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God’s follower, society’s leader

What does it look like when someone lets God direct their every step?

Margaret McMillan exemplifies how Christians can stand up, lead and bring about positive change in society when they follow God’s lead.

Margaret was born in New York on 20 June 1860. When she was five her father died and her mother decided to return to Scotland, where Margaret and her sister received an upper-class education at a school that Margaret felt trained girls to be ridiculous snobs”. This was her first taste of class inequality.

On leaving high school, Margaret continued her education to become a governess in Europe where she was exposed to new socialist theories alongside the Christian socialism her sister had introduced her to in Scotland. Returning to the UK, Margaret worked as a governess for several wealthy families. 

While working as a tutor at a rectory, Margaret coverted to Christianity, which changed her from a frustrated idealist to someone with a new transforming friendship with God”, manifested in a desire to work for the poor”. This conversion along with the influence of the Christian socialist movement convinced her to leave her secure post at the rectory and join her sister in London. There she undertook voluntary work in the slums for the Labour Party, while working as a governess for an aristocratic lady. She was fired, however, after her employer heard that Margaret had made a socialist speech in Hyde Park. 

By this time Margaret was a close friend of Labour Party founder James Keir Hardie, whose politics were grounded in a commitment to Christ’s gospel of love and brotherhood and service” (The Labour Leader Jan. 1899). In 1893 she became a founding member of the Independent Labour Party. She moved to Yorkshire, on invitation from Bradford Socialists, and the next year was elected to the school board, walking into England’s education scene, to change it for ever.

Bradford was an area of such deprivation that children often came to school too hungry, ill or overworked to learn. During school visits Margaret found many issues in need of urgent reform, and she did not hesitate to campaign for better conditions. She was not always well received; other board members often rejected her suggestions on grounds of expenditure, seemingly heedless to children’s needs. 

At a time when women rarely engaged in politics, Margaret had to contend with hostility and prejudice, aside from opposition to her reforms. Later she joined in campaigning for full women’s suffrage because she felt many of the UK’s social ills would never be put right unless women [came] into the arena with new power, new impulses, and new love”. 

It must have often been a lonely position to see the need for change and be unable to act because of others’ apathy and prejudice. Yet, despite opposition, by the time Margaret left the Bradford school board, it had become the first in Britain to provide medical inspection, free/low-cost school meals, and school baths in the poorest areas, setting a precedent for the country to follow.

In 1902 Margaret rejoined her sister in London, where she continued her work for educational reform. She was appointed manager of a group of Deptford primary schools and lobbied on issues, from children’s medical inspection to the provision of school meals, convincing parliament that ill or hungry children cannot learn. 

As well as policy-level work, the McMillan sisters pioneered on-the-ground efforts such as school clinics, night camps’ for children who lived in slums, and teacher training schools. Perhaps their most significant contribution was the creation of a nursery where they championed the cause of investing in children who lived in slums before they became rickety and diseased”, as well as emphasising the importance of the early years to a child’s development, something now universally recognised.

Although she is now celebrated for reforming Britain’s education system, Margaret spent much of her life battling, often taking a lonely stand. In the words of one of her friends: Her enemies were ignorance, prejudice, dirt and disease”. Her strength came from a deep faith and her work from a longing to make God’s kingdom a reality. In a letter to her teaching students she wrote: I do not know of any strength that can be found in even the higher forms of self-interest. They are all empty and futile. 

But there is another source, and in it is the needed power. Seek ye first the kingdom of God’ – here and now for little children.” This exhortation applies not only to Margaret’s students or little children. Whatever our party affiliation, sphere of influence, or job title, we must be ready like her to risk being unpopular for the sake of advancing God’s kingdom through action here and now. 

Kaiya Huleatt is an intern with the advocacy team at the Evangelical Alliance.

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