Attending the Q Conference in Boston this past week, I was reminded that almost any evangelical who wants to leverage their vocation to change the world takes William Wilberforce’s Clapham group as a sort of knights-of-the-round-table paradigm. But few seem to know much about this remarkable group. So as a public service, here’s my . . .
10 Things You Don’t Know about the Clapham Sect
First the basics: The Clapham Sect was a group of aristocratic evangelical Anglicans, prominent in England from about 1790 to 1830, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery (among many other causes) and promoted missionary work at home and abroad. The group centered on the church of John Venn, rector of Clapham in south London.
Today these activists are frequently held up as an example of Christian social-justice reform to be emulated. It’s always good to know a few things about someone you’re going to emulate, so here are 10 things you probably don’t know about the Clapham Sect:
- Aside from the great parliamentarian William Wilberforce and several other MPs, the group also included a
brewer, a banker, several clergymen, the father of the great English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay (Zachary Macaulay), and the great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf (James Stephen). Two of its prominent members were women: the evangelist Katherine Hankey and the writer and philanthropist Hannah More. . (Read more about More in this wonderful new biography of her by Karen Swallow Prior.)
- The term “Clapham Sect” was a later invention by James Stephen in an article of 1844 which celebrated and romanticized the work of these reformers. In their own time the group used no particular name, but they were lampooned by outsiders as “the saints.”
- Though they were of aristocratic background and many of held positions of power and influence, the Clapham group’s involvement in the abolition cause brought significant social stigma on their heads. The English ruling classes viewed abolitionists as radical and dangerous, similar to French revolutionaries of the day