Many ministries bear the name of Wilberforce or Clapham (mine included). But are we cut from the same bolt of cloth as the original? A new biography of Hannah More, a member of the Clapham Sect, helps answer that question.
The Clapham Sect denotes a band of reformers who for decades met at Battersea Rise House, located in Clapham, just outside London. These activists worked to abolish the English Slave Trade. William Wilberforce lived at Battersea as a single man.
It wasn’t an all-male club, however. The poet and playwright Hannah More was a Clapham colleague. “Fierce Convictions,” a new biography of her life, helps readers see the original Clapham bolt of cloth.
“Fierce Convictions” is the work of Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University. She describes how More grew up a fan of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet who wrote, “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.” More “felt that imaginative literature would reach into the hearts of readers where rational argument failed.” Readers can see this thread in the Clapham cloth.
Clapham arts made a significant impact during the first years of the fight against the slave trade. More produced the poem “Slavery” in 1788. That same year, William Cowper wrote “The Negro’s Complaint.” Josiah Wedgwood manufactured the famous medallion: “Am I not a man and a brother?” John Newton published his pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade.
More believed the visual arts stirred the “social conscience” that “had drawn a veil over the horrific business of trade in human flesh.” You can see this thread in the Clapham Sect. “No Englishman has ever done more to evoke the conscience of the British people and to elevate and ennoble British life” is how one historian described Wilberforce’s legacy.
More targeted the up-and-in while helping the down-and-out. She started schools for the poor but recognized “if you want to change a society the greatest need for change was among what More called the “fashionable.” The Clapham Sect had the same target, with member Zachary Macaulay editing the Christian Observer, a magazine targeting the “more cultured” with the aim of being read and respected by the social elite.
Finally, More was a problem solver. She co-founded and ran a network of 800 schools for young ladies. Clapham colleagues were also problem solvers. The Clapham Sect operated like a learning lab. For example, most Brits assumed the slave trade was a problem beyond solution, “being so necessary to the material well-being of the nation that even those who could imagine a world without slavery could hardly imagine how it might cease,” writes Prior. Economists of that day warned that abolishing the entire English Slave Trade would result in “econocide.” The Clapham Sect set out to solve that problem, taking small, incremental steps toward solutions.
So how do today’s Wilberforce and Clapham ministries compare to the original? I don’t know, except to say The Clapham Group and Wedgwood Circle seem to be cut from the same bolt of cloth. Their focus is on reframing the imagination. Conscience. The arts. Elites. Solving problems. If you’re not familiar with their work, check them out. And read “Fierce Convictions.” You’ll enjoy seeing the threads that made up the original bolt of cloth.
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