Christian History Home > Issue 53 > William Wilberforce and the Abolition of the Slave Trade: A Gallery of Aristocratic Activists
William Wilberforce and the Abolition of the Slave Trade: A Gallery of Aristocratic Activists
The Clapham Sect was one of the most elite and effective bands of Christian social reformers—ever
When after much struggle and effort, the abolition bill passed in 1807, William Wilberforce said to his friend Henry Thornton, "Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?"
The comment illustrates Wilberforce's innate optimism, but the "we" also reveals something. Though he was probably the greatest social reformer of the 1800s, he never worked alone.
When he was converted to evangelical faith in 1785, Wilberforce soon found himself at the center of a group of well-connected and well-heeled individuals. This group, called the Clapham Sect, combined their considerable talents, religious zeal, and optimism in a concerted campaign of national reform. And in large measure, they succeeded.
Here are some of the leading members and what they accomplished as individuals and as a group.
Whenever a new cause was championed by the Clapham friends, and a society organized to carry it out, Henry Thornton was the one who gave practical business advice and financial support. He was almost sure to be asked to be the treasurer.
After his conversion, Wilberforce had retreated to the mansion of Henry's father, John Thornton, who lived in Clapham. Wilberforce soon became fast friends with Henry. Henry purchased his own house at Clapham in 1792, and he and Wilberforce lived there together as bachelors for five years. Later, when each had married and established his own family, they lived as neighbors on the same estate. It was around Wilberforce and Thornton that the "sect" gradually formed.
Henry, like his father, was a highly successful merchant banker. He had a superb mind for abstract economics, and his business savvy was matched by a liberal generosity. He gave away six-sevenths of his income before he was married and more than a third of it afterward. Probably his greatest personal efforts were expended in directing the affairs of the Sierra Leone Company, a Clapham-inspired enterprise to establish a colony of freed slaves in West Africa.
Thornton was a Member of Parliament for many years, but he never neglected his domestic duties. He conducted regular family worship, and a volume of his family prayers was published after his death.
Unlike most of his younger friends at Clapham, Granville Sharp had no inherited wealth and had to work to support himself. But work seemed to come easy to Sharp. While working away at law, he taught himself Hebrew so he could defend Christianity to a Jew, and then Greek, to oppose an infidel skeptic.
Sharp was older than most of the other associates of Wilberforce and more loosely associated with Clapham. But he had pioneered in the early efforts against slavery and helped recruit Wilberforce to the cause.
When Wilberforce was still a child, without any legal training, Sharp had single-handedly overturned the legal opinion of the majority of the most eminent judges in England. Sharp happened upon a slave in London who had been cruelly beaten and abandoned by his West Indian master. Sharp took up the slave's case and achieved, in this case and others, many legal precedents, including the famous 1772 ruling which essentially declared that any slave who set foot in English territory had become free.
Sharp had his share of eccentricities. He rose at dawn to sing Psalms in Hebrew to the accompaniment of his harp. He was also keenly interested in the prophetic parts of Scripture. He once gained an audience with the prominent statesman Charles Fox and proceeded to explain to him why Napoleon should be identified with the "little horn" in Daniel 7.
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