Significance of the Clapham Sect in the 19th Century

Topics: William Wilberforce, British Empire, Abolitionism Pages: 9 (3235 words) Published: September 25, 2005
"You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). The reforms and initiatives of the Clapham Sect group had a deep, broad and long-lasting impact on the world: transforming the spheres of society, religion, politics, management, and even literature. Never have the members of one congregation so greatly influenced the history of the world . The Clapham sect was the driving force behind the intensive and protracted campaigns which resulted in the social and political glory of the Victorian era. This was empowered by the group's convictions - they were Christians first and foremost. They were able to integrate their spheres of influence within the framework of a robust Evangelical faith. For the first time since the Early Church, these Christians were distinguished by their remarkable ability to practice their Christianity and implement a watershed Christian worldview. Through this perspective, the Claphamites' reforms and initiatives achieved widespread and long-lasting significance.

Opinions on the contribution of the Claphamites have been variable. However, unless the overall goals of the Clapham Sect are taken into account, assessments of the social, political, and theological implications of the group's activities will find the group wanting – one must consider what Wilberforce himself was trying to achieve. From the moment of his conversion – the "great change" – Wilberforce became totally dedicated to God, and his talents to his service . His subsequent actions were the result of a belief that God had commissioned him to a specific task. Venn, as pastor to the group, believed that Christianity was not merely an act of homage to God, but our entire lives, including work, should be done to glorify God . Thus in the tradition of Wesley and Newton, Wilberforce and the Clapham sect sought to bring England to share their vibrant personal relationship with God through the power of the gospel . However, it cannot be said that religious kingdom-building was the motivation for the Clapham sect - a contemporary critic, Sydney Smith, had reduced their goals to: "proselytism will be their main object; everything else is a mere instrument – this is their principal aim" . But the Claphamites considered that reform of the prevalent social problems would only be lasting when associated with a change in people's hearts. Whether social change led to repentance, or vice versa, was immaterial – the two factors could not be reduced to a cause and effect relationship applicable to all society. The two campaigns worked hand in hand, driven by the genuine compassion of the Evangelicals, who had in turn experienced compassion through the gospel.

The great social changes occurring during the peri-Claphamite period from the late eighteenth century through the Victorian era were the result of multiple factors. From an age of coarseness, political corruption and indulgence, Britain later experienced great industrial expansion, imperial greatness, and moral high-mindedness and modesty . But the winds of change had commenced a century earlier with the spirit of revival seen in the ministries of Wesley and Whitefield changing the hearts of middle class England. Cook argues that the foundation of the work of the Claphamites lay in the moral tone established by the Evangelical Revival – garnering the support of the Nonconformists and enkindling a widespread revivalist mood fertile for social change. The Clapham Sect was too young to have a claim credit for turning British radical thought in a Biblical direction which would be important in staying the effects of the godless radicalism spawned by the French Revolution . Nevertheless, by the early nineteenth century, the Clapham Sect achieved significance through its campaigns on a grand scale – making practical the ideals of the evangelical fathers, without being burdened by the intolerance of contemporary Methodism.

The most prominent campaign of the Clapham Sect was the abolition of the Slave...
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