For many parts of the western church, hospitality got lost in the eighteenth century. People were having trouble finding it for several centuries before then, but it disappeared as a significant moral practice in the 1700s. Strangers were still cared for, but responses to their needs were less frequently called hospitality. People worried about equality and respect but they did not discuss those concerns in the language of hospitality. Churches provided for orphans and widows but rarely regarded hospitality as a category of ministry. Over the past few centuries, the scope of hospitality as a term has diminished; it now chiefly refers to the entertainment of one’s acquaintances at home and to the hospitality industry’s provision of service through hotels and restaurants.
Surprisingly, as early as the mid-sixteenth century, John Calvin mourned the demise of ancient hospitality. “This office of humanity has … nearly ceased to be properly observed among men; for the ancient hospitality celebrated in histories, is unknown to us, and inns now supply the place of accommodations for strangers.”1 He warned that the increasing dependence on inns rather than on personal hospitality was an expression of human depravity.
In early seventeenth-century England, social critics also mourned the loss of hospitality. The authors of a pamphlet entitled “Greevous Grones for the Poore” protested that no hospitality was being provided even as the numbers of poor people were increasing. They wrote, “And how may I complaine … of the decay of Hospitality in our Land, whereby many poore soules are deprived of that reliefe which they have had heeretofore. The time hath bene, that men have hunted after Worshippe and Credite by good House-keeping and therein spent great part of their Revenuewes.”2 Times had changed: hospitality was no longer a primary route to honor and credit for the wealthy; nor was it a satisfactory response to the needs of poor people.
Later in the same century, John Owen, a Puritan theologian and pastor, commented on the significant changes in the meaning of hospitality. He wrote that in “the younger days of the world,” hospitality was offered to needy strangers, “but with us it is applied unto a bountiful, and it may be, profuse entertainment of friends, relations, neighbours, acquaintances, and the like.”3
Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century English writer, expressed the changes in both the perceptions and practices of hospitality most clearly, explicitly connecting them with his society’s new social and economic conditions. In answer to James Boswell’s question about “how far he thought wealth should be employed in hospitality,” Johnson responded:
You are to consider that ancient hospitality, of which we hear so much, was in an uncommercial country, when men being idle, were glad to be entertained at rich men’s tables. But in a commercial country, a busy country, time becomes precious, and therefore hospitality is not so much valued. No doubt there is still room for a certain degree of it; and a man has a satisfaction in seeing his friends eating and drinking around him. But promiscuous hospitality is not the way to gain real influence. You must help some people at table before others; you must ask some people how they like their wine oftener than others. You therefore offend more people than you please.… Besides, Sir, being entertained ever so well at a man’s table, impresses no lasting regard or esteem.4
For Johnson, all that remained of a historically rich moral concept and practice was its dubious usefulness in garnering power and influence. Antiquated in its deference to rank, and out of step with busy commercial life, hospitality was reduced to the satisfaction of sharing food and drink with friends. The traditional practice of hospitality had come to seem awkward in a somewhat more egalitarian world.
John Wesley, Johnson’s contemporary, must have shared in this general assessment. Wesley rarely employed the term even though he frequently worked with the biblical and patristic texts central to all prior discussions of hospitality. Wesley recovered many of the practices of early Christian hospitality, recognized their connection with the vitality of the ancient church, but did not call them “hospitality.” — Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 36–38.