Christian History Home > Issue 53 > Greatness Upon Greatness
Greatness Upon Greatness
Lord Shaftesbury and William Gladstone, like Wilberforce, had Christ in their hearts and politics in their blood.
When William Wilberforce died in 1833, one of those who attended his funeral was Anthony Ashley Cooper, later Lord Shaftesbury. In the words of biographer John Pollock, "Thus the two crusades and the lives of two great social reformers touched briefly and symbolically … an end and a beginning."
A few weeks earlier, William Gladstone, newly elected Member of Parliament and future prime minister, met Wilberforce for the first time. Thus Pollack could have written about three great reformers' lives touching briefly. For if Wilberforce was the greatest Christian politician of his era, Shaftesbury and Gladstone were the greatest of theirs.
Unlike Wilberforce, Shaftesbury was a devout Christian when he became a Member of Parliament in 1826. He felt God had called him "to devote whatever advantages He might have bestowed … in the cause of the weak, the helpless, both man and beast, and those who had none to help them."
He didn't receive this faith from his parents, though. Born the son of the sixth earl of Shaftesbury, he was raised in a home devoid of parental affection. Virtually all he knew of love he experienced through the kindness of a maid named Maria Millis. It was to her that he later traced the beginning of his evangelical Christianity.
Two years into Parliament, Shaftesbury commenced his efforts to alleviate the injustices caused by the Industrial Revolution, which included acts that
- prohibited employment of women and children in coal mines,
- provided care for the insane,
- established a ten-hour day for factory workers,
- outlawed employing young boys as chimney sweeps.
Privately he promoted the building of model tenements (on his own estate) and "ragged schools" for waifs. For years he served as president of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He ardently supported the London City Mission, the Church Missionary Society, and the Young Men's Christian Association. He was associated with 33 philanthropic organizations in his life.
His commitment to spread the gospel led him to start a movement to hold religious services in theaters and music halls. Controversy ensued, forcing him to defend the movement in the House of Lords against charges that Christianity would be compromised if it were associated with scenes of frivolous entertainment.
His brother's keeper
The driving force of all this social activity was his faith. Some of the more important guiding principles expressed in his writings include:
- "By everything true, everything holy, you are your brother's keeper."
- "Creed and color, latitude and longitude, make no difference in the essential nature of man."
- "Social reforms, so necessary, so indispensable, require as much of God's grace as a change of heart."
- "What is morally right can never be politically wrong, and what is morally wrong can never be politically right."
- "No man … can persist from the beginning of his life to the end of it in a course of generosity, [or] in a course of virtue … unless he is drawing from the fountain of our Lord himself."
Though he had high ideals, as a legislator, Shaftesbury was a realist. He often agreed to compromises to win some ground for his causes. For example, he wanted the Board School curriculum to include Bible teaching: "The teaching of the Bible," he argued, " … should be essential and not an extra." The problem was how exactly to teach it-by which denomination's interpretation? Since church groups were unable to agree on a syllabus for religious instruction, a compromise was reached: the Bible would be taught but not according to the formularies of any church. Shaftesbury considered such teaching "a meager, washy, pointless thing," but it was better than no Bible instruction at all.
Browse More ChristianHistory.net
Home | Browse by Topic | Browse by Period | The Past in the Present | Books & Resources