What an impact Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect had:
Many of you know the name William Wilberforce, the great English Christian politician, abolitionist and social reformer. He is certainly a major feature of not just church history but secular history as well. But it is vital to recall that he did not work alone. He was surrounded by a small but dedicated group of followers and friends known as the Clapham sect, or the Clapham saints.
These were mainly wealthy Christian evangelicals and aristocrats who were also devoted to the slavery issue, to philanthropy, and to implementing a host of social reforms, primarily operating from the 1780s to the 1840s. Clapham back then was a village (but is today part of south-west London) where many of them lived.
Most of them were members of the Church of England. The group included such figures as Zachary Macaulay (1768–1838), John Newton (1725-1807), Charles Simeon (1759–1836), Henry Thornton (1760-1815), Hannah More (1745–1833), Granville Sharp (1735–1813), Henry Venn (1725–1797), and of course the centre of the circle, William Wilberforce (1759-1833).
The story of Wilberforce has been told by many, and I have a number of articles on him as well, such as this one: billmuehlenberg.com/2007/02/23/the-bicentennial-of-wilberforce-and-the-abolition-of-slavery/
As I said in that piece:
Wilberforce and his colleagues were profoundly moved by their evangelical Christian beliefs. They in fact were known as the “saints”. They had a clear sense of the public component of their Christian faith. After his conversion Wilberforce stated his conviction as to where his religion must lead him: “My walk, I am sensible, is a public one; my business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men, or quit the part which Providence seems to have assigned me.” Wilberforce and the Evangelicals of his day did not divorce their faith from society, but actively sought to live out their faith in the social arena.
What Wilberforce wrote in his diary in 1787 applied to the group as a whole: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” The latter was all about a myriad of endeavours at social reform, which included everything from education to missions to prison reform to workers’ rights to looking after animals (Wilberforce was a founding member of the RSPCA).
Indeed, there were many dozens of societies set up by these Christians to deal with a host of social ills. They include:
-The Society for the Suppression of Vice
-The Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor
-The Religious Tract Society
-The Society for the Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts
-The Society for the Reformation of Prison Discipline
-The Church Missionary Society
-The Society for Promoting Charity Schools in Ireland
-The Institution for the Protection of Young Girls
-The Society for Superseding the Necessity for Climbing Boys [chimney sweeps]
In all, Wilberforce and his colleagues founded or were involved in some 69 different societies. That is certainly a case of putting your faith into action. That is certainly a case of seeking to be salt and light in a needy world. Would that we had more such dedicated Christians today who want to both share the gospel as well as make a very real impact on the world around them.
Let me share two quotes about this remarkable group (see bibliographic details below). Stephen Tomkins writes:
There was, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a network of friends and families in England, with William Wilberforce as its centre of gravity, powerfully bound together by shared moral and spiritual values, by religious mission and social activism, by love for each other, and by marriage. Their greatest and most celebrated achievement was the abolition of the slave trade and then slavery itself throughout the British Empire and beyond. . . . They tried to reform the Church of England and achieved the moral transformation of Britain. They were pioneers of Victorianism and of Christian colonialism. They privately gave away extraordinary amounts of money to people in need.
All this was their faith. Their one overriding concern was to serve God, in their daily lives and their national and international campaigns. . . . Their campaigns were driven by two irreducibly separate religious motives: one, to promote true religion and save souls; the other, to make life better for people and to make the world a better place. Neither was merely the means to the other; both were essential; both were, as they understood it, the work of God.
And Ernest Marshall Howse concludes his book on this remarkable group in this way:
The Clapham Sect, in short, seem to have been raised providentially for their particular duties in their particular time. Their combined gifts and advantages, and their fervour and perseverance, enabled them to render services, religious, social, and political that were at once cardinally important and critically opportune. Had their influence been lacking there seems no ground for believing that any other influence of the time could have accomplished their work….
The Clapham Sect, in fact, did a great deal to change the atmosphere of the nation. Professor G. M. Trevelyan traces the origin of Victorian optimism in significant part to the anti-slavery triumph. “Mankind had been successfully lifted on to a higher plane by the energy of good men, and the world breathed a more kindly air.” . . . [Wilberforce] and his faithful band had fought a weary battle under lowering skies. But at eventide there was light. They left England with an “earnest of success,” and an awakened hope that days still brighter were to come.
Ten lessons for believers today
1. As mentioned, Wilberforce did not achieve all the great things he was involved in all by himself. He had other faithful friends and colleagues who stood with him.
2. Related to the above, God normally works through a minority or a remnant. The Clapham group usually numbered no more than 20 to 30 people. But that was enough to achieve some really terrific outcomes.
3. While most of these men and women were Anglicans, most were lay people. You do not have to be a high-ranking official in the church to make a difference for the Kingdom.
4. The Clapham sect could be called an early parachurch group. They worked alongside of the existing church and made a real difference.
5. There is nothing wrong with being a rich Christian. The real issue is how you make use of your wealth: do you spend it on yourself, or do you use it to do the Lord’s work?
6. We need to rethink the division between sacred and secular. These Christians thought that all of life should be impacted by their Christian faith. These were not just ‘Sunday Christians’ – they put their faith into action in all aspects of life.
7. Prayer and activism go together. These saints prayed as much as they worked. Both are needed, and we will never succeed in doing great things for God unless we also pray and work.
8. A strong sense of God’s calling is needed when getting involved in such activities. Unless God is behind our efforts, we will quickly become discouraged and give up. The Clapham sect persevered knowing that God had led them into this work.
9. Persecution is to be expected when seeking to bravely do the work of the Kingdom and challenging the strongholds of Satan. Even many in the Church of England opposed Wilberforce and the Clapham sect, and he was once known as ‘the most hated man in all of England.’
10. Sometimes when I am discouraged or depressed, my spirits can be revived when reading about great saints of the past – especially when things seem so dark and hopeless all around me. While I will not be as great as they were, nor have as much of an impact as they did, I can at least TELL others about them. Their stories always deserve to be told.
For further reading
In addition to the various biographies and books about Wilberforce, see these volumes:
Howse, Ernest Marshall. Saints in Politics: The ‘Clapham Sect’ and the Growth of Freedom. George Allen & Unwin, 1952, 1971.
Tomkins, Stephen, The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Changed Britain. Lion Hudson, 2010.