The Charity Organization Society was England's leading private charity agency in the late nineteenth century. It operated on the Biblical principle of aid to foster self-help. According to Charles Loch Mowat, the historian of the society, it embodied an idea of charity, which claimed to reconcile the divisions in society, to remove poverty, and to produce a happy, self-reliant community. It believed that the most serious aspect of poverty was the degradation of the character of the poor man or woman. Indiscriminate charity only made things worse; it demoralized. True charity demanded friendship, thought, the sort of help that would restore a man's self-respect and his ability to support himself and his family. True charity demanded gainful employ.”
The Society aimed to implement to the fullest extent possible the bootstrap ethic so predominant in Scripture. Again, according to Mowat, it sought: “First, to place in gainful employ those able to work; Second, to occupy, with industry within the Society, all those incapable of placement; And, third, to acquire the means with which to supply the other incapacitated needy with the necessities of life.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the premiere Victorian pulpit master, was a public advocate and avid supporter of the Society. He heralded it as “a charity to which the curse of idleness is subjected to the rule of the under-magistrate of earthly society: work.”
This was the appropriate aim of Biblical charity, he said, “ to rid the impoverished of the curse of idleness” and to “rebuild self-reliance and productivity.” More than anything else, he argued, “the poor need jobs.” So, the Society sought to explore the markets, equip the applicants, and expand the opportunities so that full employment could be secured for all but the totally infirm.
The results were remarkable--a revolution not unlike that of Thomas Chalmers in Scotland a generation earlier took place in the industrialized centers all throughout Britain. Poverty was transformed into productivity and the poor themselves became engines of prosperity.