Project Canterbury

The Clapham Sect
By O. Hardman, D.D.

London: SPCK, n.d. 8 pp.

IT is the purpose of this brief paper to recall in simplest fashion the faith and works of a group of Christians who will always deserve a place of high honour in the memory of the Church and people of England, and to suggest that their good example has its lessons and inspiration for those who desire to meet the moral and religious needs of the present generation.

Sydney Smith gave them their name, when he permitted himself to sneer at "the patent Christianity of Clapham" in the pages of the Edinburgh Review. Like many another term of reproach, it stuck, and was transformed by degrees into a title of honour; for the members of the Sect let their light shine before men to such good effect that they won the sincere appreciation of very many of their contemporaries and were gratefully remembered by their immediate successors. The lapse of time, however, has brought it to pass that many are ignorant of their work and worth. The injury of Sydney Smith's scornful label has renewed itself by the suggestion it conveys to the uninformed of pious suburbanism and anti-Catholic sectarianism; and it is due to them that the truth should be restated.

The Evangelical Movement took its rise in the Church of England exactly two hundred years ago--that is to say, in 1729. That part of it which is specially associated with the name of Wesley broke through the ordered system of the Church and resulted in the formation of separated bodies of earnest Christians, whose reunion with one another and with those from whom they went out is greatly to be desired and begins to be looked for with reasonable hopes. The other part remained steadfastly within the borders of the ancient Church of this land; and it was to that part that the so-called Clapham Sect belonged. The Sect stands in the tradition of convinced and devoted Churchmen such as William Romaine (1714-95), the scholarly preacher of St. Dunstan's, Fleet Street, and St. Andrew's, Blackfriars; John Fletcher (1729-85) of Madeley, the saintly pastor of Shropshire colliers; John Newton (1725-1807), spiritual leader at Olney and at St. Mary Woolnoth in London; and Henry Venn (1725-97), gifted preacher and earnest pastor of souls at Clapham and Huddersfield. The last-named set forth his ministerial ideals in "The Duty of a Parish Priest, and the Incomparable Pleasure of a Life devoted to the Care of Souls," and gave to the Church, and to Evangelicalism within the Church, a son who was destined to accomplish, on the lines there laid down, a great work for the honour of the Lord.

John Venn was born in 1759, the year in which his father removed from Clapham to Huddersfield. In 1792 he was appointed Rector of Clap-ham. Knowing his son's sound qualities and persevering diligence, Henry Venn wrote at the time: "When I looked round me, after Divine Service, only the last Sunday, at Clapham, my heart bounded within me, to think how different a Sacrament, in half a year's time, there would be on that very spot." His expectations were realized; and John Venn ministered at Clapham with conspicuous success for the remaining twenty years of his life.

Clapham was at that time a pleasant village grown into a residential centre with some two thousand inhabitants, three miles distant from London. Venn's parishioners included a number of well-to-do and influential people living in substantial houses on the borders of the Common; and from these the Clapham Sect was formed. The most notable of them were William Wilberforce, the orator, and Henry Thornton, the financier, next-door neighbours; Zachary Macaulay, sometime Governor of Sierra Leone, and Lord Teignmouth, formerly Governor-General of India; James Stephen, a famous advocate; Charles Grant, Chairman of the East India Company; and Granville Sharp. Under the leadership of their pastor and by the inspiration of his preaching, these men banded themselves together in a parochial brotherhood to live a definitely Christian life, in the world but not of it, and to exercise to the full, within and without their parish, that ministry of good works to which all practising Christians are called.

Like the Methodists, these Evangelical laymen of the Church of England lived strictly according to rule. They had a fixed time for rising, and a definite part of each day was apportioned to prayer, to reading, and to work. Sunday was wholly the Lord's Day. Their possessions were held in trust from God; and as good stewards they kept faithful account of all their expenditure and were nobly generous towards others. It is recorded of Thornton that in one year he gave in charity the sum of £6,680.

In order to spread far and wide their conception of the Christian way of life they conducted various literary enterprises, the chief of which was the publication of a successful monthly review known as the Christian Observer. Thornton gave it the necessary financial backing, Macaulay worked hard as editor, and contributions ranging from serious historical and theological studies to satirical sketches and witty paragraphs were supplied by other inhabitants of "the godly village." Books for the educated and tracts for the simple were produced by the same wise and industrious enthusiasm, the most successful of the tracts being the work of the poetess Hannah More, who, though she lived in Somerset, was closely associated with the Clapham Sect and is to be reckoned of their number. Aided by funds supplied by Wilberforce, she and her sisters promoted the moral and spiritual welfare of the people of Cheddar and the neighbouring villages by a remarkable ministry of love; and then, by the publication of a series of ballads, allegories, and simple stories, which proved so popular that they sold by the million, she extended her influence to the whole of England.

Social service involved the Sect in unceasing labours of the most diverse kinds, by which they attempted to encourage thrift among the people, to promote sound education in the schools, to soften the rigours of prison discipline, and generally to persuade all men to show a proper respect for man, whatever his station, and to increase the sum total of human happiness. But the greatest of all their works in this sphere was the contribution they made to the abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce and his friends strove for twenty years to bring this shameful traffic to an end, in the face of opposition that might well have seemed insuperable. At last, in 1807, it was declared illegal, mainly owing to the knowledge, the intense conviction, and the strenuous labours and prayers of the Clapham Sect; and Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845), who succeeded Wilberforce as leader of the anti-slavery party, carried the work to its final triumph in 1833. If they had done nothing else deserving of gratitude, this alone would have entitled them to thankful remembrance for all time.

Widespread missionary endeavour completes the record of works performed by the Sect, and in particular they must be credited with a large share in the formation of three at least of the six societies to which Evangelicalism gave birth between the years 1799 and 1836. The Church Missionary Society, which now works in extensive spheres in Africa, India, Ceylon, China, Japan, Palestine, and Persia, and has a staff of 1,231 European missionaries serving at 636 stations, was founded on April 12, 1799, as the Society for Missions to Africa and the East. John Venn was its first Chairman and Henry Thornton was Treasurer. A month later the Religious Tract Society came into being, and Zachary Macaulay served on its first committee. In 1804 the British and Foreign Bible Society was instituted, with Lord Teignmouth as President, Wilberforce as Vice-President, and Thornton as Treasurer.

Thus their zeal for Christ was communicated to brethren in all the world; and this short review of their labours may fitly end on the note of missionary enterprise. For it is the duty, the privilege, and the great glory of the Church to pass on the treasure of the Gospel from shore to shore and from generation to generation. Wherever true disciples are found, they will assuredly discipline themselves and serve others, as did the members of the Clapham Sect; and in their service they will lay at the feet of the Master such gifts as He has bestowed upon them, with the self-sacrificing generosity which He Himself has taught them to exercise. The history of the Clapham brotherhood declares to all who come after them the unlimited powers of even a few good men and women who are true bond-servants of the Lord, and in its strong and simple appeal to others to have faith and to press on in the face of every difficulty it recalls the unashamed courage of St. Paul and his famous declaration, "This I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call a sect, so serve I the God of our fathers" (Acts xxiv. 14).

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