The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain
by Stephen Tomkins
Lion Hudson, 2010
272 pp., $16.95
When Portuguese sailors pushed off their peninsula and plunged into the “vast green sea of darkness,” their exploits made Portugal the first great European ocean-going nation. But the Age of Exploration quickly became an Age of Exploitation. The establishment of trading posts along the West African coast, the discovery of vast natural resources in the New World, the need for cheap labor—all these factors conspired to make the temptation to acquire human slaves too great to resist. The infamous Slave Trade Triangle was created.
Yet the conscience of Catholic Europe was troubled. In 1537, Pope Paul III issued an encyclical insisting that any newly discovered peoples “are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ.” The pope was ignored; the slave trade flourished.
When Great Britain emerged as the supreme naval power in the eighteenth century, it seized the miserable mantle of the world’s leading slave-trading empire. Hundreds of ships, thousands of sailors, and hundreds of millions of pounds sterling were caught up annually in the business of human trafficking. Planters, ship-owners, investors, merchants, the political class—all had a vested interest in perpetuating the trade.
In The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain, Stephen Tomkins explains how a tightly knit, highly dedicated group of English reformers confronted the most entrenched and degrading social ills of their era. Known as the Clapham Sect—a nexus of a dozen families based in the village of Clapham and led by parliamentarian William Wilberforce—they succeeded in abolishing the slave trade. In the process, through scores of private-sector initiatives, they helped to make public virtue fashionable.
Indeed, for all its weaknesses, there may not have been a Victorian era of enlightened morals—and an accompanying efflorescence of philanthropic activity in English-speaking lands—without them. “The influence of the Clapham sect on Victorian Britain is hard to assess . . . but they do seem to have played a very significant part in the development of its morality,” Tomkins writes. “The ethos of Clapham became the spirit of the age.” Near the heart of this ethos was evangelical Christianity: a muscular faith that refused to remain passive in the face of social injustices.
As The Clapham Sect ably demonstrates, their many initiatives depended on strategic partnerships: entrepreneurs, lawyers, bankers, clergymen, writers, artists, and politicians all played their part. As a strategist and coalition-builder, Wilberforce sought help for his many causes wherever it could be found, especially among those with means. He has been called a “Prime Minister of a cabinet of philanthropists.”
The Clapham Sect offers carefully drawn portraits of the key players in the Wilberforce cabinet, including Charles Grant, chairman of the East India Company; author and poet Hannah More; and Zachary McCauley, the governor of Sierra Leone whose firsthand experience with slavery thrust him into the center of Clapham’s abolition campaign. The physical nucleus of their circle was a house at Battersea Rise in Clapham, a few miles south of Westminster. It had been purchased and renovated by Henry Thornton, a wealthy banker and cousin of Wilberforce who had experienced a similar evangelical awakening. In the midst of a banking crisis in the 1790s, Thornton set a public example of prudence, integrity, and generosity. In one year he gave away 82 percent of his income to charitable groups and people in need. Together these reformers not only changed the face of politics in Great Britain: they transformed the centers of cultural influence. It was this broader strategy that explains much of their success.
Here it’s vital to remember that the widespread acceptance of the international slave trade—called by its detractors “one of the greatest sources of crimes and sufferings ever recorded in the annals of mankind”—fueled a cultural rot that afflicted British society at all levels. Wilberforce understood instinctively that political reform could not occur in a cultural vacuum: beliefs and values must be changed. But how? By persuasion, personal integrity, sacrificial giving, principled activism, and effective storytelling. A new narrative about human dignity and social justice had to be written.
The Clapham group wrote that narrative: a story of British-led emancipation. The British slave trade was abolished on February 23, 1807, in a vote by the House of Commons of 283 to 16—an utterly resounding victory. It immediately became the responsibility of the British Royal Navy to enforce the new law. As Tomkins rightly observes, this altered England’s self-identity: “It was a beacon of national pride, proof of human progress, and a reason to see the British Empire as the guardian of the world’s weak.”
