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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


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Tens of thousands have thrown off their corrupt and ignorant faith, not in consequence of the efforts of preachers, or teachers, or lecturers, but simply and solely from reading the Word of God, pure and unadulterated, without note or comment, without any teaching except the blessed teaching of God’s Holy Spirit.6

  Shaftesbury’s commitment to both inter-denominational unity and the voluntary worker principal (the use of lay people – lay agents – in the Lord’s work) combined powerfully in his twin concerns of evangelism and social action. He described the Bible Society as “a solemn league and covenant of all those who ‘love the Lord Jesus Christ with sincerity’; that it shows how members of the Church of England and Nonconformists may band together in one great effort.”7 The voluntary Christian society was the great place where all Christians could come together for service. He saw this particularly with his work with the City Mission and with Ragged Schools. He told the Ragged School Union, “all who care for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, to whatever church they belong, must join together, heart and soul, for the purpose of bringing to completion this great, this mighty undertaking.”8 Shaftesbury was driven by the Christian vision of the unfinished task, of bringing the gospel to the unevangelized, especially the poor and marginalized, and its transforming power to bear upon a society that claimed to be Christian. He had an acute sense of the Lord’s calling of all his people. Evangelization and transformation should not be left just to the clergy. The lay agency principle was a much more effective way of the gospel penetrating even into the darkest depths of London’s slums. Shaftesbury was scathing about the Victorian passion for building churches – “we want men, not churches.”9 The lay workers employed in the voluntary societies were key to his vision. Some, such as the City Missionaries were paid, others, many of them women, were the volunteer teachers in the ragged schools, Scripture Readers and parish visitors. Indeed his view was that these workers were in by far the best position to assess social need. The advance of the state rather led to the collapse of the volunteer principle as so many social functions were taken over by government.
   The third, and crucially important, area of Shaftesbury’s theological concern was in the area of eschatology. It is here that we see a real dynamic, investing a traditional Evangelical theological position with transformative power. Too much ink was spilt in the nineteenth century, as now, over the minute details of various eschatological schemes. Shaftesbury’s commitment began with an assertion of the priority of the Second Advent, which he described as “the hope for all the ends of the earth.”10 He was, however, also clear where the boundaries lay:

the Second Advent of our Blessed Lord. Pay no attention to excited and angry critics, who charge such a scheme with all the extravagancies of the fifth monarchy, and the millennial inventions. The Second Advent, as an all-sufficient remedy, should be prayed for; and as a promise, should be looked for. The mode, form, and manner of that event are not revealed, and therefore no business of ours.11


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