Church Culture Theology

19th-century British Evangelicals and social justice

In the 19th century, social justice became a genuine expression of faith among British Evangelicals. In response to the growing economic injustice caused by the industrial revolution, Evangelicals across various Protestant traditions sought to release the poor from their plight and those enslaved from oppression.

The Methodists and Quakers were instrumental in the development of labour unions and child labour laws in response to growing economic injustice in Britain. William Booth, a Methodist minister, began a new Protestant denomination in 1864, the Salvation Army, as a response to the social ills of his time.

By expressing their faith through social justice, these Evangelicals were committed to living out the Kingdom of God in their lifetime, rather than waiting for its future fulfillment.

Arguably, the most important Anglican Evangelical in the social justice movement was William Wilberforce. Wilberforce, a British parliamentarian, was the great abolitionist that helped end the slave trade. Having grown up Methodist, Wilberforce later joined the Church of England where an Evangelical renewal began. Influenced by that renewal, Wilberforce began to experience a holy discontent for the practice of slavery and partnered with other Evangelicals to abolish it in 1833.

Christian mission was the theological starting point of Wilberforce and other Evangelicals of his day. This allowed Christ to reign on earth (in various social areas) through the active faith (James 2:17) of the Church, rather than wait for the literal millennium or premillennial return of Christ.

Today, there is division in the Church over the definition and consummation of the Kingdom of God. However, dispensational premillennialism—a theology which ultimately divorces the earth from salvific blessings here and now— is losing its appeal among 21st-century Evangelicals.

Missional living is the new theological starting point, which is more in line with the historic Christian faith and the British Evangelicals of the 19th-century.

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