Lots of Christians, evangelicals following the lead of Neo-Calvinists, like to know that their faith matters. (Thanks to Chris Gehrz) Here’s one recent appropriation of the Clapham Sect, a group of English evangelicals which included William Wilberforce, and that give evangelical activists goose bumps because of Wilberforce’s involvement in abolishing the slave trade:
Clapham Spirituality acknowledged that conversion was not an end unto itself, but was the beginning of one’s Christian journey. That journey was characterized by key spiritual disciplines that were tools used by the Holy Spirit to strengthen the faith and godliness of genuine believers. The most important personal disciplines were daily Bible study and prayer—what modern evangelicals often call the “daily quiet time.” The most important corporate disciplines were family worship, which occurred daily in the home, and corporate worship, which occurred every Lord’s Day in the parish church, which for most members of the Clapham Sect was Holy Trinity Church in Clapham. . . .
In addition to combating slavery, the Clapham Sect was committed to pushing back against other social evils. The Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor was an effort by wealthy Anglican evangelicals to alleviate poverty among the lower classes. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which Wilberforce and other Clapham Sect members joined, championed animal rights two centuries before the cause became politically correct. The Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debt, originally an evangelical initiative, sought to reform the oppressive practice of placing debtors in prison, effectively ending their wage-earning potential. Clapham Sect members also championed prison reform, education reform, healthcare reform and (in the case of some members) the abolition of capital punishment. Clapham Spirituality recognized that, for evangelicals, cultural influence was a matter of moral stewardship.
Clapham Spirituality was not only committed to what we might today call matters of social justice; it was also zealous for the spread the gospel to all people. The Clapham Sect started the British and Foreign Bible Society to make the Bible available to those who had little access to the Scriptures. The Church Missionary Society, also a Clapham initiative, was intended to train laymen to be evangelists in foreign nations under British control. Though it took a few years for the CMS to become viable, within a generation it was a vibrant evangelical mission society within the Church of England. The Society for the Suppression of Vice, which included heavy Clapham Sect involvement, was, among other priorities, committed to defending Sabbath observance so that unbelievers would attend worship services and be exposed to the gospel. The Clapham Sect also championed Sunday Schools as a key means of teaching literacy and evangelizing children and, hopefully, their parents. Clapham Spirituality championed both gospel advance and the pursuit of justice.
Contemporary evangelicals could use a healthy dose of Clapham Spirituality. Spiritual formation begins with conversion and is cultivated through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. Spiritual formation includes faith-based activism that includes both the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19–20) and the Great Commandment to love the Lord and love our neighbors (Matt. 22:36–40). As with the Clapham Sect, our spiritual transformation should inspire us to serve others through acts of mercy and clear gospel proclamation. We should leverage whatever public influence we might have for the sake of pursuing shalom, especially among our most needy and/or defenseless neighbors. We should pour ourselves out in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ here, there and everywhere. Like Wilberforce and his colleagues, we should not be afraid to champion personal holiness and civic virtue, public justice and gospel advance. A revival of Clapham Spirituality offers a fruitful way forward for evangelicals committed to engaging the culture as evangelicals.
But if these positive outcomes stem faith-based activism, what about the consequences of applying faith to international conflict. Philip Jenkins’ new book, The Great and Holy War, contains all sorts of instances that might encourage evangelicals to keep at least part of their spirituality to themselves. The Bishop of London in 1915 said:
kill Germans — do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends. . . . As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr.(71)
The Bishop of Carlisle added:
But in this war there move and work spirits deeper, stronger, more revolutionary than any or all of these — spirits of good and evil, powers of heaven and principalities of hell, invisible spirits of goodness and wickedness of which men are the instruments and the world the visible prize. . . . This present war is essentially a spiritual war; a war waged on earth but sustained on either side by invisible powers. (72)
Not to be outdone, Protestant clergy from Harry Emerson Fosdick to Billy Sunday signed a statement that urged the U.S. in 1916 to enter the war. Here is how their faith-based argument went:
The just God, who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death, their dread of suffering and loss, their concern for comfort and ease above the holy claims of righteousness and justice, and freedom and mercy and truth. Much as we mourn the bloodshed [of war], we lament even more than supineness of spirit, that indifference to spiritual values which would let mere physical safety take precedence of loyalty to truth and duty. The memory of all the saints and martyrs cries out against such backsliding of mankind. Sad is our lot if we have forgotten how to die for a holy cause.
. . . the question of all questions for our immediate consideration is this: shall the ancient Christian inheritance of loyalty to great and divine ideals be replaced by considerations of mere expediency?
Perhaps Sarah Palin did not fall too far from the Clapham Sect Tree.