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U.S. Volunteerism

Volunteerism In Colonial America, Volunteerism In The Early Republic, Volunteerism During And After The Civil War

The meaning of volunteerism is contingent on the nature of government, particularly the extent and ways in which it enables individuals to make uncompensated donations of money and labor to some form of collective activity or shared purpose.

Over the course of the five centuries since European colonists first occupied North America, the meaning and practice of volunteerism has changed as part of the broader evolution of legal and government structures.

Volunteerism first appeared within the framework of state action in the form of donations of land, money, and labor to public purposes. Some of these are outlined in the Statute of Charitable Uses, a 1601 act of Parliament intended to regulate charitable abuses. They include assisting the poor, sick, and injured, education, caring for orphans, tax relief, ransoming captives, helping young tradesmen, and constructing public works. To these ends charitable gifts were given to municipal corporations, the church, and other public bodies. Privately funded schools, hospitals, and other institutions required the sanction of the state, either through the granting of corporate charters or court approval.

Early voluntary giving in England was strictly regulated by the state, which not only limited the purposes for which funds could be donated (a donor could not, for example, support any other religion but the Church of England), but also placed the authority with the Lord Chancellor and the chancery courts.

Eamon Duffy's studies of English religious life before the Protestant Reformation depict a rich culture of what appears to be voluntary activity (1992, 2001). But like most early volunteerism, failure to serve was punishable by fines—suggesting that it was viewed as a public obligation, much like paying taxes, rather than a genuinely voluntary act. Duffy suggests that the English Reformation ruthlessly eliminated broad-based lay participation in congregational life, centralizing sacramental and administrative functions in the hands of clergy and community leaders. Their service on vestries and other parochial boards may have been voluntary to the extent that such notables were not compelled to serve. But to the extent that it constituted one of the central functions of the aristocracy and gentry as governing classes, it could hardly be considered private in the modern sense.

Old World traditions of public volunteerism were carried to the colonies. Colonists were compelled to attend and support churches. Colonial government required all men of military age to serve in the militia. Townships levied on citizens' labor to maintain roads and other public works (McKinney, 1995).

Private volunteerism emerged from the complex politics of English Protestantism. Henry VIII's break with Rome was not intended to radically alter English religious life. But at a time when mechanical printing made the wide circulation of ideas possible, England could not be insulated from the religious ferment of the Protestant Reformation, then unfolding on the Continent. England became a battleground between religious factions, some favoring traditional Catholic conceptions of religious authority, others favoring Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anabaptist ideas that emphasized the spiritual sovereignty of believers (Dickens, 1964; Marsh, 1998).

For much of the period before 1689, the Church of England was a broad tent, permitting wide ranges of practices. This gave encouragement to a kind of spiritual volunteerism under which worshipers gravitated to preachers with whose views they sympathized, rather than being constrained by the geographical boundaries of the parishes to which the law assigned them. This practice of "gadding sermons" helped to produce the national subculture of religious individualism that gave rise first to efforts by the British state to enforce religious uniformity under the Stuarts and, ultimately, to the Puritan Revolution of 1640–1665. "Liberty of conscience" became a byword not only for religious toleration but for more encompassing conceptions of political freedom.

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