Aug. 3, 2011
Many of us are familiar with the heroic and historic work of William Wilberforce in abolishing the slave trade in Great Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Less well-known is the work of the Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1801-1885). President of the British and Foreign Bible Society and stout advocate of the formation of a Jewish state in the Holy Land, this "peer of the realm" used his position to help the poor and mentally ill - out of his faith in Christ. As a conservative (Tory) Member of Parliament, he enacted legislation "that prohibited employment of women and children in coal mines, provided care for the insane, established a ten-hour day for factory workers, and outlawed employing young boys as chimney sweeps." He also had a great heart for evangelism: "His commitment to spread the gospel led him to start a movement to hold religious services in theaters and music halls. Controversy ensued, forcing him to defend the movement in the House of Lords against charges that Christianity would be compromised if it were associated with scenes of frivolous entertainment."
As Dan Graves writes, "Lord Shaftesbury was fierce in his conviction that Christ must be the center of a living faith. He spoke harshly against deistic tendencies. Yet he was a warm friend of the atheistic Prime Minister Palmerston who gently mocked his belief. The people, however, did not mock. When he preached Christ, they listened with respect. At his funeral, hundreds of thousands of poor stood hatless in a pouring rain to show their love for the man who had loved them."
At a time when some Christians are calling for retreat from engagement in public affairs, we would do well to consider such men as Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, who grasped that the Gospel could not be preached with unashamed faces if, while doing so, those who proclaim it ignore grave social and cultural needs.