Clapham Sect : British Religious Group

Tree House Clapham – Clapham Sect, group of evangelical Christians, prominent in England from about 1790 to 1830, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and promoted missionary work at home and abroad. The group centred on the church of John Venn, rector of Clapham in south London. Its members included William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton, James Stephen, Zachary Macaulay, and others.

Many were members of Parliament, where, in addition to their abolitionism, they worked for prison reform, prevention of cruel sports, and the suspension of the game laws and the lottery. They supported several missionary and Bible societies, financed Hannah More’s schools and pamphlets, and published their own journal, The Christian Observer. The Claphamites, mostly wealthy Anglicans, were politically conservative and appealed to the rich as the Methodists did to the poor. They believed in the preservation of the ranks and orders within society and preached philanthropic benevolence from above. To the poor they offered religious instruction and improvement in manners. Though their espousal of several “sentimental” causes brought upon them the derisive nickname of “Saints,” they were responsible in large part for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in England.

And here is the fact about Clapham Sect :

Clapham started as Clopp Ham

The town, Clapham, started as a humble Saxon village around the 800’s. Its original name was Clopp Ham, which means village (ham) by the short hill (clopp). Centuries went by, and not until the late 17th century did this little farming village begin to grow. By the 18th century it became a fashionable place for the rich to live – close enough to London for an easy commute, but set in a rural setting away from noise and dirt. Today Clapham is a thriving district in southwest London.

The Clapham Sect loved long names

Although not an organization, this group of British Evangelicals participated in the Victorian love for committees and societies, and named them with consistent gusto. Among societies of that time we can find: Society for Returning Young Women to Their Friends in the Country; or the Friendly Female Society for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows, and Single Women of Good Character Who Have Seen Better Days.

This habit of elaborate names was also applied to books, and here we can refer you to William Wilberforce’s own best-seller: A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity.

Much has been written about this remarkable group of believers who God called together at the right place and the right time. Their example of dedication to the Kingdom’s work, while supporting each other in friendship, even if in not agreement at all time, is one that all can benefit from even today. This group of Evangelicals saw no antagonism between evangelism and social reform, and the values they fought for have persisted longer than a century. My prayer is that the values taught by Clapham School will also affect history in the same way.

Their progeny include some fascinating people too

The Clapham Sect loved to name their children after each other, so relations gets complicated quickly. Add to that the fact that many of their children intermarried and you really must keep your wits about you. The group’s desecndants include:

  • John Venn, creator of the Venn diagram,
  • Virginia Wolf, novelist and poet,
  • E.M. Forster, novelist and short story writer,
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay, Bristish Cabinet Minister, poet and historian.

The Clapham Sect was a diverse group

The group banded together through their shared faith in Jesus Christ, love for one another and passion to improve the human condition. Hannah More (playwright, philanthropist and educator) remarked that those who worked together on the slavery issue were like “Noah’s ark, full of beasts, clean and unclean.”

John Thornton, one of the original founders of the Clapham Sect, amassed his fortune through commerce with Russia and the Balkans. The group also included a brewer, a mathematician, clergymen, government officials, writers, educators, and bankers.

These men and women “did life together,” recognized each other’s passions and supported each other in addressing them – those interests included prison reform, educational reform, missionary work in India and Africa, the sending of Bibles all over the world, and even animal welfare.

Although affluent and influential people, theirs was an uphill battle

Although the group of believers never claimed a name to call themselves, the name “Clapham Sect” was assigned to them when a 1844 article described how an opponent to the group had used the term to disparage it. It turns out that the group was actually mocked as “the Clapham Church,” “the Saints,” and “the Patent Christians of Clapham,” not “Clapham Sect,” precisely. But, as it often happens with name calling, the wrong name stuck. Today, a google search for the term Clapham Sect will generate about 217,000.

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