John Locke and the Clapham Sect

JohnLocke (1632-1704)

John Locke (1632-1704)


lockestonerefurb006Today – 29 August – marks the anniversary of the birth of John Locke, who was born at Wrington in Somerset in 1632. The village is rightly proud of this connection.

The members of the Clapham Sect were profoundly influenced by the dominant intellectual trends of the British Enlightenment. I have already written about how Wilberforce’s reading of Adam Smith and the other thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment formed the basis of many of his arguments for abolition. It is equally important to recognise that Locke’s philosophical views helped form the Claphamites’ views on education.

Of all Wilberforce’s friends, Hannah More was the greatest enthusiast for Locke, whom she described in her conduct book Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799) as ‘the great Author’; he needed no other introduction. When she moved to Wrington in 1786 she was delighted to be living in his birthplace. She told Horace Walpole,

‘He did not intend to have been born here, but his mother was on a visit when she produced this bright idea, and so bequeathed me something to boast of.’

Walpole would, of course have recognised her reference to the theory of the association of ideas. More went on to say in her letter,

‘From this obscure village sprung [sic] the intellectual Hercules, whose single arm discomforted the rabble of the schoolmen, broke the ranks of Aristotle, and swept away the metaphysical cobwebs, which the subtle spiders of casuistry had been weaving with fruitless industry for many an age.’

So much for medieval philosophy!


Locke’s ‘Essay’, the book that so influenced the Clapham Sect.

In 1791 Hannah More’s friend, the bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu, presented her with an urn with an inscription in honour of the great man. In her old age More was visited by two Persian scholars, admirers of Locke, who were greatly taken with the urn

What was it about Locke that so attracted the Evangelicals? In her Hints Towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess (1805) More praised his Essay on the Human Understanding (1690) for laying bare

‘that great and universal law of nature…which produces equally remarkable effects in the intellectual, as that of gravitation does in the material world, the association of ideas‘.

This was the belief that knowledge was acquired through sense perceptions and reinforced through custom and habit. Whereas the French philosopher, René Descartes had argued that humans were born with innate ideas, Locke used the metaphor of the tabula rasa to argue that the human infant is a blank sheet on which life’s experiences are to be written. In short, he, and those who followed him, believed in nurture rather than nature.

In reality it was more complex than that, as neither Locke nor his Evangelical admirers believed that we are born with no innate characteristics, but the idea of the blank slate nevertheless provided them with the basic analytical tool for their views on education. In his Practical View (1797), Wilberforce expanded on Locke’s metaphor when he described youth as

‘a period when the soft and ductile temper of the mind renders it more easily susceptible of the impressions we desire’.

Two years later More picked up on this language in her Strictures when she evoked

‘the lively period of youth, the soft and impressible season when lasting habits are formed, when the seal cuts deep into the yielding wax, and the impression is likely to be clear, and strong, and lasting’.

For the Clapham Sect this was more than an intellectual abstraction as it provided the philosophical underpinning for their views on education. It explains Hannah More’s hugely ambitious Sunday school project and the mental agonies Evangelical parents underwent in choosing the right schools for their sons. Because of the importance of imprinting the right values on young minds, nothing could matter more than the appropriate education.

Wilberforce’s old college friend, the Revd. Thomas Gisborne, wrote a highly-regarded book on girls’ education that was praised by, among others, Jane Austen. (Can we see its influence in the treatment of education in Mansfield Park?) Changing the tabula rasa metaphor, but keeping the concept, Gisborne described the human mind as

‘originally an unsown field, prepared for the reception of any crop and if those, to whom the culture of it belongs neglect to fill it with good grain, it will speedily be covered with weeds. If right principles of action are not implicated, wrong principles will spring up’.

All very Lockean. But therein lay the problem. Because of the huge importance Locke gave to early impressions, the Claphamites had to believe that if their children did not turn out well, the fault had to lie in their upbringing. This belief added to Wilberforce’s grief and anxiety over the antics of his son, William Wilberforce junior (described here). It was as well for Thomas Gisborne that he did not live to see his daughter, Lydia (by then Mrs Robinson) outed by Elizabeth Gaskell as the wicked seductress who had brought about the ruin of her children’s tutor, Branwell Brontë.

Locke was so influential that even Jane Austen’s Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice must have had him in mind when, following Lydia Bennet’s elopement with Wickham, he tries to console her father by saying that though her licentious behaviour

‘has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence… for the consolation of yourself and Mrs Bennet, I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity at so early an age’.

Mr Collins was clearly not a Lockean. We are not told about Mr Bennet’s philosophical position!

(This discussion is expanded with full references in ‘Evangelicalism and Enlightenment: The Educational Agenda of Hannah More’, in Mary Hilton and Jill Shefrin (eds.), Educating the Child in Enlightenment Britain: Beliefs, Cultures, Practices (Farnham, Surrey, Ashgate, 2009)

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