While he believed that government had the responsibility to protect the most vulnerable, he always insisted that the voluntary principle was the ideal to spread the Christian faith and to act as the locus of social welfare. When in 1870 compulsory state education was introduced in England, Shaftesbury was incandescent. He was deeply skeptical of the march of state power.
I want nothing but usefulness to God and my country.
(Diaries, February 22, 1827)
When the funeral procession of Lord Shaftesbury progressed through the streets of London toward Westminster Abbey on October 8, 1885, thousands of people lined the streets, bands gathered to play Christian hymns, and hundreds of banners were held high with Bible verses. The representatives of more than 200 voluntary societies linked to Lord Shaftesbury attended. The Times, in its obituary, described Lord Shaftesbury as “the most eminent social reformer of the present century” and “one of the most honoured figures of our contemporary history.” Who was this extraordinary man remembered in the Anglican calendar on October 1?
Shaftesbury served in one house or the other of the English Parliament for nearly 60 years, from 1826 to 1885, with just one short break of 18 months. He was offered cabinet office by prime ministers of both major political parties of the day, three times in 1866 alone.
And yet he encapsulated the ideal of the Christian philanthropist and evangelist. In his view, religion and life should be united, not separated. He developed a quite remarkable evangelical Christian vision for society. He understood there was a proper function for the state, for government, in protecting the weakest and most vulnerable, especially children. Yet he also recognized that the role of the state was a limited one. Shaftesbury believed in the Christian mission of the conversion of the soul, but also that the Christian faith should shape and transform society. He believed that God had provided the most extraordinary instrument to achieve both these purposes—the Christian voluntary society. Through these societies, large and small, Shaftesbury set out to mobilize and motivate the Christians of Victorian England. He founded schools, chaired missionary societies, and established clubs and societies that provided micro-finance loans for the poor. The list could go on. A committed Tory, he viewed socialism as anathema. He often felt the world to be against him and suffered from an intense introspection that bordered on the depressive. But he was in all things motivated by his Christian beliefs, the centrality of Scripture, and, not least, the principle of faithful discipleship in the light of the second coming.
Anthony Ashley Cooper was born on April 28, 1801. He took the courtesy title of Lord Ashley when his own father succeeded to the earldom in 1811. He retained this designation until he became the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury on his father’s death in 1851. His early family life was difficult, and his relationship with his parents less than congenial. Ashley described his mother as a “dreadful woman.” His own later happy marriage (to Emily “Minny” Cowper) and family life was a significant contrast to what he experienced in childhood.
The really important influence in his early years was the family housekeeper, Maria Millis. She read the Bible to the young aristocrat and taught him to pray. Lord Ashley later looked back saying that under God it was to her that he owed the first thoughts of piety and actions of prayer. He also described in his journals how his eyes were finally “opened” by reading the evangelical writer Philip Doddridge and the impact of acquiring Thomas Scott’s commentary on the Bible. He was slowly embracing the evangelical faith that was to shape his life. As early as 1825 he sought to establish social policy based on the Scriptures.
We see this in his parliamentary campaigns on behalf of London’s climbing boys. Prior to mechanization in the later 19th century, children were used to climb the narrow chimney flues of both homes and factories. To navigate these narrow openings, the younger the child, the better. Sweeps employed children as young as five or six years of age to clean these chimneys, often bonded into the Master Sweep’s employ by poor and desperate parents.