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.’

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Hannah More’s house and grave

Barley wood

Barley Wood as it is today – much altered from Hannah More’s time.

When I was researching my life of Wilberforce’s friend, Hannah More, it was impossible for me to visit Barley Wood, her home in Wrington, Somerset from 1801 to 1828, as it was owned by a charitable institution. But it is now being renovated and put on the market and the grounds are open to the public. Here is the English Heritage description of the house, and here is an account of the walled garden. Hannah More was a passionate gardener and she would surely have been delighted to know that the garden on which she took such pains was being renovated. The urn commemorating her hero, John Locke, given her by her bluestocking friend, Elizabeth Montagu, is still there, as is an urn to her great friend, Beilby Porteus (1731-1809), bishop of London.

Hannah More’s friend, Marianne Thornton, wrote down for her great-nephew, E. M. Forster, her childhood memories of Barley Wood: ‘There never was such a house, so full of intellect and piety and active benevolence’. She remembered being sent off with a village child to buy chickens at the next farm’, being fed with strawberries and cream ‘& told to lie down on the hay whilst Charles, the Coachman, Gardener, Bailiff & Carpenter, made us a syllabub under the cow’. [quoted Anne Stott, Hannah More: the First Victorian, Oxford, 2003, p. 291]

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The More sisters’ grave, Wrington, Somerset

Nearby is Wrington church, where Hannah More and her five sisters are buried. A friend took this photograph recently. The five sisters are Mary, 1738-1813; Elizabeth (Betty), 1740-1816; Sarah (Sally), 1743-1817; Hannah, 1745-1833; and Martha (Patty), Hannah’s best-beloved sister (1750-1819). As I write in my book (p. 332),

‘Five spinsters, born into circumstances of failure and near poverty, forced to earn their livings, and succeeding triumphantly in their vocations, they had shown what it was possible for women to achieve in an environment that was at best ambivalent, and at worst hostile to women on their own. Twenty-five years after Hannah’s death, Marianne Thornton stood by the quiet grave, remembered the golden childhood summers, the anecdotes of Garrick and Johnson, the schools and clubs, the inspiring teaching, the bustling kindness, and reflected, “God has given them a better name than that of sons and daughters”.’

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).

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