Faith in Focus

Christian Politicians in English History

A common conviction among people of Reformed persuasion is that Christians have responsibilities to serve God in the political sphere, as in all God-ordained areas of life. Most of us would agree that it is a good thing for Christians to offer themselves for service in Parliament, as elected representatives of the people. We tend, though, to become somewhat sceptical about the possibilities of effective, righteous action by Christians in the often-sordid world of politics. The grubby pressures to compromise for the sake of "getting something done " often limit these possibilities. The necessity to work within a party, especially if one has the privilege to serve in Cabinet, may mean one no longer has freedom of conscience. And surely the possibilities of getting anything done are so small, given the overwhelming force of public opinion in favour of immorality, sexual deviance, infidelity and abortion. One might conclude that any Christian serving in Parliament will either be forced to compromise or just give up out of plain discouragement.

One way of exploring these questions is to look at the lives of Christian politicians in the past, and to observe their struggles to serve God faithfully in the face of these difficulties. By ascertaining how such men conducted themselves it is often possible to observe principles which may be of instruction and encouragement to us today. Perhaps two of the most famous such Christian politicians in English history are William Wilberforce and Anthony Ashley Cooper, Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Wilberforce used to be well-known to most people as leader of the successful campaign against the British slave trade. Shaftesbury, perhaps less of a household name, was nevertheless at least as effective as Wilberforce in his efforts to limit the exploitation of children as factory workers and as chimney sweeps. He was also a great campaigner for good sanitation and basic education for poor children.

A circle of friends

William Wilberforce was born in 1759, the only son of a wealthy Hull merchant. He attended Cambridge University and, through his quick wit, love of conversation and affectionate nature he soon gained a large circle of friends. One of them was William Pitt, the future Prime Minister. He and Wilberforce were to remain friends until Pitt's untimely death in 1806. When only 21 Wilberforce ran for the Parliamentary seat of Hull, which he won thanks to his extraordinary speaking abilities. Four years later, when his friend Pitt was made Prime Minister (at the age of 24) Wilberforce took the big risk of standing for Yorkshire, a much more difficult contest. Samuel Johnson's famous biographer, Boswell, described the tiny young man's performance thus: "I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table, but as I listened the shrimp grew and grew and became a whale."

After the successful election Wilberforce left for a tour of the continent. He invited Isaac Milner, his old Hull schoolmaster, who had become a prominent professor and clergyman at Cambridge, to join him. Milner, an evangelical, challenged his young friend about the Christian faith as they drove through southern France; and later in their travels they read the Greek New Testament together. Wilberforce was converted. From then on his motivation as a politician was completely changed. Instead of pursuing a dazzling parliamentary career like Pitt, he devoted the rest of his life to what the elderly John Newton advised him: the good of God's church and the good of the nation. One of his first major decisions as a Christian was to distance himself from the intrigues of party politics. This was at great personal cost, as it meant he never in his entire career held political office - which in those days meant cabinet position. However, it gave him opportunity in the House of Commons to speak freely and openly on any issue whenever he wanted.

Shaftesbury, known as Anthony Ashley Cooper until he succeeded to his father's title, was born in 1801. He spent a desperately unhappy childhood at the hands of alternately cruel and neglectful parents. It was through the influence of his mother's loving, evangelical housekeeper, Maria Millis, that young Ashley first believed. Maria read him Bible stories and taught him to pray. However, his childhood left him a sensitive man, inclined to fits of depression and soaring bursts of joy. All his life he had a deep compassion and love for children.

In a day when young aristocrats went to university to socialise and squander their parents' resources, Ashley was an unusual Oxford student. He decided to study conscientiously, and graduated with first-class honours in 1822. Four years later he won his first election, and took his seat in Parliament, the natural step of the eldest son of a peer. However, it was Ashley's compassion which led him to take up the unusual and unpopular cause of pauper lunatics the following year. This launched him into a lifetime of service to the poor of England. In it he battled both the indifference of the wealthy and the socialism of the infant union movement. His compassion, like Wilberforce's, came from a sense of duty to God and an attitude of service to those he believed to be dependent on him. He was not a campaigner for the equal rights of men. Rather, he acted as would a benevolent landlord who cared for the welfare of his own tenants and labourers. Like Wilberforce, he never held a cabinet office because he believed it would lead to a demand that he compromise for the sake of party. He preferred to retain the freedom of an independent role in Parliament.

