Clapham Sect

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The Clapham Sect, or Clapham Saints, were social reformers from Clapham, now in London spanning the 1780s to the 1840s. They almost all remained in the dominant religion, which was highly "established", interwoven with offices of state, the Church of England. Its successors were in many cases outside of the same church affiliation.

Summary and context[edit]

These were reformists and abolitionists, being contemporary terms as the 'Sect' was – until 1844 – unnamed. They figured and heard readings, sermons and lessons from prominent and wealthy Evangelical Anglicans who called for the liberation of slaves,[1] abolition of the slave trade and the reform of the penal system, and recognised and advocated other cornerstone civil-political rights and socio-economic rights. Defying the status quo of labour exploitation and consequent vested interests in the legislature was laborious and was motivated by their Christian faith and concern for social justice and fairness for all human beings. Their most famous member was William Wilberforce, widely commemorated in monuments and credited with hastening the end of the slave trade.

Electoral and other political rights were a main cause of all Radicals then their Northern successors the Chartists, their shared earliest success being the Great Reform Act 1832. Many of the other key rights saw a comparative context in treatises of the Age of Enlightenment, and Age of Revolutions. France's 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, together with the 1689 English Bill of Rights, the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence, and the 1789 United States Bill of Rights, inspired, in large part, the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[2]

Campaigns and successes[edit]

Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in 1803

The name stems from most of its figures being non-dissenting parishioners of Clapham, then a village south of London (today part of south-west London), where Wilberforce and Thornton, its two most influential leaders, often lived and met. Liturgy, sermons and sometimes meetings at Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common were a central feature, largely neighboured by upmarket new homes and expensive single-home plots of land (fashionable villas in the terms of the time).

Henry Venn, since seen as the founder, was lesser clergy, Curate, there (from at least 1754) and his son John became rector (parish priest) (1792–1813). The House of Commons politicians (MPs) William Wilberforce (first elected 1780) and Henry Thornton (first elected 1782), two of the most influential of the sect were parishioners and many of the meetings were held in their houses. They were encouraged by Beilby Porteus, the Bishop of London, himself an abolitionist and reformer, who sympathised with many of their aims. The term "Clapham Sect" is an almost non-contemporaneous invention by James Stephen in an article of 1844 which celebrated and romanticised the work of these reformers.[3]

The reformers were partly composed of members from St Edmund Hall, Oxford and Magdalene College, Cambridge, where the Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Charles Simeon had preached to students from the university, some of whom underwent an evangelical conversion experience and later became associated with the Clapham Sect.

Lampooned in their day as "the saints", the group published a journal, the Christian Observer, edited by Zachary Macaulay and were also credited with the foundation of several missionary and tract societies, including the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Church Missionary Society.

After many decades of work both in British society and in Parliament, the reformers saw their efforts rewarded with the final passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807, banning the trade throughout the British Empire and, after many further years of campaigning, the total emancipation of British slaves with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. They also campaigned vigorously for Britain to use its influence to work towards abolishing slavery throughout the world.

Some of the group, Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, were responsible for the founding in 1787 of Sierra Leone as a settlement for some of the African-Americans freed by the British during the American Revolutionary War; it thus became the first non trading-post British "colony" akin to a fledgling mission state in Africa, whose purpose in Clarkson's words was "the abolition of the slave trade, the civilisation of Africa, and the introduction of the gospel there".[4]: 11  Later, in 1792, another of the group John Clarkson was instrumental in the creation of its capital Freetown.

