meaning and origin of the phrase ‘as cold as charity’

The phrase (as) cold as charity refers to the perfunctory, unfeeling manner in which acts of charity are often done, and public charities administered.

It originally alluded to the gospel of Matthew, 24:12, which is as follows in the Early Version (around 1382) of the Wycliffe Bible (wexe is the verb wax and means become, turn):

And for wickidnesse schal `be plenteous, the charite of manye schal wexe coold.

In the King James Version (1611), this verse is:

And because iniquity shal abound, the loue of many shall waxe cold.

In Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor – 1643), the English physician and author Thomas Browne (1605-82) wrote:

(1682 edition)
’Tis the general complaint of these times, and perhaps of those past, that charity grows cold; which I perceive most verified in those which most do manifest the fires and flames of zeal; for it is a virtue that best agrees with coldest natures, and such as are complexioned for humility. But how shall we expect Charity towards others, when we are uncharitable to our selves? Charity begins at home, is the voice of the World.

In A Collection of English Proverbs (1670), the English naturalist and theologian John Ray (1627-1705) recorded:

As cold as charity.

The last stanza of The Soldier’s Wife (1795), by the English poet Robert Southey (1774-1843) is:

(1846 edition)
Ne’er will thy husband return from the war again,
Cold is thy heart and as frozen as Charity!
Cold are thy children.—Now God be thy comforter!

The East Kent Fox Hounds published in The Kentish Gazette of 5th April 1833 their calendar of meetings, followed by this comment:

The last was a king of a week compared with the preceding, though still as cold as charity, or a well, or a stone, or any of the favourite similes. The difference has been, that nights and mornings have generally proved damp or rainy, and the sun, gaining power towards the middle of the day, has made the ground more capable of holding scent. On the whole, last month has been a heinous bad one for the sport; and though, here and there, good runs have been had, the fox-hunter has but too much reason to deplore the frustration of his hopes, building, as he did, on a second November. March, instead of going out “like a lamb,” has marched off like a great brute beast; and we have only this consolation, that as every thing is marvellously backward, we may conscientiously take a good slice out of April to make up for lost time.

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