refuge to abandoned children. Benignus of Dijon, a 2nd century Christian who was martyred in Epagn, “nursed, supported, and protected a number of deformed and crippled children that had been saved from death after failed abortions and exposures.” Afra of Augsburg developed a ministry to prisoners, thieves, smugglers, pirates, runaway slaves, and brigands. Abandonment of unwanted children was frequent in ancient Rome. Seneca once mentioned: “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.” St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Chrysostom of Constantinople began the construction of orphanotrophia in the late 4th century, often near cathedrals with other hospices. A 1st century Christian document, the didache, urged: “give to everyone who asks thee, and do not refuse.”


Every church had a matriculum, or a list of people receiving relief in which large amounts of charitable funds were spent. The first homes for the care of the elderly appeared during the time of Emperor Justinian, which were referred to as gerontocomia. Emperor Julian jealously compared Christians to the pagans lack of compassion: “the impious galileans relieve both their own poor and ours….it is shameful that ours should be so destitute of our assistance”. Benedictine monasteries provided free places of rest throughout the Middle Ages, in which every guest was to be “received as though they were Christ.” The Order of the Holy Ghost in the 12th century operated more than eight hundred orphanages, along with many other monasteries. By 1898, missionary George Muller cared for over eight thousand children in Britain across many orphanages he founded. These are only but a few of the dozens of examples of benevolent works that the Church initiated during those times.


Moving forward to the modern age, we see the cornerstone organizations of contemporary charity come to development. Most famous of these may be the Salvation Army, founded in 1865 by the Christian humanitarian and ordained minister William Booth. The Salvation Army originally began with the mission of providing medical care in impoverished areas and providing housing for women who had gone into prostitution. Booth eventually set up homeless shelters, a bank for the poor, basic trade schools, and job centers. Creating a spirit of social benevolence in communities is common sense and expected in today’s world, however at this time the work was pioneering. By 1899 the Salvation Army had found homes for eleven million people, gave out twenty seven million meals, gave work to nine thousand people, and even helped find thousands of people through a missing-persons bureau. Today the Army operates in over 100 nations.


Furthermore, we have Goodwill Industries, founded in 1902 by the Reverend Edgar J. Helms of the Morgan Methodist Chapel in Boston. With more than 3,300 Goodwill stores throughout North America, the name has become synonymous with giving. Additionally, we have the YMCA, founded through George Williams, which originally began as the Drapers Evangelical Union and renamed the Young Mens Christian Association in 1844. The Children’s Aid Society was founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace, whom was a clergyman of the Congregational Church. Children's Aid is one of America's oldest and largest nonprofit charities for children. The Charity Organization Society, founded in 1869 by Frances Wisebart Jacobs, Myron W. Reed, Msgr. William J. O’Ryan, Dean H. Martyn Hart and Rabbi William S. Friedman, fundraises and coordinates services between twenty two different agencies. This would eventually become known as the well established United Way. United Way is the largest nonprofit organization in the United States with public donations before 2016. Even in the realm of animal care, Christians ignited massive progress through the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824, an organization then first of its kind. The RSPCA was founded through the efforts of Christian abolitionists William Wilberforce and other reformers such as Fowell Buxton, Rev. George Bonner, and Rev. George Avery Hatch. This was the first animal welfare charity founded in the world and is the largest to this day. Habitat for Humanity began with ministers Millard and Linda Fuller in 1976. The renown International Red Cross was founded in 1863 by Jean Henri Dunant. Dunant received the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 and is quoted as saying “I am a disciple of Christ as in the first century, and nothing more.” He chose the Christian cross as the organizations emblem. In 1876 Turkey adopted the idea of the Red Cross but changed the emblem to a Muslim crescent moon. Finally to name one more, Compassion International was started by evangelist Everett Swanson in 1952 while assisting Korean orphans.


The Christian foundations of these organizations are often either brushed aside or never researched in many educational settings. Though help can be found in many corners throughout the United States, it took thousands of years of moral and social progress to develop a mindset for these ministries. There are many more examples that cant be wholly covered in this article as the influence of Christianity’s heritage on the fabric of western charity is both vast and deep. Intertwined subjects such as the world’s earliest hospital networks are so rich they require an entirely additional article! Though assuredly the point stands already- the example and Spirit Christ provided to us proliferated throughout time to change the world through charity.


The spirit toward sickness and misfortune was not one of compassion, and the credit of ministering to human suffering on an extended scale belongs to Christianity.”

-Colonel Fielding Hudson Garrison

MD, acclaimed medical historian, bibliographer, and librarian of medicine







  1. Paul Backholer, How Christianity Made the Modern World

  2. Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World 

  3. Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries 

  4. Lecky, History of European Morals: From Augustus to Charlegmagne 

  5. Schmidt, The Social Results of Early Christianity 

  6. Cyril j. Davey, “George Muller”, in Great Leaders of the Christian Church 

  7. Ryan, History of the Effects of Religion on Mankind 

  8. Woods , “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization


Self-Evident Ministries


Comments are closed on this post.