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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


IV. Watching for Christ (1851-1885)

“Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so come, Lord Jesus."

It is unfortunate that none of Shaftesbury’s more recent biographers has shared his Evangelical sympathies. It tends to make them think of the long eventide of his life as an anti-climax, and leaves them in some bewilderment about the motive power for his actions. Mr. and Mrs. Hammond picture him after “the turning-point” of 1846 as a spent warrior, occupying his time with philanthropy when he might have been building on his triumphs in the worker’s cause, turning for comfort and adulation to the pious “ambulance workers” of the Costers’ Mission and the Ragged Schools who were less forthright in criticism than men like Richard Oastler and Sam Fielden. Miss Higham, though much nearer to him in Christian conviction, finds it necessary to say that “the Evangelical framework of his faith saddled Shaftesbury with a creed, less enlightened than that which his own life proclaimed”.(1) This, needless to say, was not Shaftesbury’s own view of the matter. “I am essentially and from deep rooted conviction,” he wrote, “an Evangelical of the Evangelicals. I have worked with them constantly and I am satisfied that most of the philanthropic movements of the century have sprung from them.” When we remember the achievements of William Wilberforce, Thomas Fowell Buxton and Elisabeth Fry, “saddled” with the same Evangelical framework of faith, it is difficult to see what other form of enlightenment would have made them more effective.

Mr. Maurice Reckitt, after quoting these words of Miss Higham, properly questions whether it may not have been the peculiarities of Shaftesbury’s temperament rather than the Evangelical framework of his faith which prevented Shaftesbury from envisaging any Christian philosophy of society. “The Evangelical tradition never failed to produce the individual saints of social service,” Mr. Reckitt goes on to say, but suggests that it did little or nothing to formulate a criticism of the assumptions of the society which created so urgent a need for this service. This more balanced judgment, though broadly true, also appears to need qualification in Shaftesbury’s case. His published diary is well-larded with criticism of the assumptions of society. He did not work them up, it is true, into a coherent philosophy. He believed that the Bible had done all that was necessary in that regard. It is comparatively easy, a century later, to see where he was mistaken, but it is unfair to criticise him for not drawing wisdom in this matter from the deep wells of F. D. Maurice. Bishop Gruntvig would doubtless have learned much to his profit from Sören Kierkegaard, but both Maurice and Kierkegaard belong to the twentieth century. In our appreciation of them we are too apt to blame their contemporaries for not sharing our enthusiasm. Maurice, to Shaftesbury, was just a learned clergyman who wrote to him on one occasion pleading with him not to make a party-issue with the Tractarians. They were not truly contemporaries. Their lines meet only in eternity. Shaftesbury’s Evangelical faith provided a dynamic sufficient for the tasks he envisaged as most urgent: it also summoned him to defend the Protestant character of the Church of England against what he considered to be an invasion of alien doctrines and practices. We must now consider the nature of this dynamic and its attendant duties in more detail, particularly as they affect his actions in later life.

The hope of the second coming of Christ in glory held a central place in Shaftesbury’s faith and undergirded all his activity. “I cannot tell you,” he wrote to Edwin Hodder, his biographer, “how it was that this subject first took hold upon me; it has been, as far as I can remember, a subject to which I have always held tenaciously. Belief in it has been a moving principle in my life; for I see everything going on in the world subordinate to this one great event. It is not a popular doctrine; it is not, as it should be, the hope of the Church.” Later in the same letter he defined the doctrine thus. “‘Behold, I come quickly’ does not mean ‘Behold, I come in a hurry’, but ‘when the times are ripe’. Everything is ripening. God is doing His own work.” Many years before, in 1842, he had written in his diary, “The more I labour, the more I see of the labour to be performed, and vain at last will be the labour of us all. Our prayer must be for the Second Advent, our ‘toil that we be found watching’.” In 1870 he wrote to Dr. Angus of the Baptist College, at a time of virulent strife over the education question, suggesting that Churchmen and Dissenters could find common ground in preaching the Second Advent. “The mode, form, and manner of that event are not revealed,” he wrote, “and therefore are no business of ours. The whole will become intelligible only by the issue.” He approved of Grattan Guinness’s The Approaching End of the Age—“except for the astronomical part which I do not understand”—and resigned from membership of the S.P.C.K. when that society published a book on prophecy which attacked millenarian views.

