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How Did the Clapham Group Fight Slavery?

Lampooned in their own day as "the saints," the Clapham Group, also called the Clapham Sect, devoted themselves to various causes, most notably ridding the world of slavery.

Updated Aug 18, 2023
How Did the Clapham Group Fight Slavery?

If you had money and influence, how would you use them? A group of well-heeled and well-placed Englishmen and women had the chance to answer that question at the end of the eighteenth century. Their decision is instructive. It changed their world.

Lampooned in their own day as "the saints," this group of prominent and wealthy individuals were known as "the Clapham Sect." They were named for Clapham, a village south of London, where most moved in evangelical Anglican circles. Busy professionals, all of them, they still made time for Christian action and gave liberally and effectively to worthy causes. Their foremost endeavor was to rid the world of slavery.

Politician Converted

William Wilberforce was the most visible of them. Once a social gadfly, a highly visible member of Parliament, always a close friend to Prime Minister William Pitt, he became a passionate Christian. At 26 years of age, he and his friend the Reverend Isaac Milner toured Europe. To while away the tedium of the trip, they read Philip Doddridge's Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Wilberforce realized that in the truest sense of the word he was not a Christian. He had never died to himself. Now he submitted his life to Christ. Immediately he became concerned to evangelize those around him. He wondered if he should not resign his seat in Parliament. John Newton, author of the hymn Amazing Grace, convinced him to stay and use his position for good. He suggested that Wilberforce might even attempt to abolish slavery. More and more the issue of slavery presented itself to the gifted Parliamentarian. Other leaders who shared his high sense of responsibility to God gathered around him, meeting in the Clapham home of the banker Henry Thornton.

Medallian showing Josiah Wedgewoods Supplicant Slave image to illustrate article on the Clapham GroupIMAGE: A porcelain cameo by Josiah Wedgewood the potter (whose name is still known for fine china!). A Slave asks, "Am I not a man and a brother?" Used by Claphamites as a visual aid in their efforts against slavery.

Joining them was the lawyer Granville Sharp (who had already won a decision affirming that slavery was illegal in England), John Shore (Lord Teignmouth) sometime Governor-General of India, Charles Grant a powerful member of the East India Council, Zachary Macaulay an estate manager and businessman, and James Stephen, who sat in court, and literary celebrity and educator Hannah More.

They combined their efforts to create public opinion and exert pressure on the government. They educated the public by issuing a journal, writing letters, spearheading petition drives, distributing pamphlets, speaking, and making every effort to persuade those with whom they had personal influence.

With Pitt's support, Wilberforce introduced a bill to abolish the trade. The bill failed despite his eloquence and careful research. Wilberforce determined to present the measure again the following year. It was again unsuccessful. Year after year the Clapham group labored on, often at a high cost to themselves. Macaulay, for example, devoted himself so completely to the task that he gave up night after night of sleep, neglected his business and lost much of his substantial fortune. Henry Thornton sometimes contributed over 80% of his income to charity. Tender minded Ramsay, who had reluctantly made public the slaver atrocities he had witnessed, was hounded to death by malicious accusations. Wilberforce himself suffered a nervous breakdown and was so sick he faced death. His life was threatened by the opposition. Once another member of Parliament felt compelled to protect him, loaded pistol in hand. Real Christianity, they discovered, comes with a price tag.

Not Single-Issue Advocates

The Clapham Sect turned their attention to multiple projects which promised to transform morals and society. They worked to ban bull fighting and bear baiting, to suspend the lottery, and to improve prisons. Their support for factory acts bettered working conditions. At their instigation, Sierra Leone was founded to provide a home for refugee slaves. Zachary Macaulay became first governor and drove himself beyond exhaustion for the good of the colony.

It was the Claphamites which funded Hannah More's schools. Additionally, they had a big part in the formation of church, Bible, tract and mission societies. Against the opposition of the East India company, this valiant band fought to allow missionaries in India. Parliament eventually agreed. It was thanks to the Clapham group that chaplains were provided to East India company employees.

Meanwhile they plugged away at their primary cause: the abolition of slavery. In 1807, eighteen years after the first vote, these Christians rejoiced as parliament abolished the slave trade. The members of the Clapham Sect supposed that slavery would wither away of its own accord. It did not. Wilberforce then introduced a bill to obtain the emancipation of all British slaves. It was defeated. He introduced it again. And again.

The years rolled past. Emancipation finally passed in England just a few days before Wilberforce died in 1833 at the age of 74.

