The Clapham Sect and Scotland

Charles_Grant

Charles Grant (1746-1823). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Grant.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Charles_Grant.jpg

As the Scottish referendum draws near it’s worth looking at the Clapham Sect within a British, and particularly Scottish, context.

The Union of Parliaments of 1707 had created the United Kingdom. Scottish MPs now sat in the British parliament. Following this, as Linda Colley has shown, there was a conscious attempt to create a British identity, seen, for example in the creation of the British Museum and in the words of Rule Britannia’, written by the Scotsman, James Thomson. Some Scots took the opportunities opened up by the Union make their fortunes in the Empire, others to practise at the English bar. The most celebrated of these lawyers was the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray, Lord Mansfield, who in 1772 gave the important anti-slavery ruling in the famous Somerset case.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Union, the eighteenth century saw a flowering of Scottish cultural life.  The Scottish Enlightenment was a movement of European importance and had a huge influence on abolitionist thought. Teston, in Kent, described by Hannah More as ‘the Runneymede of the negroes’ was the home of the Scots Member of Parliament and naval administrator, Sir Charles Middleton. He appointed as rector another Scotsman, James Ramsay, whose ground-breaking accounts of the treatment of slaves in the West Indies drew attention for the first time to the human cost of cheap sugar.  In his books Ramsay took issue with his fellow Scotsman, David Hume, on the intellectual capacity and the cultural achievements of Africans, exposing in a devastating fashion the racism that lay behind so much Enlightenment thought. In his great abolitionist speech of 1789 Wilberforce built on Ramsay’s arguments and introduced Adam Smith’s concept of the impartial spectator, imagining him observing the treatment of the slaves on the terrible Middle Passage and judging it accordingly. Continue reading

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Enlightenment, Romanticism and Sentiment: William Wilberforce, religious conversion and the language of abolition

This is the substance of a paper I gave at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, in January 2010. The following works are referred to in the paper:

D. W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989)

Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)

Brycchan Carey, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment and Slavery, 1760-1807 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

William Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, vol. 28 (1789-91)

D. Bruce Hindmarsh, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001)

D. Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: HarperPress, 2009)

John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding (1690)

David Newsome, The Parting of Friends: A Study of the Wilberforces and Henry Manning (London: John Murray, 1966)

Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (Ware, Herts.: Wordsworth Classics, 2002)

John Pollock, Wilberforce (London: Constable, 1977)

Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

Robert Isaac and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, 5 vols (1838)

William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Religious System of Professed Christians…Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797)

William Wilberforce, Letter to the Freeholders of Yorkshire on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807)

William Wilberforce, An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (1823)

John Wolffe, Religion, Exploration and Slavery: From Enlightenment to Romanticism (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2004)

The starting-point for this paper is John Pollock’s description of William Wilberforce’s famous conversion experience of 1785, which he describes (p. 37) in essentialist and vertical terms as part of a classic Christian experience of ‘darkness preceding dawn’ that was shared by Augustine, Luther, Cromwell, Pascal, and Bunyan.  One of the reviewers took Pollock to task for this, arguing that Wilberforce’s conversion should be seen horizontally as a classic product of the late eighteenth-century age of sentiment, the age that produced Sterne’s Sentimental Journey (1768) and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and it is Wilberforce’s alleged relationship with late eighteenth-century sentimentalism that I want to explore here.

In order to do this, it is necessary to revisit David Bebbington’s  well known thesis that the eighteenth-century Evangelical revival ‘represents a sharp discontinuity in the English-speaking world, the transition from the Baroque era to the Enlightenment’ (p. 74) and that the whole movement ‘was permeated by Enlightenment influences’ (p. 57).  This assertion has been taken up by many other historians of Evangelicalism, for example in John Wolffe’s at first sight startlingly counter-intuitive assertion (p. 15)  that John Newton’s hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ ‘was in its way quite as much a product of the Enlightenment as Hume’s ‘Of the immortality of the soul’.  Both  Bebbington and Wolffe associate Evangelicalism  with John Locke’s empiricist philosophy.  As Wolffe notes,

‘Evangelicals were men and women of the Enlightenment to the extent that they perceived themselves as advocates of a coherent alternative religious system founded on tested experience and an integrated view of the world’ (p.18).

Continue reading