At the present time, when Biblical eschatalogy is again being preached in our pulpits, Shaftesbury’s convictions on this matter can be more readily understood as a clue to his achievement as a social reformer. Because he believed in the Second Advent as an event in time, an end to which all history moved, his religion could never be “other worldly” in a derogatory sense. The body’s fitness for its great purpose was a matter of urgent concern to him. He was constantly surprised, and angered, by men who professed to be looking for their Lord to come and who did little or nothing to prepare for His coming.

Better working conditions in factories and mines, a strict observance of the Lord’s Day, the reform of the Church, evangelistic services in the London theatres and Exeter Hall were all, and inseparably, a tidying of the house of life for the Royal Guest who was coming.

Every man was his brother’s keeper, not merely as created by the same God and destined for the same immortality, but because they would both shortly appear before the judgment seat of Christ. Shaftesbury could not rest until he had done everything in his power “to present a people acceptable to the Lord”.

Because the Evangelical leaders of his time held fast by the doctrine of the Second Advent, Shaftesbury was the more ready in later life to identify himself with most of the enthusiasms of the Evangelical party. Alexander Haldane, a proprietor of The Record, became one of his closest friends. He became President or Vice-president of almost all the Evangelical Societies, and a “May meeting” for three decades was hardly complete without Lord Shaftesbury in the chair. He found it tiresome work. “Letters and Chairs eat me up,” he writes in 1848; and again three years later, “these terrible May chairs.” But applause was not distasteful to him, and if it encouraged in him a regrettable habit of portentous utterance, there was still plenty of self-distrust to be worked off in his diary; and some of his finest speeches were made at the annual meetings of the Church Pastoral-Aid Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society. He was not a lively speaker, but he was always well prepared.

Increasingly drawn into Evangelical party affairs, he still refused to consider himself a party leader. The “cross-bench” habit was strong to the last, and he was never a “party-man” in the narrow sense, ecclesiastically or politically. When Frederick Temple, one of the authors of Essays and Reviews, was appointed Bishop of Exeter, Shaftesbury accepted the presidency of a committee of protest, with his kinsman Pusey as Vice-president. When Evangelicals held aloof he rounded on them (in his diary) for “their coldness and insincerity, their disunion, their separation in place and action”. He was piqued, too, because they had criticised him for praising Pusey’s marvellous essay on Daniel”. In another outburst in his diary he writes: “All zeal for Christ seems to have passed away. The Ritualists have more of it than the Evangelicals.”

These outbursts ought not to be taken too seriously. Like many another, Shaftesbury used his private diary for letting off steam. He was at one with the Evangelicals of his time in their hatred of Ritualism, and supported legislation to restrict its excesses. But, with his usual thoroughness, he was careful to get first-hand evidence. As in years past he had gone down a mine or had inspected a common lodging-house, so he went one Sunday morning to St. Alban’s, Holborn. His recorded impression, as on earlier tours of inspection, was vivid in details if somewhat un-technical in its terms. “Abundance of servitors, etc., in Romish apparel,” he wrote, “service intoned and sung, except the Lessons, by priests with white surplices and green stripes. . . . A quarter of an hour, or thereabouts, sufficed to minister to about seventy Communicants, out of perhaps six hundred present. An hour and three-quarters were given to the histrionic part. The Communicants went up to the tune of soft music, as though it had been a melodrama, and one was astonished, at the close, that there was no fall of the curtain.” His disgust at such “unspiritual” worship ought to be set side by side with his no less confident criticism of Presbyterian worship in Scotland. “Noted with approval newer kirks surmounted with a cross . . . their service I cannot call worship. It appeals neither to the senses, the feelings, nor the reason; the business of the congregation is to listen: they have neither part nor voice in its functions. . . . No responses, no Amens; all is silent save the minister.”

