Less Devotion is More

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.

28 thoughts on “Less Devotion is More

  1. The language from “The Great and Holy War” matches that of “The War for Righteousness” by your colleague at Hillsdale, Richard Gamble. As I recall, the only theologian he quoted from who made sense after a slew of quotations from loonies at the time of WWI who were in love with post-millennium hopes was . . . J. Gresham Machen.


  2. Richard
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    The language from “The Great and Holy War” matches that of “The War for Righteousness” by your colleague at Hillsdale, Richard Gamble. As I recall, the only theologian he quoted from who made sense after a slew of quotations from loonies at the time of WWI who were in love with post-millennium hopes was . . . J. Gresham Machen.



  3. When I finish Kertzer, both Jenkins and Gamble sound like great ones to get someday, given my recent jonesing for 20th century history. Great stuff, here!


  4. There is a continuity between the dangerous devotion of the Presbyterians Woodrow Wilson and John Witherspoon.

    D G Hart, “The Use and Abuse of Christian Liberty”, The Faith Once Delivered, P and R

    Witherspoon wrestled with the idea that human evil, ‘the wrath of men,’ could in fact glorify God…. But when he turned to the positive effects of suffering the relevance of the sermon to the cause of American independence became more difficult to discern. For instance, the death of Christ and its larger theological significance as a triumph over sin and death was for Witherspoon indicative of the lesson that “Persecution has been but as the furnace to the gold, to purge it of its dross, to manifest its purity, and increase its lustre.” Not only was the martyrdom of the early church ‘the seed of Christianity,’ but at the time of the Protestant Reformation ‘nothing contributed more to facilitate its reception and increase its progres than the violence of its persecutors.’

    Hart—The …paradoxical quality of suffering could work against independence as much as for it. If the wrath of man actually contributed to divine glory, and if the parliament and king were treating the colonists unfairly by taxing them without adequate political representation, could not the difficulties caused by such treatment be interpreted as adding to God’s praise? Or if suffering and persecution had historically increased the resolve of Christians, would not the slights from London endured by believers living in the British colonies bolster their trust in and dependence upon God?

    Yoder—“How does the world really work? Sometimes those who bear crosses (instead of making them) are working WITH the grain of the universe.”


  5. DGH- “Richard, I wish Jenkins had acknowledge Gamble’s book.”


    Any link to your presentation at Spring Arbor yesterday?


  6. As I was reading reviews of the FOP debate, it dawned on me that what’s driving the despair and call for one voice is the loss of the world, deeply felt.

    As Jesus is getting ready to leave His disciples and this world He knows better than any man who ever lived or ever will live what leaving creation means. He’s the only Creature to really know the love and goodness of creation.

    To lose the world, for men of faith and wit and wisdom is likely a sentence, similar to being told you have cancer. Who will you be able to talk to, to write to? Just those within your own group? How do you not curve in on yourself?

    Calvinists have the advantage of actually liking the world. Liking creation. The Calvinist holds Adam to have been perfect from the beginning, to have needed nothing superadded to him so it protects him from the error(s) produced by an abstemious theology.

    I never sang this hymn but I really like it:

    Those Who Love and Those Who Labor
    Based on the poetry of Geoffrey Dearmer

    Those who love and those who labour, follow in the way of Christ;
    Thus the first disciples found him, thus the gift of love sufficed.
    Jesus says to those who seek him, I will never pass you by;
    Raise the stone and you shall find me; cleave the wood, and there am I.

    Where the many work together, they with Christ himself abide.
    But the lonely workers also find him ever at their side.
    Lo, the Prince of common welfare dwells within the market strife;
    Lo, the bread of heaven is broken in the sacrament of life.

    Let the seeker never falter, till the truth is found afar.
    With the wisdom of the ages underneath a giant star,
    With the richest and the poorest, of the sum of things possessed,
    Like a child at first to wonder, like a king at last to rest.


  7. “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.”

    From a safe distance away, of course (NYC).


  8. MLD, I like:

    Where the many work together, they with Christ himself abide.
    But the lonely workers also find him ever at their side.


  9. From Timothy George:

    “At the time, there was a huge hue and cry,” George said about ECT’s release. “By and large, I think evangelicals now see Catholics as allies, not as enemies, in the deep pressing moral issues of our time.”

    Do evangelicals and RC’s have w-w’s? Can they have the same w-w on morality if they disagree about how we are righteous before the only living and true God?

    So George must be talking about civic morality. Then why exclude non-evangelicals and non-Roman Catholics from the togetherness? Don’t Mormons belong in this project? Jews? Thomas Jeffersonians?


  10. Lloyd-Jones said support for the Not So Great War was death of the CoE. The churches of the Fosdicks and Sundays probably suffered less because of America’s late entry and the diffusion of casualties across a huge country and large population. In England the entire young male population (and many of the nobility and middle-aged men) of some villages or neighborhoods was lost. Most of these had been baptized in the same local parish church.


