What we need to know about Lord Shaftesbury, the important Christian social reformer:
The great English social reformer and Christian activist Anthony Ashley Cooper bears much in common with William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect. Just as they had put their Christian faith into action in not only evangelism but social betterment, so too Lord Shaftesbury was a tireless campaigner and crusader.
Like them, he let his wealth and aristocracy be put to good use for Christ and the Kingdom. And like Wilberforce he used his position as a member of Parliament to act as salt and light in very practical ways. See more on these earlier reformers here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/04/09/notable-christians-the-clapham-sect/
He was born in London in 1801. His father succeeded as the sixth Earl of Shaftesbury in 1811, and being the eldest son in an aristocratic family he received the title of Lord Ashley. Sadly he did not have a good childhood, and it was the family’s housekeeper who inculcated in him the Christian faith. It seems he became an Evangelical in 1826.
He went on to study classics at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1819, graduating in 1822. In 1826 at the age of 25 he was elected as a Conservative member of Parliament. And in 1830 he married Lady Emily Cowper. They ended up having ten children.
The conditions of the poor and needy were always on his mind. A year after he entered parliament he began investigating the treatment of lunatics in asylums. These were often quite awful places to be in, and Shaftesbury had a lifelong commitment to helping the mentally ill. As a result of his activism, various bills were brought forth in 1842, leading to the Lunacy Inquiry Act.
And he also had a great concern for the education of children, especially those from the working class. So he was chairman of the Ragged Schools Union (which offered free education to poor children) for over forty years. This movement was involved in dealing with both the physical and spiritual needs of the children. But the Education Act of 1870 soon spelled the end of the ragged schools and their Christian emphasis.
And the plight of workers – especially women and children in factories and in the mines – was a major concern of his over the years. By 1833 for example he was pushing for factory reform in parliament, wanting to have the working day in textile mills cut to 10 hours for women and children. That finally became law in 1847.
As he told the House of Commons on August 4, 1840: “The future hopes of a country must, under God, be laid in the character and condition of its children; however right it may be to attempt, it is almost fruitless to expect, the reformation of its adults; as the sapling has been bent, so will it grow. The first step towards a cure is factory legislation. My grand object is to bring these children within the reach of education.”
But despite various bits of legislation being passed, changes were still often quite slow to come about. Thus in 1863 he tabled a report which demonstrated that children as young as four were still working in factories from 6am to 10pm. And in 1842 he brought the Coal Mines Act to Parliament, which sought to prevent all women, and boys under ten years of age, to work underground.
He became the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury in 1851. There were a number of times when various Prime Ministers offered him Cabinet posts, but he turned them down, feeling he was more effective where he was. And it was not just political and social reform that took so much of his time and energy.
Various gospel and evangelistic concerns were also a big part of his work. For example, he was president of the Bible Society for over three decades, and like the Clapham group, he was passionate about voluntary Christian societies. He saw limits to what the state could do, and preferred Evangelical societies where a personal, compassionate touch supplemented the care and action needed to help others.
He died aged 84 on October 1, 1885. A public service was held soon thereafter, and his son Cecil Ashley said this about the event:
When I saw the crowd which lined the streets on Thursday as my Father’s body was borne to the Abbey – the halt, the blind, the maimed, the poor and the naked standing bare-headed in their rags amidst a pelting rain patiently enduring to show their love and reverence to their departed friend, I thought it the most heart-stirring site my eyes had ever looked upon; and I could only feel how happy was the man to whom it had been given to be thus useful in his life and thrice blessed in his death, and to be laid at last to his long sleep amidst the sob of a great nation’s heart.
And the great English preacher Charles Spurgeon said this about his passing:
During the past week the church of God, and the world at large, have sustained a very serious loss. In the taking home to Himself by our gracious Lord of the Earl of Shaftesbury, we have, in my judgment, lost the best man of the age. I do not know whom I should place second, but I certainly should put him first—far beyond all other servants of God within my knowledge—for usefulness and influence. He was a man most true in his personal piety, as I know from having enjoyed his private friendship; a man most firm in his faith in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; a man intensely active in the cause of God and truth. Take him whichever way you please, he was admirable: he was faithful to God in all his house, fulfilling both the first and second commands of the law in fervent love to God, and hearty love to man. He occupied his high position with singleness of purpose and immovable steadfastness: where shall we find his equal?
Let me conclude by sharing a quote from one of his biographers. Richard Turnbull said this about the man:
Shaftesbury stands as a towering figure not just of the nineteenth century but of the whole of history. His impact was enormous. His character, tenacity, and Christian commitment served him for some sixty years of public service. . . . Shaftesbury had a vision for God in society. This came from his uncompromising Protestantism….
Shaftesbury saw the role of God in society as a partnership between a Christian state and a Christian voluntary society. In this way he also developed a unique Evangelical vision for mission. Evangelicals have always struggled with the relationship of the eternal welfare and destiny of individuals and the responsibility to provide and care for people on earth. Shaftesbury’s ability to bridge this gap was not just a consequence of an excessive paternalism. His vision rather reflected deep Christian and Evangelical thought. His position within the spectrum of Evangelical beliefs about the end of time was a carefully worked out belief which turned on its head the classic application of such views to social welfare. He saw the Evangelical voluntary societies as instruments used by God in preparation for the judgment, practical expressions of faithful discipleship. He saw a definite, albeit limited, role for the state. This set of beliefs and their application in practice gave Shaftesbury a vision that combined spiritual and earthly destinies, state intervention and voluntary societies, responsibility and faithfulness, commitment to the Word of God, and also the Christian nation. The Second Advent was not simply a consoling doctrine, but an impulse to action.
Wilberforce, Shaftesbury and eschatology
Speaking of the Second Advent, one important thing I often like to point out about these two great Christian social reformers is how very similar they were in terms of social concern and activity, but how different they were about the end times, theologically speaking.
Wilberforce was postmillennial in his orientation while Shaftesbury was premillennial. Put simply, the former tend to be optimistic about the future, believing Christ comes after the millennium, while the latter tend to be pessimistic about the future, believing Christ comes before the millennium.
It is supposed that the way a Christian looks at the future will impact how he looks at being salt and light in the here and now. While that certainly can be the case, here we find that regardless of their views on the millennium and the end-times, both men were fully involved in seeking to make this fallen world a better place. And that is just how it should be.
For further reading
Best, G. E. A., Shaftesbury. Nel Mentor, 1964, 1975.
Finlayson, G. B. A. M., The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Methuen Publishing, 1981.
Pollock, John, Shaftesbury: The Poor Man’s Earl. Hodder & Stoughton, 1985.
Turnbull, Richard, Shaftesbury: The Great Reformer. Lion, 2010.