Clapham Sect (act. 1792–1815)

Edwin Evans and Battersea Rise

John Wolffe for Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Published online: 22 September 2005:

“Clapham Sect (act. 1792–1815), was a group of evangelical Christians, many of whom lived at one time in or near the Surrey village of Clapham, then developing into a London suburb. The contemporary term for them was ‘Saints’ and the designation ‘Clapham Sect’ was only given currency by Sir James Stephen in an article published in the Edinburgh Review in 1844. Stephen (p. 251) believed the term originated with Sydney Smith, but although in 1807 Smith attacked ‘the patent Christians of Clapham’ (Works of the Revd Sydney Smith, 3.307), the specific phrase ‘Clapham Sect’ does not occur in his published writings. It therefore appears that Stephen himself was the unwitting originator of a tag that he himself acknowledged to be ‘whimsical’, but which was perpetuated due to the decision of Macvey Napier, the editor of the Edinburgh Review, to use it as the title of the article (BL, Add. MS 43845, fol. 25). It is indeed potentially misleading, because the group—predominantly loyal Anglicans—was not a ‘sect’ in any accepted sense of the word, and although Clapham was indeed for a time a key physical focus, the geographical span of their lives and activities was very much broader.

Precursors of the group were John Thornton (1720–1790), a very wealthy merchant and convert to evangelicalism who inherited an estate at Clapham, and Henry Venn (1725–1797), who was curate of the parish from 1754 to 1759 before becoming vicar of Huddersfield. Thornton’s patronage and support was important for a number of other evangelical ministers, notably John Newton and William Bull. He also during the later 1780s made a room in his house available to William Wilberforce, who thus regularly stayed at Clapham.

It was only, however, after John Thornton’s death in 1790 that the Clapham Sect came fully into being. In 1792 John Venn [see under Venn, Henry (1725–1797)], the son of Henry, was presented to the living under the terms of a trust set up by John Thornton, and Henry Thornton (1760–1815) (the youngest son of John and a convinced evangelical), and purchased and extended a house named Battersea Rise on the western side of Clapham Common. Henry’s elder brothers Samuel Thornton and Robert Thornton (1759–1826) continued for a time to live in houses also adjoining Clapham Common, but were only loosely associated with the group. At Henry Thornton’sinvitation his close friend William Wilberforce moved in to share Battersea Rise, where he lived until Thornton’s marriage to Marianne Sykes in 1796. In the meantime Thornton built two further houses in the grounds of Battersea Rise, which he let to fellow leading evangelicals, Glenelg to Charles Grant (1746–1823), and Broomfield to Edward Eliot (1758–1797). Thornton consciously aimed to create an informal community of lay Christians living in accordance with their convictions and thereby inspiring others to emulate them. His library at Battersea Rise, reputedly designed by the prime minister, William Pitt, Eliot’s brother-in-law, became the group’s main meeting place.

In 1797 Wilberforce married Barbara Spooner and moved into Broomfield in place of Eliot, who had become seriously ill and died later that year. The Grants, Thorntons, and Wilberforces, as well as the Venn family at the rectory, lived on terms of close friendship and daily contact. The circle was further extended by the moves to Clapham in 1797 of James Stephen (1758–1832), who in 1800 married Wilberforce’s widowed sister, Sarah, and in 1802 of Zachary Macaulay and John Shore, first Baron Teignmouth. Grant, Macaulay, Sharp, Shore, Stephen, John and Henry Thornton, Henry and John Venn, and Wilberforce all worshipped regularly at Clapham parish church and in the early twentieth century their names were recorded on a memorial tablet there to the ‘servants of Christ sometime called the Clapham Sect’.

