The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XIII. The Growth of Liberal Theology

§ 2. The Clapham sect

The true glory of the evangelicals lay in their pastoral zeal and in their philanthropy. The Clapham sect, as Sydney Smith nicknamed them, maintained a long struggle against the slave trade, and supported missionary societies and charitable enterprises with princely generosity. William Wilberforce, member of parliament for the county of York, raised a hitherto unpopular and misjudged party in the public esteem when, in 1797, he produced his Practical View of Christianity. It found more readers than any book by a clergyman; its effect is comparable with that of The Serious Call. It had, however, none of William Law’s wit, though its writer was deemed by Madame de Staël the wittiest talker she had met in England. “The present state of things in France, where a brood of moral vipers, as it were, is now hatching,” was the occasion for the serious self-examination proposed in it. “We bear upon us but too plainly the marks of a declining empire.” The author sees no hope of averting this ruin, except by a revival of real Christianity, as contrasted with “the decent selfishness” which passed muster with most Christians. “The grand defect” in these nominal Christians is that they forget

  • the peculiar doctrines of the Religion which they profess—the corruption of human nature—the atonement of the Saviour—and the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit.
  • But, apart from this sincere allegiance to the orthodox language, Wilberforce, as Sir James Stephen has shown, “was very much a latitudinarian.” His catholic spirit had no taste for polemical divinity, and he gave himself, as he advised others to give themselves, to practical Christianity.