Seek a Neighbour Before You Seek a House

Michael Metzger

Serendipity explains much of the Clapham Sect’s success.

The Clapham Sect (c.1790-1833) achieved many significant reforms, including the abolition of the English Slave Trade. The sect’s members became a strategic band of like-minded friends when several decided to reside in adjoining homes in Clapham, a borough just outside London. The catalyst for this move was the revival of what Sir Horace Walpole (1717-1797) called “a silly fairy tale.”

Walpole was an English playwright who, in 1754, received a portrait of the second wife of Duke Francesco de Medici from his friend Horace Mann. In planning a frame for the portrait, Walpole accidentally stumbled upon an old Venetian coat of arms with a fleur-de-lis added to a blue ball denoting a forgotten alliance by marriage between two great Italian families, the Medicis and Capellos. This unexpected discovery moved Walpole to express his delight with a new word: serendipity.

“This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” From where did Walpole draw this word? “I once read a silly fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’… as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of …”[1]

Walpole went on to say a wealth of wisdom is available to those who are ready to see the unforeseen. Serendipity became the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. But it requires proximity, friends and neighbors travelling together, making discoveries.

This idea of serendipity was very much in vogue at the time of the Clapham Sect. One of its members, James Stephens supposedly said, “Seek a neighbour before you seek a house.” In other words, if the Clapham Sect was to discover ways to reform British society and abolish the slave trade, they had to live near one another (the word neighbor literally means “near one). So many of the Clapham Sect’s members pulled up stakes and moved to Clapham to be near one another, to live as neighbors.

The result is their neighborhood operated as “a meeting which never adjourned.” Henry Thornton (who donated over six-sevenths of his income over his lifetime) said, “Few men have been blessed with worthier and better friends than it has been my lot to be.” Those who couldn’t afford to build or buy homes in Clapham often lived in their Clapham colleagues’ homes. The front doors were usually left unlocked. Indeed, “they dwelt in one another’s houses almost as a matter of course,” writes Ernest Howse.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Men hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can’t communicate with each other; they can’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.” Seeking to be a neighbor before seeking to buy a house overcomes a bit of that.

I recognize relocating is not always easy, not always possible. But it is worth remembering that much of the Clapham Sect’s success lie in collaboration, and that required proximity, living as neighbors so that serendipity was more likely to happen. It yields unexpectedly delightful ways to make the world a better place.

[1] As given by W.S. Lewis, ed., Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Yale edition, in the book by Theodore G. Remer, ed.: Serendipity and the Three Princes, from the Peregrinaggio of 1557, Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer, Preface by W.S. Lewis (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). LCC 65-10112


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  1. Mike,

    This is a compelling article. Ironically, the concept of serendipity and its impact on our world fits well within my preconceived notions of reality. I guess that I, too, am subject to availability bias.

    Have you read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan? In this book published last year, the author makes a strong case for the viewpoint that the most significant events in our world (discoveries, the birth/growth of major religions, wars, inventions, political/economic turmoil etc.) do NOT evolve in a regular, predictable manner. In other words, they are serendipitous – though for bad, as well as good. This idea has tremendous impact on how we see our world and, indeed, how we live. I have been mulling the idea off and on since I read the book last summer, seeing some parallels in my Christian worldview and some sticking points, as well.

  2. As usual, this is a very insightful post, Mike, and helps add dimension and clarification for me to your previous posts on “worldviews” and “frames” – that if the facts don’t fit in our frames, the facts bounce off and the frames remain. Leaving room for Serendipity, and inviting the culture to do the same… now that’s a concept that is both important and non-threatening to a culture whose “frame” says that all religions are basically the same! We can encourage the culture to keep learning… you never know what you might stumble upon by “accident.” Thanks, as always, for your insight.

  3. Excellent piece! It brought to mind Darwinists that continue to stumble over evidence of design in living things, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.

    Lately, there has been a whole of of stumbling going on.

    Dave Eaton
    Deephaven, MN

  4. Really enjoyed this piece. I love serendipity myself and hope I can meander through life finding interesting and often unsought thoughts, like this, that bring a smile to my face (oh that they would also bring cash to my pocketbook!).

    That is why I love reading my mothers’ old books on subjects I would never select for myself. At this time I am trying to browse her 1881-first edition of Georg Ebers, The Emperor, an historical fiction on the life of the Emperor Hadrian while he was in Alexandria, Egypt. Who knows what thoughts they had in those days!
    Always – April, Pagosa Springs, CO

  5. Excellent piece! It brought to mind Darwinists that continue to stumble over evidence of design in living things, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.

    That cuts both ways, Eaton. I could say exactly the same thing about Young Earth Creationists, with or without their coat of “Intelligent Design” camouflage paint.

    Intelligent Design used to mean “Natural Theology”, the idea that science is discovering God’s creation — “Thinking God’s Thoughts after Him”, more a philosophical underpinning of Western science than science itself.

    However, today we have Intelligent Design (nudge nudge wink wink know what I mean know what I mean), aka Young Earth Creationism with a new coat of paint. So a centuries-old intellectual tradition becomes nothing more than a weapon to ram YEC down everybody’s throats.

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