Closely associated with the Clapham residents were a number of other prominent evangelicals. Granville Sharp, also listed on the memorial tablet and given considerable prominence in Sir James Stephen’s Edinburgh Review article, shared many of their commitments. He was a frequent visitor to Clapham while living at nearby Fulham. During this period John Owen (1766–1822) was curate at Fulham. Cambridge was another significant focal point. It was as an undergraduate at St John’s College that Wilberforce had first come into contact with Thomas Babington and Thomas Gisborne (1758–1846), both country gentlemen who became close friends. Gisborne married Babington’s sister, Mary, and Babington wed Macaulay’s sister, Jean. Babington’shome at Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, and Gisborne’s at Yoxall Lodge in Staffordshire were regular country retreats for the Claphamites. Further important links with Cambridge were Isaac Milner, president of Queens’, who had been instrumental in Wilberforce’s conversion to ‘serious Christianity’ in 1785, and Charles Simeon, who, although a less frequent visitor to Clapham than Milner, played an important role in extending the network’s influence to a younger generation of evangelical clergy. Hannah More was a regular visitor to Clapham, and a close friend of Wilberforce and the Thorntons. Her protégée Selina Mills married Zachary Macaulay. John Hatchard, the bookseller, provided a publishing outlet, and his shop in Piccadilly became a valuable central London meeting place. Although evangelicalism was normally a defining feature of the group, other close associates included the high churchman John Bowdler (1783–1815), and the Unitarian William Smith (1756–1835), who lived in Clapham and shared their commitment to the abolition of the slave trade.

The group was defined and united above all by shared commitment to ‘practical Christianity’ and by opposition to slavery. The abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 was their greatest achievement, the culmination of a campaign which exploited their respective talents: Wilberforce’s parliamentary eloquence, Stephen’s legal acumen, Thornton’s business skill, and Macaulay’s capacity for gathering and ordering evidence. They launched the Sierra Leone Company as a basis for legitimate commerce in West Africa and supported the development of Sierra Leone (see image) as a colony for former slaves. Alongside this were endeavours for the ‘reformation of manners’ at home, inspired notably by More’s Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society (1788) and Wilberforce’s Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country (1797). Although socially conservative and criticized by contemporary radicals and later historians for their lack of political engagement with the conditions of the poor at home, they were generous in their personal charity. They were mostly wealthy men and Thornton and Wilberforce were particularly munificent in their giving. Their political outlook was liberal and moderately reformist, notably in the readiness of most of them to support Catholic emancipation. They also gave an important impetus to overseas mission, inspired not only by the African and West Indian context of the campaign against slavery, but the Indian experience of Grant and Shore, and played an important role in the formation of the Church Missionary Society (founded 1799) and the Bible Society (1804). They campaigned successfully for India to be more open to missions when the East India Company charter was renewed in 1813. They set up the Christian Observer, which began publication in 1802, as a counterbalance to secular periodicals. Macaulay edited it from 1802 to 1816 and other members of the group, notably Thornton and Venn, contributed numerous articles. It remained a key evangelical journal until the 1870s.

In reality the ethos of the Clapham Sect was anything but sectarian, and they played an energetic and wide-ranging role in public life. It was true that, apart from Shore’sservice as governor-general of India from 1793 to 1798, no member of the group ever held high office, although Babington, Grant, Stephen, Thornton, and Wilberforce were all MPs. (Spencer Perceval, prime minister from 1809 to 1812, was an evangelical who rented a house at Clapham, but although friendly with the group, he avoided close ties with them.) Their effectiveness, however, lay in their very independence and capacity for extensive networking. In parliament they spearheaded a wider network of evangelical MPs, including Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, tenth baronet, Henry Bankes, Joseph Butterworth, Sir Richard Hill, second baronet, Sir Charles Middleton (Lord Barham), and Abel Smith. They formed effective working relationships, and in some cases genuine friendships, with central secular figures such as Bentham, Brougham, Castlereagh, Cornwallis, Dundas, Pitt, and Wellington; they stimulated and supported fellow evangelicals such as John Charlesworth, Hugh Pearson, and Samuel Wilks. Through men such as William Dawes, Richard Johnson, Samuel Marsden, and Henry Martyn they had an enduring influence in Africa, Asia, and Australia.