The evangelical activism of the Clapham circle in the early 19th century—tackling not only slavery but issues such as child labor, poverty, prison reform, and animal cruelty—found its counterpart in the burst of faith-based reformers in mid-19th-century America. Though by no means the only players, Christian ministers and laymen were on the front lines of virtually every important social reform movement.
It was evangelical businessmen Arthur and Lewis Tappan, for example, who in the 1830s launched the American Anti-Slavery Society, the most important organization dedicated to abolition. For decades, in fact, the battle against slavery was led almost exclusively by religiously motivated dissenters. When the Jackson administration decided to forcibly remove Cherokee Indians from their native land in Georgia, who stood in the way? Evangelical missionaries. Petitions flooded Congress, while ministers were harassed and jailed. “The Cherokees are human beings,” thundered the Rev. Jeremiah Evarts, “endowed by their Creator with the same natural rights as other men.”
Faith-based actors took on the problems associated with urban growth. In the 1840s, Robert Hartley joined with other prominent Christian merchants in New York to found the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. It set up medical clinics, established a model tenement house, and sent church volunteers into the homes of poor families to offer practical and spiritual support. In the 1860s, faced with perhaps 60,000 Irish children wandering in packs around New York City, philanthropist Levi Silliman Ives founded the Catholic Protectory. Over the years, it would shelter more than 100,000 children. The kids got more than a safe place to sleep: “Every child committed to this institution will be thoroughly trained in the faith and morality of the Gospel as revealed and entrusted to the Catholic Church.”
The Young Men’s Christian Association, backed by the philanthropy of wealthy church members, aimed to ease poverty by promoting “the welfare of the whole man—body, soul, and spirit.” Joined by the Young Women’s Christian Association, they functioned practically as a Protestant denomination. Job training was offered in tandem with Bible classes, while gymnasiums doubled as worship halls. By 1900 there were nearly 1,500 local YMCA chapters with 250,000 members. Likewise, the Salvation Army—imported directly from Great Britain in 1880—brought its philosophy of “soup, soap, and salvation” to some of the most destitute areas of the country. Within 20 years, the group had spawned over 900 chapters, which combined shelters, stores, and workshops. Its employment bureaus were placing about 4,800 people every month.
The moral and spiritual ethos of these organizations was reflected in the broader legal culture: the public philosophy of caring for society’s neediest individuals. Just as the idealism and activism of the Clapham reformers stimulated Victorian charity, so also the care-giving ethos of their American counterparts encouraged private giving and engagement. In both countries, their philanthropic ideals—the dignity of every person, individual responsibility, hard work, the centrality of the family, and the vital importance of faith—shaped the political and social order.
What can the story of the Clapham reformers teach contemporary Christian entrepreneurs? First, be willing to work with people of diverse views and backgrounds for the common good. Wilberforce built a human rights coalition that cut across political and ideological lines, uniting Whigs with establishment Tories and Anglicans with evangelicals and Quakers. His success owed much to his genuine devotion to the plight of African slaves, regardless of the political costs.
Second, become thoroughly educated about the social cause at hand. British traders who raided the West African coast captured 35,000 to 50,000 Africans annually, but the wretched conditions of slave ships bound for the Americas were not widely known. Thousands perished from disease or starvation. Wilberforce did his homework: “So much misery condensed in so little room,” he said, “is more than the human imagination has ever before conceived.”
Finally, for philanthropists inspired by their Christian faith, don’t shrink from publicly identifying your cause with the moral and spiritual claims of the gospel. Although widely known for his graciousness and good humor, Wilberforce was never afraid to point others to his faith in Christ as the inspiration and judge of all his efforts. Thus, when the cause of abolition triumphed, it was a public victory for Christianity as well. “In the public eye, it was the achievement of Wilberforce,” writes Tomkins, “and it gave the faith that drove him to it irresistible credibility.”
Joe Loconte is an assistant professor of history at the King’s College in New York City. His most recent book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.