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Guest Commentary / Jul. 22, 2021

Your Clapham Sect: Churchill, C.S. Lewis, Edison, and William Wilberforce

“We shall never surrender.”

By Douglas Daugherty

At the end of May 1940 the Nazi Army had surrounded the retreating Allied Armies to the Coast of France in Dunkirk. Over 400,000 were trapped. Something had to be done to save as many as possible, or the army was lost. An outsized idea to call for as many ships and boats as possible to bring the troops to the safety of Britain was conceived. At the outset, it was hoped that 45,000 men might be evacuated; in the end, over 338,000 Allied troops reached England. 90,000 were left behind. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister (1940-45), was the very expression of leadership and demonstrated an ‘Iron Will’ to and for the English nation.

On June 4, Churchill reported to the House of Commons about the “Miracle of Dunkirk.” He is well remembered for his strong speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, the last day of the deliverance of the Allied armies.

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” (Listen to his full speech here.)

Churchill was a remarkable man. He was a strong, unique individual. He had vision. He made wise decisions in tough times. He inspired the people and the community of the British Isles from 1939 to 1945, who were steeled with determination and bravery. England could not have survived without Churchill and Churchill could not have prevailed without the community of England.

There is a strong need for the best leaders in all times, peace or war, poverty, or plenty. Leaders are people with a vision of the future that inspires others. They are people one trusts to make the best decisions. They have a way of inspiring their community, whether through written or spoken words, bold action, or steady plodding to reach their objective.

But a leader cannot succeed without a community to follow. We all know people of vision who have little to show for it. For some reason they have no community.

It takes both a leader and a community to bring success and hoped-for prosperity of whatever form to a people. Sometimes the community may be quite large. (The United Kingdom had 48 million people in 1940. Germany had 70 million people.) Sometimes the community may be quite small, but this life makes a strong case for strong individualism AND community.

Are you connected to a community? It may be just your family, a group of friends, an interest group, a church, a political faction, or a city. It is truly amazing what can happen when a strong individual is harnessed to a community. They can change the world. (It is remarkable beyond belief that Jesus’ mission included the discipling of twelve men. These apostles were his community. He spent much time with them, he both led and served, as He followed His Father’s voice. It was these 11 and other individuals who changed the world, and those like them continue to change the world to this very day.)

Another example from this same period is the Oxford scholar and writer Clive Staples Lewis. He became, somewhat reluctantly, the spiritual Churchill to the United Kingdom. He was the nation’s pastor, both Protestant, Catholic and Jew. In August of 1941, during the bombings of London, C.S. Lewis took to the BBC airwaves and gave over the next four years 25 fifteen-minute talks to the British people. They later formed the still popular book, “Mere Christianity.” In the realm of the heart and man’s faith in the goodness of God, Lewis, an Anglican, shepherded an entire nation, his community. A man of rare ability to communicate complex ideas, Lewis, an individual, had to have his community to succeed. (A whole book has been written about the various communities like the “Inklings,” which included J.R.R. Tolkien, to which Lewis was a part. (Listen to C.S. Lewis’s full address here.)

We all need to find our calling…our destiny. There are things and feelings and experiences that when you talk about them, others listen and you feel energized. This is good, but have you also learned that you need to be part of a community to make things really take off.

We have, or at least I hope we have all heard of Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) a singular individual who patented 1,093 inventions. More than any other inventor in history, Thomas Edison is responsible for the technologies that make modern life modern. By the time of his death his patents covered the creation or refinements of devices in telegraphy and telephony, electric power

However, his most important invention was one that couldn’t be patented: the process of modern invention itself. By applying the principles of mass production to the 19th-century model of the solitary inventor, Edison created a process in which skilled scientists, machinists, designers, and others collaborated at a single facility to research, develop, and manufacture new technologies. This was in Menlo Park, Florida, where a large team of people worked together, as a work-community, to pursue the many ideas of Thomas Edison. Edison coined the name “Invention Factory” for the Menlo Park site.

Individual and community. They work together.

Edison is famous for his inventiveness and endless experimentation to solve a problem. He is remembered for many quotes about his work. “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” He was an inspiring, individualist leader, but did he work alone? No.

Of all the many stories about the connection between an individual and success, none is more inspiring to me than the story of William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833) and the Clapham Sect. Wilberforce was a British politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. He converted to evangelical Christianity in 1785.

In 1787 he was persuaded to take on the cause of abolition, and he soon became one of the leading English abolitionists. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Wilberforce was convinced of the importance of religion, morality, and education. He championed causes and campaigns such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice, British missionary work in India, the creation of a free colony in Sierra Leone, the foundation of the Church Mission Society, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In later years, Wilberforce supported the campaign for the complete abolition of slavery and continued his involvement after 1826. He then resigned from Parliament because of his failing health. That campaign led to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. Wilberforce died just three days after hearing that the passage of the Act through Parliament was assured.

But many do not know that Wilberforce did not work alone. His secret? A close community that was named by a journalist as the “Clapham Sect.” The group are described by the historian Stephen Tomkins as “a network of friends and families in England, with William Wilberforce as its centre of gravity, who were powerfully bound together by their shared moral and spiritual values, by their religious mission and social activism, by their love for each other, and by marriage.” Their members involved politicians, clergy, philanthropists, activists, businesspeople…both men and women. This group stayed together through three generations of children’s children. It is remarkable.

Whenever you become discouraged about the battles being fought in our country or community, remember the real history of the Clapham Sect, “The ethos of Clapham became the spirit of the age,” said one historian.

So, do you have a vision and feel compelled to pursue it? Then work to gather around a small group of people who you can collaborate with, a network, a small group, a community…maybe it’s even an energized spouse and family.

We are here on earth to cultivate and be good stewards of all we’ve been given, both materially and in terms of personality and natural gifts. Individuals will rarely succeed without a network. In fact, research shows that the most likely predictor of your success is the strength of your network, your community.

May you know your passions and your gifts and may you have those to network and collaborate with. Not one or the other, but both, together.

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