|Collections for the Poor in the Post-reformation Church of Scotland|
|This paper will examine the charitable collections undertaken by the Protestant Church of Scotland during the century after the Reformation of 1560. Improving provision for the poor was one of the key goals of the Protestant reformers, yet there has been no detailed study of the progress made in meeting this goal, a gap which has serious implications for the economic history of early modern Scotland as well as that of its church. When historians have referred to poor relief in post-Reformation Scotland, it has normally been in the context of the failure to implement the poor-relief legislation which was copied from England in the 1570s. Thus historians have assumed that, in the absence of the compulsory contributions which characterised contemporary English society and more modern secular welfare systems, Scottish poor relief was ‘weak and inadequate’.
This paper seeks to challenge this interpretation, proceeding on the assumption that it is not self-evident that poor relief based primarily on voluntary contribution must necessarily be insubstantial and haphazard. It will do this through a detailed examination of evidence from various parish records across Scotland. The very detailed records kept by kirk sessions (parish-level church courts) provide rich, although varying evidence on the spread and chronological development of poor relief. The paper will pay due attention to variations between rural and urban settlements, and regional differences across Scotland. Nevertheless, it will be demonstrated that kirk sessions normally took particular efforts to raise money for the poor, both through routine weekly collections which raised significant sums of money, and also one-off fundraising campaigns, often encouraged by sermons, for individuals or groups of people in need through various catastrophes such as fire, flood or plague. There is no denying that in times of serious famine, there was little that kirk sessions could do to meet the dramatically increased levels of need, but this is true of almost any pre-industrial welfare system: under normal circumstances, the collections went a long way in relieving the needs of the poor and unfortunate.
It is important, however, to place collections for the poor in their full context, and the evidence from Scotland confirms historians’ recent emphasis on the ‘mixed economy’ of poor relief. As well as collections, which ranged from entirely voluntary offerings to semi-compulsory contributions into which individuals might be pressured by the church, the poor also benefitted from money raised from fines imposed by the kirk session for moral and religious transgressions like fornication, abuse of the sabbath or slander. Kirk sessions also administered testamentary bequests to the poor. Beyond the kirk session, poor relief could also come from town councils, wealthy philanthropists, and, less visibly to the historian, through entirely informal gifts of small sums of money, food, clothing and hospitality. The paper will acknowledge these various sources of support and consider their relationship with the activities of the church. Although British historians, unlike their continental counterparts, have tended to play down the role of ecclesiastical charity in favour of more secular developments which can be portrayed as forerunners of the modern welfare state, this paper will conclude that the role of the church in supporting the poor is deserving of much more serious consideration.|