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William WIlberforceHallo again to all.

We've been thinking about William Wilberforce lately. But then a great many people have been if not thinking, hearing about Wilberforce, owing to the near release of Amazing Grace, a 'major motion picture' about his life and its crowning achievement: making slave trade illegal within the British Empire. (Slavery itself was abolished in 1833, four days before Wilberforce's death.)

Wilberforce was near the centre of the group famously called the Clapham Sect, a tireless coterie for 'practical Christianity'*. Best known for their concentrated anti-slavery efforts, this loose affiliation of friends, neighbours, and associates were passionate for reforming society and weaving Christian principles into everyday life. Nothing seemed too impossible to them, an attitude which seems in scant supply in our cynical and tired age. Many of the Claphamites had vast personal fortunes, which powered their initiatives. But they also possessed patience, another quality that we moderns seem often to lack.

[Wilberforce] introduced his first anti-slavery motion in the House of Commons in 1788, in a three-and-a-half hour oration that concluded: "Sir, when we think of eternity and the future consequence of all human conduct, what is there in this life that shall make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice and the law of God!" The motion was defeated. Wilberforce brought it up again every year for eighteen years...

Although the Clapham circle is rightly considered 'evangelical' — in the sense that their lives were given to spreading the Gospel as they understood it — they crisscrossed rigid party lines and were theologically varied. Connected by passion and commitment, their deep faith pushed their energy outward into the world.

And push they did. They established societies. They printed pamphlets. They agitated and orated. They wrote letters. They introduced bills. They might even be said to have created the first logo (branding indeed) used everywhere during their anti-slavery campaigning. They prayed. And they prayed. And they prayed. They spent very little of their time concerned with the structure and governance of the church and we rather wonder whether they would be concerned, as much as many of us are, with the doings in Tanzania. Their field was the world. Do we set our boundaries far too close to home?

'How large a share the men of Clapham had in the institution of the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Indian Episcopate, and other agencies for good ... but in the words of one who knew them well, "schools, prison discipline, savings banks, tracts, village libraries, district visitings, and church building, each for a time rivalled their cosmopolitan projects. In short, they, if any men could, might bear the test, By their fruits ye shall know them"'§. So we're taking the Clapham sect as spiritual friends and companions this Lent. They can teach us much about persistence. And patience. And prayer.

William Wilberforce, despite the extraordinary demands on him in Parliament and public life, managed to write some 600 letters to his third son, Samuel between 1817 and 1833. After Sam was 16, his father's letters often conclude with the single word 'REMEMBER' in upper case. William Wilberforce explained:

I am always tempted to conclude my letters with Charles I's last word: REMEMBER, which may naturally be supposed to refer to whatever the speaker is known to have most desired to live in the recollection of the person addressed . . . REMEMBER, again, to walk by faith and not by sight. REMEMBER 'to do all in the name of the Lord Jesus', that is, to bear in mind that He is always present with you, that He witnesses all your thoughts, words, and actions, and that as His servant, His friend, His purchased possession, you ought always to be living to His glory.

This Wednesday, this Ash Wednesday, we will remember.

See you next week, in Lent.


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Last updated: 18 February 2007

*William Wilberforce wrote a best-seller called 'A Practical View of Christianity' (1798).

§The English Church in the Nineteenth Century, JH Overton, 1894

†Later Bishop of Oxford and, later still, Winchester

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