Shaftesbury was a definite churchman. He received Holy Communion regularly at the great festivals and at other times if in special need or anxiety according to the more conservative fashion of his time. Although he got over a youthful contempt of Dissenters, he never ceased to believe that they were wrong-headed in their standards of public worship. He loved the Anglican Liturgy, and advocated a wider use of evening celebrations of Holy Communion on the ground that many would-be communicants could attend at no other time. At the annual meeting of the C.P.A.S. in 1873 he outlined a programme of church reform which would have been even more interesting if he had gone into more detail. His points were: (1) a careful but efficient reform of the Prayer-Book; (2) a reform of the patronage of livings—some check on private patronage but not by way of popular election or episcopal nomination; (3) an alteration in the system of administering ordination and of admitting men to Holy Orders, by calling in the cooperation of the presbytery, as Archbishops Ussher and Leighton had advocated; (4) an increase of dioceses, and diocesan bishops, from twenty-four to forty-eight by dividing the territories and revenues of the existing dioceses. These reforms look mild enough now, but Shaftesbury regarded them as so revolutionary that he felt it necessary to resign from his presidency of the C.P.A.S. after this speech. Needless to say his resignation was not accepted, though according to Hodder his speech provoked much controversy.

There were other Church reforms, not mentioned in this speech, which Shaftesbury advocated. One was the omission from regular use of the Athanasian Creed, about which he wrote to The Times on May 25, 1872, noting in his diary for that day “I shall need a skin like a rhinoceros to withstand the fury of my enemies, and the candour of my friends.” It is somewhat pathetic to notice how expectation of criticism had become a habit with him.

Another matter of constant concern to him was how to make the layman’s part in the Church more effective. He opposed the resumption of Convocation (after a gap of nearly 150 years) on the grounds that laymen were excluded from it, and he refused to attend a Church Congress because of this exclusion of the laity from Convocation. He had in mind a more representative organ of church government in which the laity would play a full part. He had little hope of effective reform of the Church “unless laymen will make sacrifices in proportion to those they demand of the clergy”. Finding more willingness to sacrifice, as well as an unexpected orthodoxy of belief, in the main Dissenting communions, he took every opportunity of co-operating with them in evangelistic enterprises and in the work of interdenominational societies such as the London City Mission, the Bible Society and the Religious Tract Society. A warm friendship grew up between him and Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher. He does not appear to have thought of reunion of the Church of England with the Free Churches as an item for his programme of church reform; but he did much to abate ancient hostilities and to remove misunderstandings between Churchmen and Dissenters.

As we have seen, Shaftesbury was prepared to make common cause with the Tractarians on more than one occasion against a greater enemy—Neology, or, as we should say now, Modernism. Against Neologians his hostility was implacable. “They are praising a sensuous religion,” he said. “They hope to get rid of doctrines by sentiments.” Essays and Reviews, Colenso’s book on the Pentateuch, Renan’s Vie de Jésus, Seeley’s Ecce Homo all met with his severe displeasure. He was reported as describing this last, at a C.P.A.S. meeting in 1866, as “the most pestilential book ever vomited from the jaws of hell”. He did not recollect using these words, but he was prepared to stand by them. He felt that whole truth was at stake— “the Divinity of Christ, His Atoning Sacrifice and His coming kingdom”. Not the Evangelicals only, but Dr. Pusey and Bishop Wilberforce looked to him to give a lead in this battle against infidelity, and perhaps he may be excused in the circumstances for over-reaching himself. He was not prepared to carry the battle as far as opposing the endowment of the Greek Chair at Oxford on the grounds that Jowett was named as its occupant. “Heaven knows,” he wrote to Archdeacon Denison, “how I loathe the theology of Dr. Jowett, but we should not put him down by dishonouring his chair.”

There was no love lost between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury and the main cause of it was Palmerston’s “wicked” ecclesiastical appointments, which were known to be in fact largely the work of Shaftesbury. When Palmerston became Prime Minister in 1855, Shaftesbury was glad for friendship’s sake but seriously perturbed for the Church. “I fear his ecclesiastical appointments will be detestable. He does not know, in theology, Moses from Sydney Smith.” He need not have worried. In nine years Palmerston bestowed twenty-five bishoprics, two deaneries and two Regius Professorships at Oxford. In almost all these major appointments he consulted Shaftesbury and in most minor ones too. Shaftesbury made a long and careful note about it all in his diary for November 1, 1865.

