Clapham Sect

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The Clapham Sect or Clapham Saints were a group of Church of England social reformers based in Clapham, London, at the beginning of the 19th century (active 1780s–1840s). They are described by the historian Stephen Michael 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".[1]

Campaigns and successes

Its members were chiefly prominent and wealthy evangelical Anglicans who shared common political views concerning the liberation of slaves, the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of the penal system.[2]

The group's name originates from those attending Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common, an area south-west of London then surrounded by fashionable villas. Henry Venn, the founder, was curate at Holy Trinity (1754) and his son John became rector (1792–1813). Wilberforce and Henry Thornton, two of the group's most influential leaders, resided nearby and many of the meetings were held in their houses. They were supported by Beilby Porteus, the Bishop of London, who sympathised with many of their aims. The term "Clapham Sect" was a later invention by James Stephen in an article of 1844 which celebrated and romanticised the work of these reformers.[3] In their own time the group used no particular name, but they were lampooned by outsiders as "the saints".

The Saints recruited heavily from St. Edmund Hall at Oxford and Magdalene College, Cambridge, where the Vicar of Holy Trinity Church Charles Simeon converted many.

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.

They founded Freetown in Sierra Leone, the first major British colony in Africa, whose purpose in Thomas Clarkson's words was "the abolition of the slave trade, the civilisation of Africa, and the introduction of the gospel there".[1]:11

After many decades of work both in British society and in Parliament, the group saw their efforts rewarded with the final passage of the Slave Trade Act in 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 in 1833. They also campaigned vigorously for Britain to use its influence to eradicate slavery throughout the world.

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.[4]

Other societies that they founded or were involved with included the Anti-Slavery Society, the Abolition Society, the Proclamation Society, the Sunday School Society, the Bettering Society, and the Small Debt Society.

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."[1]:248


Members of the Clapham Sect included:[5]


  1. ^ a b c Tomkins, (2010) The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s circle changed Britain,
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ Gathro, John "William Wilberforce and His Circle of Friends", CS Lewis Institute. Retrieved 31 August 2016
  4. ^ Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, Dangerous People? England 1783–1846 (2006), p 175.
  5. ^ David Spring, "The Clapham Sect: Some Social and Political Aspects." Victorian Studies 5#1 (1961): 35–48.

Further reading

  • 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
  • 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.
  • Danker, Ryan Nicholas. Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism (InterVarsity Press, 2016).
  • Klein, Milton M. Amazing Grace: John Thornton & the Clapham Sect (2004), 160 pp.
  • 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

  • The Clapham Group – 1701–1800 – Church History Timeline
  • William Wilberforce (1759–1833): The Shrimp Who Stopped Slavery by Christopher D. Hancock
  • William Wilberforce 'condoned slavery', Colonial Office papers reveal – The Guardian – Davies, Caroline. Monday 2 August 2010.
  • Do-gooders in 1790s London – The Economist – Aug 26th 2010
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