THE story of the members of the Clapham sect inspires the reader. Their devotion to causes dear to them, their commitment in working for those ideals down generations and the depth of the inter-clan loyalty are admirable qualities that set them apart from other social reformers of England.
Stephen Tomkins’ recent book ‘The Clapham Sect’ narrates the story of how this group, working under the leadership of William Wilberforce transformed Britain. They were evangelical Christians, prominent in England from about 1790 to 1830, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery. They supported and promoted missionary work at home and abroad. The epicenter of the movement was the church of John Venn, rector of Clapham in South London.
Some of its other prominent members included Henry Thornton, James Stephen, and Zachary Macaulay and Robert Grant. They are not in the strict sense a sect, as the word means to belong to a cult. They were a group of people, located at various places, but linked by their desire to effect changes. The name itself has an interesting origin. According to the book, Sir James Stephen, the under Secretary of State for Colonies and one of the most influential persons in the British Empire, while dictating an article for a newspaper used this expression ‘Clapham sect’ while he probably meant to say the Clapham church. The usage stayed and caught on.
The Clapham people married among themselves. The book gives the fascinating story of the web of family relations in the group – father and son, aunt and nephew, husband and wife, daughters, cousins, etc. Within the story of the people are the stories of their famous campaigns against slavery, the Sierra Leone colony, Indian mission, home mission, charity, and politics. They were bankers, MPs, poets, editors, merchants, vicars and other professionals.
The toughest fight was for the abolition of slavery. There was huge economics in it and the anti-slavery campaign did not find favour with the people at the helm. Britain then was the largest exporter of slaves they were bringing from Africa. The trade in slaves was abolished in 1807 and in 1822, the Clapham sect launched the final stretch of campaign to end slavery.
The Claphams have an Indian connection. The official, sponsored missionary work in India began courtesy the Clapham sect. Charles Grant, a second generation Clapham sect man and member of the East India Board of Trade “disagreed profoundly with the company’s policy of expansionist role of Bengal for the sake of profit. To his mind, Indians were lost souls and their society was horrifically immoral and corrupt, both in desperate need of Christian mission.” The company was interested only in trade and profit and opposed any religious, evangelical work, as they felt that it would antagonise the locals. Grant approached Wilberforce and they found a common cause.
Wilberforce tried to include sending missionaries to India as part of the 1793 India Charter of the company. The move, which passed the initial stages successfully, was defeated in the third reading of the bill. Undaunted, Wilberforce persisted and the mission was followed up by his successors in the sect. Eventually, the missionaries and evangelists became part of the British Empire’s presence in India.
The book unravels an interesting page from history and because it involves the interlinked stories of different people, it makes reading fascinating.
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