American culture and institutions were developed in the eighteenth century when freedom from external authority was emphasized in favor of individual freedom. Because of a series of revolutions in Europe, England, and later in the Thirteen Colonies, benevolent despotism gave way to a society in which the people were considered to be sovereign and delegated the power of government under a social contract to their leaders. Responsibility to God, both of those governing and those governed, was minimized or ignored. Deism, the favored religion of the upper classes, was merely an ethical religion lacking any dynamic basis in revelation to make it effective. The moral and intellectual autonomy of man was taught by the prevailing philosophies of the day.

The economic controls of mercantilistic theory, which restricted the economic freedom of the individual in the interests of the state, now gave way under the Industrial Revolution and the teachings of Adam Smith to freedom from governmental controls. Grave social injustices developed in the new factory towns. Freedom in many cases led to social disorder.

Spiritual Light And Freedom

Spiritual forces to cope with this unjust, socially irresponsible order emerged in the eighteenth century in Britain and the United States and made an impact upon society in the nineteenth century through social reform. George Whitefield found spiritual peace by faith in Christ in 1735 and linked a passion for evangelism with a zeal for social reform manifested in his work for his orphanage. Both Charles and John Wesley had similar conversion experiences in 1738. Whitefield became the orator, John Wesley the organizer, and Charles Wesley the hymn-writer of the Wesleyan Revival between 1739 and 1790. Field preaching, initiated by Whitefield, became a means to win the working people of England to Christ. They became the ardent supporters of the leaders of reform. The upper class leaders, nicknamed the “Clapham Sect,” were won to Christ during the Evangelical Revival in the Anglican Church between 1780 and 1830. The Clapham Sect, living in Clapham Commons, a suburb of London, included such men as Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton, the wealthy banker, whose oval library was their headquarters, Thomas Clarkson and Zachary Macaulay, both expert propagandists, James Stephen, Sr., a capable lawyer, and their godly pastor, John Venn.

These men and their loyal followers in Methodism and the other dissenting churches sought in every way to make the Gospel relevant to the spiritual and social problems of their day. Missionary societies were founded to carry the Gospel to the needy people of other lands. In 1804 the British and Foreign Bible Society was launched to meet the demand for Bibles. When the charter of the British East India Company was renewed in 1813, Wilberforce seized the opportunity by act of Parliament to have it changed so that missionaries were to be permitted to go to India. Others, such as David Livingstone, engaged in exploration to open up the path for the Gospel and legitimate commerce so that the natives might be reached with the gospel and the trade in slaves eliminated.

Article continues below
Impact On The Social Order

These people and their followers were also interested in ending slavery. Granville Sharp, although a layman in the law, studied the common law for two years and was able in the Somerset case in 1772 to secure a decision from the highest English court that freed about 14,000 slaves in England. The colony of Sierra Leone was founded by the Clapham Sect in 1787 as a home for the freed slaves and was supported by them at great financial loss until the British government took it over as a colony in 1808. Wilberforce obtained legislation in 1807 that banned Englishmen from trading in slaves. The Sect also created public opinion that led to a condemnation of slavery by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and to treaties with Spain and Portugal which, at a cost of £750,000 to the British treasury, banned slave trading by nationals of those countries. Charles Buxton with the aid of Zachary Macaulay completed the work of freeing slaves by securing the Act of 1833 which set aside £20,000,000 to compensate the slave owners for their loss of 700,000 slaves. Buxton and his friends then sought by committee study to encourage legitimate commerce, and to legislate to protect both the freed slaves and the aborigines. The protectorates of Bechuanaland, Nyassaland, and Uganda were assumed by the British government between 1885 and 1895 as a result of missionary activity to protect the natives from exploitation by white settlers.

Evangelicals were also interested in the spiritual and social needs of the poorer people of the laboring class in English factories. Robert Raikes in 1783 popularized the Sunday School. These Sunday Schools, first started in 1769 by Hannah Ball, and the Ragged School movement, of which Lord Shaftesbury assumed the leadership, gave instruction in the three “R’s” as well as the Bible. They were the forerunners of universal and compulsory education.

