The central theme in Judaism is return, the translation of the Hebrew word t’shuvah. That’s also the central theme for my 2018 New Year’s resolution—returning.
Returning was a familiar theme for the first Christians as the early church was primarily Jewish. Early Christians understood t’shuvah, later rendered in the English as “repentance.” Repentance is returning, or homecoming.
I’m returning to why we launched Clapham Institute in 2002. I’m also coming back to why I began writing these columns in 2004. We’ve covered a lot of ground in 15 years but I might have on occasion lost sight of home—why my work is named Clapham.
The story of Clapham Institute starts with The Trinity Forum. I was hired to launch Osprey Point Leadership Center in 1998. Our model was the Clapham Sect (c. 1787-1833). During my time with TTF, I learned a great deal about this British band of activists. When the Trinity board voted to terminate the Osprey Point project in 2002, I felt called to keep trying to emulate the Clapham Sect’s legacy.
And what was their legacy? The Clapham Sect was a world-changing movement. All such movements are made up of dense, overlapping networks of institutions and the elites who run them. They operate around “peaks” (what Pierre Bourdieu calls “center” institutions). Change is not top down or bottom up; but center out through institutions. The Clapham Sect recognized this, seeking “to woo the ruling classes.”
The results were impressive. Called “the patient saints of Clapham” (they lived in and around the town of Clapham in Greater London), their aim was the flourishing of the British Empire. The Claphamites achieved 69 societal reforms, including the abolition of the English Slave Trade. For the Clapham Sect, these reforms were part of seeking the flourishing of all.
But here’s the daunting part of the story. The Clapham Sect represents the last time in Western history when the conservative Christian tradition changed the world in a significant way. For some readers, I recognize that might be hard to swallow. But I believe it’s true.
Randall Collins, a University of Pennsylvania professor, wrote a massive book (1,100 pages) on what characterizes world-changing movements. Skim it and you’ll notice the Clapham Sect was part of the dense, overlapping networks that helped to abolish the English Slave Trade. And then the conservative Christian traditions fade away.
Our story since the early 1800s “has been one of declining influence.” This is why James Davison Hunter, another cultural analyst, draws a rather sobering conclusion. “For all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it, the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.”
I believe broad-scale societal renewal is still possible. And so, in 2002, I was out of work but felt a call from God. A trusted friend phoned me, urging me to hang out my shingle. I did, calling my little organization Clapham Institute. We needed money. A foundation gave me $50,000. I raised $70,000. We needed benefits. Kathy, to her everlasting credit, found work in the public schools. We were underway. Our dream? Return the faith to a position where it could change the world in a significant way.
Simon Sinek says great leaders inspire action. They start with why, then how, then what. Why does Clapham Institute exist? We’re all about flourishing societies. How do we seek to do this? Align with proven frameworks for changing the world. What exactly do we do? We run problem-solving, practitioner-led, hands-on learning labs. We seek to emulate the why, how, and what of the original Clapham Sect.
I haven’t been the best leader over the last few years in keeping our why, how, and what front and center. I’m returning to them. It’s my New Year’s resolution. From now on, this column will address the issues related to seeking the flourishing of societies. If that interests you, follow along.
 Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies (Harvard University Press, 1979)
 Stephen Tomkins, The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain (Oxford: Lion, 2010), p. 53.
 James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 19.