After we finished our encounter with the Sir Thomas Lawrence portrait of William Wilberforce in the National Portrait Gallery, we hired a cab and asked the driver to take us to the Holy Trinity Church in Clapham. The neighborhood in which this historic (1776) church still stands now has its own stop on the London Tube. When we arrived at the church to continue our search for connections with William Wilberforce, we got that feeling you get when you enter a run-down neighborhood for the first time, and you aren’t exactly sure how safe it is for you to be there. However, there were plenty of people on the streets, and we could see people of all ages sitting in the park next to the church. We walked up to the building and pushed the buzzer on the door but received no answer. As we continued our walk around the building, we met a group of people who were coming out of a basement classroom where they had been attending their regular AA meeting. The room, we later discovered, is very fittingly named “The Wilberforce Center.” One of the gentlemen in the group was very kind and helpful and offered to help us find an open door. After having no success with locating an unlocked door, I used my cell phone to call the number on the church sign. A young woman answered the phone and came downstairs to open the door. She confessed that she didn’t know much about Mr. Wilberforce, but she graciously proceeded to show us around the building.
The first Wilberforce connection she pointed out was a beautiful stained-glass window that depicts Wilberforce as a man in green trousers and distinctive yellow stockings. He is surrounded by enslaved Africans, and he holds a copy of what appears to be the bill abolishing the slave trade. The wording on the stained glass states, “Before my Father which is in heaven, The Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee.”
The second recognition of Wilberforce at the church is a small blue medallion above the front door from the Greater London Council that recognizes William Wilberforce and “The Clapham Sect” for their work in abolishing slavery in the British Empire.
The final recognition of Wilberforce at the Holy Trinity Church is a large engraved stone that is part of the outside wall of the church. It is significantly scarred, and we were told that the damage had been inflicted by Nazi bombings during World War II.
The Clapham Sect
Who in the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th centuries labored so abundantly for national righteousness and the conversion of the heathen, and rested not until the curse of slavery was swept away from all parts of the British Dominions
Eight names are listed alphabetically, the final one being William Wilberforce.
The “Clapham Sect” once lived in this neighborhood and attended this church. They were constantly in one another’s homes and sometimes even lived in the same houses. They challenged and inspired one another to continue the work of abolishing the slave trade and, eventually, the institution of slavery, itself. I came to Holy Trinity Church in Clapham looking for William Wilberforce. What I discovered was evidence of a community. The work of Wilberforce was not accomplished in isolation. He was part of a church community that faithfully stood with him as he fought slavery for 47 long, grueling years. He was not alone.
Next stop: Oxford’s Bodleian Library
August 5, 2016