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From the Winter 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing:  


Shaftesbury: The Great Reformer

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


The first of two articles dealing with the life and significance of the British evangelical social reformer, the seventh earl of Shaftesbury

year after the veteran antislavery campaigner William Wilberforce left Parliament in 1825, the future leader of evangelicalism in England entered the House of Commons.1 Anthony Ashley Cooper, known as Lord Ashley until his succession as seventh earl of Shaftesbury upon his father’s death in 1851, was a very different character from Wilberforce.2 Although less well known, he is, potentially, of greater importance. In two articles we will examine his life and significance.
  Shaftesbury’s evangelical Christian vision of society was remarkable. He understood the role of government but also that it was limited. He believed in both the conversion of the soul and the transformation of society. This was primarily to be achieved by the actions of Christians working together in voluntary societies. He was driven by a combined sense of deep call from God and English aristocratic paternalism. He often felt the world to be against him and suffered from introspection that bordered on the depressive. Indeed, Florence Nightingale once commented that had the earl of Shaftesbury not been committed to the reform of the asylum he would have been in one.3 Yet this same man was offered a cabinet office by both political parties of the day, three times in 1866 alone, and he declined on each occasion (though not without some anguish). Thousands of people lined the streets of London for his funeral. He was associated with hundreds of Christian voluntary societies. His motivations were profoundly theological. With an acute sense of the duties implied by a belief in the Second Advent of Christ, Shaftesbury successfully negotiated his way through the minefield of eschatology to produce a rounded, dynamic, and biblical understanding of Christian responsibility in society. His vision is one we would do well to recover.
  This first article will set the scene and look at his early years, the campaigns for the mentally ill, the conditions of children in factories and mines, and the role of Christian voluntary societies. In the second article we will consider his theological motivations, his sometimes controversial ecclesiastical campaigns, the struggle for the “climbing boys,” and his place in history.

Upbringing, Conversion, and Call

  Anthony Ashley Cooper was born on April 28, 1801. The family comprised English aristocrats with landed estates, which he would in due course inherit. The family’s politics were Tory.4 Ashley’s childhood was less than congenial. His parents displayed little affection toward him, and he regarded his mother as guilty of dereliction of duty and harshness. The key influence in his early years was the family housekeeper, Maria Millis. She not only showed him the love that his parents lacked toward him, but also, as a committed Christian, she introduced the young aristocrat to evangelical devotion. The effect was to be long lasting. Maria prayed with Ashley and read him the Bible. Shaftesbury later recalled that Maria provided him with his first memories of prayer and piety.5 Ashley hated school but eventually emerged with a first-class honors degree in Classics from Oxford.

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