Clapham: A Missional Community

Clapham: A Missional Community

By Wayne Kirkland

Twenty-five years ago I had recently embarked on my theology studies – initially by distance, through a couple of North American seminaries.

In one particular course, I wrote a paper which I entitled “The Clapham Sect: A Mission Community”. My first lines were:

Mention the name William Wilberforce to anyone with even the briefest of church history knowledge and they are likely to connect him to the abolition of the slave trade. Mention the name Zachary Macaulay or Granville Sharp to the same person and they are likely to reply, ‘Who?’ Yet there is a very important connection to all three of these men. They were all part of a select group of men and women known as the ‘Clapham Sect’.

My basic thesis was that while William Wilberforce carried the highest profile of any of the group, Clapham was essentially a team of highly committed and energetic people who drew on each other to bring change well beyond their size and influence. A community engaged in mission together.

When the phrase “Clapham Sect” is used, it’s actually quite misleading. It’s a label that was only applied years later. The truth is that they were neither a “sect” nor did they even have a “membership”. The Claphamites were a rather organic and fluid group who counted themselves as orthodox, committed evangelical Anglicans with a passion for “Christianity in action”. And while the village of Clapham contained a core group of people intentionally “doing life” together – particularly the Thorntons, Wilberforces, Grants, Venns, Sharps and Macaulays – there were many others living elsewhere who were intimately involved in the mission of the group. Men and women such as Charles Simeon, Hannah More, Thomas Clarkson, Thomas Gisborne, Thomas Babbington, and Isaac Milner.

The Clapham community was actually the brainchild of a wealthy banker, Henry Thornton, who lived with his family in Clapham – in those days a small village just outside London. Thornton dreamed of developing an evangelical community and he made it possible for a number of houses to be built close to his own mansion. Thornton also pushed to have a young evangelical, John Venn, appointed as the rector of the local Anglican parish.

From the 1790’s onwards, Clapham became a vibrant centre of community, with families living out of each other’s homes, daily prayers, and collaborative projects developed over the kitchen table and in Thornton’s library. In today’s terminology they might be described as a missional community.

In my essay I noted several themes of the life and mission of the Claphamites. Even though we live in a completely different age and circumstances, there’s alot we can learn from them.

Their mission

While the abolition of the slave trade and slavery campaigns were at the heart of their mission, the Clapham community spearheaded numerous other ventures, including initiating campaigns for penal reform, the abolition of the press gang, relief of chimney boys, education for everyone, and the regulation of factory conditions. They also fought to promote the Sabbath, stop indecent literature, abolish the lottery, and put an end to the cruel animal sports of the day.

Then there was their work abroad. They spearheaded the establishment of a colony in West Africa for freed slaves (Sierra Leone), and actively pushed for missionary involvement in India, as well as providing a counteracting force to the commercial pursuits of the British East India Company.

Claphamites were also instrumental in the establishment of the CMS (Church Missionary Society), the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Sunday School movement, and the SPCA (Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

This extraordinary diversity of initiatives revealed a relatively well-rounded understanding of God’s mission. Certainly the Claphamites saw no dichotomy between evangelism and social justice.

Their strategy

Amongst the Clapham community were several politicians. Their work was to prove critical in their agitation for change. “The Saints” (as they were often referred to in Parliament) were not aligned to any particular party, nor did they ever hold ministerial roles. Nevertheless, they wielded significant influence, even though they numbered just a handful of sitting MP’s at any one time. Free of the need to toe party lines, the Saints argued their causes and built strong alliances with key politicians such as Pitt, Fox and Grenville. In particular, Wilberforce was a master communicator – though the power of his oratory was substantially enhanced by the considerable research provided by men such as Macaulay and Clarkson.

However, the work of Clapham stretched well beyond the political realm. They understood that the education and mobilization of the public was a very powerful force for change – even though political power was still dominated by the wealthy.

Petitions, literature, public meetings, and even an organized boycott of slave-grown sugar, were all used to great effect. In particular, they quickly learnt the power of the written word. They produced pamphlets, books, a periodical and tracts that were cheap and easy to read. Hannah More proved especially masterful in the art of tract writing. Each year millions of pieces of literature were sold – targeting not just the aristocracy, but also the middle and working classes.

