The Anglican Origin of the Seven Social Sins

Frederick Lewis Donaldson | National Portrait Gallery, London

By Charles Hoffacker

In a sermon at Westminster Abbey on March 20, 1925, Frederick Lewis Donaldson proposed this list of seven social sins:

  1. Wealth without work
  2. Pleasure without conscience
  3. Knowledge without character
  4. Commerce without morality
  5. Science without humanity
  6. Religion without sacrifice
  7. Politics without principle

A newspaper clipping about Donaldson’s sermon reached Mohandas K. Gandhi, who published the list in the October 22, 1925, issue of his Young India newspaper. Gandhi remains widely remembered throughout the world. In contrast, Canon Donaldson is largely forgotten. Who was that man in the pulpit that day?

Frederick Lewis Donaldson (1860-1953) was a Church of England priest and Christian socialist who occupied a series of parish and cathedral positions, including 22 years as vicar of St. Mark’s, Leicester. His assignments included three poor curacies in London.

In June 1905 he became the chaplain for a march of the unemployed from Leicester to London and back. At Trafalgar Square he addressed a huge gathering of the jobless. Special services for the marchers took place at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In 1913 Donaldson led a deputation of Church of England clergy to Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and demanded women’s suffrage. He was greatly opposed to the First World War and became active in the subsequent peace movement.

Donaldson served as a canon of Westminster Abbey from 1924 to 1951. His various positions included steward, treasurer, archdeacon, receiver-general, and subdean.

After an ordained ministry of more than 65 years, Donaldson was past 90 when he retired and became the first canon emeritus of Westminster. He and his wife, Sarah Louisa (c. 1860-1950), had two sons and four daughters. Their ashes are buried together in Westminster Abbey.

What is the connection between Donaldson’s seven social sins and the seven deadly sins?

The seven deadlies do not appear as a list in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, but the Litany of Penitence (pages 267-69) refers to each of them.

Donaldson’s list of social sins does not stand in simple contrast to the seven deadly sins; the latter are not merely individual transgressions. The two lists are related in a more complex way.

Each social sin recalls how our sinfulness produces a certain “without,” which infects a major sphere of human existence — wealth, pleasure, knowledge, commerce, science, religion, politics — so that it opposes human flourishing. However valuable each of these spheres may be, none remains safe from the possibility of cheapening and corruption.

We misuse these lists when we apply them simply to criticize other people and not to examine ourselves first and foremost. Both lists help us recognize that all of us are trapped in sin and can be raised to genuine life only through the grace and mercy of God.

Reflection on both lists is a worthwhile practice. Here are introductory thoughts on the social sins.

Wealth without work: Wealth tends to create rivalries and divides people from one another as they identify themselves and others according to their possessions. Work, especially shared work and work for the common good, can have an alleviating effect. While humility is always hard to maintain, wealth often enshrines pride, while the rigors of work sometimes break it down. The attention given to work or wealth must not deflect us from focusing on what the community’s welfare requires. Work is not to be avoided; it belongs to the human vocation.

Pleasure without conscience: Two misleading and opposite directions are possible regarding pleasure. Simply to disallow pleasure is sinful if this means rejecting, without a higher purpose, something good that God provides. To place no limits on pleasure is also sinful, for it amounts to substituting pleasure for God. These two directions both bypass conscience, the ability to make determinations that will issue in wise choices. Our choices are not private, as they influence, however indirectly, other people and the world in general. Nor must we deny ourselves certain opportunities to decide. Choices must be made.

Knowledge without character: Any form of education worthy of the name is not limited to transmitting information and technique. Another essential is shaping character. Our teachers shape us in a moral way; they help us to become people. Our stories of student years recall the personalities of teachers more readily than simply the content they presented. Character is shaped, for good or ill, at every level of schooling and in every subject area. If education is in crisis anywhere, the solution may well lie in restoring the formation of character, a development that will provide both students and teachers with relief, even delight.

Commerce without morality: Economics must not be determined by market forces only. Companies cannot answer simply to stockholders. All stakeholders merit a place at the table, including workers, government, corporate officials, and environmental advocates. To look on life solely in monetary terms is to distort and damage what’s needed for human flourishing: healthcare, education, democratic participation, community involvement, and religious commitment. A more expansive view of economic rights would be a boon. We are not simply an economy, but a society.

Science without humanity: Science appeals to our wonder and curiosity, enriching human life through applications of many kinds. All this research must be governed by a humane ethic, which respects every form of life and the abundance of this planet. In the face of increasingly apparent environmental devastation, there is a growing consensus among the peoples of the earth that a strong environmental ethic is the most pressing moral imperative of our time. No second planet is available for our use. Scientific and technological enterprises must be marked by restraint in favor of protecting life.

Religion without sacrifice: Look around at American Christianity, and costly discipleship in obedience to the gospel seems to be in short supply. In its place appear many substitutes: entertainment, power politics, assorted tribalisms, maintenance rather than mission, vacuous theologies, and an absence of consecrated imagination. Our consumer society produces consumer congregations aimed at personal satisfaction, peace of mind, and insistent self-righteousness in an uncertain world. The walls are starting to crack, however. Death and resurrection have happened before.

Politics without principle: Too often politics is another name for fear. Whether candidate, incumbent, or ordinary citizen, we may fear our opponents or even people of our own party. We fear the influence of money in politics and how hard it is to get out the vote. We regret that compromise, decency, and respect so rarely characterize relationships across the aisle. Loaded with these sorrows, it’s hard to fight the good fight, believe in the future, and stay confident in our democracy. We recall what drew us into the struggle. If only Lady Liberty would smile again on us and the entire nation, even our opponents!

In 1973 E.F. Schumacher published a small, wise book, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered. It remains popular and of perennial value. Schumacher titled one chapter “Buddhist Economics.” Charles Fager, writing for The Christian Century, asked if the book was more informed by Catholic sources such as encyclicals, John Henry Newman, Étienne Gilson, and Thomas Aquinas.

Schumacher grinned. “Of course. But if I called the chapter ‘Christian Economics,’ nobody would have paid any attention!”

The situation of the seven social sins is similar. Because Gandhi publicized this list, many people assume it is Hindu wisdom transported to the West. It is instead Christian wisdom first announced by an Anglican priest from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey, and like any true wisdom, it is a gift meant for one and all.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington who lives in Greenbelt, Maryland.


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