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Biblical Definition of Charity

The Biblical use of the word charity is primarily found in the King James Version of the Bible, and it always means “love.” In the great “love chapter,” (1 Corinthians 13) the KJV translates the Greek word “agape” as “charity” while the modern Bible translations describe the word agape as meaning “unconditional love.” The only use of the word charity to mean “giving” is found in Acts 9:36, which refers to Dorcas, a woman “full of good works and charity.” The Greek word used in Acts means “compassion, as exercised towards the poor; beneficence.” The KJV translates this word use as “almsgiving.”

Charity is one of the three basic Theological Virtues; the other two theological virtues are faith and hope. Charity is an act of free will, and the exercise of charity increases our love for God and for our fellow man. The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are called “theological” because they are infused into the human person by God. These are in a sense, master gifts, crucial to living authentically as a child of God. Theological gifts cannot be earned through human effort, but rather are of divine origin, freely given by our loving God to direct His children toward complete human fulfillment.

Modern secular dictionaries define charity as “a provision of help or relief to the poor; almsgiving.” Alms are money or goods given to those in need, an act of charity. The word alms come from the Old English word ælmesse and prior to that from a Greek word meaning “pity, mercy.” In its original sense and use, when you give alms, you are dispensing mercy.

Example of Biblical Charity

In Acts 9 we find the story of a woman named Dorcas, or Tabitha, introduced as one known for her care of widows and her provisions of clothing for the poor. As a widow herself, she lived in the town of Joppa, a city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Dorcas was well-off and was loved by the townspeople. When she became ill and died, they called for the Apostle Peter. Peter took Dorcas by the hand and brought her back from the dead.

(Acts 9:36-42) 1 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!” Peter went with them, and when he arrived, he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.

The Christians who knew Dorcas had heard that Peter was in the nearby town of Lydda, and they sent for him. The Bible does not specifically tell us that the disciples at Joppa were hoping for Peter to resurrect Dorcas. However, when Peter arrived, he found many other widows there, weeping. They all showed Peter “the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them” as evidence of Dorcas’ loving service on God’s behalf. No one should ever underestimate the impact of simple acts of charity. In Dorcas case, they not only had helped many of the poor in her community but had given hope and purpose to many other women who were also widows. What happened next is proof that our God is full of glorious, unrestrained power. Peter got down on his knees and prayed and she opened her eyes. Peter then took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Her story became known all over Joppa, and many more people believed in the Lord. That is how our God can use a simple act of charity to build His kingdom.

Dorcas is just one example in our Bible of how we are to meet the needs of those around us. Christians are to “continue to remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). James, Jesus’ half-brother, is quoted in (James 1:27) “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This was the type of religion Dorcas practiced. It is how the Body of Christ functions. We are to be united in Christ, and as believers we mourn the loss of those around us as if they were close family members.

(1 Corinthians 12:25–26) – “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

Dorcas was one of Joppa’s own, and her absence had left a huge void in their lives.

Ideas to Explore

Teaching about Biblical Charity can take many forms. One might be to have a group discussion on this story. Here are some questions for a group to discuss.

  • Dorcas was “well off.” Did this help her in her pursuit of charity? If so, how? What is “well off” mean?
  • Does the lack of financial resources hinder someone from being charitable, merciful?
  • Why were other women, other widows, attracted to Dorcas compassion and mission? Why does a merciful, charitable person attract others through their actions?

Consider taking an afternoon and working in a sharing center where your group can see firsthand, the impact of charity and mercy at work.

Example of Historical Charity

Reverend Peter Miller of the Ephrata Cloister 2 taught George Washington an important lesson in charity and the humane treatment of prisoners and criminals. The Ephrata Cloister was the location of a conservative congregation of Christians. Two men, Reverend Peter Miller, and a bar owner by the name of Michael Witman would make a permanent mark in American history. These two men were by all human standards enemies. Yet a strange turn of events would bring mercy to one and a forgiving heart to another.

Washington granted very few pardons during his term of Commander in Chief and President. By 1775, Washington had already documented his propensity to treat enemy combatants humanely. However, a few years of disillusions, frustration, bloodshed, and betrayals by people he trusted, Washington would occasionally require a reminder of his own principles.

Years before, Reverend Miller had been the minister at the German Reformed Church in Germantown. He withdrew from the German Reformed Church and joined the Seven Day Baptists at Ephrata. Michael Witman was a deacon in the German Reformed Church. The withdrawal of Peter Miller from the church made Witman angry. Miller had openly rejected the more conventional principles of Witman’s church. This difference in doctrine placed Miller and Witman at odds with each other. Witman often spat in Miller’s face whenever they met. Witman had often tripped Miller on the local footpaths, and at least once punched Reverend Miller. Let us say, they were not on the best of terms!

