Clapham Sect

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Clapham Sect, or Clapham Saints, were a group of social reformers associated with Clapham in the period from the 1780s to the 1840s. Despite the label "sect", most members remained in the established (and dominant) Church of England, which was highly interwoven with offices of state. However, its successors were in many cases outside of the established Anglican Church.[citation needed]


The Clapham movement grew from 18th-century evangelical trends in the Church of England (the Anglican Church) and started to coalesce around residents of Clapham, especially during the rectorship there of John Venn (in office: 1792-1813)[1] and came to engage in systematically advocating social reform.[2]

In the course of time the growth of evangelical Christian revivalism in England[3] and the movement for Catholic emancipation fed into a waning of the old precept that every Englishman automatically counted as an Anglican.[4] Some new Christian groups (such as the Methodists and the Plymouth Brethren) moved away from Anglicanism, and the Christian social reformers who succeeded the Claphamites from about the 1830s[5] often exemplified Nonconformist conscience[6] and identified with groups functioning outside the established Anglican Church.[7]

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,[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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".[11]: 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".[11]

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.[12]

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)[13] and run largely by white middle-class women[14] of Quaker, Unitarian and Evangelical faiths[15] The Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions followed, in 1823, and there was also the Proclamation Society,[16][17] the Sunday School Society, the Bettering Society,[18] and the Small Debt Society.[16]

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."[11]: 248 


Members of the Clapham Sect, and those associated with them, included:[19]

See also[edit]

icon Christianity portal


  1. ^ Venn, John (8 March 2012) [1904]. Annals of a Clerical Family: Being Some Account of the Family and Descendants of William Venn, Vicar of Otterton, Devon, 1600-1621. Cambridge Library Collection - Religion (reprint ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108044929. Retrieved 2 December 2022. [...] John [Venn] was the founder of an evangelical sect at Clapham (where his father had also been curate), and of the Church Missionary Society [...].
  2. ^ Nirmala Sharma (21 March 2016). Unraveling Misconceptions: A New Understanding of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. ISBN 9781514475218. Retrieved 2 December 2022. 'The Clapham Sect was a group of evangelical reformers that presented a new "crystallization of power: parliament, the Established Church, the journals of opinion, the universities, the City, the civil and fighting services, the government of the Empire. Clapham found a place in them all, not infrequently a distinguished one.' [...] The Clapham Sect was also noted for its 'advocacy of the abolition of the slave trade.'
  3. ^ Ditchfield, G. M. (2003) [1998]. The Evangelical Revival. Introductions to history (reprint ed.). London: Psychology Press. ISBN 9781857284812. Retrieved 1 December 2022.
  4. ^ Morgan, Edmund S. (28 June 2017) [2015]. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. Pickle Partners Publishing. ISBN 9781787204683. Retrieved 1 December 2022. Every Englishman had been automatically transformed by government decree into a member of the new Anglican church.
  5. ^ Twells, Alison (17 December 2008). The Civilising Mission and the English Middle Class, 1792-1850: The 'Heathen' at Home and Overseas (reprint ed.). Basingstoke: Springer. p. 38. ISBN 9780230234727. Retrieved 1 December 2022. The 'Claphamites' were a group of powerful and influential men associated with the Clapham congregation [...].
  6. ^ Bradley, Ian C. (1976). The Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians. Cape. p. 16. ISBN 9780224011624. Retrieved 1 December 2022. [...] the [...] very important contribution made by Nonconformity to British life in the nneteenth century.
  7. ^ Carter, Grayson (2006). "Evangelical Religion". In Litzenberger, C. J.; Lyon, Eileen Groth (eds.). The Human Tradition in Modern Britain. Reference,Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Series. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 56-57. ISBN 9780742537354. Retrieved 25 November 2022. By the end of the long eighteenth century [1688-1832], the members of the Clapham Sect were quickly passing from the scene. [...] The successors of the Clapham Sect lived at a time of rapid and fundamental social change, arising primarily from the continued effects of industrialization. [...] various issues challenged in different ways the spiritual aspirations of the evangelical movement, producing considerable pressure (and even unrest) within its ranks. As a result, during the late 1820s and early 1830s, the 'Gospel movement' began to fragment into a number of diverse, but not altogether distinct, parties and even denominations. Examples of millennial and apocalyptic speculation, ultra-Calvinistic doctrines, and even extreme forms of Pentecostalism, could now be found among the adherents of evangelical religion, leading many traditional evangelicals to lose confidence in the ability of the 'Gospel movement' to bring about the spiritual renewal of the English church and the nation as a whole.
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Douglas K. Stevenson (1987), American Life and Institutions, Stuttgart (Germany), p. 34
  10. ^ Gathro, John "William Wilberforce and His Circle of Friends", CS Lewis Institute. Retrieved 31 August 2016
  11. ^ a b c Tomkins, (2010) The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s circle changed Britain,
  12. ^ Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, Dangerous People? England 1783–1846 (2006), p 175.
  13. ^ "The role of the Clapham Sect in the fight for the abolition of slavery". Art UK. 10 August 2020. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  14. ^ "'Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?'". The National Archives. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  15. ^ "History – British History in depth: Women: From Abolition to the Vote". BBC. 23 January 2007. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  16. ^ a b Scotland, Nigel (29 January 2020). "The social work of the Clapham Sect: an assessment". The Gospel Coalition. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  17. ^ "History – William Wilberforce". BBC. 7 November 2006. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ 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
  • Butler, Ryan J. "Transatlantic Discontinuity? The Clapham Sect's Influence in the United States." Church history 88, no. 3 (2019): 672–695.
  • 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]