Society problems

A Christian vision of charity and civil society

A characteristic element of Christian social engagement in the early church was concern for other believers as well as those outside the church. In the fourth century, Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate complained that Christians “support not only their poor, but also our own; all men see that our people lack our help. From the beginning, the Christian presence in the world was defined by sacrificial service, which remains true today. As we look to the past, we find inspiring models of how faithful discipleship can take shape.

One such role model is the British Anglican Anthony Ashley Cooper (1801-1885), the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Lord Shaftesbury was a politician, social reformer and evangelical famous for his pursuit of various philanthropic and charitable causes. A young contemporary of Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury also campaigned against slavery and sought to extend legal protections against abuse and oppression to other marginalized groups, including children and young women.

Even though Victorian England was in many ways a nation deeply informed by Christian values, Shaftesbury saw much corruption in society. As a teenager, the future Lord Shaftesbury attends the funeral of a poor man, which marks him deeply. A biographer recounts that “the drunken pallbearers, stumbling with a crudely made coffin and shouting snatches of bawdy songs, made him realize the existence of a whole empire of insensitivity which put his own childhood miseries into context” . Shaftesbury would become known as the “earl of the poor” due to his advocacy of the poor and downtrodden.

Shaftesbury balanced the important and overlooked link between just laws and civic virtue. Where laws needed to be made or changed to promote justice, he pursued them relentlessly. But he also realized that government action could crowd out and undermine private initiative. Even as he sought legal reform, Shaftesbury maintained the priority of civil society, particularly the importance of Christian action to meet social needs.

In this way, Shaftesbury sought the right relationship between what has been called the “legislative principle” and the “voluntary principle”. Prudence and discernment are needed to determine what is needed to solve a particular problem, to develop policy if necessary, and to develop such policy to promote rather than hinder voluntary, church, and charitable social service.

Shaftesbury took the time to get personally acquainted with and involved in the causes he championed

Where the government had already taken the lead, Shaftesbury worked to reform and correct its administration. This was especially true in the case of asylums and the so-called “insanity laws” of Shaftesbury’s time. Shaftesbury addressed mental health in his first major parliamentary speech in 1828. At the time, the government planned to build asylums and sanitariums, but there was little or no oversight or insurance against abuse. Both the conditions of admission to these institutions and the conditions experienced by those who have been placed there are very poorly defined and controlled.

Shaftesbury was aware of these conditions because he had personally visited such institutions. It was a defining feature of his career: he took the time to get personally acquainted with the causes he championed and to get involved in them. This was true for his efforts to promote Christian missions, evangelism and education among the poorer and working classes of London. Shaftesbury visited the workers, children and families where they lived and encouraged preaching, teaching and visitation even in the poorest urban slums.

This personal and relational approach helped him to know what was necessary and what would be harmful in particular cases. With regard to education, for example, Shaftesbury knew that the poorest children needed opportunities to learn trades, train their intellects and develop their character so that they could become both good Christians and good citizens. In addition to reforming factory conditions and child labor laws, Shaftesbury helped create the so-called “Ragged School” movement, which matched poor children in their communities and conditions with local resources to provide them with concrete opportunities to improve their lives. .

Richard Turnbull, Shaftesbury’s modern biographer, notes that the “Ragged School” movement grew under Shaftesbury’s leadership, growing from 20 schools serving 2,000 children in 1845 to 257 schools with 31,357 pupils in 1868.

The example of Shaftesbury in 19th century England is a laudable model of responsible and faithful social reform. As the world has become more complex, the basic posture of Christians remains the same. As Julian said, ancient Christians “dedicated themselves to philanthropy” and worked to meet human needs. So too are Lord Shaftesbury’s efforts for effective compassion through legislation and civil society. It is good to know that Christians today can find good examples and models of faithfulness in the Christian past. Our great calling is to be true to the present day.