In 1787 George III issued a proclamation against “vice and immorality.” The home secretary sent a copy to every MP, and the text was read out from pulpits throughout the land. A society was formed to enforce the proclamation which, by 1803, had secured the conviction of more than one hundred publicans simply for tippling on the Lord’s Day. This was the first shot in a battle against sin that made Britain respectable in time for Victoria’s reign.

The graveness and prudery that descended over England at the end of a century in which it had tried so hard to enjoy itself was a consequence of the Evangelical Revival, begun by George Whitefield and John Wesley in the 1740s. Their new, vital religion was one of revivalist fervor and lightning conversion. Although Wesley and his Methodists avoided it, the Evangelicals returned to a Puritanism as narrow and demanding as that of Calvin.

Evangelicalism was the most powerful religious movement in the late eighteenth century. It stood out for its “enthusiasm” and vigor in a prevailing climate of worldly skepticism. Evangelical clergy, under the leadership of Charles Simeon, vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, and Isaac Milner, dean of Carlisle, distinguished themselves from their contemporaries by holding only one living and performing the parochial duties attached to it.

Yet it was not among the clergy that the Evangelical Revival made its greatest impact. Long before the first Evangelical bishop, Henry Ryder of Gloucester, took up his seat in the House of Lords in 1815, half the peerage had given up their old amusements of the hunt and the ball and devoted themselves to setting up auxiliary Bible societies. Vital Christianity swept through the upper classes; it even attracted the King’s son-in-law, the Duke of Gloucester.

The most famous Evangelicals were the Clapham Sect. In what was still a small village on the fringes of London lived Henry Thornton, a banker who demonstrated in all his dealings a fierce integrity that contributed much to Britain’s commercial ascendancy. Around Thornton gathered a group of like-minded men who constituted the most formidable pressure group that has ever existed in Britain: Granville Sharp, the radical publicist and millenarian prophet who could one moment rail against the injustices of the press gang and the next warn a cabinet minister of the Little Horn in the Book of Daniel; Lord Teignmouth, governor-general of British India from 1793 to 1798 and guiding spirit behind the creation of the British and Foreign Bible Society; James Stephen, brilliant lawyer and colonial expert; and William Wilberforce, the slightly built, vivacious Yorkshire MP who was the leader of the Evangelicals in Parliament.

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The “Saints,” as they were nicknamed by contemporaries, felt called to fight sin wherever they found it. They lived in the certainty that for every opportunity missed, they would be answerable at the Day of Judgment. Their talents, influence, and time were held on trust from the Almighty to be used for the furtherance of his purposes.

Sabbath-breakers, slave-owners, sinecurists and adulterers—all were enemies in the Holy War, and all tactics were fair in the struggle to defeat them. This might involve infiltration into the enemy camp, as when Sir Andrew Agnew, a Scottish Evangelical MP, bought up thousands of railway shares so that he could press for Sunday closure of lines at the annual meetings of the companies. The most powerful weapon in their armory was that of “respectable” public opinion mobilized into righteous indignation by hundreds of societies which sprang up to counter every conceivable vice.

The gradual winning round of public opinion had much to do with the Saints’ most spectacular success, the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. Perhaps the most purely altruistic measure ever passed in Parliament, it was the result of a twenty-five-year campaign under the direction of Wilberforce. The “Saints” threw themselves absolutely into the fight against what they regarded as the greatest national evil of the time. While Thomas Clarkson toured African ports collecting evidence on the condition of Negroes, others pored night and day over statistics. Hannah More, the high priestess of the Evangelical Revival, friend of Dr. Johnson and David Garrick, renounced the coffeehouse and the stage to become the “bishop in petticoats” and promoter of Sunday schools. She set about persuading ladies of quality to abstain from using West Indies sugar in their tea. James Ramsey, the man who persuaded Wilberforce to take up the cause of abolition after spending seventeen years as a vicar in St. Kitts, died a martyr, victim of the unceasing hostility of the planters.

