Attending the Q Conference in Boston this past week, I was reminded that almost any evangelical who wants to leverage their vocation to change the world takes William Wilberforce’s Clapham group as a sort of knights-of-the-round-table paradigm. But few seem to know much about this remarkable group. So as a public service, here’s my . . .
10 Things You Don’t Know about the Clapham Sect
First the basics: The Clapham Sect was a group of aristocratic evangelical Anglicans, prominent in England from about 1790 to 1830, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery (among many other causes) and promoted missionary work at home and abroad. The group centered on the church of John Venn, rector of Clapham in south London.
Today these activists are frequently held up as an example of Christian social-justice reform to be emulated. It’s always good to know a few things about someone you’re going to emulate, so here are 10 things you probably don’t know about the Clapham Sect:
Aside from the great parliamentarian William Wilberforce and several other MPs, the group also included a
The term “Clapham Sect” was a later invention by James Stephen in an article of 1844 which celebrated and romanticized the work of these reformers. In their own time the group used no particular name, but they were lampooned by outsiders as “the saints.”
Though they were of aristocratic background and many of held positions of power and influence, the Clapham group’s involvement in the abolition cause brought significant social stigma on their heads. The English ruling classes viewed abolitionists as radical and dangerous, similar to French revolutionaries of the day
A couple of weeks ago I attended a performance of August Wilson‘s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottomat the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis. The play was intense, humorous, and profane. It surfaced the complex ways Christianity has become a part of the fabric of African-American culture–even for those who have found themselves responding to the church and its message with skepticism and rage, as “white man’s religion.” After the play, for the second time this year, I had the opportunity to be a part of a panel of theologians after the performance (many thanks to United Theological Seminary president Mary McNamara’s hard work in arranging these panels).
Here are the reflections I shared on the play and the African American experience it portrayed:
First of all, I feel I’m standing on holy ground. Our playwright August Wilson was a Pulitzer Prize winner. But it’s more than that. When, as a young man, he decided to become not a lawyer but a writer—a spiritual craft if there ever was one—he incurred the ire of his mother. As a church historian, I remember that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther also decided to follow his own path and enter a spiritual profession—the monastic life—instead of becoming a lawyer. And he, too, provoked the wrath of his parent; his father. Continue reading →
What follows is this week’s talk in the series I am doing at Messiah Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN, on people from my book Patron Saints for Postmodernswho model aspects of social justice:
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Christian revival kindled on the American frontier, drawing new strength through camp meetings and circuit riders. By the mid-1800s, however, the Victorian era was in full swing, and evangelical churches founded in the white heat of frontier enthusiasm were building lavish faux-gothic facades and enjoying the refined preaching of educated, citified ministers.
In reaction, many Victorian Americans yearned to experience again the fiery devotion of their parents and grandparents. Continue reading →
More than 150 years ago, slaves built this church by fire and moonlight. They raised the walls with clay and sand blocks known as Savannah Gray Brick, and a white ceiling patterned after a nine-patch quilt, a symbol of safety from slavery.
After the first Bible study of the day, Johnny McDonald explains this to a small tour group seated in the church’s curved oak pews. He was baptized in First African’s chilly pool at age 7 and began giving tours as a teen. He’s 22 now, one semester shy of graduation from Savannah State University. He learned the church’s history through a thousand sermons and older members’ memories. Several times a week, he leads tours of each level, and shares everything he knows.
He talks about the earliest church leaders, who were whipped and harassed by white residents who balked at the idea of a black preacher. Continue reading →
Though the following is a critical review, I want to be clear: I am deeply sympathetic with the aims and perspectives of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I just think we need to be historically responsible when we compare new and old movements.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “A Vision So Old It Looks New” in Monasticism Old and New (Christian Reflection, Baylor University, 2010 issue)
This article was adapted from Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).
In his introduction to this issue of Christian Reflection, Robert Kruschwitz summarizes this article : “In A Vision So Old It Looks New (p. 11), Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove explores how monasticism over the centuries has offered a powerful critique of mainstream culture. Tracing its origins from Antony and the fourth-century desert Christians, through the medieval monasteries inspired by Benedict of Nursia, to the intentional communities of radical Protestant Reformers, he shows, ‘In every era God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation’” (8).