A striking picture

The political actions of both Wilberforce and Shaftesbury provide striking pictures of what truly upright, God-fearing Christians may achieve. Wilberforce, initially, was thought mad by his friends when he took up the cause of African slaves. To oppose the trade was to take on some of the wealthiest and most powerful interest groups of his day. The "West Indians", as those profiting from the Caribbean sugar industry were known, claimed that two-thirds of England's commerce was dependent on the slave trade. The campaign began in 1788 when Pitt, on Wilberforce's urging, forced a bill through Parliament which limited the number of slaves which could be carried per ship. From then on, Wilberforce presented a bill before Parliament proposing the abolition of the trade every year. There was an intensely fierce debate in 1789; but after that, the French Revolution, and fears that revolutionary ideas would spread to England, took the initiative from Wilberforce and his friends! . Wilberforce himself was caricatured as a revolutionary for his championship of the slaves' cause, even though he was a strong anti-revolutionary. During the food riots which occurred in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, for instance, he advocated severe measures to put down the ferment.

From 1792 Britain was at war with France; and the physical peril and financial hardship she faced put the issue of the slave trade far from most politicians' minds. However, Wilberforce and his evangelical friends continued with unabated zeal to gather enormous quantities of evidence on the conditions of the slaves; and year by year new bills came before the House. They mounted an intense public campaign, distributing thousands of pamphlets containing the facts gathered by Zachary Macauley and others, often at immense personal cost. Poet William Cowper wrote a famous poem lamenting the slave's position. China manufacturer Josiah Wedgewood made a cameo of a kneeling slave, inscribed "Am I not a man and a brother?" Much to Wilberforce's surprise, a boycott of slave-grown sugar was joined by 300,000 Englishmen. In 1792 he was able to present 519 petitions to Parliament, containing thousands of signatures.

Unmatched eloquence

Year by year his unmatched eloquence moved his fellow parliamentarians; but still they continued to vote against his bills. In 1796, success seemed close when, after the fall of the extreme revolutionary Jacobins, high hopes were held for peace, and political opinion favoured Wilberforce. However, at the third and final reading of that year's abolition bill in Parliament, complacency set in and a dozen members absented themselves to attend a comic opera. The bill failed by just four votes. It was a dreadful moment of discouragement, but Wilberforce continued on - for 11 more years. This was in spite of personal illness, political pressures, and the death in 1806 of his friend, Pitt, on whose support he had depended. The new Prime Minister, William Grenville, was a strong abolitionist, however, and suggested introducing the bill into the House of Lords first - where it had so often been thwarted by vested interest. After a bitter fight lasting a month, it was passed there and on February 22, 1807, the House of Commons voted, by a majority of 283 to 16, to pass it. The cause had taken nearly 20 years, but its supporters had persevered in faithfulness to God. Wilberforce spent the rest of his life campaigning against the existence of the institution of slavery, which was finally abolished in the British empire just before he died in 1833.

Shaftesbury's life was devoted to improving the lives of the poor of England; and especially those of children. It was a time of slowly-awakening consciousness of suffering in England. While many middle and upper-class Englishmen professed to believe the message of the gospel, few applied it to the needs they saw around them every day. The poor, in the early nineteenth century, were always with them. They were accustomed to the sight of tiny boys being sent up their tall chimneys in terror - if they happened to enter their drawing rooms at the right time. Factory owners thought nothing of small children working 12-hour days and longer in their mills. For Shaftesbury it was the special knowledge he gained as a member of parliamentary committees which alerted him to this suffering - and transformed him into a defender of the weak and helpless. Once he had gained a reputation for such stances he was approached again and again for his help. He introduced bills to prohibit the use of climbing-boys and to limit the hours of child-labour in factories; but again and again these were either defeated in the House, or if passed, rendered ineffectual by the devious tactics of those with vested interests. This did not stop him and his friends in Parliament working for change. From the 1830s he laboured over factory bills to protect children, and mines legislation to keep women and children from hauling coal underground. Outside the House he campaigned for sanitary reform in England's big cities where cholera, for example, was rampant. He was also concerned about the conditions many agricultural workers lived in. Labourers frequently lived in tiny cottages, and unmarried sons and daughters would have to share rooms, even beds, with other single farm workers. Promiscuity and pregnancies were common. Deeply aware that workers on his father's estates shared such conditions, Shaftesbury was only able to do something to help them himself when he became the Seventh Earl.

