Clapham is the name of an area of London, England. At one time it was a quiet wooded neighborhood of upper middle class and wealthy Londoners. It also became the home of one of the greatest social reform groups in the history of western Christianity. This group was known by several names such as the “Clapham Sect”, the “Saints”, the “Clapham Circle”, and the “Clapham Community”. Here is an excerpt about the group and its chief member, William Wilberforce:
William Wilberforce was born in 1759. In 1780 he was elected to the House of Commons in the English Parliament. James Boswell called him a shrimp, he was so short. But in 1807 the little representative of Yorkshire sat stunned as the entire House of Commons rose to honor him for his relentless battle in Parliament for over two decades against the English slave trade. Sir Samuel Romilly gave a passionate tribute to Wilberforce,
“When he should lay himself down on his bed, reflecting on the innumerable voices that would be raised in every quarter of the world to bless him; how much more pure and perfect felicity must he enjoy in the consciousness of having preserved so many millions of his fellow-creatures.”
After 20 years of defeat in session after session of Parliament, Wilberforce walked out that night through the snow of the London Streets with his old friend Henry Thornton, and said, with joy in his bright eyes, “Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?”
Where did Wilberforce get the strength to press on in a seemingly hopeless dream of abolition for over 20 years of setbacks? At least part of the answer is that in 1792 Henry Thornton founded a new community of evangelical politicians and churchmen who lived and worshiped together in the community of Clapham near Parliament. They became known as the Clapham sect and were derisively called the “saints” by their opponents.
There was John Venn the pastor, Zachary Macauly the editor, Henry Thornton the banker, James Stephen the attorney, William Wilberforce the statesman, and others. They were devout Christians. They were political conservatives, and for the most part wealthy. But they spent their wealth solving human problems and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. They pioneered Christian philanthropy and created institutions for Christian missions and humanitarian services. And they were passionately committed to the abolition of the slave trade. And they stirred each other up to love and good works!
How did Wilberforce hang tough for 20 years of setbacks? He banded together with some brothers. And he shared the passion of his own soul. And in that Clapham community, soul to soul, they kept each other hot until the victory came.
- excerpt from a sermon entitled “On Sharing Your Own Soul” , by Dr. John Piper © Desiring God
Clapham Community exists to remind people that we were created for community. This community is brought together and sustained by the gospel of Jesus Christ. When this community finds its basis in Jesus through the outworking of the gospel, it becomes revolutionary. This is what our hearts long for.