“Remember the Poor!” – St. George’s Benevolent Society

The words “benevolent” and “benevolence” can be found within the entire 19th century. Several influences can be noted.  While the European version was directed against the excesses of the French revolution, the chief American influence was religious, social and economic.

The rise of Methodism, Presbyterianism and Congregationalism after the disestablishment of the Church of England provided new energy to religion.  The desire was to convey religion widely to an expanding American countryside.  As they preached there was the idea that religion could be spread so that morals could improve which would make a positive effect on society as a whole

The American Bible Society founded in 1816 was one example of this influence which was organized to distribute Bibles.  It was modeled after the 1804 British and Foreign Bible Society. The emphasis was non-sectarian and based in New York which was becoming the new commercial capital.  As might be imagined, leadership was directed by growing commercial and clerical middle classes located in the cities and towns and connected to the ongoing industrialization. 

While the basis of the organization was non-sectarian, leadership saw it another way.   Episcopalian Bishop John Henry Hobart opposed the American Bible Society even though prominent Episcopalians such as the Jay family supported it.  He saw the movement dominated the Calvinists who were really holding de facto evangelical prayer meeting. He believed only ordinated Episcopal ministers should preach to Episcopalians

Fredericksburg had its own Bible society – the  Fredericksburg Auxiliary Prayer Book and Tract Society, formed in 1817). By 1833, they had handed out 2,197 Bibles after 19 years in existence.  The Rev. McGuire was president of the organization in 1821 and warden Reuben Thom as the treasurer.  McGuire also served as chairman for the State of the Church at the Diocesan Council of 1835 spoke to the importance of these issues

Another influence was combating the effects of urbanization and the industrial revolution.  Americans were creating charity schools such as St. George’s own Male and Female Charity school to use education to improve the lives of the poor.  But more was needed for the basic necessities of life.

One influence at the time was a philosophy called “disinterested benevolence.” Man’s true moral character demanded performing good deeds absent of any personal benefit. First espoused by Samuel Hopkins, a Congregational theologian, there was optimism following the War of 1812 that society could be perfected in preparation for the long awaited millennial reign of God on earth. But first society needed benevolent organization volunteer organizations of dedicated Christians working to improve the lot of the ordinary man.

When the Rev. Edward McGuire St. George’s in 1813  St. George’s was, “in a state of complete prostration” and much “discouraged.” as noted in the history of St George’s by Carroll Quenzel. With fewer than a dozen members, St. George’s needed “zeal and energy,” which McGuire brought in abundance. That energy focused on the condition of the poor, and rallied St. Georgeans to service. He was part of the  Benevolent Society in 1817 to collect contributions through directly calling on people. An article on  March 1, 1817 in the Village Herald was entitled “Remember the Poor” and was addressed to the citizens of Fredericksburg The tone of the language applies to our time.  The winter was harsh and funds that had  been contributed earlier were nearly exhausted.   “Provisions scare and prices very high”  “But little can be done at this time by the indigent to provide for themselves the necessities and comforts of life.” The  letter was signed  by McGuire, Reuben Thom, John T. Ford, Samuel Wilson, the President, John Mundell and John Scott.

A major revival occurred in 1831 as a 2nd Great Awakening swept across America resulting in 85 new members and increased zeal. This time McGuire noted:“a fresh impulse has been given to the activity of members” leading to “deeds of practical benevolence and christian charity.” He was not able to maintain the increases in future years though Church’s outreach was not diminished.

Reconstruction provided a fresh impetus to them confronting the poverty after the civil war and the status of freed slaves and not citizens. The Freeman’s Bureau among other purposes had a benevolent aim  when it was first instituted. The blacks were given food, clothing, medicine and other necessities, farming implements and even brief land tenures in some places

Other churches were establishing them – the Baptists, Catholic (Benevolent Aid Society, St. Mary’s Benevolent Society).   St. George’s rector Murdaugh was a  proponent of the “social gospel” which looked closely at the ills of society caused in part by the industrial age. Quenzel has written that Murdaugh’a idea of the social gospel was possibly ahead of St. George’s.

In 1874, there was a Benevolent society in existence It is not clear if this is a continuation of the Benevolent Society in 1817 or a new organization, We know the  Fredericksburg Ledger, Jan 9, 1874 reported real estate had been donated to presumably the trustees (John  Coakley, William Barton and Charles Herndon) by the Isaac Peck family $7,250 as of Sept. 20, 1873.  The property, Lot 128, was  on the southwest corner of William and Prince Edward ( “Peck;s corner”) to the society but the transaction required that the Benevolent society be incorporated so it contract.  It was Lot 128 which had a brick house and had 44 feet exposure on William  Street. The society would benefit from the rents of $30 to $50 a month.