Article continues below

Elizabeth Fry, the sister-in-law of Buxton, and John Howard carried on the work of the Wesleys on behalf of prisoners in jails. Howard was able to secure legislation which improved prisons in England and Europe.

Shaftesbury, who was won to Christ by a godly evangelical nurse, Maria Millis, dedicated his life to the aid of the poor and oppressed. He sponsored legislation which bettered conditions for the insane and gave them some protection. He was responsible for laws which improved conditions and shortened working hours in the textile factories of England, which took women and children out of the mines, and which protected the brickyard workers and chimney sweeps.

Regeneration And Renewal

Study of the diaries, letters, speeches, journals, autobiographies, and biographies of these leaders demonstrates the spiritual springs of their social reforms. Each accepted the Bible as God’s inspired revelation which led them to faith in Christ as their Saviour (Rom. 10:17). Regeneration of the individual was for them a necessary starting point. This revelational-based faith brought a love into their lives which led them to serve others, both in and outside the church (Gal. 6:10). Such activities, especially in the case of Shaftesbury, were looked upon as means only to serve others in the light of the second coming of Christ. He had the words “Even so come, Lord Jesus” printed in Greek on the flap of his envelopes. He looked to Christ’s coming rather than to “human agency” as the only final solution to the world’s ills. These men did not feel that they could create Utopia by social reform, which the social gospel movement has tried to do, nor did they surrender to a pessimism which paralyzes Christian participation in society. Instead, they sought to “occupy” faithfully as Christian citizens until Christ’s Advent (Phil. 3:20–21).

In their preoccupation with social reform these men did not neglect the priority of evangelism and missions. They supported direct or indirect measures to evangelize the unsaved. Direct or indirect support to missions was also an important part of their program. They never forgot that the command of the resurrected Christ was to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.

An Instructive Strategy

Their strategy can also be instructive to contemporary evangelicals. In each instance of reform they began by getting the facts. Sharp studied English law two years before he developed the principle which freed slaves in England. Clarkson boarded 317 ships in different British harbors before he found a sailor, whose name he did not even know, who gave him information on the slave trade. It was spiritual leadership coupled with logical facts which brought success.

Article continues below

With the facts available, these men used every legitimate means to create a Christian public opinion favorable to their demands for reform. Pamphlets, mass meetings, committees in churches, poems such as Cowper’s “The Negro’s Complaint,” and boycotts of slave-grown sugar were used to inform and to stir up the public to demand action. With this pressure for action based on enlightened public opinion, leaders in government could present their case supported by petitions and resolutions from the public. They would even cooperate in a common cause temporarily with men whose ideas they disliked.

It should also be noticed that they did not seek to use the church as a pressure group. Instead, Christian citizens, whose consciences had been enlightened by the teaching of pastors as to what biblical principles were involved, were asked to support special organizations. In that way, the church was freed for its work of preaching and teaching the Gospel. Too often, pious resolutions by church groups based on insufficient information do more harm than good. The Christian who joins in the exercise of his citizenship with others will accomplish more good.

Retreat from society while one awaits the return of Christ to take one out of a wicked world which is to be destroyed; socialist revolution to create a new order; the reformation of society by democratic social action, will all fail to meet the problems of the chaotic social order. These approaches either ignore society completely or seek to change the external environment without dealing with the problem of personal sin which is at the root of social disorder. Only the renovation of the individual life by the grace of God will provide the dynamic to energize the ethical potential necessary to bring about beneficial social change.


Earle E. Cairns has been Chairman of the Department of History at Wheaton College (Illinois) since 1948. He holds the A.B. degree from Municipal University of Omaha, Th.B. from Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Omaha, A.M. and Ph.D. from University of Nebraska. His book Christianity Through the Centuries has been translated into Japanese.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.