Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Thematic—Missing Character

The Necessity of Networks

The Case of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect

James C. Rahn

William Wilberforce (detail), 1828, by Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830); The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photos.

Lasting moral formation should be measured not in decades but in generations—in the ability of one generation to pass its moral ideals and practices on to the next. But what are we doing today that will significantly influence the world of our grandchildren? How do we foster the conditions conducive to a truly enduring moral and ethical order?

There are innumerable lessons one can draw from history, but the story of William Wilberforce (1759–1833) and the Clapham Sect community with which he was significantly associated is surely one worth recounting in our time—both for its successes and its shortcomings. A celebrated British political and social reformer, Wilberforce is known today primarily for his efforts toward the abolition of slavery. This, however, was only one of his two “life goals.” As he wrote in his journal in 1787, “God Almighty has set before me two Great Objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.”11xThis widely quoted statement originated as a journal entry by William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament at the time, on October 28, 1787. It appeared in a book by Wilberforce published by Hansard and Sons, London, in 1807 titled A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Addressed to the Freeholders and Other Inhabitants of Yorkshire. His and the Claphamites’ mixed record with regard to that second great object parallels the concerns of my present reflections.

Spanning the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the world that Wilberforce inhabited could be cruel. Under the pressure of rapid industrialization and urbanization, the everyday conditions of housing, labor, social services, medicine, education, and criminal justice for common folk were wholly primitive by today’s standards. Politicians, reformers, and assorted civic leaders working for improvements in these spheres were well intentioned, but they lacked the materialand moral resources to realize their ambitions. Notably, the compassion they spoke of was, for those outside their own social milieu, selective at best. The stain of slavery within the English-speaking world remained the most visible reminder of how blind the exemplars of their society were to their own moral failings.

Wilberforce was, for good reason, the most famous of the English abolitionists. He sacrificed much and risked even more in his single-minded commitment to holding Christian England to its espoused ideals. Though a great monument honoring Wilberforce was raised in the English city of Hull a half century after his death, more significant than any such edifice was the tight network of friends and colleagues he worked with, individuals bound together in supporting the cause, each making essential contributions to the abolitionist movement that eventually made the difference.

Emerging as a community of like-minded souls associated with Holy Trinity Church in the village of Clapham, south of London, first under Anglican vicar Henry Venn and then his son John, the group included such figures as banker and philanthropist Henry Thornton, lawyer and parliamentarian James Stephen, journalist Zachary Macaulay, educator and pamphleteer Hannah More, movement organizer Thomas Clarkson, scholar Granville Sharp, and brewer and parliamentarian Thomas Fowler Buxton. As in so many moments of transformational change, the dismantling of the English slave trade was achieved not by one individual but, as the sociologist James Davison Hunter has put it, by a closely knit network of leaders coming together in common cause.22xJames Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010). Or as the historian John Pollock directly observed, “Wilberforce’s life is proof that a man can change his times, though he cannot do it alone.”33xJohn Pollock, Wilberforce (London, England: Constable, 1977).

In this case, what bound this network together was a strong commitment to the nonconformist elements of English Christianity that found expression in Methodism for many working-class Britons and high Anglicanism for the upper orders of British society, including the wealthy merchant class, the gentry, and the aristocracy. That commitment led them to the shared conviction that slavery was a sin and had to be abolished. Their dogged determination to alter the temper and character of English society, and, by means of this endeavor, the larger world, faced entrenched opposition and terrible odds, but they ultimately prevailed, first through passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which banned the practice throughout the British Empire, and then, just three days before Wilberforce’s death, passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which freed all British slaves.

The Clapham Sect was exemplary of the fact, as Niall Ferguson has written, that “often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organized groups of people.”44xNiall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, From the Freemasons to Facebook (New York, NY: Penguin, 2018), xix. There are numerous historical examples of dense networks making significant changes in society to the point of redefining reality: the rise of Christianity in late antiquity, the reformation of Christianity in the sixteenth century, the triumph of the French Enlightenment in part through the intellectual ferment of the literary salons, and, closer to our own time, the civil rights and gay rights movements, among others. In short, dense networks have repeatedly succeeded in bringing about major social and political changes, often with astonishing speed.

Even beyond their success in abolishing slavery in Britain and encouraging its abolition around the world, the various Clapham “Saints” (as they were sometimes scornfully labeled), including Wilberforce, were active in promoting a host of other social reforms, from restricting capital punishment and other harsh punitive measures to improving the working conditions of some of the laboring poor to protecting animal welfare. To be sure, neither Wilberforce nor his fellow Claphamites were in any sense radical. They generally opposed the extension of the franchise or the right of workers to unionize, and they went only so far in supporting reforms of Parliament. Motivated by their own strong evangelical convictions, they were concerned above all with combating vice and strengthening virtue among the broad masses—that is, in their view, making people more godly. Indeed, their gradualist efforts to improve the manners and mores of the masses, whether by championing the creation of Sunday schools or restricting the working class’s access to alcohol, often smacked of what progressive or radical reformers saw as social control rather than real reform.