Clapham also capitalized on the growing trend of establishing charitable “voluntary societies” to promote their causes. This was genius – for it provided a way for large numbers of the public to get involved – both as volunteers and as financial contributors. Wilberforce was himself a member of 69 voluntary societies and has been compared to “a Prime Minister of a cabinet of philanthropists”! [1]

The point is, the Claphamites learnt how to engage, involve, and mobilise large numbers of people in their causes.

Their synergy

One of my disappointments with the otherwise excellent movie, “Amazing Grace”, was its failure to communicate just how much of a team effort the campaign against the slave trade was.

For William Wilberforce was simply the key mouthpiece for Clapham, and for the wider consortium of interests campaigning against the slave trade and slavery. In fact, as one historian (Ernest Howse) has noted, “Wilberforce needed the others to make him what he was; but the others needed Wilberforce to make a river from a group of pools.” [2]

When I think of Clapham, my mind immediately turns to the word “synergy” – several individuals cooperating with each other in a cause that is way bigger than any of them could tackle. Each person bringing their particular gifts to the table so the end result is far greater than the sum of each of the individual parts. This was Clapham in a nutshell.

And while some of their impact could be attributed to the disproportionate influence people of wealth and class were able to wield in eighteenth and nineteenth century England, a lot of it happened because a group of highly gifted and well-placed men and women were prepared to submit their own agendas and ambitions to the causes Clapham took up. Politicians, lawyers, clergy, writers, bankers, researchers, activists, and public servants – all working collaboratively in highly effective teamwork. The Body of Christ in action. Koinonia in living technicolour.

Their legacy

In my book, Just Money, I suggest that Clapham, “…were leaders in inspiring their society to new values – values that persisted for a century and more, in Great Britain and far beyond its shores.”

In spite of the bad press “Victorian England” and its morality gets these days, there is little doubt in my mind that nineteenth century Britain was a far more just and compassionate society than it would otherwise have been, because of the energy and vision of evangelicals such as the Claphamites. And this influence spilled over into the way Britain went about building its colonial empire.

Of course, like all of us, Wilberforce and co were captive to their times. They have been accused (among other things) of supporting the status quo – particularly in their opposition to trade unions and wider democratic reform – and of working more for the poor than with the poor.. Even so, as Howse points out, “It is useless to criticize them by the standards of twentieth century socialism. They were part of an aristocratic society that had never thought of questioning the order which made some men rich and powerful and others poor and dependent.” [3]

An even more obvious legacy of Clapham’s influence was it’s own progeny. It can be quite confusing tracking who’s who in the Clapham “family tree”. This is partly due to the tendency of children to be named after their parents, grandparents, or friends. Then there’s the intermarriage!

However, when you untangle all this you discover a whole myriad of creative and influential men and women (though not all of whom shared their forbears’ evangelical commitments).. Here’s just a few:

  • Samuel Wilberforce – Bishop of Oxford and chief protaganist with Thomas Huxley in the 1860 Oxford evolution debate. Son of William and Barbara Wilberforce.
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay – cabinet minister, poet and one of England’s finest historians. Son of Zachary and Selina Macaulay.
  • John Venn – philosopher/logician and creator of the Venn diagram. Grandson of Rev John Venn.
  • Virginia Woolf – novelist and poet. Great grand-daughter of James Stephen.

The Kiwi connection

And speaking of legacy, one final note of interest is the substantial impact the Clapham community had on our own early NZ history. There are all kinds of interesting connections here. [4]

The establishment of NZ as a British colony, and the associated development of a treaty between the Crown and Maori, occurred under the direction of the British Colonial Office, headed at the time by Sir James Stephen, the under-secretary of state for the colonies (1836-1847). Stephen was the son of one of the Saints. In fact, his father (James Stephen) was the chief architect of the Slave Trade Act, which finally abolished the slave trade in 1807. Like his dad, Sir James was a trained lawyer, and wrote the Slavery Abolition Act, which was passed by Parliament in 1833. In his role as under-secretary he was passionate about charting a new way of relating to indigenous peoples – one that recognized their rights and looked to develop a mutually beneficial partnership.

Interestingly, Stephen’s wife, Jane, also grew up in the Clapham community. She was the daughter of John Venn, the rector of the church at Clapham. And Sir James’ step-mum was the sister of William Wilberforce!

Sir James was the driving force in the Colonial Office’s policy at the time, and was sometimes referred to derisively as “Mr Over-secretary Stephen” or “King Stephen” because of the influence he carried as a senior civil servant.

