Clapham Sect

The name given, probably for the first time, by Sir James Stephen in an article in the Edinburgh Review (1844) to the group of wealthy Anglican Evangelicals who lived mainly in Clapham. Its characteristics were those of a large intimate family. Its most famous figure was William Wilberforce,* but around him was a very remarkable galaxy of talent including Henry Thornton, the banker whose home at Battersea Rise was in many ways the center of the “family”; John Venn, rector of Clapham; Charles Grant, a director of the East India Company; Lord Teignmouth, a governor-general of India; James Stephen, a leading barrister; Zachary Macaulay;* and William Smith, the dissenting member of Parliament who can be counted as a member though he was a Unitarian. Other intimates of the circle included some who did not live in Clapham, such as Hannah More,* Grenville Sharp, Isaac Milner,* and Charles Simeon.*

The establishment and support of a colony in Sierra Leone for ex-slaves, the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and of slavery in the British colonies in 1833 are their most famous achievements, owing much to a skillful ability to mobilize public opinion and thus to bring pressure to bear on Parliament. There were also significant attempts to widen the basis of education, to make the evangelical message known in carefully timed and presented works for the upper classes, as in Wilberforce's Practical View, and for the lower classes, as in Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts. There was a formidable commitment to a great variety of societies and pressure groups for social improvement. Aristocratic, conservative, and upholders of the status quo they were, yet there was a liberalism in their conservatism not common to men of their background. They were also closely connected with the foundation of the Church Missionary Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804), and the successful parliamentary battle of 1813 to legalize the sending of missionaries to India.

J. Stephen, Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, II (1849); E.M. Forster, Marianne Thornton (1956); M. Hennell, John Venn and the Clapham Sect (1958); E.M. Howse, Saints in Politics. The “Clapham Sect” and the Growth of Freedom (1960); F.K. Brown, Fathers of the Victorians. The Age of Wilberforce (1961); S. Meacham, Henry Thornton of Clapham, 1790-1815 (1964).