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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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A salutary reminder. This position was fundamental to Shaftesbury’s theology and his ability to develop a vision for evangelism and social action. It enabled him to have a clear vision of the unity of body and soul—for they would be united again at the end. It turned on its head Evangelical obsessions with chronology and timing and replaced them with a call to discipleship. The fascination with the minute details of the millennium proved to be an enormous distraction from the task at hand. Shaftesbury was a premillennialist. He believed that human sin was such that the condition of the world would worsen and only the Second Advent could offer ultimate hope. However, he reversed the classic premillennialist approach to life and to society. Rather than wait for the ultimate reversal to happen with a life of quietism and pietistic withdrawal from society, Shaftesbury pressed the responsibility of the Christian to act. He was not distracted by the mania for matching the signs of the times to the chronology of the book of Revelation or the setting of dates for the return of Christ. Hence, Shaftesbury was able to press very precisely the view that the day of judgement would include a reckoning for the believer’s stewardship of the gifts of God. He urged constant attention to the responsibilities of the present and the dynamic of living in constant, yet unknown, expectation of the second coming. The duties of the Christian extended to the responsibilities of the nation, as all would be held to account. The nearness of the Second Advent and judgment was to Shaftesbury an impulse to action, not withdrawal. Faithful and obedient discipleship in the period before the return of Christ lay at the root of his work. It was this which animated his labour as legislator, missionary activist, and supporter of Christian voluntary societies. He set it out clearly:

I am now looking, not to the great end, but to the interval. I know, my friends, how great and glorious that end will be; but while I find so many persons looking to no end, and others rejoicing in that great end, and thinking nothing about the interval, I confess that my own sympathies and fears dwell much with what must take place before that great consummation.’12

Climbing boys

  Shaftesbury was a great campaigner against social evils. The “boy sweeps” was a matter which concerned him throughout his life and which he fought with tenacity. The wealthier members of society demanded that their chimney flues (the narrow funnel through which smoke rose until ejected into the atmosphere) be cleaned. So did the insurance companies, nervous of the risk of fire. For much of the nineteenth century this was a process which was not yet mechanised. Hence the only way to effectively ensure that the sweep’s brushes could be fully extended up the chimney and the flue cleaned was to use manual labour. Since the flues were narrow, the younger the better. Children as young as five were sold into the employment of the master sweeps by unscrupulous parents who gave the necessary assurances on age (from 1788 there was a minimum age of eight years old, but it was widely flouted). Their existence was miserable. The incentives which were provided to encourage reluctant youngsters to climb the chimneys were cruel. They included forcing pins into feet of a boy or lighting a fire in the hearth. Deformities, injuries and deaths resulted. Once a boy was too big he was discarded onto the street.
  Wilberforce had been an early campaigner but regulation was patchy. In 1840 Shaftesbury introduced a bill to prevent the employment of children as sweeps. He noted in his speech that the practice had ‘led to more misery and degradation than prevailed in any other Christian country.’13 Once again we see the powerful link of the responsibilities of a Christian nation in response to the prevalence of sin in its midst. Shaftesbury was clearly in possession of first-hand information, probably from the City Missionaries, and was even involved in one successful ‘buy-out’ of a young sweep. The 1840 legislation proved similarly ineffective as its predecessors. Then, in 1847, a master sweep was convicted of the manslaughter of a seven-year old boy. He had been forced into the flue of a chemical works just nineteen inches wide. He had inhaled the soot, suffered burns, was beaten and then died. Shaftesbury became chairman of the Climbing Boys Society.

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