Clear convictions

In all these endeavours Shaftesbury acted with clear convictions which set him apart from other politicians of his day. Others, loosely labelled as "Radicals", also campaigned for shorter factory hours and better working conditions, but their motivation was entirely different; coloured by the egalitarianism which was at the heart of the growing trade union movement. He despised the union movement and viewed socialism as an alternative gospel. Shaftesbury was a paternalist at heart, in the finest sense of the word. His motivation was the sense of duty he had to the weak and defenceless, to defend and protect them. He was constantly driven to create conditions for the poor which would give them opportunity to hear, believe and live out the gospel. While he was shocked that chimney-sweeps should be beaten, starved and die agonizing deaths, he was outraged that they should grow up without knowledge of the Saviour's love. Again, knowing that the lack of adequate housing accompanying poverty placed young people in terrible positions of sexual temptation, and that any desire to live a godly life would be compromised unless improvements could be made. He longed for factory children to have the time and energy to learn to read and write, and to know the Bible themselves. This, too, was his motivation for setting up "ragged schools" for poor children everywhere he went. Education, in early Victorian times, was the passport to Christian understanding. His zeal for the truth also led him into a life-long battle against Tractarianism, a heresy in which over-emphasis on the sacraments and the role of clergyman as "priest" threatened to return the Church of England to Roman Catholicism. He was prepared to tackle anything which detracted from the gospel taught in the Bible.

The lives of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury show us that it is possible for Christians to be both faithful and effective as God's servants in politics. There are a number of features which marked their character and actions as outstanding.

First, both men had a deep love of the truth. They were firmly convinced that the Scriptures taught man was powerless in his sin, and that his only hope lay in the message of salvation through Christ. There was no other way for man to be improved. To withhold such knowledge from people by false doctrine or by denying them access to the Scriptures or to godly preaching was wickedness beyond measure. They also held a high view of the truth and applicability of Scripture to all matters of life. Without these convictions Wilberforce and Shaftesbury would have been easily side-tracked from the main focus of their campaigns: the bondage of the African slave, and the physical and spiritual needs of children. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury show that a firm grasp of the truth is necessary to all Christians in political callings. Without this, they find themselves unable to discern between righteous action and mere expediency; and between godly political philosophy and socialism , or humanism, or simple pragmatism.

Secondly, they were able to free themselves from the distractions of personal ambition. This is a most powerful temptation facing servants of God in politics. The public prominence, focus on personality, and the possibilities opened by decision-making roles all have the potential to lead a man's attention away from seeking the glory of Christ. It is a very difficult temptation to resist. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were only able to do so by declining all offers of cabinet positions. Membership in Cabinet carried immense power to do good, it could have been argued; but it also carried the requirement to adhere to party policy - even when this violated the conscience of a cabinet member. Freedom from the responsibilities of office, however, had the advantage of the opportunity to speak in Parliament at any time, on any issue, and from whatever perspective they chose.


Finally, these men were, above all, persevering. Both of them faced tremendous opposition to the causes they championed. Enormously powerful vested interests stood in favour of the slave trade and child labour in factories. Christian causes are usually unpopular in the world. Few will support them. Are we prepared to endure this - and to endure it patiently; without bitterness or despair? Wilberforce and Shaftesbury had to wait decades for what they knew was right; and had to be untiringly diligent in the research, personal pleading and public oratory required to see the matter to the end. There are an extraordinary number of close parallels between the eighteenth-century traffic in slaves and the twentieth-century practice of abortion. How many decades are we all prepared to give to ending this outrage through parliamentary reform? Wilberforce gave his whole life.

Perhaps it would be fitting to end with the words of the John Wesley, written on his death bed to William Wilberforce at the beginning of the young man's long campaign:

"Unless the Divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum (against the world), I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils, but if God be for you who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary of well-doing. Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might..."


Georgina Battiscombe Shaftsbury: A Biography of the Seventh Earl

(Constable, 1974)

Charles Colson Kingdoms in conflict (Hodder and Stoughton, 1987)

Robin Furneaux William Wilberforce (Hamish Hamilton, 1974)

Dr Sally Davey (Bishopdale)

Back to the Article Index

Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised August 96 / Copyright 1996