This act of April 2, 1874  incorporated this existing body by the state legislature as the “Saint George’s Benevolent Society” so they could contract with real and personal property ($100,000 limit) and sue and be sued.

 

The purpose of the society according to its
constitution
was “for benefiting the poor of Fredericksburg and assisting needy widows  and orphans” and thus to promote “true religion to the poor of Fredericksburg.” 

 It could hold such donations for the benefit of the poor and assisting needy widows and orphans in Fredericksburg. It was a society – members could contribute to it. and could establish institutions for the poor – “asylums”, “reformatories or schools.” It could make its own rules and for institutions under its control

A.W. Wallace left $6,100 to the Society for “needy , poor widows of the city of Fredericksburg over fifty years of age, in the months of December, January, February and March for their imminent need each year.”  This today is administered as a separate entity but at the time was a sub-fund

It it were a society who were the members ? Originally it was composed of those who “had signed or may sign the constitutions of the Male and Female St. George’s Societies.” What did this mean ? Apparently those that created it wondered too. Eventually in May 29,1816, the constitution was revised to include all constituents. Yes, it was a society!

By 1922, there were continuing dissatisfactions with the structure. A. W. Wallace on April 19, 1922 met with W. W. Braxton and Mrs. Charles Tackett as an appointed committee by the society to “formulate laws and regulations for the society and to formulate changes and amendments to the constitution.”   They saw it as a society with all of the confirmed members of the church and retroactively approving all accounts. Rector should be an ex-officio member and there would be 3 female and 3 male vice-presidents and a secretary and treasurer. Meetings would be held on July 1 and January 1 and at other times when called by the Rector and any of the vice-presidents

However, the corporation was based on around a property with a dilapidated house and declining rent stream. There were fears if they would borrow against it to repair it that it would sap the corporations future resources.  So you had the situation where A. W. Wallace, W.W. Braxton and Magnus sue the Society. Basically they were suing themselves to decide whether to sell the property, the value and to seek a fair cost for doing so. The case was heard by the Corporation Court of Fredericksburg in midyear. The property was rented to  Willis Fertilizer. The property was sold to Willis at auction for $7,600. The  society bought a Liberty Bond 4.25%

There is more to it than that. There was a chancery case,  A. W. Wallace and others vs. The Benevolent Fund which required the Benevolent sell its real estate which was then put into a government bond of $7,250. In 1960, A. Wilson Embrey recommended that the original principal would be $7,250 plus a balance from the court of $62.39 for costs.  He saw the original principal as a combination of these $7,312.39

The records have been lost.  Apparently there was an old minute book referenced by the Vestry minutes of 1973. It went until 1960 whereby a new minute book was created. That is gone. One other item left in Trip Wiggins archive is the Benevolent Society Treasurer’s Book which has not been located

Originally the rector was to be an -ex-officio  member.  Tom Faulkner  had this changed at an annual meeting  January 31, 1972:

“Be it resolved by the members of St. Georges Benevolent Society that the Rector of St. Georges Episcopal Church, the Reverend Thomas G. Faulkner, Jr., be and hereby is designated as President of the aforesaid Society and, that he, along with a Treasurer to be hereafter elected, shall have the authority to transact such business in behalf of said Society as he and the Treasurer shall deem fit, proper and consistent with the purposes for which the Society was created and chartered.  Be it further resolved that said President and Treasurer are authorized to receive, deposit, invest, reinvest, withdraw and otherwise handle all funds and property, real, personal or mixed, and wherever located, belonging to the St. Georges Benevolent Society

Almost 30 years later in April, 2003, the management of both the Wallace and Benevolent fund was turned over to 3 trustees who would also act as treasurer for 5 year term. On August 16, 2003 the Vestry established $5,000 original principal

So how was the fund aided the poor.  In the last 10 years it has been used sparingly. It has often been used to supplement the rector’s discretionary fund. In 2008, it paid $211.08 estate fees (recording costs, transfer fees, certificates of qualification) so  that heirs could qualify as administrators. Before that it contributed to funerals

Before that statements were not always prepared. In  1989 it expended $531 though no details were provided.

Comments are closed.