The Clapham Sect
Evangelicalism was a broad movement, encompassing both Anglicans and Dissenters. It has been identified by its four defining characteristic: conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. In the late eighteenth century the two most influential groups of Evangelicals were the Methodists, whose numbers were rising dramatically, and the group of Anglicans around William Wilberforce.
In 1784 Wilberforce was returned for Yorkshire. In 1785-6 he experienced an Evangelical conversion and at the end of 1787 he recorded in his diary,
‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.’Earlier in that year he had been instrumental in setting up the Proclamation Society. In 1789 he made his first great speech on the abolition of the slave trade and encouraged Hannah More to set up her first Sunday school in Cheddar.
In 1792 he set up a ‘chummery’ at Battersea Rise on Clapham Common with his second cousin, the banker Henry Thornton (1760-1815). On the edge of the common Thornton built two smaller houses, one, Broomfield, rented by Edward Eliot, Pitt’s brother- in- law, and the other bought by Charles Grant (1746-1823) who had been a member of the board of trade at Calcutta. The little colony was later joined by
John Shore (Lord Teignmouth) (1751-1834), Warren Hastings’ successor as governor-general of IndiaThis conglomeration of Evangelicals, comprising bankers, members of Parliament and colonial administrators, all devoted to the abolition of the slave trade and the dissemination of ‘vital religion’, became known as the ‘Saints’; by the middle of the nineteenth century they had acquired the retrospective title of the ‘Clapham sect’. Their group solidarity was remarkable. They went on holiday together, intermarried and stood godparents to each other’s children. In the Rev. John Venn (1758-1813) they had (almost) their own domestic chaplain; he had (of course) been presented to the living of Clapham by Henry Thornton.
the lawyer James Stephen (1758-1832)
the abolitionist, Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838) who in 1796 accepted the governorship of the experimental non-slaving colony of Sierra Leone.
The Evangelicals aimed at remoralizing both ends of society – the poor and the genteel.
In 1795 Hannah More began the publication of her Cheap Repository Tracts aimed at a popular readership.
In 1797 Wilberforce published his Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country contrasted with Real Christianity, which sold 7,500 copies within six months. It benefited from the fact that it coincided with the new moral and political conservatism in the wake of the French Revolution. Burke is said to have read it in the dying months of his life. Wilberforce's message operated on two levels:
it called the great to moral reformation
it also offered the means of strengthening the state against political reformers.
In 1802 Zachary Macaulay, back from Sierra Leone and married to Selina Mills, a former teacher at the More sisters’ school in Bristol, founded the Christian Observer, the house-journal of the Clapham sect.
The group was also influential in Cambridge: Dr Isaac Milner (1750-1820) was dean of Carlisle and president of Queens’ College; Charles Simeon (1759-1836), vicar of Holy Trinity, was a fellow of King’s.
However, the Evangelicals never acquired a commanding position in the Church of England. In 1815 they acquired their first bishop in Henry Ryder (1777-1836): bishop of Gloucester, 1815, bishop of Lichfield 1823. In 1828 John Bird Sumner (1780-1862) became bishop of Chester and in 1848 archbishop of Canterbury. But by this time the Tractarians had mounted their own challenge.
Sunday schools became an extremely fashionable form of philanthropy. In the summer of 1789 Wilberforce told Hannah More ‘something must be done about Cheddar’. By ‘something’ he clearly meant a Sunday school.
This is my photograph of the 'Hannah More cottage' in Cheddar, the converted cowshed that was her first Sunday school. The first teacher was a Mrs Sarah Baber. The cottage is now a landmark in the village
In 1780 Robert Raikes started his first school for the children of chimney sweeps in Sooty Alley, Gloucester (opposite the city prison) in 1780. He used his position as proprietor and editor of the Gloucester Journal to publicize the work. After his first editorial in 1783, schools spread rapidly. In 1785 an undenominational national organization, the Sunday School Society, was set up to co-ordinate and develop the work. By 1784 there were said to be 1800 pupils in Manchester and Salford, and Leeds the same. Sunday schools were attended by adults as well as children. By the turn of the century more than 2,000 Sunday schools had been founded. 8,000 were in existence by 1821. In 1801 c. 10% of children were enrolled, more than 55% by 1851. Sunday schools taught reading and the more controversial also taught writing. They provided feasts and processions and for their parents they provided adult classes and benefit clubs. They disseminated the 'Victorian' virtues of industry and sobriety.
In 1810 the Quaker Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838) founded what became known as the British and Foreign School Society. It was based on the monitorial system in which from 200 to 1,000 pupils were gathered in one room and seated in rows, usually of ten pupils each. The adult schoolmaster taught the monitors, each of whom relayed the lesson to his own row.
In 1811 the Anglican clergyman, Andrew Bell (1753-1832) became superintendent of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. These two rival societies formed the foundations of what became the state system of elementary education.
The growth of Methodism
After the death of John Wesley an integrated organizational structure developed with each chapel linked to others in the area in a series of 'circuits' (114 by Wesley's death in 1791) which were themselves incorporated into districts. Methodism depended on an itinerant ministry; ministers remained in a particular community only for a limited period and at the direction of the Annual Conference.
Methodism concentrated on fitting the convert into a social as well as religious institution; meetings were held on weekdays. Methodists were organised into 'classes' for the majority of members and ‘bands’ for those ‘pressing on to holiness’. Inevitably such groups set up a spiritual elite that ran against formal church structures.