Michael Witman had been a vocal patriot. After the colonies declared independence, Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County had formed a Committee of Safety, and Witman spearheaded that Committee from its inception. After the Battle of Brandywine and the British occupation of Philadelphia, The British General Howe dispatched two men as spies traveling incognito to gather intelligence near the Ephrata Cloister. By that time, the cloister had become the principal hospital for Continental soldiers wounded near Brandywine. The men, the spies, stopped for supper and lodging at Michael Witman’s tavern, a short ride from Ephrata.

Witman, who still supported the patriot cause, openly spoke of the British General Howe in an uncomplimentary manner. His guests, who were British undercover agents, became angry and put a pistol to his chest. Witman managed to break through a rear tavern window and escape. Fearing that his life now depended upon finding refuge from these men. He hid in the attic of a house in Ephrata. All Germantown residence knew that Witman was a prominent, combative member of the Reformed Church, because he considered them the “heretics” in Ephrata. The cloister was the last place the townspeople would expect to find Michael Witman.

Witman hid behind the chimney in the attic of the Brotherhood of Zion house, part of the cloister, for three days. He was hungry, had gotten no sleep, and with no way to escape the area, he grew convinced he would be executed if discovered by the British. Witman decided to leave Ephrata and head for Philadelphia and request an audience with General Howe. His plan was to apologize for his loose tongue, begging for clemency. Witman stopped home to tell his wife of his plight. When he reached Philadelphia, Witman saw Howe. Witman also offered General Howe the locations of the Rebel munitions stores. To save himself, he had become a counter spy.

The men of Howe’s scouting party at the tavern recognized Witman and reminded Howe about the event. Witman was petrified. To save his neck again, Witman offered every conceivable service to the British. General Howe, disgusted by the whimpering Witman, dismissed him, unharmed. “Such a cowardly and contemptible man,” said Howe “could never be trusted in the Royal cause.”

Meanwhile, Witman’s wife had told the patriot authorities of his plan to betray the Continental Army. As soon as he came back to the patriot area, the colonial militia seized him and put him in the Block House in West Chester. At a court-martial, he was convicted of treason.

It is not known exactly how Reverend Miller was informed of the outcome of the trial. However, just after the death sentence was passed, Reverend Peter Miller got up early in the morning, dressed himself, put on his walking boots, took his cane, and began walking. He walked 60 miles to where he knew General George Washington was encamped. It took the better part of 3 days, stopping only to sleep in kind people’s homes when it was dark. He would begin walking again at first light. Miller’s intent was to intercede and plead for the life of Witman. General Washington had the highest respect for clergy and made himself available to Miller. Washington, however, informed Reverend Miller that his petition for a pardon of a friend could not be granted. Miller quickly replied, “My friend! I have not a worse enemy living than that man.”What!” rejoined Washington. “You have walked 60 miles to save the life of your enemy?

Miller’s appeal for clemency for Witman was not as Washington first assumed. Witman and Miller were not friends. Moved by the Reverend’s argument that Jesus had done as much for all of us, granting us a pardon for our sins, Washington granted Witman a pardon. We are told that with tears in his eyes, in front of his men, the Commander thanked Peter Miller for the lesson in charity. With the pardon arriving just before Witman walked to the gallows, it is said that afterwards, both Miller and Witman embraced each other. They walked home to Ephrata together and remained friends. Witman re-entered his home and was restored to his family. His life was spared, but his property was confiscated and sold. Witman did not remain long in Ephrata, but emigrated with his family somewhere to the West, where is not known.

Peter Miller taught George Washington a simple lesson in forgiveness, charity, and why revenge and punishment, even in wartime, was wrong. Ephratan scholars preserved the story for a reason or, maybe more accurately, two reasons. One was to illustrate the extent to which Peter Miller would sacrifice personal safety and welfare to perform an unselfish act of human kindness and mercy towards even his most bitter enemy. The second reason was to memorialize the kind of contribution that the men and women drawn to Ephrata could make to a Revolutionary cause that required bloodshed to complete.

Most importantly, as a teacher and pastor, Peter Miller left home that night to forgive his enemies in a Christ-like manner; he also left home to teach another extraordinary man the wisdom to do the same. Miller went out to impart a message into the spirit of George Washington and, into the patriot cause into which America had the power to evolve.

Ideas to Explore

In a group setting, consider asking people to form in pairs. Let them decide which one will be Michael Witman and Peter Miller. Now ask them to take a few minutes and write a script for the first few minutes of time after Witman’s pardon, where both men walked off toward home. Have the pairs present their scripts as a “first person” short scene to the group. After all are done, ask the group to compare the presentations and comment on what they heard.

Example of Historical Charity Occurring in Florida

Charity and mercy can take unique pathways. Dr. John Gorrie (1803 – 1855) is one such person who is not well known but has impacted lives of Floridians greatly. Land developers should fall at his feet. The tourism industry should give daily praise. Environmentalists might hang him in effigy. The most unrecognizable personage on our list has had the most widespread and profound impact on our State of Florida.