The group are described by the historian Stephen Tomkins as "a network of friends and families in England, with William Wilberforce as its centre of gravity, who were powerfully bound together by their shared moral and spiritual values, by their religious mission and social activism, by their love for each other, and by marriage".[4]

By 1848 when evangelical bishop John Bird Sumner became Archbishop of Canterbury, it is said that between a quarter and a third of Anglican clergy were linked to the movement, which by then had diversified greatly in its goals, although they were no longer considered an organised faction.[5]

Members of the group founded or were involved with a number of other societies, including the Abolition Society, formally known as the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (founded by Clarkson, Sharp and others)[6] and run largely by white middle-class women[7] of Quaker, Unitarian and Evangelical faiths[8] The Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions followed, in 1823, and there was also the Proclamation Society,[9][10] the Sunday School Society, the Bettering Society,[11] and the Small Debt Society.[9]

The Clapham Sect have been credited with playing a significant part in the development of Victorian morality, through their writings, their societies, their influence in Parliament, and their example in philanthropy and moral campaigns, especially against slavery. In the words of Tomkins, "The ethos of Clapham became the spirit of the age."[4]: 248 


Members of the Clapham Sect, and those associated with them, included:[12]

See also[edit]

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  1. ^ Ann M. Burton, "British Evangelicals, Economic Warfare and the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1794–1810." Anglican and Episcopal History 65#2 (1996): 197–225. in JSTOR
  2. ^ Douglas K. Stevenson (1987), American Life and Institutions, Stuttgart (Germany), p. 34
  3. ^ Gathro, John "William Wilberforce and His Circle of Friends", CS Lewis Institute. Retrieved 31 August 2016
  4. ^ a b c Tomkins, (2010) The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s circle changed Britain,
  5. ^ Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, Dangerous People? England 1783–1846 (2006), p 175.
  6. ^ "The role of the Clapham Sect in the fight for the abolition of slavery". Art UK. 10 August 2020. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  7. ^ "'Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?'". The National Archives. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  8. ^ "History – British History in depth: Women: From Abolition to the Vote". BBC. 23 January 2007. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  9. ^ a b Scotland, Nigel (29 January 2020). "The social work of the Clapham Sect: an assessment". The Gospel Coalition. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  10. ^ "History – William Wilberforce". BBC. 7 November 2006. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  11. ^ Gathro, Richard (2001). "William Wilberforce and His Circle of Friends". Knowing & Doing. C. S. Lewis Institute. ...originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of the C. S. Lewis Institute Report.
  12. ^ David Spring, "The Clapham Sect: Some Social and Political Aspects." Victorian Studies 5#1 (1961): 35–48.

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Ford K. Fathers of the Victorians: the age of Wilberforce (1961).
  • Burton, Ann M. "British Evangelicals, Economic Warfare and the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1794–1810." Anglican and Episcopal History 65#2 (1996): 197–225. in JSTOR
  • Cowper, William. "'The Better Hour Is Near': Wilberforce And Transformative Religion." (Evangelical History Association Lecture 2013) online
  • Danker, Ryan Nicholas. Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism (InterVarsity Press, 2016).
  • Hennell, Michael. John Venn and the Clapham Sect (1958).
  • Hilton, Boyd. The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1795-‐1865 (1988).
  • Hilton, Boyd. A Mad, Bad, Dangerous People? England 1783–1846 (2006), pp 174–88, passim.
  • Himmelfarb, Gertrude. "From Clapham to Bloomsbury: a genealogy of morals." Commentary 79.2 (1985): 36.
  • Howse, Ernest Marshall. Saints in Politics: The 'Clapham Sect' and the Growth of Freedom (University of Toronto Press, 1952)
  • Klein, Milton M. Amazing Grace: John Thornton & the Clapham Sect (2004), 160 pp.
  • Major, Andrea (2012). Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772–1843. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-1-84631-758-3.
  • Spring, David. "The Clapham Sect: Some Social and Political Aspects." Victorian Studies 5#1 (1961): 35–48. in JSTOR
  • Tomkins, Stephen. The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s circle changed Britain (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2010)
  • Tomkins, Stephen. William Wilberforce: a biography (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007).
  • Ward, William Reginald. The Protestant evangelical awakening (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  • Wolffe, John/ "Clapham Sect (act. 1792–1815)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2005; online edn, Oct 2016 accessed 13 Nov 2017

External links[edit]