Methodism flourished in the North Midlands and the north of England, particularly east of the Pennines and in the south west, especially Cornwall. Its most receptive hearers were skilled workers and craftsmen. It appealed particularly to those outside the traditional Anglican hierarchy of squire, tenant farmer and labourer. In the first thirty years of the 19th century almost two-thirds of Methodists were drawn from the ranks of the skilled working classes rather than the poorest in society.
After Wesley's death a number of secessions took place. In 1807 Conference condemned revivalist meetings on the United States model which had been held at the hill known as Mow Cop on the Staffordshire moorlands. Four years later Hugh Bourne (1772-1852) a carpenter and William Clowes (1780-1852), a potter from Burslem, established a Primitive Methodist Connexion, which grew steadily to a membership in excess of 100,000 in 1851. Whereas the Methodist Connexion had banned women's preaching in 1803 the Primitives allowed women to preach. They had particular success among the rural labourers of eastern and northern England.
Elie Halévy (1870-1937) and E. P. Thompson have argued that Methodism was an essentially conservative movement, diverting energies that would otherwise have gone into revolution. Certainly the Wesleyans became increasingly conservative as the threat of radicalism increased. However, Methodism trained many working men in administration and public speaking and gave them a sense of their own worth they would not otherwise have possessed. Methodists became trade unionists, Luddites and Chartists.
In 1811 alarmed at what he saw as the Methodist threat, Viscount Sidmouth the Home Secretary proposed a bill introducing new restrictions on dissenting ministers, aimed principally at itinerants. It was beaten off by frantic lobbying, in which Dissenters united with Evangelical Anglicans such as Wilberforce.
An Age of Societies
The Evangelicals were extremely successful in mobilizing middle-class activism that involved women and even children in an unprecedented fashion. Some of the new societies were non-denominational, others purely Anglican (though always with a strong Evangelical ethos. Here is a list of some of their societies:
1792: the Baptist Missionary SocietyMissions
1795: the London Missionary Society (the original title was 'the Missionary Society; the title ‘London’ was added in 1818). This was the first time in recent history that Anglicans and Dissenters had joined together in a common enterprise.
1798: the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor
1799: the Religious Tract Society
1799 the Society for Missions to Africa and the East (the Church Missionary Society). Unlike the Religious Tract Society this was purely Anglican and aroused hostility from many high churchmen, who feared that it was setting up a church within a church.
1804 the British and Foreign Bible Society. The result was the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society at a public meeting in London on 7 March 1804. The society was inter-denominational from the start, and even included some non-Evangelicals like Bishop Burgess. Its three secretaries were an Anglican clergyman, a Welsh Baptist, and a German Lutheran; the committee consisted exclusively of laymen, fifteen Anglicans, fifteen Dissenters and six foreigners resident in London. Henry Thornton was treasurer and the Claphamite Lord Teignmouth, former Governor-General of India, its president.
The goal of the Bible Society was the interdenominational dissemination of the Bible ‘without note or comment’ - this was deeply resented by High Churchman and between 1805 and 1822 over 170 pamphlets were written against the Society. Its genius lay in its ability to mobilize the energies of its supporters throughout the country, using women and even children, and playing a vital role in the creation of the energetic evangelical culture which was to be such an important feature of Victorian society. It happened spontaneously, as auxiliary associations began to mushroom throughout the country. The auxiliaries then spawned their own outgrowths in the form of Ladies’ Associations, and by the 1830s, middle-class women had cornered the market in selling cheap bibles to the poor, much to the alarm of conservatives who thought women should concentrate purely on domestic concerns. Some feared that the women would neglect their families and undermine male authority by becoming tub-thumping fanatics or that they would be unable to add up the collections.
1809 the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. This began in 1805 as a weekly series of Saturday night lectures for potential Jewish converts in London. In 1815 the Society became purely Anglican. The stress on the Jews owes much to the millenarian preoccupations during and after the Napoleonic Wars.
Missionary work was an offshoot of imperial expansion and something which united Evangelicals of all denominations.
In 1793 William Carey (1761-1834) went to Calcutta. In 1801 he began to teach at Fort William College and translated the Bible into a number of Indian languages. In the February edition of the Whig Edinburgh Review, Sydney Smith (1771-1845) sneered at the Indian mission as ‘a nest of consecrated cobblers’.
In 1813 the East India Company’s charter was up for renewal, and the Evangelicals wished to insert a clause in the new charter allowing Christian missionaries to operate in the parts of India controlled by the Company. They faced fierce opposition from the Company which had always forbidden proselytizing for fear that this would exacerbate religious tensions. With tactics learned from the abolitionist movement, Wilberforce brought pressure on his fellow parliamentarians from the country at large.
The petitions were successful in Manchester, Bristol and throughout the provinces. Armed with this impressive support, Wilberforce stood up in the Commons on 22 June and delivered a diatribe on ‘the degraded character of the Hindoo superstition’ that condemned sati and female infanticide. His motion for the insertion of the new clause was carried by 89 votes to 36.
The consequences for India were momentous. The diocese of Calcutta was founded in 1814. The evangelical success in opening up India to Christianity was paralleled a generation later by the secular Utilitarian programme of westernization. In 1834, Thomas Babington Macaulay, son of Zachary the abolitionist, came to India as the new Law Member. In a resolution of the following year he declared
‘that the great objects of the British government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science ... through the medium of the English language’.This had a profound effect on the Indian educational system.
There can be little doubt of a new ethos by 1830. Lady Louisa Stuart looked back bemusedly to her earlier admiration for Aphra Behn. In 1818 Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) produced his Family Shakespeare. The new generation of compulsive womanizers like Viscount Palmerston were no longer open in their conduct. There was a new ‘hypocrisy’ - the ‘tribute vice pays to virtue’?