by Liz Leahy, MLS, M.A.T.

What does it mean to be a Christian who stays the course, who perseveres in the midst of significant challenges? Scripture and history contain accounts of those who followed God despite their circumstances. In the midst of trials, their example can serve to deepen faith, causing today’s believers to place their confidence more fully upon the Lord—a lesson learned and exemplified by the Clapham Saints in late 18th-century London.

This small group of Christians shared the common goals of intentional community, commitment to the Lord and their families, and publicly pursuing the abolition of slavery and the “reformation of manners” (changing society for good). Several members lived in homes on a large estate in the Clapham Commons area of south London, where the group met regularly to work on reform. Those opposing their efforts dubbed them the “Saints,” a derogatory moniker that stuck and eventually applied to the various intersecting circles of Christian friends and members of Parliament who worked on abolition and other far-reaching social justice programs. Most of the Saints were people of influence and financial means who used their wealth (some giving 50–70 percent of their income each year) and influence in ways that furthered their causes.

Through the encouragement of Quaker abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and Prime Minister William Pitt, abolition became William Wilberforce’s life work beginning in 1786, shortly after he began a newfound commitment to the Christian faith. Abolition had been a significant work of the members of the Society of Friends, and they had campaigned against slavery for many years, petitioning Parliament and creating the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Wilberforce, as a member of Parliament, used his influence to bring national attention to this work in ways others had not. Clarkson, Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, and other Saints spent untold hours conducting research and interviews to describe the plight of the slaves.

Yet in 1791, their bill to abolish slavery was roundly defeated. They continued their efforts, regularly committing to stay up through the night at least once a week for many years to read through and prepare lengthy legislative documents, acquire testimonies, and review petition signatures. Some years, the group members’ poor health prevented progress. They were also consistently stymied through the work of plantation owners whose representatives in Parliament held sway. In 1805, they had their first major success when the House of Commons passed a bill that made it unlawful for any British subject to transport slaves—but the House of Lords defeated the measure. The group persevered, and in 1807, both houses passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill. The Saints continued their work for another 26 years to close down all aspects of slavery in Britain and her colonies, and on July 26, 1833, the bill for the abolition of slavery finally passed. Wilberforce received the news on his deathbed—passing away three days later on July 29, 1833.

While today’s believers can learn several lessons from the Clapham Saints’ commitment to moral and spiritual reform, one of the most significant involves the value of perseverance. When the Clapham Saints accepted God’s call to work against slavery, few of them considered the length of time and energy this commitment might cost (more than 40 years). Members of the group lost friendships, suffered health issues, and were mocked in the press and spat upon. And yet, they persevered with the cause they believed the Lord had given them. Wilberforce did not accomplish the task alone, but with the constant support of the Clapham Saints, which at any given time numbered 12–15 members. Although small in number, their shared commitment to common goals, prayer, and the study of Scripture resulted in a greater impact. Encouragement also came from fellow Christians such as John Wesley, who, days before his death, wrote to Wilberforce encouraging him to stay the course. That letter said, in part: Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

The lives of the Clapham Saints continue to inspire new generations of “saints” —their influence can be found in the governments of many lands, in churches that seek to spread the Good News, and on campuses like APU, where students have the opportunity to learn of believers who have traveled ahead of them, persevering faithfully, seeking justice and mercy for those in need, and responding to God’s call to be difference makers.

Liz Leahy, MLS, M.A.T., professor of theological bibliography and research and special assistant to the dean of University Libraries, researched Wilberforce and the Clapham Saints as part of her fall 2014 sabbatical.

Originally published in the Summer '15 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.