It was because of this background of total commitment and dedication that Wilberforce was gradually able to wear down the hostility and indifference of Parliament to the abolition of a trade on which Britain’s commercial supremacy had been built. The Evangelical campaign against the self-interest of the planters was inspired entirely by humanitarian and Christian ideas, by the knowledge that a whole race was being kept in subjection contrary to the teachings of Christ and being denied the means of salvation. It was a campaign that did not end until 1833, when Thomas Fowell Buxton succeeded in abolishing all slavery in the colonies.

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The abolition of slavery was a significant enough achievement for a trading nation, but it was only one of the successes in the Evangelicals’ crusade to put morality firmly at the center of politics. The state of the millions of “lost souls” in India was of just as much concern to the Saints as the conditions of the Negro slaves, and having infiltrated and taken over the entire directorate of the East India Company, they forced a hostile establishment to introduce missionaries into the subcontinent. It was always the rights of the native races and the behavior of British administrators that concerned the Saints, and their persistent championship of morality in all dealings with subject nations did much to create the notions of trusteeship and responsible imperial government.


Invert the sleeping bat. He holds the fern by its roots and converts the staggered file of stalactites into mountains. Flout his style until my vertical emotions churn their way to level ground. I need to learn something to restrict nausea and bile, something to divert my thoughts a while until four-square and plumb-line shall return.
It was an accusation Nietzsche made that Christians had transvalued ancient worth and upset the morality of earth, leaving Dionysian goals betrayed.
The Passion and the passions are at odds as long as bats hang dreaming they are gods.

At home, as abroad, the oppressed and the minorities found friends and champions among the Saints. The relief of debtors, the mitigation of the savage eighteenth-century penal code, the ending of discrimination against Jews, Catholics, and Protestant dissenters, the provision of charity to the victims of the Industrial Revolution—Evangelicals were at the center of the movements to effect all these reforms. It is to them that we owe the invasion of philanthropy into politics that reached its apogee with Shaftesbury’s great Factory Act.

There was another side to the Evangelical crusade to make Britain a more godly nation. “God Almighty has set before me two great objects,” wrote Wilberforce, “the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”

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The Saints’ achievement in cleaning up a profligate society was perhaps even more spectacular than their abolition of its greatest national crime. Sunday was firmly established as a day when just about nothing could legitimately be done except sleeping and praying. The national lottery was abolished; so were bear- and bull-baiting and cock-fighting. Magistrates tightened licensing hours and closed gaming houses. Swearing and adultery were legislated against. There was even a bill to stop people from exposing themselves by bathing in the Thames.

The Saints raised the tone of politics and society out of all recognition. In doing so, they may well have helped to prevent the country from succumbing to the revolution that hit France in the late eighteenth century. The Commons had been manifestly interested only in itself; politics was a corrupt business of borough-mongering and place-seeking; the aristocracy were decadent and debauched. The Evangelical Revival changed all this: Parliament stopped debating game laws and enclosures and began to discuss prison reform and the rights and wrongs of colonial slavery. Politics became an exercise in morality; the aristocracy assumed a high seriousness and devoted themselves to good works. Above all, a middle class that might so easily have lost faith in the prevailing political system found satisfaction in taking up great moral causes.

The best in Evangelicalism was what came out in the bitter struggle against vested interest and cynicism. Here it emerged as a radical, dynamic creed compatible only with the keenest intellectual rigor and the most careful conscience-searching. Once Evangelicalism became generally accepted, it lost its edge; it became merely a convenient way to divert attention from the real ills of society. Only the outward conformity remained; respectability replaced commitment.

Yet Evangelicalism had been the most powerful single force in shaping the Victorian Age. Many of its greatest figures were the children of Evangelical homes; and if they all abandoned the creed of their fathers, then in doing so, it was to the original spirit of the Saints that they remained faithful. Peel, Macaulay, Gladstone, Newman, and Pusey were heirs of Clapham.

Ian Bradley is a junior fellow at New College, Oxford, from which he has a B.A. in modern history. This article is reprinted by permission from the London “Observer.”

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