The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life

The harvest is plentiful

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Jesus made it plain that his followers and others were needed to go and reach all those other people who were ready to hear the Gospel and come to faith in Christ. If no one was prepared to share the message, no one was going to hear it. Different people will work in different harvest fields depending on their circumstances.

On Thursday we remembered the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury who was one of the great social reformers. He spread the message of Jesus by living out his faith, working throughout his life to better the conditions for women, children and the poor, the very people that Jesus seemed most concerned about. Why did he give his life in this way? That can be attributed to a much less well known person, without whom much of the Earl’s work would probably never have been done. Who? Read on…

The readings were Nehemiah 8:1-12, Psalm 19:7-11, Luke 10:13-16.

Today we remember Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury who was born on 28th April 1801 at the London home of his uncle, the fifth Earl of Shaftesbury, into a rich family.

Although his family was rich, Ashley had an unhappy childhood. His parents did not show him much love; he was sent away to boarding school at the age of 7. Ashley did have a nurse called Maria who loved him and whom he called his best friend. Maria told him stories and read the Bible to him as she shared her Christian faith with him. Even though Maria died when he was only 10, Ashley remembered the faith she taught him and that was what drove him throughout his life.

Like William Wilberforce who campaigned to abolish slavery, Ashley was a great social reformer. When Wilberforce died in 1833, Ashley was just beginning a campaign which lasted for the whole of his life, that of freeing children whom he called ‘the little white slaves.’

Ashley became a Member of Parliament in 1826 and early in his career he joined the committee which looked at the way lunatics were treated. He heard so many terrible stories that he went to see for himself. He witnessed cruelty and appalling dirty and degrading conditions. He was so shocked that he worked for people who were in mental institutions for the rest of his life. He helped to steer a bill through Parliament which recognised that the insane were ‘people of unsound mind’ rather than social outcasts.

In 1833 Ashley realised the conditions of the children who worked in textile mills. The industrial revolution had a workforce which included many children. He supported a bill which limited the hours children could work to ten, whereas previously they had worked 18 hours a day. The only education any of these children received was a little on Sunday. They were often injured and crippled or died young due to the conditions.

Boys were also involved in sweeping chimneys. To prepare for working the skin of the boy was rubbed with salt water and he was put in front of the fire so that his skin would harden. Obviously knees and elbows often were grazed. Sometimes the boys became stuck in which case the master lit a fire to make the boy wriggle free. Some boys suffocated and many died of cancer.

Children also worked long hours in the fields, becoming exhausted by the very hard work.

In the brick making industry Ashley found children who were so covered in clay from carrying it that they looked like pillars at first glance. Both boys and girls did this work. The children had to take the clay to the kilns, braving fierce heat to do so. Ashley said ‘the heat was so fierce that I was not myself able to remain more than two or three minutes.’

In the coal mines Ashley found children as young as 4 or 5 working there. He steered the Mines Act through Parliament in 1842 which excluded women and girls from the mines and also boys under 13.

Ashley first tried to prevent the abuse of children in these ways with legislation in 1833 but Members of Parliament were landowners and mill owners and did not want the conditions changing and so the bill was defeated. Over time laws were passed to make life better for children but it took until 1875 for the Shaftesbury Act to abolish the practice of using boys to sweep chimneys.

Ashley was not content just to help children work less hours. He wanted to improve their literacy. He found that there were ‘ragged schools’ being formed for this purpose and he supported their foundation. These schools educated 300,000 poor children. He became the president of the Ragged School Union which has now become the Shaftesbury Society. Ashley persuaded the government to pay for the most able students to emigrate to Australia, New Zealand and Canada where they would have better opportunities. Those who stayed in England were helped to gain good employment. He persuaded the Admiralty to provide ships where boys could be trained for the Navy.

This list of campaigns sounds enough for one lifetime but Ashley did much more. He worked to get proper sewage and drinking water in London. He championed the cause of widows in India who were burnt on their husbands’ funeral pyres. He encouraged the building of good affordable housing for the poor. He was president of the British and Foreign Bible Society and very involved in missions.

Ashley was dedicated to alleviating the problems suffered by the poor, especially children. This grew from the Christian faith he had learnt as a child. He was an Anglican but had good relationships with Christians of other denominations. He worked hard to reform how the church was run. The respect he was held in is shown by the fact that Prime Minister Palmerston gave him the responsibility of choosing bishops and archbishops. Instead of choosing those who came from the ‘right’ families, he looked for those with good qualities and a heart for the poor.

Ashley died on 1st October 1885. His funeral was held in Westminster Abbey and was attended by representatives of 196 missions which were connected to him. There was a crowd of around 7000 people who lined the streets to pay their respects.

This is what Ashley’s son, Cecil, wrote: ‘When I saw the crowd which lined the streets as my father’s body was borne to the Abbey – the halt, the blind, the maimed, the poor and the naked standing bare headed in their rags amidst a pelting rain, patiently enduring to show their love and reverence for their departed friend, I thought it the most heart-stirring sight my eyes had ever looked upon; and I could only feel how happy was the man to whom it had been given to be thus useful in his life and thrice blessed in his death, and to be laid at last to his long sleep amidst the sob of a great nation’s heart.’

I suppose we could look at Ashley’s life and think that it was easy for him to make a difference because he was in a position of influence, with plenty of money to fund what he wanted to do. However, we wouldn’t be remembering him had it not been for Maria, a nurse with a simple Christian faith, who shared it with Ashley when he was a young boy and thus lit the fire that burned in him throughout his long life.

When Jesus sent out the 72, he sent them to different places. Each pair would have met different situations, people, needs. Just as those who harvest work in different fields, the workers of God work where they find themselves. Maria worked in her field, Ashley worked in his. The field for this ministry is in Second Life, whereas the field for my RL church is among the people of Batley in West Yorkshire. Interestingly Batley is in the very mill area that would have been affected by Ashley’s reforms.

Jesus said, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

I wonder where your harvest is, where mine is?

Helene Milena – Lay Pastor


Author: Helene Milena

Teacher, retired counsellor, wife, mother and grandmother.

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