Whether or not one shares the impression of many of their English contemporaries that they were sanctimonious do-gooders,55x“Clapham Sect: British Religious Group,” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 30, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Clapham-Sect.  the Claphamites unquestionably launched a revolution in manners that shaped what we have come to know as Victorian morality. The virtues advanced by the Claphamites, both by example and precept (the latter, for example, in the writings of Hannah More, which had a direct influence on the formation of the young Victoria before she became queen), were not “exalted or heroic” ones, as the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb rightly observed. “Hard work, sobriety, frugality, foresight—these were modest, mundane virtues, even lowly virtues,” Himmelfarb elaborated. “But they were virtues within the capacity of everyone; they did not assume any special breeding, or status, or talent, or valor, or grace—or even money. They were common virtues within the reach of common people.”66xGertrude Himmelfarb, “Manners Into Morals: What the Victorians Knew,” American Scholar 57, no. 2 (Spring 1988), 231. By holding the working poor to the same standards to which they held themselves, the Claphamites contributed, modestly yet significantly, to both the democratization and liberalization of Victorian society. “The ethos of Clapham,” wrote Stephen Tomkins, a Wilberforce biographer, “became the spirit of the age.”77xStephen Tomkins, The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Changed Britain (Oxford, England: Lion Hudson, 2010), 248.

Yet for all the Claphamites’ bold efforts at broader societal change, any revivification of authentic moral culture capable of reproducing itself ultimately fell short. Even by the last decades of the nineteenth century, the often austere moral vitalism of Christian pietism had devolved into what many saw as the suffocating moralism of the Victorian Age.

There are many reasons why the Wilberforce movement experienced immediate success but ultimate failure. Certainly, a major factor was that while the moral vitalism that animated the specific goal of abolition became institutionalized within the British structures of social and political power, the similarly inspired effort to achieve a broader and more diffuse moral reform did not. Indeed, the intellectual elites of late-nineteenth-century British society became a new network of leaders committed to skewering the pretentions and hypocrisies of the Victorian era—the Bloomsbury Group. It is no small irony that many of the leading figures of this innovative and often transgressive movement were the grandchildren of Clapham Sect luminaries.

The pietism that animated the Clapham Sect in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries gave way to the formalism of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Here the external trappings of being a “gentleman” took precedence over the reasons for being a gentleman. Put another way, why questions were abandoned for what questions. The late Victorians retained a morality that was shaped by religion, without any serious adherence to religion: a morality without metaphysics. They wanted the flower of high moral reasoning and conduct without the soil to nourish it, and, as Nietzsche observed, ethics without a metaphysical justification is a morality that will evaporate under the hot noon sun.

But if the high Victorian era had its repressions, its hypocrisies, and its scandals, at least it possessed a functioning public and private morality. The same cannot be said about our own time. In America today, there is no coherent, much less operative, ethics within either the public sphere or private life. Nor is there any authority by which an ethics might be reestablished. It seems that we are as far today from the high Victorian Age as the earth is from the moon. We can still see it, and we know we are connected to it in some ways, but it has no tangible or immediate bearing on the conduct of contemporary everyday life.

The changes that have taken shape are myriad. Among them is a consensus that social expectations have moved from meeting the needs of “us” to meeting those of “me.” In regard to this new outlook’s effect on Western civilization, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks warned, “If we care for the future of democracy, we must recover that sense of shared morality that binds us to one another in the bond of mutual compassion and care. There is no liberty without morality, no freedom without responsibility, no viable ‘I’ without the sustainable ‘We.’”88xJonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2020), 20. But can we will ourselves to such a recovery?

We may have lost our collective capacity for a shared moral language, but not our need for it. Indeed, we long for moral certainties because they anchor life within parameters that give it meaning and purpose. James Davison Hunter distilled this dilemma beautifully when he wrote,

We want character but without unyielding convictions; we want strong morality but without the emotional burdens of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.99xJames Davison Hunter, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000), xv.

Such thin-gruel morality is not sufficient to the moral task of our moment.

Flannery O’Connor argued that you must “push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.”1010xFlannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), 229. The metaphysical basis for morality is off the table of legitimate discussion in most academic circles today. But if we do not have the courage to debate the deep sources of moral virtues, who will? Is it easier to applaud an ancient taxonomy of virtues in a vacuum? To speak in vague civic generalities without challenging the epistemic basis of expressive individualism and the fact/value dualism that dominates our age and whose existence is assumed by most of our educational institutions? History suggests that avoiding these sensitive subjects will not be enough to sustain the moral convictions of our grandchildren.

Despite the odds, we do not have the option of passivity. It is critical at this moment to cultivate a nascent but loose network of like-minded scholars and practitioners around fundamental questions of meaning and moral order. Psychology has its place, but we need a far more diverse array of perspectives and disciplines contributing to this effort. The Clapham Sect was not shy about articulating what was necessary to live into such a vision, and neither should we be. This vision will be achieved neither quickly nor alone, and it demands academic courage, robust civil debate, and careful strategies for addressing the pathologies of the age. Only a network of this scope, ambition, and intentionality will be able to catalyze lasting generational change.