From a Pub to the World

Pub_in_Oxford[1]

They met every two weeks in a pub in London. Their mission was the transformation of the world through biblical preaching and faithful pastoral care. They adopted the inauspicious title: The Eclectic Society.1 Their founder was the man who wrote the most famous hymn in the history of the world, Amazing Grace.

John Newton founded the Eclectic Society in 1783, three years after becoming rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London. Newton and his colleagues2 first met at the Castle-and-Falcon Pub, just across the street from the Moravian meeting hall where the Wesleys were converted.

They began each meeting with tea and a short prayer, then for three hours discussed a subject that had been proposed at a previous meeting. They held each other accountable to the meetings, even levying a fine (two shillings and six pence) on those who were absent.

According to one historian, “Most of the questions concerned Biblical exposition, the personal life of the clergy, preaching and pastoral care: ‘How may we suppose St. Paul would preach if he were now in London? How far public protest against sin from the pulpit will excuse silence in the parlor?’ In fact many of their sessions were concerned with social, moral, and political questions of the day, the French Revolution, the attitude of members to the war and the question of whether a minister should bear arms, Roman Catholic Emancipation, the Slave Trade and the Lottery; others were given to discussing the Christian family and the bringing up of children both in the home and in the Church.”3 While obviously interested in politics, Newton wrote to a new member, “The Society . . . espouses no party.”4

As Aaron Belz has put it recently: “Instead of a synod, Newton hosted a salon—the kind of intellectual club that had been so effective in focusing philosophical ideas in France during the previous hundred years.”5

The impact of the society was enormous, the reverberations still being felt. In 1786, the society considered the question, “What is the best method for planting and propagating the Gospel in Botany Bay?” The answer to the question: send a minister to plant a church in Australia. A few years later, in 1799, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) was established and a CMS auxiliary was set up in Sydney in 1825.6 Interestingly, William Wilberforce was the first vice president of the CMS.

In 1789, the society took up the question: “What is the best way of propagating the Gospel in the East Indies?” and in 1792, the slave trade arose for discussion. “Twelve years later there were two full-time missionaries in West Africa. In 1787 a colony for freed slaves had been started by Granville Sharpe . . .”7 In 1834, Parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery Act.

Belz observes that “in 1799, a young clergyman who had been recently recruited to the Eclectic Society, Josiah Pratt, proposed the following question: ‘How far may a periodical Publication be made subservient to the interest of Religion?’ In 1801 Pratt founded the Christian Observer, which throughout the nineteenth century served as a valuable organ for evangelical ideas.”8 Missions, magazines, and manners were reformed through the work of that small group of men—the precursor to and inspiration for the later Clapham Sect.

God is able to accomplish great things through the faithful obedience of courageous, reflective, and innovative pastors and Christian leaders whose minds and hearts are tethered to Scripture. Blessed is the pastor who can find kindred spirits in his area with whom he can pray, discuss, learn, and strategize about how best to transform their neighborhood, city, state, and world for the glory of God and the good of their neighbors. Do not underestimate small beginnings—especially when pastors are willing to move beyond discussion to strategizing.

Footnotes:

1 Much of the content of this account of the Eclectic Society comes from Michael Hennell’s account in John Venn and the Clapham Sect (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 219-224.

2 Other founding members included, Richard Cecil, minister of St. John’s Chapel, Bedford Row; Henry Foster, who was William Romaine’s curate at St. Andrew Wardrobe; and the layman, Eli Bates. Later, in 1786, they were joined by Thomas Scott the commentator and chaplain at Lock Hospital.

3 Hennell, 221.

4 Ibid., 219-224.

5 Aaron Belz, “Not a Synod but a Salon,” Christian History, 23:1 (Winter 2004); 40, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2004/001/14.40.html.

6 See the online history of the Church Missionary Society of Australia, “Our History,” Church Missionary Society of Australia Website, (2004), http://www.cms.org.au/about/history (accessed July 10, 2004).

7 Hennell, 223-234.

8 Belz, 40.

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