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William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect

Religion in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Wilberforce was born in 1759, was educated in the 'usual way' and entered politics in 1780. He was influenced by an Oxford theologian called Isaac Milner and changed from being a fun-loving man to being oppressed by a sense of sin and guilt. He sought out John Newton who advised Wilberforce to serve Christ where he was - in politics. From Newton, Wilberforce learned a deeper and more personal religion, finding serenity, tranquility and composure in his faith; he became heavily involved in the campaign for the abolition of slavery.

Wilberforce was class-bound: he thought in terms of the upper and middle classes. He thought that the members of the upper and middle classes should behave more responsibly without having to give up their privileges. He believed in Original Sin, the condemnation of the wicked to hell and - at the same time - the grace of God in mercy. He attacked those who imagined that 'amiable tempers and useful lives' were sufficient without faith for salvation. According to Wilberforce, Christianity teaches the rich to be liberal and beneficent, the poor to be humble, diligent and patient. He believed that finally all human distinctions would disappear - in the next world, not in this.

Wilberforce backed the 1799 Combination Acts but in 1800 gave £3,000 of his own money to relieve food shortages. He fostered missionary societies, fought the Game Laws and attacked the excesses of the penal code. He supported Elizabeth Fry's work in prison reform, opposed transportation and the exploitation of children as chimney-sweeps and as industrial apprentices. All this was as a result of his 'conversion' to practical Christianity.

The Clapham Sect acquired its name because its leading members lived in Clapham. They included Henry Thornton, M.P. for Southwark; Zachary Macaulay, James Stephen; Lord Teignmouth, Charles Grant, Charles Simeon and John Venn.

The two factors which drew these men together were

It is doubtful whether a single small congregation has in the history of Christendom exercised such a far-flung influence. They
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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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