The community at Clapham was memorably evoked in the recollections of Sir James Stephen (son of James) and Marianne Thornton (daughter of Henry), both of whom experienced it at an impressionable age. The leading members were, however, never all resident simultaneously, since the Grants left in 1802, the year in which the Shores and Macaulays arrived. Moreover its heyday was limited to a period of little more than a decade, from 1797 to 1808. By 1808 Wilberforce and Shore had also moved away from Clapham, to be followed later by Stephen and Macaulay. More irrevocable ruptures in the circle came with the deaths in 1813 of John Venn and in 1815 of Henry Thornton and his wife.

Clapham remained an evangelical centre, with the ministry at the parish church of John Venn’s successor, William Dealtry. Among Dealtry’s curates, from 1818 to 1827, was George Gorham, later to become an evangelical figurehead in the celebrated Gorhamcase of 1847–50. The Thornton children continued to live at Battersea Rise, under the guardianship of Sir Robert Inglis, himself a deeply committed churchman, who made the house a centre for his own social and religious networks. Charles Bradley had a celebrated ministry at St James’s Chapel from 1829 to 1853. The use of the term ‘Clapham Sect’ in relation to this later period does, however, confuse the concept, and it is better limited to the earlier more closely knit circle around Thornton and Wilberforce.

The Clapham Sect was a community of families as well as individuals, and the cultivation of domestic Christian commitment and devotion was a prominent aspect of their collective ethos. They had an important legacy in their numerous distinguished children, grandchildren, and more remote descendants. The children of the original members included Charles Grant (Baron Glenelg), Sir Robert Grant, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Sir James Stephen (who married Jane Venn, thus giving his own children a Clapham Sect connection through both parents), Henry Venn, Henry William Wilberforce, Robert Isaac Wilberforce, and Samuel Wilberforce. Among grandchildren were Albert Venn Dicey (son of Anne Stephen), Emelia Russell Gurney (daughter of Caroline Venn), Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Sir Leslie Stephen, Caroline Emelia Stephen, Sir George Otto Trevelyan (son of Hannah Macaulay), John Venn, and Ernest Roland Wilberforce. The fourth generation included Vanessa Bell (née Stephen), Edward Morgan Forster (grandson of Laura Thornton), Katharine Stephen, Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan, third baronet, George Macaulay Trevelyan, John Archibald Venn, Octavia Wilberforce, and Virginia Woolf (née Stephen). Also closely linked to the Clapham Sect were the children of Charles Elliott and his wife, Eling Venn (sister of John): Charlotte Elliott, Edward Bishop Elliott, and Henry Venn Elliott.

While some of these children and descendants remained firm evangelicals there was also a movement to Roman Catholicism (among the Wilberforces) and to agnosticism (notably among the Stephens and Venns). Their Clapham Sect inheritance was translated in the later nineteenth century into an important contribution to what Noel Annan and others have termed an ‘intellectual aristocracy’. Also significant was the presence of several notable pioneers of women’s rights among the Clapham Sectfamilies, an indication that despite apparent patriarchalism, their influence proved empowering for their daughters as well as their sons. The consciousness of Clapham genealogy remained important even for those who rejected Clapham faith, and was expressed in John Venn’s Annals of a Clerical Family (1904), and E. M. Forster’s Marianne Thornton: a Domestic Biography (1956).

The Clapham Sect is best understood as a small group existing for a limited timespan, but one that had wide connections and influence, both among the members’ contemporaries, and their families and descendants. Its original members were characterized by intense, but not austere, Christian piety and by an earnest and in many respects successful endeavour to raise the spiritual and moral tone of late Georgian society. Their long-term impact was a complex and paradoxical one, establishing a paradigm of evangelical commitment, upper middle-class family life, and social engagement which was to inspire variously emulation, caricature, and revolt among their Victorian successors.”

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