Wilson-Hartgrove opens the article: “It is hard to be a Christian in America today. . . . The church in America is not living up to what it claims to be. Somehow we have lost our way.” (11) Especially he gives examples of behavior: spousal abuse, racism, hypocrisy in areas of sexuality. We ain’t that different from secular society, or sometimes worse, in many of those areas. Continue reading →
This is the third in a series of posts on the Resources for Radical Living course(s) and book by Mark Van Steenwyk and me (Chris Armstrong). The first post presented the original version of the course. The second presented the revised structure of the course and book.
This third post presents the revised list of case studies.
Even more important, this post asks you, dear readers, to comment on these case studies and suggest any primary or secondary readings that you think will help Mark and me as we work on these new case studies and our students as they plunge into this challenging area of “radical Christian living.” Continue reading →
For a while Christian History & Biography magazine ran a column titled “People Worth Knowing.” We’d find two or three people with some thematic connection and write up brief, linked profiles. Here is one of my favorites, on several fascinating woman leaders in 19th-century evangelical Protestantism. Appended to the end of the article is a brief piece by Jim Smith, who was an advisory editor for CHB and is now my colleague at Bethel Seminary (on the San Diego campus), on a 19th-century woman who wrote about women in church history:
People Worth Knowing No Little Women here Chris Armstrong
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that women made revivalistic Protestantism happen in the nineteenth century. For example, as historian Mary Ryan has shown, Charles Finney’s New York revival meetings were organized, prepared, and prayed for by an extensive network of Christian women. Moreover, these women often brought the men in their lives—husbands, fathers, sons, and more distant relatives—to Finney’s meetings.
Women’s influence soon reached far beyond the prayer meeting and the revival, especially through their participation in social causes. It was in the crusades for educational reform, abolition, and temperance that three of nineteenth-century America’s most prominent Christian women made their names and changed their nation: Catharine Beecher, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Willard. Continue reading →
I’m thankful for the 2 1/2 years Christianity Today International trusted me to edit what was one of its finest magazines: Christian History & Biography. Every issue was fascinating to research, write, edit, and publish, butIssue #81: John Newton–Author of “Amazing Grace,” is one of my favorites. I got to work with the author of the definitive critical biography of Newton, my friend Bruce Hindmarsh of Regent College, and to learn so much about biographical writing by reading John Pollock’s short biography of Newton–on which I based much of the lead biographical article for that issue. That article became the writing sample I sent to Intervarsity Press to pitch my book Patron Saints for Postmoderns, which has since been published. Thank you, Bruce, John Pollock, and John Newton! Here is that article.
(Though Christian History & Biography is now no longer appearing in printed form, every article from each of its 99 issues is available at www.christianhistory.net, along with new articles still being released in online-only form, plus the ongoing blog at blog.christianhistory.net, where I post each month along with CT editor David Neff, CT writer Collin Hansen, former CHB managing editor Elesha Coffman, and CT online editor Ted Olsen.)
The Amazingly Graced Life of John Newton His was a tale of two lives, with God at the pivot point.
The “old African blasphemer.” This was how John Newton (1725-1807) often referred to himself in later life. Such a self-characterization may seem like false humility. After all, by 1800 no evangelical clergyman had gained more fame or exercised more spiritual influence than Newton. He was loved and trusted by thousands; he preached in one of the most prestigious parishes of London; young ministers competed to stay with him and learn under the master. But Newton knew well the darkness at the heart of every person. Continue reading →
Seven years ago this month, war clouds were darkening, and soldiers were destined for Afghanistan and Iraq. Today those conflicts, and others, continue to linger. So the issues raised in this article that I posted back then at www.christianhistory.net still apply. And besides, we should take the time, at regular intervals, to remember such worthy Christian leaders of the past as William Wilberforce:
Some see the GOP’s strong showing in this week’s national election as evidence of public support for a wartime president. Which begs the question: Is this truly wartime?
In some externals it may not seem so. No ground war rages. No biological or nuclear weapons have been unleashed. But a sense of foreboding looms. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the stock market has been unsteady, as uncertainty has palled our long-term plans. Many have struggled personally, facing dark fears, finding it hard to focus on the task at hand.
Focus. Persistence. Perseverance. Even at the best of times, as Oswald Chambers once said, “it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours of every day as a saint.” We need grace daily “to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people.” (My Utmost for His Highest, Oct. 21)
In a time that at least feels like wartime, such persistent holiness seems somehow more difficult. This, not only in daily life, but also in such ordinary charities as helping the poor, being salt in our schools and neighborhoods, and giving to ministries. The “causes” that are always with us seem now to require even more grace than before. Continue reading →
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