Wednesday, September 20, 2006

John Pollock - Shaftesbury the Reformer

This is a fairly short ( < 200 pages) biography of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Reading it, I found it hard to understand how he didn't make the shortlist for "Greatest Britons", well, except that it was voted for by the general public, and there doesn't seem to be a large public awareness of Shaftesbury. To be honest, I didn't know what he did, except thinking that he had something to do with prison reform, which I have at times been quite ambivalent about.

In brief, Shaftesbury was a 19th century English nobleman, MP and social reformer. He was heavily involved with campaigning against and stopping the quasi-slave-labour culture of the 1800s (especially for children), providing education and apprenticeships for street children, helping to reform criminals, abolishing the burning of widows in Indian, and was involved in founding and/or leading a vast number of organisations including the Bible Society, the RSPCA, the NSPCC, the YMCA, ... One of the striking things is the way that his actions flowed out of his sincere trust in Jesus - he was for a while virtually the official spokesman for Christians in England and many of the organisations he was involved with were explicitly Christian. It has certainly been argued that without the reforms he introduced, England might well have fallen to revolution in the mid-1800s, as many other countries in Europe did.

This biography is certainly a good introduction to Shaftesbury, but doesn't really have space to get into detail about what was going on in his mind, as there is so much that he did.

One interesting question: How come the great pioneering social reformers in history have almost all been committed Christians? The only one I can think of offhand who wasn't was Gandhi, and even he claimed to have been hugely influenced by Jesus. Maybe it's my selective knowledge of history, but William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, ...

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