Greatness Upon Greatness

WHEN WILLIAM WILBERFORCE DIED in 1833, one of those who attended his funeral was Anthony Ashley Cooper, later Lord Shaftesbury. In the words of biographer John Pollock, “Thus the two crusades and the lives of two great social reformers touched briefly and symbolically...an end and a beginning.”

A few weeks earlier, William Gladstone, newly elected Member of Parliament and future prime minister, met Wilberforce for the first time. Thus Pollack could have written about three great reformers’ lives touching briefly. For if Wilberforce was the greatest Christian politician of his era, Shaftesbury and Gladstone were the greatest of theirs.

Cold home

Unlike Wilberforce, Shaftesbury was a devout Christian when he became a Member of Parliament in 1826. He felt God had called him “to devote whatever advantages He might have bestowed in the cause of the weak, the helpless, both man and beast, and those who had none to help them.”

He didn’t receive this faith from his parents, though. Born the son of the sixth earl of Shaftesbury, he was raised in a home devoid of parental affection. Virtually all he knew of love he experienced through the kindness of a maid named Maria Millis. It was to her that he later traced the beginning of his evangelical Christianity.

Two years into Parliament, Shaftesbury commenced his efforts to alleviate the injustices caused by the Industrial Revolution, which included acts that

  • prohibited employment of women and children in coal mines,
  • provided care for the insane,
  • established a ten-hour day for factory workers,
  • outlawed employing young boys as chimney sweeps.

Privately he promoted the building of model tenements (on his own estate) and “ragged schools” for waifs. For years he served as president of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He ardently supported the London City Mission, the Church Missionary Society, and the Young Men’s Christian Association. He was associated with 33 philanthropic organizations in his life.

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.

His brother’s keeper

The driving force of all this social activity was his faith. Some of the more important guiding principles expressed in his writings include:

  1. "By everything true, everything holy, you are your brother’s keeper.”
  2. "Creed and color, latitude and longitude, make no difference in the essential nature of man.”
  3. "Social reforms, so necessary, so indispensable, require as much of God’s grace as a change of heart.”
  4. "What is morally right can never be politically wrong, and what is morally wrong can never be politically right.”
  5. "No man can persist from the beginning of his life to the end of it in a course of generosity, [or] in a course of virtue unless he is drawing from the fountain of our Lord himself.”

Though he had high ideals, as a legislator, Shaftesbury was a realist. He often agreed to compromises to win some ground for his causes. For example, he wanted the Board School curriculum to include Bible teaching: “The teaching of the Bible,” he argued, “ should be essential and not an extra.” The problem was how exactly to teach it-by which denomination’s interpretation? Since church groups were unable to agree on a syllabus for religious instruction, a compromise was reached: the Bible would be taught but not according to the formularies of any church. Shaftesbury considered such teaching “a meager, washy, pointless thing,” but it was better than no Bible instruction at all.

Shaftesbury’s lifelong commitment to the welfare of his fellow Britons was once described as “his hopeless pertinacity.” He was pertinacious-but hopeless, no.

Holy politics

For William Gladstone, service in political life was a “most blessed calling.” He once said to Queen Victoria, “My political or public life is the best part of my life: it is that part in which I am conscious of the greatest effort to do and avoid as the Lord Christ would have me do and avoid.”

He was raised in an evangelical home, and as a young man, he dedicated his life to Christ. Before embarking on a political career, he seriously considered taking holy orders. But when he entered Parliament in 1832, he never looked back. His political career lasted over 60 years.

He served as president of the board of trade, secretary for the colonies, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and for four different terms, the prime minister. Among his many achievements, he

  • disestablished the Church of Ireland to free Roman Catholics from having to pay taxes to the Anglican church,
  • supported an Irish land act that protected the peasantry,
  • achieved important reforms-competitive admission to the civil service, vote by secret ballot, abolition of sales commissions in the army, educational expansion, and court reorganization.

He was disliked by Queen Victoria and had many political rivals, including the great Benjamin Disraeli. Over many years, Gladstone gradually abandoned the traditional Tory beliefs on the importance of rank and privilege-beliefs Disraeli ardently championed. As their differences widened, Disraeli’s antipathy for Gladstone increased.

When Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer, Disraeli (the previous chancellor) refused to give him the traditional robes of office. Gladstone repeatedly asked for them, and Disraeli repeatedly sent evasive responses. The robes never were sent, and today they are displayed in Disraeli’s one-time home, Hughenden Manor.

The ideals that informed Gladstone’s public philosophy were, like those of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, rooted in Judeo-Christian morality. Among them, he believed:

  1. "The duties of governors [political officials] are strictly and peculiarly religious. Individuals are bound to carry throughout their acts the spirit of the high truths they have acknowledged.”
  2. Politics was a “most blessed calling,” and Parliament a place where Christian principles could be applied to the “numerous measures of the time.”
  3. "The value of liberty [is] an essential condition of excellence in human things.”
  4. "Christianity [has] established the duty of relieving the poor, the sick, [and] the afflicted.”

Renaissance man

Gladstone’s interests and gifts ranged beyond politics. He was a superb linguist and classical scholar. He was also a prolific author, frequently contributing to reviews and magazines. Articles on a variety of topics, including poetry, constitutional politics, economics, and church history, flowed from his pen.

He loved the outdoors and believed in vigorous exercise. Moreover, though great demands were placed upon him, he often made time for personal philanthropy. In later years, he wrote several works in defense of the Christian faith. He once publicly debated the famous agnostic T.H. Huxley over the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis.

“The grand old man” retired from political life early in 1894. He traveled widely and continued to write on a variety of subjects. Following his death in 1898, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. For all of the many tributes offered to his memory, perhaps the shortest and simplest was the most eloquent. He was, Lord Salisbury stated, “a great Christian man.”

Like Wilberforce before them, Shaftesbury and Gladstone each held high views about the importance of public service in the name of Christ. In an age like ours, which is often cynical about the possibilities of politics, these three remind us of the tradition of Christian statesmanship. CH

By Kevin Charles Belmonte

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #53 in 1997]

Kevin Belmonte is a post-graduate student at the University of Stirling, Scotland. He is editor of a 1996 edition of Wilberforce’s A Practical View of Christianity (Hendrickson).
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