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 Issues | Church History | Lord Shaftesbury


Great Churchman (No. 18)

Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885)

by Gordon Hewitt, M. A.

Published by Church Book Room Press


A Prayer for the Industrial Workers of England:

"O God, the God of all righteousness, mercy, and love, give us all grace to conceive and execute whatever may be for Thine honour and their welfare, that we may become at the last, through the merits and intercession of our common Redeemer, a great and a happy, because a wise and understanding people."(1)

(Shaftesbury’s Diary, August 6, 1841.)

I. Eros—And Agape

His was a wonderful funeral, even as judged by the standards of 1885, when the death of a public figure was an occasion for public solemnity and the display of emotion. All the way from the house in Grosvenor Square, where he had been born and where he died, the simple closed hearse and the five mourning carriages were saluted by people wearing black crêpe arm-bands and by windows with drawn blinds. In Parliament Square, as the cortège drew near to Westminster Abbey, the crowd thickened along the pavements, undaunted by the slanting rain. It was a mixed company, but strangely his company, people with whom he had had to do, the accumulated witness of close on sixty years of public service. Comfortable middle-class folk and costermongers, flower girls and Ragged School boys, lords and ladies, members of Parliament, prelates and city missionaries, inside and outside the Abbey, had come to demonstrate their gratitude and grief for one who in life used often to assert his friendliness. Thirty-four years before, watching the Duke of Wellington’s funeral from St. James’ Palace, he had been appalled by its pagan character. “Not a trace of religion,” he had written in his diary, “not a shadow of eternity”; but Shaftesbury’s own funeral was not lacking in these things. His eight pall-bearers were representatives of the religious societies with which he had been most intimately associated. In the Abbey there were deputations from close on two hundred such societies; and as the hearse left the Abbey the Costermongers’ Temperance Band played “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”.

The funeral was congruous with the man, and may be set against the staggering incongruity of the Shaftesbury monument in Piccadilly Circus. Few Christian men since St. Ignatius could have claimed with more truth than Shaftesbury “my Eros is crucified”, and the monument’s weak pun on his name is hardly redeemed from banality by Gladstone’s words on its base.(2) But fortunately the funeral was his kind of occasion; and the texts over his grave at Wimborne St. Giles were his own choice.

“What hast thou that thou didst not receive?”
“ Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”
“ Surely I come quickly. Amen, even so come, Lord Jesus.”

It has seemed best to begin with the obsequies, as Miss Higham does(3), not merely because the display of public emotion at Shaftesbury’s death was as extraordinary as his achievement in life, but because the three texts over his grave form a fitting framework for his story. They sum up the principles which guided him as a man, as a public servant, and as a churchman. He saw, more clearly than most of his contemporaries in that acquisitive age, that a man who lives unto himself without gratitude is a dangerous man; that pride is the chief begetter of disorder and injustice; that the Church is meant to be, above all else, a brotherhood of expectancy.

These three texts may also be taken, though in a somewhat looser fashion, as mottoes for the three main phases of his life. During the first thirty years of his life, as a boy, and as a young man finding his mission, he was trying desperately to square his material inheritance and the duties of his station with the facts of life as he found them in the light of the Gospel. Then came his “middle period” from 1833 to 1851, during which with incredible energy and industry he brought the cumbersome machinery of Parliamentary action to bear on one after another of the social results of raw industrialism. Finally, in the years from 1851 onwards, we see him attempting to achieve by voluntary action the things legislation could never achieve—the reconciliation of men to God in Christ.

Of course it would be foolish to suggest that these three phases in Shaftesbury’s life were quite separable, and that there was no continuous purpose running through them. It has been said with some truth that what he believed at the age of seven he still believed at eighty. His family life, too, was a continuous stream of affection, delight and grief as regards his wife and children; and likewise of bewildered antagonisms, rifts and reconciliations as regards his parents, both of whom lived to a great age. And he certainly did not, as has been sometimes suggested, cease after 1846 to work through Parliament for ends similar to those which had inspired his championship of the Ten Hours Bill. When all that is said, however, it remains true that the years 1833 and 1851 were significant moments in the concentration and redirection of his purpose. And since a sketch so brief as this requires some bold limitation of themes, Shaftesbury’s own three texts may serve to underline the chief enthusiasms of the three successive periods of his life.

The word “enthusiasms” is chosen deliberately. Shaftesbury has often been spoken of as “bleak”, “grim”,” “conscience-ridden”; and it is certainly true that he was not an enthusiast in the Salvation Army sense. Indeed, his strictures on “Mr. and Mrs. Booth” and their “grotesque set of worshippers” echo Bishop Butler’s famous condemnation of Wesley and Whitefield. Yet the impression remains. He was an enthusiast. His conscience was not a blanket upon his spirits but a sword unsheathed “to fight the lies that vex the groaning earth”. Or, to change the metaphor, his conscience did not ride him, making him less of a man. He was great because of it; he rode it like a charger. Remote from them as he was in some ways, he was in this respect blood-brother to Charles Kingsley and Stewart Headlam. They were none of them profound thinkers. Their reactions to the challenges of life were not consistent. But when they saw an evil thing they hit out at it, and did not wait to notice whether others approved or disapproved.

Shaftesbury, like Kingsley, was apt to meddle in things of the mind which he did not fully understand. But if it was a matter of cholera or climbing boys they both knew that the flabby iniquities of self-interest could be fought successfully in their day by an appeal to the public conscience, and they took firm hold of the weapons most apt to their hands. Kingsley’s weapons were novels like Yeast or Alton Locke; Shaftesbury’s, a series of parliamentary commissions of enquiry followed up by a speech proposing a bill to correct the abuses the commission uncovered. A famous cartoon depicts Shaftesbury as Jack Cade,(4) with his staff raised against the shields of law and order as held by Sir Robert Peel and Sir James Graham. Shaftesbury expressed parliamentary indignation when the opponents of his Ten Hours Bill enlarged upon the Jack Cade theme in debate, but one would not judge that he was not altogether displeased by the comparison. He thought of himself continually as the lonely champion of the oppressed, and history largely endorses the verdict. He was one of those rare men in whom strong principles find a ready outlet in significant actions. It is the considered judgment of one who is not given to fulsome praise and who finds much to criticize in Shaftesbury, that “his life was not only one of the most selfless that a public man has ever lived but one of the most effective.”(5)


>>Chapter 2 - Good Samaritan



(1) All quotations from Shaftesbury’s Diary, Letters, and Speeches, unless otherwise stated, are made from Edwin Hodder’s The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, K.G., 3 volumes, Cassell & Company, 1886. References for these quotations will be found in an Appendix).

(2) “During a public life of half a century, he devoted the influence of his station, the strong sympathies of his heart, and the great powers of his mind to honouring God by serving his fellow men. An example to his order. A blessing to this people. And a name by them to be ever gratefully remembered.”

(3) Lord Shaftesbury—a Portrait, Florence M. G. Higham, S.C.M. Press, 1945.

(4) Reproduced in Noble Lord, The Life of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, by Barbara Blackburn, Home & van Thal, 1949.

(5) M. B. Reckitt, Maurice to Temple, Faber, 1947, p. 108.



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