However, he was far from alone in his influence in shaping government policy. The Cabinet minister in charge of the Colonial Office between 1835 and 1839 was Lord Glenelg, otherwise known as Charles Grant – also the son of a Claphamite! And there were others who were also part of the “humanitarian” group that dominated the Office at the time. They were real irritants to the likes of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (The NZ Company), who had big plans for making money out of the colonization of NZ.

Lord Normanby (successor to Lord Glenelg) wrote an extensive brief to Capt. William Hobson (who penned the Treaty). Stephen’s fingerprints can be seen all over it. Take this paragraph, as an example:

All dealings with the natives for their lands must be conducted on the same principles of sincerity, justice, and good faith as must govern your transactions with them for the recognition of Her Majesty’s sovereignty in the Islands. Nor is that all: they must not be permitted to enter into any contracts in which they might be the ignorant and unintentional authors of injuries to themselves. You will not, for example, purchase from them any territory the retention of which by them be essential or highly conducive to their own comfort, safety, or subsistence. The acquisition of land by the Crown for the future settlement of British subjects must be confined to such districts as the natives can alienate without distress or serious inconvenience to themselves. To secure the observance of this – will be one of the first duties of their Official Protector. [5]

If only succeeding British and NZ officials had honoured these commitments! [6]

But the Clapham-NZ connection does not stop with the Colonial Office. As already noted, the Claphamites were significantly responsible for the establishment of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1799. In fact, Wilberforce was asked to be the first President, but declined, and Thornton was it’s first Treasurer. And, in one of those delightful bits of trivia that reinforce how generational the Sect’s influence was, Henry Venn (son of John Venn) was the leader of the CMS from 1841 to 1873.

The CMS had a huge influence in preparing the way for a treaty with Maori. Students of NZ history will be very familiar with the names Samuel Marsden, Henry and Marianne Williams, William and Jane Williams, and Octavius Hadfield. These men and women were all CMS missionaries, sent to NZ to work with Maori. They learned the language, translated the Bible, and gained the respect and trust of many chiefs. They acted as advocates for Maori, as well as encouraging them to sign a treaty (covenant) they believed would give them protection from the more corrosive elements of European contact and settlement.

So our own heritage (both as Christians and as New Zealanders) is tied to Clapham. For their legacy to us, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

[1] See Robin Furneaux, William Wilberforce.

[2] Ernest Howse, Saints in Politics.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Peter McKenzie has written a very good article on this.. See his “Public Christianity and Te Tiriti o Waitangi: how the ‘Clapham Sect’ reached down under” at
Originally published in Stimulus (Nov, 2010).
Mark Grace has also written on this connection – see his guest post on the Xenos blogsite – and his recent article in TSCF’s Canvas (Summer, 2014) called “The Gospel & the Treaty of Waitangi”.

[5] “Hobson’s Brief from the Colonial Office”

[6] In the mid to late 1840’s the influence of the humanitarians began to decline and was replaced by a much less sympathetic view of indigenous rights.

Wayne Kirkland is married to Jill and they live in Upper Hutt, New Zealand. They have three adult daughters. In previous lives Wayne has been a youth worker, part-time car dealer and writer and administrator for Signpost Communications. Wayne is the author and co-author of several books, including “Light from a Dark Star”, “Where’s God on Monday?”, “Soul Purpose” and “Just Decisions”.

Read more of Wayne’s ruminations on his website

Inaugural John Stott London Lecture – 23 Oct 2013

Inaugural John Stott London Lecture – 23 Oct 2013

Nearly 200 people attended the lecture, held in the impressive surroundings of the Huxley Lecture Theatre, ZSL London Zoo. Reflecting John Stott’s commitment to ‘double listening’ to God’s word and God’s world, there were two eminent speakers:

Rev Dr Chris Wright (International Ministries Director of Langham Partnership International) spoke authoritatively about the biblical affirmations of the goodness, glory and goal of creation. Creation’s goodness consists of its intrinsic value, its fullness (Isaiah 6) in terms of biodiversity is God’s glory, and its goal is to be included in God’s saving work through Christ. Quoting the Lausanne Cape Town Commitment, Wright made a convincing case that creation care ‘is a gospel issue within the Lordship of Jesus Christ’. Rather than seeing Christ’s work as primarily about humanity, ‘the gospel is the good news that is contained in the grand story of God’s good purpose for all creation, a purpose in which, by God’s grace, we can have a share.’

