I’ve just finished reading Clifford Hill’s The Wilberforce Connection – a book primarily about the Clapham ‘sect’ who were a group of influential Christians living in the late 18th and early 19th c. Those associated with the group include Wilberforce, Newton, Cowper, Thornton, Venn, Simeon, and Hannah More. They were renowned for their strong biblical faith and social conscience.
What is particularly interesting in the book is the historical survey covering the 17th-20th centuries. Hill observes the way in which, at different stages, ‘evangelical’ groupings were marginalised to the detriment of society. First, he notes the puritan era saw the introduction of the Clarendon code, involving four repressive Acts of parliament between 1661-65. This led to the Great Ejection of bible believing ministers, and the suppression of the effects of the Reformation. The consequences noted by Hill are the rise of Latitudinarianism, the ‘modern’ enlightenment ‘gospel’ and England being “rapidly plunged into the most dissolute, degenerative, immoral and violent period in her history.” Sadly unsurprising – remove the ultimate authority and every one does as he sees fit.
Then in the mid 18th c. there was something of revival with Whitefield and the Wesley’s. Into this came the Clapham group who served to lead religious revival toward appropriate social reforms in the areas of health, education, slavery, welfare, working hours and conditions. But guess what? In the 19th c. we saw the Oxford movement, the rise in Biblical criticism, and Socialism. Evangelicals were again marginalised – crime rates soared, families broke down, people were simultaneously ‘free’ yet cynical, relativism rules, and every man does as he sees fit.
Faith is never a private matter – it always has public consequences, as history has shown.