It is arguable that this handful of Christians, publicly living their faith, helped avert tragedy in Britain. Their concern for the underdog may have helped forestall a revolution such as swept France.

Their story stands out in the annals of Christian history as a striking example of how God can use a company of believers that work together, sacrifice their time and resources, and patiently persist in faith against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Fascinating Facts. . .

- Wilberforce wasn't much to look at. Boswell described him as a shrimp who, as he was speaking, "grew into a whale."

- Zachary Macaulay's zeal for abolition led him to take passage on an African slaver so that he might witness firsthand the horrors of the trade. So extensive was his knowledge of the slave trade, the others would seek answers by "looking it up in the Macaulay."

- When Wilberforce wrote A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System. . .Contrasted to Real Christianity, the publisher issued only 500 copies, supposing it would never sell. But by 1826 it had gone through 15 editions in England and 25 in America.

- For helping a slave escape while in an English harbor, Granville Sharp was charged with unlawfully detaining the property of another. England's top legal authorities said the slave was property. Sharp carefully researched and argued the issue. The judges ruled that "as soon as a slave sets his foot upon English territory he becomes free."

In His Own Words. . .Two selections from Wilberforce's Practical View of. . . Real Christianity

On Real Christianity

"I apprehend the essential practical characteristic of true Christians to be this: that relying on the promises to repenting sinners of acceptance through the Redeemer, they have renounced and abjured all other masters, and have cordially and unreservedly devoted themselves to God. . .It is now their determined purpose to yield themselves without reserve to the reasonable service of the Rightful Sovereign. They are not their own: their bodily and mental faculties, their natural and acquired endowments, their substance, their authority, their time, their influence, all these they consider as belonging to them. . .to be consecrated to the honor of God and employed in his service."

On Might or Right?

"I must confess. . .that my own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies, nor on the wisdom of her rulers, nor on the spirit of her people, as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the gospel of Christ."

The Clapham Group

"They challenged the whole moral climate of their times and changed their world! Their efforts ranged across a wide spectrum of issues including slavery, missions, prison reform, public immorality, the needs of the poor."

Name of memberDatePosition in LifeReason for joining
Gisbourne, Thomas1758-1846Clergyman and AuthorFriendship with Wilberforce and others
Grant, Charles1746-1823Business administratorTies with other Clapham members
Macaulay, Zachary1768-1838Estate manager, colonial governorEvangelical zeal
More, Hannah1745-1835Playwright and educatorEvangelical zeal
Sharp, Granville1735-1813Scholar and administratorContinuation of his earlier abolitionism
Smith, Sir William1756-1835ParliamentarianTender heartedness
Stephen, James1758-1832Master of ChanceryShocked by cruelty to Barbados slaves
Teignmouth, Lord1751-1834Governor-General of IndiaEvangelical zeal
Thornton, Henry1760-1815BankerMarriage into Wilberforce's family
Venn, John1759-1813Rector of ClaphamZeal and association with Wilberforce, etc.
Wilberforce, William1759-1833ParliamentarianEvangelical zeal

A Dozen Characteristics (Editor's Notebook)

We produced a little video program a few years ago along with a discussion guide on the life of William Wilberforce and the Clapham group. In preparing the film it struck me how the Claphamites demonstrate the difference that a handful of Christian people can make. They are a kind of case study for effecting social change. Briefly, here are a dozen characteristics they exemplified.

  1. Set clear and specific goals
  2. Researched carefully to produce reliable and irrefutable evidence
  3. Built a committed support community. The battle could not be carried on alone.
  4. Refused to accept setbacks as final defeats
  5. Committed to the struggle for the long haul, even if it took decades.
  6. Focused on issues, not allowing opponents' vicious attacks on their person to distract them, or provoke them into similar response.
  7. Empathized with opponents' position so that meaningful interaction could take place.
  8. Accepted incremental gains when everything could not be achieved at once.
  9. Cultivated grassroots support when rebuffed by those in power.
  10. Transcended a single issue mentality by addressing issues as part of overall moral climate.
  11. Worked through recognized channels without resort to dirty tactics or violence.
  12. Proceeded with a sense of mission and conviction that God would providentially guide if they were truly acting in his service.

("The Clapham Group" by Ken Curtis, PhD, published on Christianity.com on April 28, 2010)

Cover Photo: Left image is public domain illustration by Josiah Wedgewood. Right image is by John Salmon. Both images via Wikimedia Commons.

This article is part of our People of Christianity catalog that features the stories, meaning, and significance of well-known people from the Bible and history. Here are some of the most popular articles for knowing important figures in Christianity:

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