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From the Fall 2015 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

Shaftesbury: The Great Reformer

by Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull
Member of the Theology Faculty, University of Oxford


The second of two articles dealing with the life and significance of the British Evangelical social reformer, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. The first article was published in the Winter 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing.


haftesbury remarked toward the end of his life that “I know what constituted an Evangelical in former times. I have no clear notions what it constitutes now.”1 He was a long-standing friend, confidant and supporter of the great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Shaftesbury described Spurgeon as “a wonderful man, full of zeal, affection, faith, abounding in reputation and authority, and yet perfectly humble.”2 Spurgeon, in turn, bemoaned to Shaftesbury, “men in whom I had confidence are turning aside.”3 A year before Shaftesbury died he was asked by Spurgeon to preside over the celebrations for the latter’s fiftieth birthday. Spurgeon pressed Shaftesbury, “you shall be allowed to go in one hour if you feel at all tired…I should like you to come because I want old-fashioned Evangelical Doctrine to be identified with the event.”4
  Shaftesbury’s identity as and understanding of what it means to be Evangelical is crucial to understanding his motivations. In this second article we turn to Shaftesbury’s beliefs and how they formed and shaped his life and activities. In doing so we will discover passion and insight, a clarity of judgment that is at times uncomfortable, but above all a man of God dedicated to the service of the Savior. We will consider his theology, his battle on behalf of the “climbing boys,” and finally an assessment of his place in history.

Shaftesbury’s theological motivations

  Shaftesbury’s application of classic Evangelical and Protestant doctrine was powerful and dynamic. In the context of the advancement of Enlightenment rationality, the power of the state and even the secular narrative, Shaftesbury stood firm. Christian theology was to be applied to society, not submerged beneath it. Evangelical belief, according to Shaftesbury, provided a template for the life of discipleship. His theological motives could be summarised in three strands; first, the principle of the Bible and its teaching; second, the voluntary worker principle expressed across denominational boundaries; third, the implications of the end times.
  Shaftesbury’s starting point with the Bible could not have been clearer. He told the annual meeting of the Church Pastoral Aid Society in 1862:

There is no security whatever except in standing upon the faith of our fathers, and saying with them that the blessed old Book is ‘God’s Word written,’ from the very first syllable down to the very last, and from the last back to the first.5

  Scripture was to be studied privately and devotionally, guiding the whole of life and being equally applicable in both private and public domains. He argued that Second Chronicles should be studied, prayed over and weighed by every person in public life. The Bible was its own missionary, accessible to the ordinary person. He told the Bible Society in 1860:


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