Imagine a scene. The scene itself, a meeting of adults around a table in a home, does not catch your attention, but the people who are there certainly do. It’s a Who’s Who of famous and influential people, and they seem to be passionately discussing something very important. These people have a diversity of backgrounds; here there are respected and well-known musicians, actors and directors, Christian pastors and denominational leaders, published academics, and influential politicians. And come to find out, this meeting is not a one-time occurrence; these influential people have been meeting regularly like this for years. Their agenda: to strategize and plan out how to use their respective influence to end the evil practice of legalized abortion in the United States.
While the scene above is purely fictional, a group of friends like the one described above did meet regularly in the Clapham district of London, England, around the turn of the 19th century. Members of this group included pastor John Newton, politicians William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton, and poet/playwright/author Hannah More, among others, and perhaps their greatest accomplishment was the abolition of the slave trade in England in 1833. This group of evangelical friends met regularly at Henry Thornton’s estate, Battersea Rise. The home became a sort of headquarters for the group’s writing projects and strategy meetings with members taking up residence among the massive home’s thirty bedrooms at various times. Karen Swallow Prior writes concerning this unique fellowship, “If the old, nearly blind John Newton was the soul of the abolitionist movement, Wilberforce its voice, and Hannah [More] its heart and hands, the Clapham community served as the very body, and Battersea Rise was the cloak that offered protection and warmth.”1
The group functioned much like a New Testament church is supposed to function (1 Cor. 12:12-30), with each member bringing unique gifts to the table that were valued by all. Prior paints the picture well: “Rather than trying to force all to follow one pattern, each was supported in his or her talents and passions put to the service of the greater vision. Thornton had wealth and connections. Wilberforce was blessed with eloquence. More’s powers were wit and pen.”2 Prior notes that the group adopted a strategy of co-belligerence, where they were willing to partner with dissimilar people and groups in pursuit of common causes.3 They held no reservations about making such partnerships because they kept the goal of societal justice in view. Because of their broad and tolerant partnerships and tireless efforts, they were able to influence society at every level, eventually leading to the abolition of the British slave trade.
What can be learned from such a group of friends? We live in a fragmented age in which the type of unity of purpose displayed by the Clapham fellowship seems like a fantasy. However, the Clapham friends were able to accomplish so much because they shared several qualities—qualities that are available to us today. First, they were united by a very specific set of gospel convictions. They wanted to see the gospel transform society, and they chose as their target the grossest injustice of their day—human slavery. This commitment persisted through decades of work, refusing to abate in the face of defeats and never settling short of ultimate victory. Second, they were tireless workers. Prior describes their methods: “They developed ‘launchers,’ ways to turn discuss and social gatherings to serious topics. They conducted research, circulated petitions, undertook boycotts, and published pamphlets, treatises, and poems.” Wilberforce used his eloquence before Parliament to convince fellow politicians, Newton wrote about his own horrific experiences as a slave ship captain, and More used her wit to write tracts and pamphlets that would appeal to every level of society. Third, they shared a fellowship in Christ that bound them together in the face of trials and cultural pressure. Facing such animosity alone would have certainly cooled the fire that each member of the fellowship carried. However, in community, they were able to offer the mutual encouragement needed to persist in the victory.
Injustice reigns in our day as well. The abortion industry continues to slaughter the unborn at a rate of 3000 lives lost per day. Human slavery is at its highest rate today than at any previous time in world history. Racial tensions seem to be rising. The Clapham friends provide a story of inspiration and persistence that should motivate the church today. Imagine what could be accomplished today if gospel convictions were pursued with tireless efforts among people bound together in Christ.
1. Karen Swallow Prior, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2014), 167.
3. Ibid., 170.