Dr. John Gorrie, a physician in Apalachicola, lived in the Florida Panhandle. He was only trying to relieve the suffering of his patients with malaria and yellow fever in the 1840s when history seized him. To cool the hospital rooms for the sick, Gorrie, a part-time inventor, became the father of modern air conditioning and refrigeration. “We know of no want of mankind more urgent than a cheap means of producing artificial cold,” wrote Gorrie at the time he began his experimentations. “The discovery would alter and extend the face of civilization.”

His most significant work, however, was in medicine. During an outbreak of yellow fever, Gorrie became concerned for patients sick with the disease. He urged draining the swamps, clearing weeds, and maintaining clean food markets in the city. He recommended sleeping under mosquito netting to prevent the disease.

Dr. Gorrie also became convinced that cold was a healer. He noted that, “Nature would terminate the fevers by changing the seasons.” He advocated the cooling of sickrooms to reduce fever and to make the patient more comfortable. He cooled rooms with ice in a basin suspended from the ceiling. Cool air flowed down across the patient and through an opening near the floor. Since ice had to be brought by boat from the northern lakes, Gorrie began to experiment with making artificial ice.

Gorrie invented a machine that produced ice. Horse, water, wind-driven sails, or steam power could power his compressor. This machine lay the groundwork for modern refrigeration and air-conditioning. On May 6, 1851, he was granted Patent No. 8080. The original model of this machine and the scientific articles he wrote are at the Smithsonian Institution.

For years, Gorrie worked on a mechanical concoction to chill his patient’s rooms by use of compressed and condensed air. Then, on a hot June day in 1850, he called his fellow doctor Alvan Chapman into his laboratory. Jokingly, I said, “Well, have you found a way yet to freeze all your patients?” Chapman wrote. “Not exactly,” Gorrie replied. “But I’ve made ice.” “The hell you have!” exclaimed Chapman. “This has nothing to do with hell,” Gorrie responded. “But with continued success, I may be able to lower the temperature in that torrid climate too.”

The ice machine was a miraculous invention. But in his lifetime Gorrie gained little fame or wealth from his discovery. Ice-shipping magnates from the north staged a campaign of disbelief and branded the Florida inventor a kook. Gorrie died with a patent, but with little praise or profit. In time, his invention would alter nearly every aspect of Florida. The production of ice and its use in preserving Florida vegetables and fish for shipping opened markets worldwide. Improvements on his patent for air conditioning first brought relief from heat and humidity to hospitals and public buildings, and then to nearly every home in the state. The comfort we take for granted today begs the question: Without air conditioning Florida may have continued to be a nice place for the wintering rich to visit – but would 22 million people have wanted to live here?

What kind of person was Dr. Gorrie? He studied tropical diseases. This influenced him to move to Apalachicola, Florida, a large cotton market on the Gulf coast. During his residence, Gorrie served as mayor, postmaster, city treasurer, council member, bank director, and founder of Trinity Church where he served as a vestryman (elder). Trinity Episcopal Church was incorporated by an act of the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida on February 11, 1837. The building was one of the earliest prefabricated buildings in the United States. The framework was shipped by schooner from New York City and assembled in Apalachicola with wooden pegs. Dr. Gorrie gave back to the people and served the community he loved so much.

Field Trips for Charity in the State of Florida

The John Gorrie State Museum is a Florida State Park located in Apalachicola, Florida, a block off U.S. 98 at 46 Sixth Street. It commemorates the man who was a pioneer in developing air conditioning, receiving the first U.S. Patent for mechanical refrigeration in 1851. The museum address is 46 6th St, Apalachicola, FL 32320. (Map) The museum features multiple exhibits about Apalachicola and the life and inventions of John Gorrie. Trinity Episcopal Church is also located nearby at 79 6th St, Apalachicola, FL 32320.

Practicing Acts of Charity

The product of any lesson on charity or mercy should include opportunities to work within communities as providers of charity. The saying “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary, use words” is often credited to St. Francis. There is no evidence that he said this. However, the wisdom of the quote is still relevant. To show the power of the Gospel through the actions of disciples of Christ is a powerful demonstration of God’s Kingdom at work in this world. Consider adding to any program, time spent in one or more of the following activities:

  • Mission Trips
  • Working in local food kitchens serving the homeless
  • Helping in food distribution centers
  • Working in neighborhoods after weather events helping elderly clean up their yards
  • Habitat for Humanity (age dependent requirements)
  • Working in local missions. Some of Florida’s best are Give Kids the World, The Edgewood Children’s Ranch, Ronald McDonald House
  • Gleaning local farms for a food bank
  • And any other general assistant to those in need

Notes:

  1. NIV New International Version Translations
  2. The term cloister probably referred to the design of a church in Ephrata that had a covered walk with a wall on one side and a colonnade open to a quadrangle on the other.
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