“The first bishops were decidedly of the Evangelical School; and my recommendations were made with that intention. I could not foresee the duration of his power, and I was resolved to put forward men who would preach the truth, be active in their diocese, be acceptable to the working people and not offensive to the Nonconformists. He accepted my suggestions on these very grounds, and heartily approved them.”

Later, with perfect amity between the two collaborators, it was felt expedient to enlarge upon the sphere of selection. Shaftesbury suggested Tait, then Dean of Carlisle, as Bishop of London, believing that the “Broad Church” ought to be represented. Trench as Dean of Canterbury was Palmerston’s own idea, but Shaftesbury suggested his preferment to the Archbishopric of Dublin. Ellicott was rewarded for his attack on Essays and Reviews. If to-day we are shocked by these revelations, it is well to remind ourselves that nothing has yet been done to alter the system. Shaftesbury enjoyed it enormously, and consulted Haldane frequently about the appointments. When it was over he wrote to him: “Now that we, like all other dogs, have had our day, and are shrunk to our former proportions, let us bless the Lord that, in His good pleasure, He used us, and has done so much by small instruments.” Clearly, he regarded it as a providential opportunity of reforming the Church from above. Possibly he overrated his influence in some cases. Almost certainly Wilberforce would have gone to Canterbury in 1862, instead of Longley, if Gladstone had been in power.(2) But would Gladstone’s appointments have been any better? He would certainly have had other advisers, and he and they would doubtless have used the opportunity with the same freedom, the same meticulous care for the “good man” apart from his social standing and his politics. Some of the “good men”, though certainly not all, would have been different.

Shaftesbury opposed the schemes of national education as he opposed the books of the Neologians, because “in respect of the Revealed Word they opened a door which can never be shut and through which everything may pass”. National Education seemed to him to mean neutral education. The Bible would be the one book on the index. The revealed Word of God and religious teaching “would be exiled to the odds and ends of time”. W. E. Forster realized that Shaftesbury was fighting for something he himself wanted. Neither of them desired a neutral education. But Shaftesbury did not really want a national education either. His Ragged Schools, the beloved progeny of his later years, were, he felt, the foundation of a better plan. Idleness was a more dangerous foe than ignorance.

Sometimes, in his later years, it is an old man we hear speaking, watch writing in his diary—someone a little crotchety, not prepared to be contradicted, narrowing down his loyalties, sharpening his aversions. But often, behind the mask of age, we see him unchanged, still able to carry an audience with him against its previous judgment by his gift for graphic description, by his first-hand knowledge of the facts, by his unimpeachable integrity: still guarding the public conscience, still succouring the weak. On May 3, 1884, he headed a deputation to the Great Northern Railway to plead with them about third-class return fares for workers. In the same year he made a speech in the Mansion House in aid of a new society for protection of children against cruelty. “I know I must soon die,” he said to friends about this time. “I hope it is not wrong to say it—but I cannot bear to leave the world with all the misery in it.” But on his eighty-fourth birthday he wrote in his diary: “Retrospects must be terrible to everyone who measures and estimates his hopes by the discharge of his duties here on earth. Unless he be overwhelmed with self- righteousness, he must see that, when weighed in the balance, he will be found wanting. But what are the prospects? They may be bright, joyous, certain in the faith and fear of the Lord Jesus.”


1) Lord Shaftesbury, Higham, p. 96.

2) S. C. Carpenter, Church and People, p. 267.



1. Discuss the bearing of the Christian Gospel upon social reform in the light of present day needs.

2. “The hope of the second coming of Christ in glory held a central place in Shaftesbury’s faith and undergirded all his activity”. To what extent should the Second Coming have a dominant influence in our Christian life and service?

3. Shaftesbury claimed to be “an Evangelical of the Evangelicals”. Examine modern Evangelicalism in the light of the tradition which he represented.




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