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A Brief History of Religious Foundations

Most large foundations are strongly oriented to statism, and virtually all the rest are too afraid of losing their tax-exemption to do more than drift with the current.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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Foundations are one of the most important, abused, and misunderstood aspects of our contemporary scene. Most large foundations are strongly oriented to statism, and virtually all the rest are too afraid of losing their tax-exemption to do more than drift with the current. But foundations have a central and basic place in Christian history. To understand them, let us examine briefly the ancient pagan state.

The pagan state was a totalitarian divine-human order: the state was a god walking on earth. Its divinity might be manifested in the person of the ruler, or his office, or the state or people as a whole, but this divinity was believed to be there. There was no freedom from the state: everything was absolutely under state control, whether in China, India, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Religion was merely a department of state.

The one exception was the Commonwealth of God's people, Israel. God and His law-order were accorded sovereignty over all things by all true believers. God's prophets could rebuke kings, because even apostate men were aware of the sovereign word and its power. The tyrant Ahab had to be nagged by his foreign wife, Jezebel, to act against the prophets.

The church in the Roman Empire could have readily become a recognized and legal religion by offering incense to Caesar and acknowledging his sovereignty. This the church refused to do. The Christians as citizens were ready to submit to Caesar in all matters of civil justice, but in those areas where God gave the state no jurisdiction they obeyed God. The Biblical faith is not in the state as an over-arching, all-governing institution which takes all others under its wings, but in God's sovereign and over-arching law-order, under which church, state, school, family, vocation, and all things else exist as separate yet interdependent spheres of life. The state has no more legitimate right to govern the church and school than it has to govern the laws of mathematics and physics, and the realm of the church is similarly restricted. The realm of the state is justice and order under God; the realm of the church is the ministry of the word and the sacraments and the discipline of its body; the realm of the school is the development of learning and knowledge under God; and so on.

The triumph of Christianity meant the death of totalitarianism, and, as a result, the state at first tried ruthlessly to exterminate all Christians. For a time, the swords and axes of executioners worked from morning to dark to kill the lines of condemned Christians. Later, when extermination failed, infiltration and subversion became the strategy.

But Christianity began to create a new society, a decentralized and free society. And foundations very, very early were basic to that society. These foundations were free and independent agencies, free of church and state, dedicated to specific purposes: charity and welfare, hospitals and medicine, education, orphanages, missions, and so on. These foundations began to accumulate wealth to fulfil these purposes. The history books tell us that, by the end of the so-called "middle ages" much of the wealth of Europe was in the hands of the church. They lie. There was considerable wealth in the hands of foundations, Christian orders and foundations, who were doing a great work for rich and poor alike. A greedy church and greedy states were trying to seize and often succeeding in taking over these foundations for their own unchristian purposes. In this imperialism by both church and state, the state finally won.

But let us examine those foundations again. The church very early expressed its disapproval of the neoplatonic pagan flight of the hermits from the world. In fact, in 819, the Council of Aix made it plain that the Christian duty of monastery communities or foundations was to care for the poor, or, in one way or another, minister to Christian society. Some of these foundations were monastic and clerical; others were lay foundations. All were responsible for great progress.

To cite one group, established by rich merchants with their poor tithes and other gifts, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (also known as the Knights of Malta) was by the end of the 11th century famous for its hospital work. We have an excellent description of one of their hospitals, built in Valetta, Malta, in 1575, for 800 patients, in a recent study of hospitals and their history:

The equipment and service in the Malta hospital were the finest of their day. "In regard to the dignity of the Infirmary", the patients' meals were served on silver plates and in covered bowls; pewter dishes were allotted to the slaves in attendance. The three hundred and seventy beds were curtained, and fresh white linen curtains were used during the summer. All beds and bedding used by consumptives were burned, and sheets were ordered changed several times daily if necessary. The hospital was fortunate in having vast endowments, which permitted this comfortable equipment.
The medical staff included a physician who gave students daily lectures in anatomy. Two practitioners supervised the carrying-out of the surgeon's orders, and about a dozen other men were assigned various medical duties.
The wards were separated: one was for the aged pilgrims or religious, a small ward for the dying, one for hemorrhage cases, and a separate ward for the insane and their warden. As for food: herbs, all sorls of meats, pigeons, fowls, beef, veal, game, fresh eggs, almonds, raisins, sweet biscuits, apples, pomegranates with sugar "according to the wants of each" made up a partial list of the hospital's elaborate selection of foods for the patients.
(Mary Risley: House of Healing The Story of the Hospital, p. I07. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1961.)

The Knights of Malta are still active, and it is possible that their greatest work is ahead of them. This brief citation does serve to illustrate the fact that hospitals were once almost entirely a domain of foundation work, serving all people in Christian charity and with real ability. In the modern age, the hospital has become "independent" of Christian foundations; it has not been successful as an economic unit, that is, it has trouble breaking even financially and it has provided the state an excuse for stepping in with socialized medicine.

The point is clear: certain social functions must be provided: hospitals, schools, welfare agencies, and so on. When Christian foundations establish and control them, they serve the purposes of Christian concern and love. It is not enough to "vote the rascals out", although this surely needs doing. What will be done about the basic social functions, health, education, and welfare? When the state handles these, it ladles out benefits with politics in mind, and the results are social decay and anarchy. When Christian foundations assume the responsibility, the results further godly law and order.

Before Horace Mann began the state school movement in the United States in the 1830s, all children were educated by the Christian schools of the day, which were independent and self-governing. The slum children, children of newly arrived immigrants, and others as well were educated by educational missionary societies or foundations, and the work they did was excellent. (One such still existing school was recently the target of Supreme Court interference and forced integration, in violation of the founder's wishes. Whether the founder wished integration or segregation was none of the Court's business.)

As late as 1907, all welfare needs in the depression of that year were met by Christian churches and foundations. The foundation was once an independent agency whose inception, purpose, and reason for being was to manifest Christian faith and concern for all manners of men and needs. They were a basic aspect of Christian society and important and central to the cause of freedom. The plan to remove tax-exemption from churches and Christian agencies is an attempt to destroy Christian civilization.

The lingering echoes of the old liberty remain in the confused statements of university students and professors. When the University of California professors and students protest any control by the state, we can agree with them, provided they renounce any and all support by the state and the federal government. Any other course is irresponsibility and immorality: they are seeking the best of both worlds, Christian and statist, and the responsibilities of neither. As such, they are a force for anarchy, not freedom. For liberty's death-knell is always sounded by irresponsibility and license.

The forces of Christian reconstruction are already in evidence, most notably in the Christian school movement. Today 25-30% of all grade school children are not in the public schools, and l0% of all high school children are in non-statist schools. And this is merely the beginning.

As many of you already know, our purpose, as a small group of Christian scholars and Christian men and women dedicated to Christian reconstruction, is to establish a center of study and learning for this cause. A new order of foundations is central to this purpose as well as a center of Biblical learning dedicated to total Christian reconstruction.

(Taken from Roots of Reconstruction, p. 648; Chalcedon Position Paper No. 39)

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R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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