  11. Timothy George continues to push his Andrew Fuller lite (Christ died to make you an offer) version of tulip and also his anti-Zwinglian versions of water and the Lord’s Supper (Baptist Sacramentalism). I have much more in common with the folks on this list, most of whom are far more likely to convert to Romanism than they are to go back to the “evangelical baptist or Bible church” groups in which they were raised.

    The motivation for Kuyper’s alliance with Roman Catholics was clearly political, as it was with dumbed-down versions of Kuyper (Francis Schaeffer, Charles Colson). But for Timothy George (and other folks at Christianity Today), it’s not so much the political advantages of “getting together” with the antichrist that motivates them. It’s about the historical continuity of “the one church”. They are “anti-denominational” because they see that saying that justification by Christ’s death apart from works is the GOSPEL means saying that many professing Christians were not Christians. And they don’t want to do that.

    This the redefinitions of justification which leave out the “solas” (the antitheses). Thus the affirmation that saying that Christ is risen Lord is enough gospel.


  12. I enjoyed Foyle’s War also. I don’t know if you have arrived at the last season, but let me tell you that they skipped some stuff. After they got authorized to do one last year, they had to hop over chunks of history to get there.

    They had planned to take more time to tell the story. But of course this does not mean they had ever planned to tell the truth about Churchill…


  13. Al Mohler’s political alliance with the Mormons is not about II Corinthians 6 (Come Out From Among Them and Be Ye Separate) nor is it about Mohler’s fear of Hilary Clinton putting him in jail. “Getting Together” with the Mormons is not only about electing some Republicans, but also about unelected religious officials having more “influence” on the contested majority culture. Now that he’s passed Jesse Jackson in that department, Mohler needs more territory…..



  14. Scott Clark against ECT:

    The statement says that it is through the Gospel that we learn, in effect, the greatness of our sin and misery. This is not correct. We learn of our fallen estate through the Law (HC Q. 3; Romans 3:20). We learn of God’s saving and justifying work for us in Christ through the preaching of the Holy Gospel (HC Q. 65; Romans 10:17)…..The fundamental principle of the evangelicals is religious enthusiasm. Because this is so, religious experience trumps truth every time. We, on the other hand, are not revivalists or enthusiasts, that is to say, we are not evangelicals.



  15. But “things are better now” Mark Noll explained in “Is the Reformation Over”?.

    from Allan Strange’s review—The authors’ encomium to the Catholic Catechism also leaves unanswered the question, which Noll and Nystrom as much admit, of how much latitude the
    magisterium allows in its enforcement of doctrinal purity, especially given the length of the Catechism. Better to have a shorter confession/catechism to which the church closely adheres,
    and to which she holds her office-bearers, than to have such a large, unwieldy document (the Catholic Catechism is 756 pages) that is quite loosely enforced. Better yet to have secondary
    standards that are truly secondary to the Word and that faithfully, accurately, and concisely set forth what the Word teaches. What Noll and Nystrom miss here, as elsewhere—or else simply refuse to acknowledge—is that what has always been at issue between the RCC and Protestants are not those places on which we agree but rather those points on which we differ….

    Noll and Nystrom flatly assert that the RCC and evangelicals believe “close to the same thing” when it comes to salvation. “(1) “Salvation is an absolutely free gift from God”. This proposition is broadly Augustinian, ignoring the specifically Protestant conviction that justification is an act, not a process, in which God remits sin and imputes the righteousness of Christ, received by faith alone

    If, as for Noll and Nystrom, the real continuing divide between Rome and Protestantism is not soteriology but ecclesiology, then Rome triumphs. It is true that for Rome, ecclesiology swallows soteriology. For them, the doctrine of the church is all-encompassing. In the Roman schema, much ultimately comes under the rubric of “church” that we might place elsewhere in the loci of systematic theology…. Rome, in the Counter-Reformation, insisted that the Roman church retain her primacy, both anathematizing Protestant doctrine and relegating its primary concerns subsidiary to the doctrine of the church. Rome said, in effect, “it’s all about the church and submission to her.” To say, then, as do Noll and Nystrom, that it’s all about ecclesiology is, in
    an essential matter, to agree with Rome and to allow the whole discussion to be put on Rome’s terms.

    The review by Allan Strange starts on p 324


  16. D. Hart,

    Would you recommend Jenkins’ book?

    Also, does the book look at the Crusade mentality within the Central Powers as well, or just the Allies?

    It seems to me that while the British may have had the Clapham Sect, the Germans certainly didn’t give up on their own sour apple: Schleiermacher.


  17. Seth, I do recommend it but with the proviso that the book is sprawling and could benefit from focus. Jenkins is especially hard on the Germans and goes easy on the Vatican.


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