Would Wilberforce Have Been a Fellow?

By Courtney Carlisle

“I apprehend the essential practical characteristic of true Christians to be this: that relying on the promises to repenting sinners of acceptance through the Redeemer, they have renounced and abjured all other masters, and have cordially and unreservedly devoted themselves to God.... It is now their determined purpose to yield themselves without reserve to the reasonable service of the Rightful Sovereign. They are not their own: their bodily and mental faculties, their natural and acquired endowments, their substance, their authority, their time, their influence, all these they consider as belonging to them...to be consecrated to the honor of God and employed in his service.”

So wrote William Wilberforce in his manifesto, A Practical View…of Real Christianity, in his ongoing efforts to practically apply faith to life and vocation. While he is perhaps best known for his efforts to abolish the slave trade in Britain in the late eighteenth century, Wilberforce was first and foremost a man deeply devoted to Jesus Christ, with core beliefs that became the basis by which he worked to accomplish his cause.

However, without his unique circle of friends, Wilberforce’s goals may not have been realized. This group, the Clapham Sect, began to form after Wilberforce’s first motion for abolition was defeated in 1789. Led by Wilberforce, the group included Parliamentarians Henry Thornton, Charles Grant and Edward Elliot, brother-in-law to William Pitt; William Smith; abolitionist Granville Sharp; former Governor-General of India John Shore (Lord Teignmouth); poet and playwright Hanna More; Reverends Thomas Gisborne and Charles Simeon and more who joined over time. Remarkably, even with the shifting numbers of the group and the widely varying occupations of its members, the Clapham Sect remained committed to its general goals: incorporating their faith into all aspects of life, making family life and friendships clear priorities, and reforming the political and social policies of the British Empire.

Those in the Clapham group were held together not only by their common desire to apply their faith to all areas of their lives, but by their common concern for a variety of moral, religious and social causes, and their strong love and support for each other. It is certain that the fellowship of this group and the important contacts created through its members empowered Wilberforce to throw all his weight behind the mighty task set before him. Indeed, as John Wesley told Wilberforce concerning his unenviable mission, “unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you?”

The love of God and common love for each other significantly strengthened the Clapham Sect’s community. Historian Sir Reginald Coupland wrote, “It was a remarkable fraternity—remarkable above all else, perhaps, in its closeness, its affinity. It not only lived for the most part in one little village; it had one character, one mind, one way of life…They could mostly have been of leisure; but they all devoted their lives to public service. They were what Wilberforce meant by ‘true Christians.’”

The Clapham Sect of course presents an extraordinary model for all Christians to follow in respect to fellowship and community. Gathering together with similar goals to be God’s representatives in all areas of life and to spur one another on, like the members of Clapham, we strive to work together unified in Christ’s love and purposes.

Not only should this be the goal of every church, especially our own, the centrality of the gospel present in the Clapham Sect should be a target aimed for by any discipleship group, Bible study, small group or simply one’s circle of friends. And the group of Trinity Fellows is no exception, as is outlined in the Trinity Fellows Mission Statement: “We affirm that we belong to Christ, and we are committed both to serving others and to pursuing a mission greater than ourselves.”

The 12 of us hail from places across the country, from California to Indiana to Alabama. We represent different personalities, perspectives on life and callings to which we are committed. However, it is our hope that this year as Fellows we have strived to have the resolve of the Clapham Sect: that our faith might overflow into all aspects of our lives, and that the character of our community might reflect Proverbs 27:17, in which “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Like Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, may we all be empowered, by Christ and each other, to go forth valiantly with a mission greater than ourselves.

Courtney Carlisle is a graduate of the 2006 Trinity Fellows Program. As a fellows class, we urge you to learn more about William Wilberforce's life, leadership, and vocation by attending the movie, "Amazing Grace" currently showing in theaters nationwide.