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BLOG: a good society picks up a shovel

4 February 2019

A Good Society needs makers, not armchair moaners, I said a fortnight ago. Not satisfied with the status quo, makers of any society pick up a shovel or put their shoulder to the wheel. The deliberate decision to have no regrets in at least trying to be a difference for Jesus is where this change all begins.

I’ve recently come across a move of God Almighty in the 1850s that needs recalled in an attempt to show what picking up a shovel even means…

In Glasgow there were several Presbyterian ministers who were up to the challenges of rapidly changing urban culture. In their preaching they presented a faith that combined spiritual matters and the moral and physical dilemmas of city life. Such messages got people’s attention because following Jesus became not just about the condition of one’s heart or inner life, but simultaneously standards of living which call into question injustice and abject poverty.[1]

These ministers were attentive to the social justice impulses of the Old Testament prophets and the emphasis of the Apostle James: ‘by my works I will show you my faith’ (James 2.18) because they had been neglected by evangelicals in the city at that time. What took place as a response to their preaching was that Christians began populating the Glasgow Corporation (now Glasgow City Council) to bring about hugely significant political changes, such as “municipalizing the gas works and the trams, laying main sewers, bringing fresh water to the city, and doing something about insanitary and overcrowded housing.”[2]

These Evangelical councillors worked hard to bring about a society with a vision of a Godly Commonwealth, a vision that had stemmed from Puritan times. This scheme to pump fresh water into a polluted Glasgow from a distant Loch Katrine was more than an ambitious task. But with pioneering civil engineering, the plans of Christian councillors were delivered so as to alleviate the basic needs of the Glasgow slums.

But it wasn’t all roses. They were heavily criticised by the public for this initiative because the only way that this project could be brought into being was by imposing a long-term taxation.[3] Moaning at certain political decision will always be thus. Perhaps historical perspective lends us a hand in such a case, because all these years later Glaswegians still drink from this feat of engineering as the result of godly politics.

This deliberate attempt to influence the city’s politics came from the pulpit as preachers carefully read their Bibles. As Christians poured into the Corporation, some also stood successfully for election at Westminster. As a consequence, these Jesus-following, Glaswegian, politicians released a telling manifesto which stated:

The Labour Members of Parliament for the City of Glasgow … inspired by zeal for the welfare of humanity and the prosperity of all peoples … have resolved to dedicate themselves to the reconciliation and unity of the nations of the world and the development and happiness of the people of these islands.”[4]

A people who are as committed to the faith of a city’s inhabitants as much as the structural and physical state of it are a people who have chosen to pick up a shovel. With the Holy Spirit’s help to be God’s messianic people for a new generation we might be part of bringing a glimpse of God’s kingdom.[5] The faith of these passionate evangelicals who sought social change ‘was brought to completion by their works’ (James 2.22).

The tools are resting against the wall…

Stuart Weir is the National Director of CARE for Scotland


[1] Callum Brown, ‘Religion and the Development of an Urban Society: Glasgow 1780-1914’ (unpublished PhD thesis), University of Glasgow 1981

[2] Callum Brown, ‘Did Urbanization Secularize Britain?’ (1988: 1-14) Urban History Yearbook

[3] David Smith, Seeking a City With Foundations: Theology for an Urban World, Nottingham: IVP 2012, 112

[4] Sean Damer, Glasgow, Going for a Song, London: Lawrence and Wishart 1990, 134

[5] The content of this blog is entirely inspired by Smith, Seeking, chapter 5

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