Clapham Spirituality: A Model for Contemporary Evangelicals

April 30, 2014

The past forty years have witnessed two concurrent trends among American evangelicals. The first trend is a renewed emphasis on spiritual formation. Authors such as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Richard Lovelace, and Donald Whitney have called for evangelicals to pay greater attention to spiritual formation through embracing key spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, Scripture meditation, and practicing hospitality. Often, though not always, the spiritual formation movement has called for evangelicals to engage Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox approaches to spiritual theology, though without abandoning core evangelical doctrines. It would be fair to say that the spiritual formation movement has often been overly privatized, focusing more on personal growth than public faith.

The second evangelical trend is a more intentional commitment to cultural engagement, especially in the political sphere. Groups such as the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition on the right and Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action on the left have called upon evangelical constituencies to consider their faith and values as they vote for particular candidates and support certain ballot initiatives. Countless parachurch ministries have mobilized evangelicals to defend particular issues such as the sanctity of human life and the dignity of traditional marriage and combat certain evils such as human sex trafficking and systemic poverty. It would be fair to say that often the importance of personal spiritual growth seems to take a backseat to public ventures among those strongly committed to evangelical cultural engagement.

Historian David Bebbington argues that evangelicals emphasize four primary distinctives: biblicalism, conversionism, crucicentrism (cross-centeredness), and activism. This Bebbington Quadrilateral, which has been widely adopted by scholars, is at least as much a description of baseline evangelical spirituality as it is a list of evangelical doctrines. Thus, we could argue that evangelical spirituality emphasizes the authority of the Bible, the work of Christ the Bible describes, the conversion that results from appropriating the work of Christ through faith and the activism that flows from this personal religious transformation. This essay is especially concerned with the latter.

Evangelical should continue to emphasize spiritual formation, but we must do so without succumbing to hyper-personal understandings of spirituality that have little to offer the surrounding culture. We should also continue to prioritize evangelical cultural engagement, but we must do so while avoiding the temptation to become little more than a particularly religious voting bloc or advocacy group that is part of some wider political or cultural agenda. Spirituality and cultural engagement should be intimately related as our public activism flows from our personal faith and localized faith communities. Church history provides us with some helpful examples to assist us as we navigate the best ways to intentionally wed spiritual formation and evangelical activism in our own context. One such example is the so-called Clapham Sect.

The Clapham Sect was a close-knit group of mostly upper class Anglican evangelicals who were active between 1790 and 1830. They were named for the London neighborhood in which most of them lived and worshiped. The best-known member of the Clapham Sect is William Wilberforce (17591833), the famous Parliamentary moral reformer who played a key role in bringing about the end of the transatlantic slave trade and, ultimately, slavery itself within the British Empire. Though at the center of the Clapham Sect, Wilberforce was surrounded by other socially conscious laypeople like the banker Henry Thornton (17601815), the scholar Granville Sharp (17351813) and the writer Hannah More (17451835), as well as influential clergy such as John Newton (17251807), John Venn (17591813) and Charles Simeon (17591836). What might be called Clapham Spirituality is a model for how contemporary evangelicals can thoughtfully and effectively combine the twin emphases of personal spiritual formation and faith-inspired social activism.

The Clapham Sect was serious about personal spiritual formation. As evangelicals within the Church of England, Wilberforce and his contemporaries were committed to several priorities that their more High Church colleagues considered Methodist (the label was not a compliment, but was more or less a synonym for fanatical). Every member of the Clapham Sect prioritized the importance of having a clear conversion experience that resulted in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. According to Clapham Spirituality, one was not raised a Christian, but became a Christian when he or she repented of their sin and trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The only truly meaningful religious distinction was not Anglican versus Dissenter, but converted versus non-converted.

Clapham Spirituality acknowledged that conversion was not an end unto itself, but was the beginning of ones Christian journey. That journey was characterized by key spiritual disciplines that were tools used by the Holy Spirit to strengthen the faith and godliness of genuine believers. The most important personal disciplines were daily Bible study and prayerwhat modern evangelicals often call the daily quiet time. The most important corporate disciplines were family worship, which occurred daily in the home, and corporate worship, which occurred every Lords Day in the parish church, which for most members of the Clapham Sect was Holy Trinity Church in Clapham.

Members of the Clapham Sect modeled these spiritual priorities in their homes and private lives, but they also advocated them to the wider English public. In 1797, Wilberforce published his bestselling book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity. This treatise was an apology for evangelical doctrine and spirituality over the sort of nominal, cultural faith that Wilberforce was convinced was dominant in the Church of England. Hannah More wrote numerous plays, short tracts, and even novels at the time a scandalous genre to promote evangelical piety and morality. She was one of the most popular authors in England. John Newton popularized evangelical spirituality through his hymns, the most famous of which became Amazing Grace.

The Clapham Sects commitment to personal spiritual formation helped to fuel the social activism that is commonly associated with Wilberforce and his contemporaries. The Clapham Sect is understandably most famous for its role in ending slavery, but it is important to understand that their anti-slavery motivations were grounded in their faith. Slavery was an abomination because every human being is created in Gods image. Aside from treating fellow humans as property, slavery promoted the worst sorts of vices: physical abuse, rape, separating families, malnourishment, etc. The crusade against slavery was a moral crusade born out of Clapham Spirituality.

In addition to combating slavery, the Clapham Sect was committed to pushing back against other social evils. The Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor was an effort by wealthy Anglican evangelicals to alleviate poverty among the lower classes. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which Wilberforce and other Clapham Sect members joined, championed animal rights two centuries before the cause became politically correct. The Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debt, originally an evangelical initiative, sought to reform the oppressive practice of placing debtors in prison, effectively ending their wage-earning potential. Clapham Sect members also championed prison reform, education reform, healthcare reform and (in the case of some members) the abolition of capital punishment. Clapham Spirituality recognized that, for evangelicals, cultural influence was a matter of moral stewardship.

Clapham Spirituality was not only committed to what we might today call matters of social justice; it was also zealous for the spread the gospel to all people. The Clapham Sect started the British and Foreign Bible Society to make the Bible available to those who had little access to the Scriptures. The Church Missionary Society, also a Clapham initiative, was intended to train laymen to be evangelists in foreign nations under British control. Though it took a few years for the CMS to become viable, within a generation it was a vibrant evangelical mission society within the Church of England. The Society for the Suppression of Vice, which included heavy Clapham Sect involvement, was, among other priorities, committed to defending Sabbath observance so that unbelievers would attend worship services and be exposed to the gospel. The Clapham Sect also championed Sunday Schools as a key means of teaching literacy and evangelizing children and, hopefully, their parents. Clapham Spirituality championed both gospel advance and the pursuit of justice.

Contemporary evangelicals could use a healthy dose of Clapham Spirituality. Spiritual formation begins with conversion and is cultivated through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. Spiritual formation includes faith-based activism that includes both the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:1920) and the Great Commandment to love the Lord and love our neighbors (Matt. 22:3640). As with the Clapham Sect, our spiritual transformation should inspire us to serve others through acts of mercy and clear gospel proclamation. We should leverage whatever public influence we might have for the sake of pursuing shalom, especially among our most needy and/or defenseless neighbors. We should pour ourselves out in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ here, there and everywhere. Like Wilberforce and his colleagues, we should not be afraid to champion personal holiness and civic virtue, public justice and gospel advance. A revival of Clapham Spirituality offers a fruitful way forward for evangelicals committed to engaging the culture as evangelicals.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn is provost and dean of the University Faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina. His latest book is Historical Theology for the Church (B&H Academic, 2021), co-edited with Jason G. Duesing. He serves as a Research Fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24