David Nussbaum (Chief Executive of WWF-UK) told the story of his personal and theological journey into leading a major conservation charity. He challenged the dualism and anthropocentrism of many Christians, asking why it is that the Christian presence in areas of poverty and corruption is so much greater than in tackling biodiversity loss. He concluded by quoting WWF-UK’s strapline ‘a world with a future where people and nature thrive’, and commending this as a vision that harmonized with a Christian understanding of God’s purposes for his world.

For more information, visit the a rocha website

Has NZ history sold Christianity a bit short?

Has NZ history sold Christianity a bit short?

Many readers will be familiar with the name Keith Newman, author of Bible and Treaty – a book we’ve been encouraging people to read in the lead up to 2014 – the year we mark 200 years since Samuel Marsden first preached the gospel in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Keith has recently released a new book called Beyond Betrayal, and was interviewed by Chris Laidlaw on Radio New Zealand, Sunday 29 September.

As Keith talked about the important role played by the missionaries in New Zealand, and especially by Maori believers, Chris Laidlaw asked “Has NZ history sold Christianity a bit short?”.

Keith’s answer will not be a surprise to most readers but the examples he gives and the stories he shares are well worth listening to.

Chris Laidlaw challenged Keith about claims over the years that evangelical Christianity had undermined the very essence of Maori culture and that in effect the decision to send missionaries to countries like NZ was a form of spiritual assimilation?

Keith’s reply was that the role of the missionaries had been quite misunderstood. He said that the missionaries had to learn and speak the language, to live among the people, learn their customs, “and of course they were working very hard to undermine some of the nastier elements of [the culture] cannibalism, utu, and bring ideas of forgiveness. But once Maori got this they realised that this was a very important change for them”. He went on to talk about how the constant utu, battles, and so on, were decimating the tribes and undermining their ability to survive and trade.

Click here to listen to the 17 minute podcast

God Has a Face

God Has a Face

The Answer to an Atheist’s Longing

by Eric Metaxas – BreakPoint

No matter what your atheist friends or relatives tell you, they’ve got deep spiritual longings. And Jesus is the answer to those longings.

Nat Case calls himself an atheist. He says that he doesn’t believe that God, in the sense of a “living presence, with voice and face and will and command,” exists.

Yet, as he recently wrote in the online journal Aeon, he regularly attends Quaker meeting services.

The “why?” behind this contradiction says a lot about how impoverished the modern world’s alternatives to Christian faith are. Case’s contradiction can be traced to his childhood. A “voracious reader,” he was “moved to tears” by magical stories. Even as an adult, those stories and the magic they portrayed stayed in his heart and despite knowing they’re fiction, he still “believes in them.”

Most of all, they didn’t bore him, which atheism does because it tells him what he isn’t, and like all of us he yearns to know what he is.

Fifteen years ago, Case started attending Quaker meetings after being turned off by what he calls the “mushiness [he had] found in the liberal spiritual communities that admit non-believers.”

He says that “[B]inding oneself to specific patterns, habits, and language” provided what he calls a “spine” that was missing in other groups.

Still for all its subjectivity and theological imprecision, a Quaker meeting is still, as Case acknowledges, “a religious service, expectant waiting upon the presence of God.” And to put it mildly, that places someone who doesn’t believe in God in a difficult position: How do you submit, in the way that believers are supposed to, to something you don’t believe exists?

And how does that “submission” produce a “humbling of self” and “laying low of ego” when you can’t even muster a “vague” and “inwardly detected sense of the divine?”

Case’s “solution” is to treat the whole experience as a kind of shared “bubble of fiction,” in which “prayer” is addressed to “whom it may concern.”  It’s all his materialistic—or as he puts it, “stuff is all there is”—worldview will permit.

What that worldview definitely will not permit is to contemplate the possibility that the stories he loves—or as C.S. Lewis puts it, “The Great Story” –really are true. His materialism causes him to reject the idea of God “as a living presence, with voice and face and will.”

Thus, he’s left feeling something akin to the “stab, the pain, the inconsolable longing” that Lewis described in “Surprised by Joy,” with no real prospect of having that yearning satisfied.

The sad irony is that when he suggests that what people like him need is a god they can “plausibly imagine,” he is apparently unaware that such a god actually exists: His name is Jesus. As John 1:18 says,

“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

When Case yearns for a god “that we talk to, and who [talks] back,” he is describing the God—Father , Son and Holy Spirit—who Christians profess and worship.

