The Great Divide (pt.5)

Michael Metzger

Many American evangelicals cite William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect as their model. But when we cross over C. S. Lewis’ Great Divide, we wonder why.

Last week I wrote that the Clapham Sect is the last time a conservative Christian tradition contributed to systemic cultural change. Clapham closed up shop about 185 years ago. Since then, “the history of the conservative faith traditions has been one of declining influence.”[1]

American evangelicalism is generally conservative. It’s seen many conversions, but at a cost: declining influence over the last 185 years. So I’m puzzled when American evangelicals cite Clapham as their model or say You can be a Wilberforce. Cross the Great Divide to see why.

We first notice that European (i.e. British) and American evangelicalism sit on two different sides of the Great Divide that began forming after 1816. Clapham began on the far side of the divide (1790), at a time when there was no division between evangelism and cultural reform. American evangelicalism typically separates the two.

Clapham operated inside dense, overlapping networks of institutions and the elites. Studies show this key to changing the world.[2] Clapham’s networks included William Pitt, Prime Minister (and atheist), the actor David Garrick, and Lord and Lady Middleton, well-connected in the London world of Arts and Letters. Clapham sought to win these elites.[3]

American evangelicalism sits on the near side of the Great Divide, operating outside these networks. Its deepest impulse is populism, a belief in the power of everyday people to change the world bottom-up.[4] Populism is suspicious of intellectuals, institutions, and elites.

Clapham felt that the way to stir people to action is not by biblical argument but through vivid images.[5] This is why Wedgwood was enlisted to create a special medallion. At the center is a kneeling slave in shackles. Inscribed around the edge is a question: Am I not a Man and a Brother?

American evangelicalism typically tries to stir people to action by biblical argument, or “worldviews,” a concept that’s only 150 years old.[6] Both reflect the Didactic Enlightenment which promotes the idea that right thinking is the key to changing the world.[7]

Clapham also appealed to conscience to stir people to action. Note Wilberforce’s first speech against the slave trade: “What is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?”

American evangelicalism is generally unfamiliar with human conscience. It’s forgotten how the Apostle Paul appealed to conscience to stir men and women to action (II Cor.4:2).

But Clapham recognized that appeals to conscience were not enough. They also worked on public policy, relying on empirical research to support policy positions. They pioneered techniques to mobilize public opinion, including the petition to exert pressure on Parliament.  American evangelicalism tends to be politicized or shuns politics altogether.

Clapham was a network of friends. It included people of faith, no faith, differing faiths. William Pitt was an atheist, but Wilberforce was his best friend. Our need for friendships is noted in an article a friend sent to me. It discusses how facts don’t change people’s minds. Friendships do.

American evangelicalism is mostly networks of friends who are evangelical Christians. This is evident in studies where most of America’s elites report they do not have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian.[8]

Clapham collaborated with people of faith, no faith, different faiths. William Wilberforce wrote to his son, Samuel. “I recommend to you that of bringing together all men who are like-minded, and may one day combine and concert for the public good.” A 2014 McKinsey report notes that America’s social sector (including American evangelicalism) is deficient in collaboration.

But British and American evangelicalism are not entirely different. Clapham thought laws were largely important for reducing opportunities for temptation but they did not change the human heart. Wilberforce wrote: [the best hope for Britain lay not] “in her fleet and armies, not so much in the wisdom of her rulers, but in the spirit of her people and in the persuasion that she still contains many who, in a degenerate age, love and obey the Gospel of Christ.” American evangelicalism shares this same hope in the gospel.

I can’t say I recognized all these differences when I launched Clapham Institute almost 20 years ago. And to date, my work is certainly a pale imitation of the original. But at least you see why Clapham Institute’s aim is to help American evangelicals cross over the Great Divide. On the other side, we discover how the church changed the world for 1,800 years.


[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010), 19.

[2] Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies (Harvard University Press, 1979)

[3] Stephen Tomkins, The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain (Lion, 2010), 53.

[4] Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1991)

[5] Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 366.

[6] David Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans, 2002).

[7] Crane Brinton, A History of Western Morals (Paragon House; Reissue edition, 1998), 17.

[8] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Publishing Group, 2012), 107.


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One Comment

  1. 1 Corinthians 2:4-5
    4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
    5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
    Luke 16:31
    31 “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.'”
    Hebrews 4:12
    12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
    Friendship and collaboration, most definitely: Matthew 11:19
    19 “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

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