Of Low Estate

“Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.” (Romans 12:16, KJV)

Jesus Christ didn’t die on a cross so we could create cliques. He wants his disciples to be of one mind and body spiritually (Romans 12:5, 16). No earthly categories should divide us – ethnicity, class, language, nationality, etc. I discussed this in “Team Jesus: Stop the Partisanship” (1 and 2). Now I want to focus on one category: class, or socio-economic status. Do we mingle with people “of low estate” or are we cliquish (12:16)? Are we sober minded or do we think too highly of ourselves (12:3)? Do we give others preference or seek our own comfort (12:10)?

According to Mary Beth Norton’s historical study,[1] I have just one thing in common with the American Loyalists who settled England during the American Revolution: loyalty to the Crown. From this point, we part ways! Most New England Loyalists were civilized heathen snobs. I have yet to find a single Christian disciple among them. There is one drawback to portions of Norton’s study. Many of her primary sources consist of correspondence and journals from 13 upper-class Massachusetts Loyalists, mainly because this community “is the best documented of the various provincial groups” (72). I don’t know if New England refugees from lower classes or those from other colonies thought and acted differently. If they did, I have few ways of finding out.

tory loyalist american revolutionWhen attacked by rebel mobs in the colonies, thousands of Loyalists fled from their homes into Crown-controlled cities and eventually London (Norton 15-16, 26-41). Modern images of poor men, women, and children fleeing war-torn areas may enter our minds, but the picture is inaccurate. Loyalist refugees were poor, but they never forgot class. It and Crown loyalty sustained their war-torn existence. They never let Christ spiritually transform and humble them through war. While accepting government charity, they refused to seek or learn humbler types of work (49-61). Instead, Loyalists expected upper-class positions in government and society such as they had in the colonies, to avoid mingling with people “of low estate.”

Because of his Parliament connections, former Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780) was the first person whom refugees visited when they arrived in London because they wanted his “advice and assistance” (Norton 71). However, Hutchinson refused to “mix socially with ordinary … refugees, instead relating to them as a superior to his inferiors” (73). Unless newcomers to his home “were of high social status, that first invitation was usually also their last” (73). Hutchinson preferred to associate only with Massachusetts’ “former political and economic leaders” (73). He also liked to give them employment advice, telling the former rector of King’s Chapel in Boston to refuse “a curacy in Essex at £50 a year” (51). Why? Hutchinson didn’t want his friend to “sink the dignity of [his] former station and character” (52). He didn’t realize that the rector’s accepting this curacy may have humbled him. God’s soul-changing power often comes in odd packages. Hutchinson, like most Loyalists, refused to accept them.

Elsewhere in London, although membership was open to all former New England residents, most members of the New England Club were middle-class “merchants, lawyers, and civil servants” (Norton 76). Other social groups were created by “age, occupation … education,” and geography (73). Yet the names of New England “tradesmen, skilled laborers, clerks, and artisans” who found refuge in London are missing from the diaries of upper-class Loyalists (78). “Social barriers erected in America” were sustained in England (78).

northanger abbey jane austenLoyalists who visited popular places of amusement thought 18th-century London society included vulgar bullies, pickpockets, and prostitutes (Norton 86-91). Unused to the democracy that reigned in the capital’s “public places,” most refugees felt only “contempt for the capacities and opinions of the lower-class Londoner” (86-87). They preferred to stay at summer resorts like “Brighton, Margate, and Bristol Wells,” and Bath in the winter (94). The Loyalists’ amusement choices – balls, theaters, visiting, and cards – read like a Jane Austen novel (95).

Due to their attention to social class, Loyalist refugees never became a cohesive group, either with refugees from other colonies or with English citizens (Norton 78-79). Lacking community, each one “went his own way without much regard for anyone else” (78). Refusing to mingle with people “of low estate,” these refugees never experienced the richness of Christian community and missed opportunities to minister to others, assuming they ever felt the desire.

