A characteristic element of Christian social engagement in the early church was the care shown for fellow believers as well as those outside the church. In the fourth century, the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate complained that Christians “support not only their poor, but ours as well; all men see that our people lack aid from us.” From the beginning, Christian presence in the world has been defined by sacrificial service, which remains true today. Looking to the past, we find inspiring models for how faithful discipleship can take shape.
One such model is the British Anglican Anthony Ashley Cooper (1801-1885), the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Lord Shaftesbury was a politician, social reformer, and evangelical famed for his pursuit of various philanthropic and charitable causes. A young contemporary of Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury likewise campaigned against slavery and sought to extend legal protections against abuse and oppression to other marginalized groups, including children and young women.
Even though Victorian England was in many ways a nation deeply informed by Christian values, Shaftesbury saw much corruption throughout society. As a teenager, the future Lord Shaftesbury witnessed a pauper’s funeral, which made a deep impression on him. A biographer relates that “the drunken pallbearers, stumbling along with a crudely-made coffin and shouting snatches of bawdy songs, brought home to him the existence of a whole empire of callousness which put his own childhood miseries in their context.” Shaftesbury would come to be known as the “Poor Man’s Earl” because of his advocacy on behalf of the poor and downtrodden.
Shaftesbury balanced the important and overlooked connection between just laws and civic virtue. Where laws needed to be made or amended to promote justice, he pursued them relentlessly. But he also realized that government action could crowd out and undermine private initiative. Even as he sought legal reform, Shaftesbury maintained the priority of civil society, particularly the importance of Christian action to address social needs.
In this way, Shaftesbury sought the right relationship between what has been called the “legislative principle” and the “voluntary principle.” Prudence and discernment are required to determine what is needed to solve a particular problem, make policy when necessary, and craft such policy to promote rather than obstruct voluntary, ecclesial, and charitable social service.
Where government had already taken the lead, Shaftesbury worked to reform and correct its administration. This was particularly true in the case of asylums and so-called “lunacy laws” in Shaftesbury’s time. Shaftesbury addressed mental health in his first significant parliamentary speech in 1828. At the time, government provision had been made to build asylums and sanitariums, but there was little to no oversight or assurances against abuse. Both the conditions for being admitted to such institutions and the conditions experienced by those who had been placed in such care were very poorly defined and controlled.
Shaftesbury knew about these conditions because he had visited such institutions personally. This was a defining feature of his career: He took the time to become personally acquainted and involved with the causes he championed. This was true for his efforts to promote Christian missions, evangelism, and education among London’s poorest and laboring classes. Shaftesbury would visit workers, children, and families where they lived and encourage preaching, teaching, and visitation in even the most impoverished urban slums.
This personal and relational approach helped him to know what was needed and what would be harmful in particular cases. Concerning education, for instance, Shaftesbury knew that the poorest children needed opportunities to learn trades, form their intellects, and develop their character so that they might grow to become both good Christians and good citizens. In addition to the reform of laws related to factory conditions and child labor, Shaftesbury helped create the so-called “Ragged School” movement, which met poor children in their communities and conditions with local resources to provide them with concrete opportunities to improve their lives.
Richard Turnbull, Shaftesbury’s modern biographer, notes that the “Ragged School” movement grew under Shaftesbury’s leadership, from 20 schools serving 2,000 children in 1845 to 257 schools with 31,357 pupils in 1868.
Shaftesbury’s example from nineteenth-century England stands as a laudable model of responsible and faithful social reform. As the world has grown more complex, the basic posture of Christians remains the same. As Julian put it, Christians in antiquity “devoted themselves to philanthropy” and work to meet human needs. The same remained true for Lord Shaftesbury’s efforts ateffective compassion through legislation and civil society. It is good to know that today’s Christians can find good examples and models for faithfulness in the Christian past. Our great calling is to be faithful in the present age.