Macquarie University
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'Sons of the prophets': continuity and change in Clapham evangelicalism

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posted on 2022-03-29, 01:24 authored by Raymond Errol Heslehurst
In 1785-1786 William Wilberforce recorded that he underwent 'the great change'. This particular experience and his interpretation of it radically affected the way he lived the rest of his life and his expectations for his children. In 1795, Henry Thornton undertook a radical reassessment of his manner of life. In 1796 James Stephen joined Wilberforce and Thornton living around Clapham Common. All three identified as Evangelicals and were so identified by those around them, and, along with the other members of the 'Clapham Sect', were engaged in the 'Public Square'. Of their children, Robert Isaac Wilberforce, Samuel Wilberforce and Sir James Stephen were, like their fathers, engaged in the Public Square. Each adopted a different Faith profile to the Evangelicalism of their parents: becoming Roman Catholic, High Church Anglican, or holding a piety like their fathers'; but adopting a position theologically significantly different to that of members of the Clapham Sect. Others have looked at familial factors to explain this transition from the first to the second generation, but since all the subjects of this research were 'Public Christians', this thesis seeks an explanation for the change in Faith position in the interaction of religious experience and public culture. It will demonstrate that while valuing highly the parents' theological position and while maintaining many of the values of their parents, the questions and circumstances of their experience and world required a significantly different Faith profile if they were to make the public contribution they desired. The issue of religious experience was critical to the self-understanding of the Clapham Evangelicals and they absolutised theirs as the only 'true Christian' mode. The parents desired the same experience for their children but the narrative they used to describe it did not resonate fully with the experience of the children. Further, we will show, that the shape of the Faith, taken up in any generation, will be especially responsive to the questions of that generation if one is active in public life. In this thesis, then, two original propositions are advanced: (1) that the Clapham worthies should be understood, not only in the narrow confines of evangelical historiography, but in the broader social and cultural history of the Hanoverian Church and (2) that, while the Clapham fathers failed to pass on the spiritual experience so prized by Evangelicals, they did pass on the capacity to thrive in the new world of Victorian religious, civic and political life as Christians.


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Social continuity and religious change -- Chapter 1. 'Vital religion': the Clapham fathers' understanding of christianity -- Chapter 2. 'Conversion'? The religious experience of Wilberforce, Thornton & Stephen -- Chapter 3. The Hanoverian church: the Ecclesiastical background to the Clapham sect -- Chapter 4. Religious expectations: What the Clapham fathers hoped for their sons


Bibliography: pages 284-294

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Ancient History

Department, Centre or School

Department of Ancient History

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Stuart Piggin


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Raymond Errol Heslehurst 2013.






1 online resource (294 pages)

Former Identifiers

mq:31106 2116650