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Poor Man's Earl, The

by John Pollock

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In my ideal world, the Christians who made the greatest contributions in history would also have written great books, so that we could easily peer into their hearts and minds. Athanasius, the man most responsible for preserving the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, managed to do this, as did one of the Christians who rescued Jews from Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

After them, the list is short: Martin Luther certainly meets both criteria, and John Milton would easily qualify if we overlook his heresies. John Calvin qualifies, and James Madison might. Augustine qualifies, but only because his books are so fantastic that they impacted history on their own. And I want to include David Brainerd here, though I know his Diary is not a literary classic.

But I suppose it is rather demanding to ask every Christian whom God uses mightily to also produce a great book. And I’m thankful for men like William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury, in spite of the fact that they didn’t write any masterpieces.

Lord Shaftesbury is one of the most obscure men on our reading list, which is a clear indication of how much the secular mindset dominates modern history classes. Because he acted expressly out of Christian charity, he’s treated as a “dog bites man” story—he’s just doing what he was supposed to do. It’s only news, in the history classroom, when Christians don’t behave like Christ (see the Crusades and the Salem witch trials).

By one biographer’s estimation, “No man has in fact ever done more [than Lord Shaftesbury] to lessen the extent of human misery or to add to the sum total of human happiness.” That sounds like the sort of person we should learn about in history! Which is why I insist that my students read this slim biography, Poor Man’s Earl.

As a Member of Parliament and later an Earl, Shaftesbury had every excuse to travel only in a rarified orbit. Instead, he grew more and more sensitive to the way in which the poor (and especially children) were exploited during the initial phases of the Industrial Revolution. He spent his long life working to alleviate many of the horrors described in Dickens’s novels, pushing reforms “concerning lunacy, factory hours, child labor, child prostitution, and the working conditions of chimney sweeps, costermongers, and miners.” He also had a vision for providing a Christian education to the poor.

When Lord Shaftesbury died in 1885, his funeral took place in a downpour—and 7,000 people stood in that downpour in Parliament Square to pay their last respects. Whether he wrote a great book or not, that’s someone you should know.

by Jeff Baldwin