Unusually yet appropriately, Richard Turnbull commences his biography of Shaftesbury, by recalling the diverse spectrum of those attending his funeral. One would expect to see representatives from the various missionary societies he was involved with, and they were present and plentiful. In addition to those from orphanages, schools, and asylums there were many attending from benevolent associations for the poor plus the RSPCA and Anti-Vivisection society.
He believed in an interventionist God and rejected the notion of a distant deist entity which was a popular view in his era. He sought to die happily in the hope of advancing true religion and his evangelicalism was inseparable from his causes.
The Earl of Shaftesbury laboured tirelessly and used his influence to improve the welfare of others all for the glory of God. He was active in Parliament for over fifty years. If we were a fly on the wall two hundred years ago, we would be shocked at some of the ills of society. Young children were forced to work excessively long hours in factories, mills and mines in wretched conditions leading to physical deformities, accidents and sometimes deaths. Shaftesbury helped to reduce the maximum number of hours that children could be forced to work. Children employed as chimney sweeps were daily employed in nightmarish conditions. The system also kept them away from their parents. Many were employed for a pittance, and they were effectively used as slave labour.
Mental health provision in some places was worse than some of today’s prisons. In some institutions, some of the patients were chained to the wall and the stench was suffocating and nauseous. Turnbull cites an extreme case of 170 men sharing a single towel for a week! As he sought to improve conditions, Shaftesbury was involved in making unannounced inspections during unsociable hours and helping to bring change and reform laws.
Parts of London stank, and the River Thames was like an overflowing cesspit. Common lodging houses would frequently be vastly overcrowded. In some abodes of poorer residents, the sewage seeped inside like a stream in their homes. Of course disease was spreading unchecked. Shaftesbury brought to the attention of those in power the problems that could no longer be consider out of sight and out of mind.
Shaftesbury identified and helped to improve holistic needs. Educating the poor was also a priority for him. Yet this was more than an enormous social action package, since he worked alongside the London City Mission to educate the poor so that they could read the Bible. He was willing to chair countless meetings more often than not on a voluntary basis and was always conscious that he could use his influence for the betterment of many and to honour the Lord. A key benefit from his labours was to encourage the principle of the voluntary society, resulting in an increase in voluntary societies. Not surprisingly many of those societies have evangelical roots.
Shaftesbury was in no uncertain terms an evangelical and was greatly concerned that in his time, the waters had become muddied concerning what an evangelical constituted. Interestingly in later years, Lloyd Jones wrote a small, certainly for him yet valuable piece, ‘What is an Evangelical?’ Shaftesbury was zealous for the truth and had little time for sermons that were weak or soft on sin, or left out genuine repentance and saving faith.
He knew which battles to fight and was opposed to the higher criticism of his day that is still prevalent in most universities that offer theological courses today and has affected some seminaries also. He recognised the importance of systematic theology and Scripture interpreting Scripture. He was deeply committed to cooperating with other denominations though would by no means tolerate Popery. He was not a stickler for tradition for its own sake which achieves little and if necessary, encouraged the holding of services in theatres and the open air so that the gospel might be preached.
Shaftesbury eagerly awaited the Lord’s coming and like Wilberforce, was especially committed to reaching Jewish people with the gospel. He attended Wilberforce’s funeral and that had a profound effect on him. He kept good company and was friends with John Newton and knew and greatly respected Charles Spurgeon. Some of the things Shaftesbury encountered we know so little about now. The reason for that is he was instrumental in bringing about the change, we so easily take for granted today.
Jon Taylor 7th September 2021