This was the God who satisfied Lewis’s yearning and can satisfy Case’s. He is the one towards whom the stories Case loves ultimately point. He both models and empowers the humility Case speaks of.

His name is Jesus. It’s our job to proclaim Him—both in word and deed—and to pray that people’s worldviews don’t keep them from finding what they desperately long for.

Has NZ history sold Christianity a bit short?


Life is filled with coincidences. My children still delight in asking me to recount many of the events that have transpired in my life. Be they key or incidental; it makes no difference. They find them exciting and so do I.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~ Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

When I was a preschooler, I met a man from New Zealand. He had brought his family to Canada and worked at the same engineering firm as my father for a number of months. Given their similar stages in life, my dad’s boss suggested our families socialise. I have a few vague memories of their time with us.

Years later, there was a knock on the door; I opened it. “Jelly-tot Bob!” I squealed. “Little-one,” he replied, “you remember me!” Somehow the memory of this happy man was deeply etched in me. Bob stayed with us for a few days and showed us pictures of his family back in New Zealand. I was hooked by the time I saw the second photo.

I was away on a French exchange, during my final year of high school, when my parents sold our house in Calgary. They rang and said, “Bob has invited us to visit his family in New Zealand later this year. If you can get a job and save up enough money for your flights, we’ll pay your living costs while we’re there.”

Bob collected us from the Auckland International Airport mid-October ’84. After a brief tour of the city, he took us to his house in the Waitakere Ranges, where we stayed with his family for the next six months.

“Welcome to my home… My house: my rules.”

Apparently, when Dad first met Bob, he identified him as one of “those Christians” who naturally spoke about the love of his life. Being a determined atheist, Dad took Bob aside and advised, “My house: my rules.” Bob respected Dad’s wishes – and waited patiently for the day the tables would be turned.

Bob proved to be a very ‘connected’ and forward thinking man. Not only was he the founder of Inspirational Tapes, the NZ distributor for ‘Everyday with Jesus’ and exercised  Christian hospitality by taking in numerous people from all walks of life, but he was part of a group of men who initiated many innovative Christian trusts – including one that operated a campground in Pauanui, Coromandel. Bob arranged for me to work at The Glade as a volunteer for the summer, alongside his daughter.  There I met many wonderful people, realised the extent of my situation, the truth of the Gospel and gave my life to Christ.

One of those key people was Viv, a missionary on furlough from the slums of Manila. He too had previously been on the receiving end of Bob and Prue’s hospitality and he advised me to tell my parents about my decision and ask Bob to baptize me in one of his ponds when I returned to Auckland.

Before returning to Canada, God told me he would bring me back to NZ in two years. I felt homesick as I passed through the gates of the departure lounge…

“When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” ~ 1 Corinthians 13:11 (NLT)

Upon our return to Canada, Dad pointed out that I was 18 and that it was time I grew up. My sister and I rented a basement suite in a house mid-way between the university and technology institute, where I studied architecture. I also found a Bible believing church with a supportive congregation and fantastic youth group to help establish me in my faith.

A recession hit Western Canada as I graduated, but that didn’t concern me because a still, small voice reminded me that two years were up… “I’m preparing the way for you to return to New Zealand.”

A letter from an architectural practice arrived in the mail so, I rang and asked how they heard about me. “Someone showed me an ad in an architectural magazine. It has your name, age, address, qualifications and says you want to work in New Zealand.” I was offered a job and moved to New Zealand two weeks later… I didn’t place the ad.

Coincidences happens when our lives coincides with God’s plans.
In other words, coincidence is a God-incidence

Take another look at 1 Corinthians 13:11. Even as an unbeliever my father would have agreed whole-heartedly with the text, but this is how I read it:

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child.
I believed everything my father said and did…
and suffered the consequences of an abused childhood…
because I existed under his domination.

But when I grew up, I put away childish things.
I saw reality and took hold of life under God’s authority and protection.
Most importantly, because I grew up I forgave my father of his sins against me…
just as My Father (God) forgives me of mine against Him (Matthew 6:12).


I’d love to hear about some of your “coincidences”. Please, post them below. Your faith will grow and you will inspire others. And share my story with others if you feel it may encourage them.



Gayann and her husband, Stephen, have provided web design and email communication support to NZCN since 2006. She has home schooled their two children for the past nine years, but was ‘made redundant’ at the start of 2013. Since then, she has taken a more active role with NZCN.