The cohesion of the American Patriots and Second Continental Congress is a striking contrast to Loyalist refugees (Norton 79). Yet the latter hated democracy, or “mobocracy,” just as much and tried to curb it by creating a republic, especially after the 1785 Shays Rebellion. Congress was itself filled with the thirteen colonies’ “cream of the crop”: clergymen, statesmen, landowners, attorneys, and politicians. Few lower-class “tradesmen, skilled laborers, clerks, and artisans” appeared among them (Norton 78). As portrayed in the novels of William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, the ancestors of 19th– and 20th-century New York and Boston’s elite did not escape to England when the American Revolution began. They simply switched sides.

william wilberforce amazing grace ioan gruffuddBy contrast, starting in the late 1700s William Wilberforce (1759-1833), Member of Parliament, ministered to many social classes and successfully abolished the British slave trade. First he pitied African slaves, then he identified with them, and finally he sought to rescue them from a life of slavery through legislation. Just one humble member of the Parliament that Loyalists loved so much and sought to mingle with did more for people “of low estate” and brought more cohesion to Great Britain than these Loyalists desired or dreamed of.

Wilberforce’s example transformed 19th-century British society. Salvation Army founders William (1829-1912) and Catherine Booth (1829-1890) ministered daily to the London poor. So did Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) and George Müller (1805-1898), who started orphanages for abandoned children in London. English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) renounced cards, the theater, and other amusements so she could devote her life to helping former prostitutes. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, these people were spiritually of one mind and body and often mingled with those “of low estate.” They had learned the secret of Christian community.

humility jesus christ wash disciples feetThat community began with Jesus Christ. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords “condescend[ed] to men of low estate” (Romans 12:16) by becoming a man who feels our infirmities and knows our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Unlike the socially conscious Pharisees, Jesus healed the poor (Matthew 4:23-24), ate with tax collectors and sinners (9:9-11), and touched lepers (8:2-3). The compassionate Son of God called fishermen and others “of low estate” as his disciples (4:18) and let a former prostitute anoint and wash his feet (John 12:1-8). The night before he died on a cross for the sins of the world, Jesus washed his own disciples’ feet (13:4-16). The apostle Paul was “of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews,” but he counted class as “rubbish” so he could win Christ (Philippians 3:8). The former Pharisee became a tentmaker in order to avoid being a financial burden on those he visited during his missionary trips (Acts 18:3).

Great men and women know who they are in Christ and think little of social class. Their faith doesn’t include partiality toward the rich (James 2:1-4) because they know that God has made “the poor of this world … rich in faith” (2:5). Only those of lesser hearts and minds, those with a spiritual identity crisis, even notice social class or care.

shakespeare twelfth nightA children’s fairy tale that may have inspired Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1602, 1623) tells the story of two young men who have been reared together from infancy like brothers. One is the son of a king, the other the son of a steward. Thanks to a deadly shipwreck in their infancy, no one knows which is which. So the king gives them a test: wear a new coat for one week. The steward’s son treats his royal coat with special care, making sure it does not become dirty. The king’s son is different. He uses his coat to battle fires, help poor farmers, and rescue small children. At the end of the week, when the king sees this burnt and muddy coat he cries, “My son!”

A story is often told of George Washington’s (1732-1799) meeting with a sergeant during the American Revolution. The latter verbally abused a class of privates as they handled a difficult job in the rain. Washington strode up, starting helping these men, and asked why the sergeant didn’t join. “I’m a sergeant!” the man replied. Then Washington said, “I’m a general.” Washington later let people from all social classes tour his home at Mount Vernon for free (Burns 409-10).[2]

Will we, like the Christ we claim, “condescend to men of low estate” (Romans 12:16)? Are we his true sons and daughters, children of the King? Or are we spiritual pretenders? Let us embrace and practice true humility. The souls of others depend on it.

[1] The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England 1774-1789 (1972)
[2] Eric Burns, Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of Journalism (2006).


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