Benevolent Associations

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There were essentially three types of benevolent society in colonial and early national America. The oldest were mutual societies, such as the St. Andrew's Society (Charleston, 1729) and the Union Society (Savannah, 1750). Membership in them represented a form of social insurance, since it brought entitlement to benefits for those members unable to work. Membership in Hibernian Societies, German Friendly Societies, Hebrew Benevolent Societies, and Mechanics' Associations was, by its very nature, restricted to those of certain origins or professions, and all members were male, though widows of deceased members were sometimes eligible for assistance. Gradually, some of these societies expanded their role to provide assistance to nonmembers.

It was not until the last years of the colonial era that voluntary societies with more general humanitarian aims—constituting the second type of benevolent society—were founded, one of the earliest being the Society for Inoculating the Poor, founded by physicians in Philadelphia in 1774. After the American Revolution there was a rapid increase in the number of these societies, and while some, like the Amicable Society founded in Richmond, Virginia, in 1788, were run by men, the vast majority were operated by women. The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Small Children (New York, 1797), the Female Humane Association (Baltimore, 1798), the Boston Female Asylum (1800), and the Savannah Female Asylum (1801) were only the first of hundreds of female-managed benevolent societies founded in the early nineteenth century. By 1830 nearly every town and city had a female benevolent society (often the only benevolent society in a particular community), and many had several. The women managing benevolent societies were normally from the wealthiest backgrounds, and they used their family connections to raise funds for orphan asylums and to provide outdoor relief (relief that was given to paupers either in their own homes or as boarders in other people's homes, as opposed to "indoor relief" in an institution such as a poorhouse) to the needy. The women who founded benevolent societies normally restricted their activities to the young, widows, and the care of orphaned and destitute children. Adult men were left to fend for themselves or seek assistance from state poorhouses.

The methods used by charitable women were at times intrusive. They visited applicants for aid in their own homes and only supported those whom they believed were living proper and decent lives. They required mothers seeking help for their children to surrender them entirely to control of the benevolent society, something poor women were sometimes not prepared to do, no matter how desperate their circumstances. The involvement of women in charitable work involved them in public life far more than previously, since they negotiated with city councils and state legislatures for land and money to support their aims and signed contracts with builders and employees. This intervention by women in what was really a matter of public policy was usually tolerated by men, who accepted it as an extension of women's natural roles as care providers and educators.

The national evangelical societies constituted the third type of benevolent society. They included the American Education Society (1815), the American Bible Society (1816), the American Sunday School Union (1824), the American Tract Society (1825), and the American Home Missionary Society (1826), all founded to promote a Christian lifestyle among the poor all over the nation. Their reach far exceeded that of other benevolent societies, with local branches existing in almost every town and city, though their greatest influence was in the Northeast.

The work of benevolent societies therefore complemented and significantly extended the state provision of welfare. The number of poor children who were educated before free public education became commonplace undoubtedly made a real difference, not only to their lives, but also to the communities in which they lived.

See alsoWomen: Women's Voluntary Associations .


Boylan, Anne. "Women in Groups: An Analysis of Women's Benevolent Organizations in New York and Boston, 1797–1840." Journal of American History 71 (1984): 497–523.

Kuykendall, John W. Southern Enterprize: The Work of National Evangelical Societies in the Antebellum South. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Nash, Gary B. "Poverty and Poor Relief in Pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia." William and Mary Quarterly, third series, 33 (1976): 3–30.

Tim Lockley