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The Clapham Sect by Steve Tompkins
1st November 2010
The ‘group biography’ is a difficult trick to pull off. Authors are faced with an embarrassment – actually a mess – of riches. In contrast to individual biographies where the sustained attention to the subject provides both a plot line and a reason for emotional engagement, group biographies are the literary equivalent of a spaghetti junction. Multiple paths pass beside and beneath one another, coming from nowhere, crossing, parting, rejoining, and then disappearing on a tangent. It can all be rather confusing for the reader.
The problem is amplified in a book on the Clapham Sect, in which the central figures not only gave their own names to their children but also those of their friends. Thus we have Thomas Babington, Thomas Gisborne, Thomas Gisborne Babington and Thomas Babington Macaulay, not to mention James Stephen son of James Stephen and father of James Stephen.
Given these constraints, Stephen Tomkins has done a fine job disentangling and giving a narrative structure to the lives and achievements of the men and women who congregated around Clapham in the years around 1800 and did so much to shape the moral atmosphere of nineteenth-century Britain.
Those men and women were evangelicals and it is heartening, in an age in which evangelicalism has become a media byword for narrow-minded bigotry, to hear how Clapham evangelicals were widely distrusted, ridiculed and even loathed. We are liable to see Wilberforce and his circle in the light of the abolitionist halo that still shines so brightly: their causes were so self-evidently right that they could only have been seen as moral heroes by their contemporaries.
Nothing could befurther from the truth. At the time, abolitionism was denounced (frequently equated with French Jacobinism), evangelical societies condemned (especially by High Churchmen who saw their ecumenism as deeply damaging) and evangelical passion damned as perilous zeal (John Venn, rector of Holy Trinity Clapham was deemed a dangerous extremist for holding three services on a Sunday). The road the Sect strode was divisive and unpopular as well as being personally demanding.
It is impossible in so short a review to give anything more than a flavour of Clapham’s endeavours. Tomkins does well to encompass the innumerable societies, schools, campaigns, publications, parliamentary bills, and the like that marked their public life. They worked to support missionary activity, translate bibles, relieve poverty, abolish debt, educate children, suppress vice, combat immorality, and stop slavery. Their personal generosity, integrity and dedication was truly extraordinary.
This is emphatically not a group hagiography, however. Tomkins charts the Sect’s ‘colossal failure’ to set up a colony of freed slaves in Sierre Leone in considerable detail. He reveals how this colony effectively sanctioned slavery (calling it ‘apprenticeship’) after the trade has been abolished, a revelation that made headlines when the book was published.
Most interestingly, he repeatedly recognises the – to us – uncomfortable combination of extreme paternalism and extreme humanitarianism within Clapham’s endeavours. Thus Wilberforce, accused of radicalism for his attitude to slavery, constantly supported the most authoritarian domestic policies of his age. Or Hannah and Patty More, who set up schools and benefit clubs for the agricultural families in the Mendip hills and then taught children a message of unremitting political obedience and social deference, refusing to let the village women spend their savings on what they wanted. “They have so little common sense,” Patty explained, “that we are obliged to beat into their heads continually the good we are doing them.”
This was enough to condemn them in some eyes at the time, and remains so today. Such views amount to little more than crass judgementalism, however, the anti-Christian equivalent of evangelical hero worship. Tomkins’ book is mercifully free of both sins. He has far too great a grasp of his sources to allow history to become a mere mine for our current fixations.
Not even Tomkins can avoid a sense of name-fatigue setting in at the end. The dramatis personae he provides early on cites over fifty people, around half of whom have significantly more than a walk on role, so that by the end of the book the reader’s head is swimming. Nevertheless, overwhelming as the detail is in places, the book is never dull. The prose throughout is clear, lively, engaging and marked by occasional moments of brilliance, such as when he describes William Wilberforce’s aged and unconverted mother staying amid her son’s evangelical friends as a lion in a den of Daniels.
The impression one comes away with is of a detailed and well-grounded account of a remarkable group of people who remain a immense inspiration to any Christian seeking to change the climate of opinion, in spite of their very real and apparent faults and weaknesses. The Clapham Sect did not consider themselves heroes and would have decried any prospective hero worship, but that does not mean we cannot still learn from them.
This review first appeared in Third Way Magazine.