Christians who Changed their World
People today tend to have a negative view of big business. Corporations are seen as only being concerned with maximizing profits, generally at the expense of workers. The idea that a company could benefit not just itself but its workers and even the society as a whole (aside from the benefit that comes from its products) is foreign to our thinking.
And for many, the idea that a brewing company could be a major force for good in the world is even more unthinkable.
That is only because we do not know the story of the Guinness family.
Arthur Guinness was born to a family of brewers on the estate of Arthur Price, the Protestant Church of Ireland archbishop of Cashel. Arthur’s father Richard was Dr. Price’s brewer, and was known for his particularly fine porter beer. He taught Arthur the craft of brewing.
Arthur must have been a particular favorite of Dr. Price, because on the archbishop’s death in 1752 he bequeathed to Arthur the sum of £100, the equivalent of four years wages. Over the following three years, he perfected his skills as the brewer for an inn owned by his stepmother. In 1755, he struck out his own, purchasing a small brewery in the village of Leixlip. He may have seen brewing beer as a service to the community: this was the era in which gin was devastating poor communities and beer provided a far healthier and less intoxicating alternative.
In 1759, Arthur moved to Dublin. There he found an abandoned brewery at St. James’ Gate, for rent for £100 down and £45 per year. Arthur somehow managed to get the owner to agree to a lease for up to 9,000 years on these terms, and so Arthur opened his new brewery in Dublin.
Arthur was a very dedicated member of the Church of Ireland. In Dublin, he attended a church in which John Wesley preached, and Wesley’s ideas about hard work, the goodness and responsibilities of wealth, and the importance of caring for the poor had a powerful impact on Arthur’s faith.
As a result, Arthur became involved in a variety of social welfare organizations. He was on the board and became governor of Meath hospital and was dedicated to ensuring that it provided care for the poor. He also gave to a number of charities, promoted Gaelic arts to encourage pride in the Irish heritage, and joined the Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick, an organization dedicated to ending the practice of dueling.
He was also a champion of the Sunday School movement in Ireland, which provided basic education to children. For Arthur, this was part of an interest in prison reform: he believed that education combined with Biblical teaching would keep people from falling into a life of crime.
Even though a dedicated Protestant in a community that looked down at Roman Catholics, Guinness advocated for the rights of Catholics and treated them well at his brewery. This may have cost him business, but he believed it was the right thing to do.
Meanwhile, Guinness continued to develop and improve as a brewer. In 1779, he was named official brewer of Dublin Castle. At this point, he was brewing ales as well as a variety of dark porters.
Gradually, though, he decided to specialize in porter; he finally gave up brewing ale in 1799. Porter was very popular in England, and when Arthur and his fellow Irish brewers finally figured out how to produce a good quality black porter (stout), specializing in this kind of beer made sense. Soon Guinness’s porter was in demand not only in Dublin but increasingly in England as well.
An ongoing legacy
Arthur died just a few years later, in 1803. But his story does not end there. Over the next century, Guinness grew to be one of the largest and most respected breweries in the world. That story is a tribute to Arthur’s hard work and insistence on excellence, qualities which he passed on to his children and heirs. But that is only part of the Guinness story. The other part is the amount of good Guinness has done for its employees and their families and for Dublin, all of which is also part of Arthur’s legacy.
In the late nineteenth century, Dublin had the highest rate of contagious disease and the highest death rate in Europe. The city was a squalid mess of overcrowded slums as people from across Ireland made their way to Dublin in hopes of emigrating, but found the voyage too expensive or spaces on ships simply unavailable. Diseases such as smallpox, measles, dysentery, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis swept the population, striking women and children most severely.
In this environment, Guinness hired Dr. John Lumsden as their chief medical officer. Lumsden was very concerned about issues of public health, and with the support of the Guinness board of directors he undertook a survey of the homes of Guinness workers. The conditions he found were beyond appalling, though in the tenements owned by the Guinness company they were considerably better. Lumsden recommended that the company put up more tenements, adopt policies to encourage people to move into better housing, begin a process of education, and award prizes to encourage good house-holding.
The Victorian period is not known for its compassion to the working classes, yet the Guinness board members were evangelical Christians in the mold of Arthur Guinness; they adopted all of Lumsden’s recommendations.
This was only the beginning, however. Lumsden continued to promote new initiatives, and for the most part the board agreed to pursue them. The effect of this is that Guinness became far and away the best employer in Ireland and the equal of any in the world in its treatment of its workers.
Stephen Mansfield summarizes the benefits that came from working for Guinness:
“A Guinness worker during the 1920s enjoyed full medical and dental care, massage services, reading rooms, subsidized meals, a company funded pension, subsidies for funeral expenses, educational benefits, sports facilities, free concerts, lectures and entertainment, and a guaranteed two pints of Guinness beer a day.”[i]
The medical and dental benefits applied not just to workers, but to their families and to widows and retirees. The workers also received wages that were 10% higher than average.
It is impossible in an article of this length to outline all the good that the Guinness corporation did for its employees over the years. Yet Arthur’s legacy extended beyond the brewery. One branch of the family went into finance rather than brewing; another entered the ministry.
Guinnesses in the ministry
The works of the “Guinnesses for God,” as historians have dubbed them, are just as impressive as those of the brewing Guinnesses. Arthur’s grandson Henry at the tender age of 21 became an internationally recognized preacher, often described as a second George Whitefield, whose simple, Gospel-centered preaching converted thousands in France, Switzerland, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, America, and England.
Henry eventually joined the Plymouth Brethren and pastored a church in London’s East End, where he studied, wrote theological books, mentored Christian leaders, and led a social reform movement to deal with the poverty in that area much as his brewing relatives had done in Dublin. One of the people he mentored, Dr. Thomas Bernardo, had an even more widespread impact on the poor of England thanks to Guinness support (including funding from the brewery).
Then Henry met Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission and one of the greatest pioneers of the modern missions movement. Henry and Bernardo were so impressed with him that both of them volunteered to go to China. Taylor recognized they were called to other work, and encouraged Henry to start a school to train missionaries.
Guinness started the school, known as Harley House, and shortly thereafter D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey arrived to conduct their crusades in England. As had happened early in Henry’s ministry, thousands were converted, and many dedicated their lives to missions work. Harley House was packed, and soon was sending well trained missionaries to China, Africa, and other regions. Bernardo’s work also flourished during this period.
All of this is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Guinness family. They are a brilliant example of the good that business can do in the hands of people who understand the Gospel its place in the world, as well as the legacy dedicated Christians can leave in the promotion of the Gospel and the love and good works that should accompany it.
[i] The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2009), xxviii.
Share this article with some Christian business persons in your church. Ask them to read it, then get back with them to ask about any ways they think Christian business persons could contribute to bringing more of the reality of the Kingdom to your community.
For more insight to this topic, read Glenn’s article, “Toward a Theology of Work.”