William Wilberforce is best known as the British Member of Parliament who dedicated his life to abolish slavery. Many books and stories, and even a movie, focus primarily on the man, his faith in Christ, and his valiant and triumphant efforts against slavery. These are the central themes of his story, but it is an incomplete story without considering what became called, after his death, the “Clapham Sect.”
For a time, Wilberforce, and a group of close friends, lived in a suburb south of London called Clapham. This group gelled into what we might today call a “band of brothers.” The group was to Wilberforce what the American “Miracle on Ice” team was to Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione. They were Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. They were to one another what the Apostles were to each other in the first century church.
The Clapham Sect devoted themselves to one another; they provided encouragement and support when all hope seemed lost. Some of them lived together. They played together. They also challenged one another’s ideas and ideals in order to sharpen and fine tune their understanding of themselves, their God, and each person’s mission.
One effort supported by the Clapham Sect was Wilberforce’s triumph in leading Parliament in outlawing the slave trade and eventually slavery itself. His battle to end slavery endured for decades. All the while, his Clapham friends were at his side. Another outcome of the Clapham Sect was Wilberforce’s book, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity. (Yes, that’s actually the title of the book.) It was Hannah More, of the Clapham friends, who encouraged Wilberforce to write this manifesto of his spiritual journey and essentials of the Christian faith. The book became an unprecedented international bestseller. It saw 15 editions in Britain and 25 in the United States. It was also translated into French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and German.
We all have friends and many of us belong to a group of friends that hangs together. However, a true band of brothers is different. The band digs deeper into life and living. Wilberforce’s Clapham Sect offers several lessons to consider and learn from.
- The group was very diverse, including not only men and women (keep in mind this was the late 18th and early 19th century), but also people across many slices of British society.
- They actively challenged one another’s thinking and beliefs.
- Their faith in Christ was the primary factor that bound them together.
- The group was active in society and interacted with a broad array of people and organizations.
- Their respective families were a priority for the individuals, and also for the entire group.
- They were strategic and intentional in every pursuit, carefully researching and planning all campaigns.
- The group maintained a long-term vision and kept up hope during short-term losses.
Who is your band of brothers? What do you believe in? What is the purpose of your group?
I believe every leader needs to be a part of a brotherhood. Your group may be smaller, perhaps five or six. You might not outlaw slavery or write an international bestseller. You might not touch so broad a range of society. The point, though, is to be strategic in your personal and leadership development, to be focused on your purpose and on fulfilling God’s call.
I encourage you to read more about Wilberforce and his friends from Clapham in these two resources:
- Richard Gathro, “William Wilberforce and His Circle of Friends,” Knowing & Doing. Available at http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/471.
- John Piper, Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce. Crossway, 2007.
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.
Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), 1794 (oil on canvas) by Hickel, Anton (1745-98). oil on canvas
© Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK. German, out of copyright