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The Westminster Conference 2007 – Day One

Category Articles
Date January 4, 2008

The annual Westminster Conference was held in the Friends’ Meeting House opposite Euston Station on December 11 and 12, 2007, with the usual 200 people (largely men) in attendance.

The Clapham Sect and the Abolition of Slavery

The first paper was given by Roger Fay, a pastor from Ripon, and the editor of the Evangelical Times.

It is the bicentenary year of the abolition of slavery. The title ‘Clapham Sect’ was probably used for the first time in an article in the Edinburgh Review in 1844. It described a group of evangelical Christians, mainly Anglicans, who lived in the Clapham village south of London. They were almost like a chaste commune, a sort of L’Abri community with political muscle and connections in high places, an intimate family. Their famous star was Willliam Wilberforce, but there was also the wealthy banker Henry Thornton whose home, Battersea Rise, was the centre of the group’s activities. John Venn was the preacher at Clapham. There was also Charles Grant, a director of the East Indian Company, Lord Teignmouth, a governor-general of India, barrister James Stephen and Zachary Macaulay, son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister who had seen the evils of slavery first hand in Jamaica as a teenager. He played a leading part in the abolition of the slave trade, and also in the Bible Society and the Church Missionary Society. William Smith was another member of the Clapham Group though a Unitarian. Hannah More and Charles Simeon were also supporters of the Group.

The group succeeded in establishing a colony in Sierra Leone for ex-slaves, and in abolishing the slave trade in the British colonies in 1833. It mobilized public opinion and brought pressure to bear on Parliament. It also sought to widen the basis of education and encourage the spread of Christian literature such as Wilberforce’s Practical View and Hannah More’s Tracts. Its members were in touch with both the aristocrats of the nation and the common people. It was a succinct and helpful survey of what has become more familiar territory in this anniversary year.

Beginning with Wesley’s letter to Wilberforce Mr Fay described the execrable nature of the slave trade and showed how difficult it was to stop because of the low religious state of the country, the Enlightenment view of ethnicity, and the lack of direct involvement in the trade of most people, so that the population as a whole were quite ignorant of its nature and the powerful interests that supported slavery. He went on to describe the Parliamentary battle. The conference was exhorted to see that victory was a result of team work, not just of Wilberforce’s endeavours – though his work must not be underestimated in its importance. The paper quite fairly brought out the work of the Quakers and of Thomas Clarkson and others, and the importance of networking.

Charles Wesley and his Hymns

This was the second paper and was given by Graham Harrison. It was the longest of the Conference, lasting 70 minutes, though most of those minutes were fascinating . . . Charles was born at Epworth Rectory Lincolnshire, the eighteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. He went to boarding school in London at the age of nine and thence to Christ Church, Oxford in 1726. There he was instrumental in forming the ‘Holy Club’ a group of students who kept set times for fasting, praying, keeping special days, prison visiting, and helping the poor and sick. In 1735 he joined his brother on a disastrous visit to Georgia where he acted briefly as the secretary to the Governor, James Oglethorpe.

On his return to England he came under the influence of Peter Boehler the Moravian. When he was sick he read Luther on Galatians, and on Whitsunday, 1728, three days before his brother, he experienced gospel conversion. ‘I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ.’ He composed the birthday hymn, ‘Where shall my wondering soul begin . . .?’

Charles was soon preaching everywhere, in the houses of his friends and in prisons (Mr Harrison read a moving extract of his ministry to men on death row in Newgate, accompanying them to the Tyburn gallows). He preached in churches until most doors were closed to him, and then everywhere else he could. Charles was one of the most powerful field preachers of the revival. At 42 years of age he married Sarah (Sally) Gwynne, daughter of a Welsh magistrate. They lived for some years in Bristol and then when he was 54 he moved to London where he supplied the City Road pulpit.

Charles was the most prolific of hymn-writers, composing over 7,000 hymns. From the day he was converted he wrote an average of 10 verses a day on almost every subject under the sun, words often of the highest calibre. Gary Brady comments, ‘Mr Harrison also spoke on his anti-Calvinism and his views on perfectionism and assurance as those themes come out in his hymns. A tendentiousness against Calvinism seemed to appear around 1740, about two years after his earliest sinner-focused hymns.’ He could be quite belligerent, caustic and persistent in his opposition to the sovereignty of God and the divine decrees. So we have, for example, these verses,

See, sinners, in the gospel glass,
The friend and Saviour of mankind!
Not one of all the apostate race
But may in him salvation find!
His thoughts, and words, and actions prove,
His life and death, – that God is love!

Behold the Lamb of God, who bears
The sins of all the world away!

The individual phrases are not so bad but the way it is done is sometimes sarcastic and such emphases often appear. For example he writes,

God is unchangeable, and therefore so are you:
And therefore, they can never fail who once His goodness knew.
In part perhaps you may, You cannot wholly fall,
Cannot become a castaway like non-elected Paul.

He would deliberately and unfairly refer to the decretum horibile as the ‘horrible decree’ (‘The horrible decree confound, Enlarge thy people’s heart!’). Some of his hymns we just can’t sing; some need to be edited; some we need to read differently. His perfectionism, later moderated, also needs to be resisted, but his emphasis on the inward witness of the Spirit welcomed. For example,

I cannot rest in sins forgiven;
Where is the earnest of my heaven?
Where the Indubitable Seal
That ascertains the kingdom mine?
The powerful stamp I long to feel,
The signature of love Divine:
O, shed it in my heart abroad,
Fullness of love, of heaven, of God!

Interestingly, older brother John would often tone down what he disliked in Charles. It is said that he thought ‘Love divine’ too sentimental and would change the ‘dears’ to ‘greats’ (‘My great redeemer’s praise’ instead of ‘My dear redeemer’s’)’

Preaching – ‘ex opere operato’

This was the title of the third paper on the first day, given by Robert Strivens, the new principal of the London Theological Seminary. He dealt with the tensions between the Lutheran and Calvinist views of Word and Spirit. When the Zwickau prophets increasingly emphasised the inward nature of the Word of God, Luther’s insistence was on the Bible, and that the Word and Spirit always work together. The Scriptures are like the voice that cried, ‘Lazarus come forth!’ The Scriptures themselves confer upon the dead and the deaf life and hearing. The Word accomplishes its own reception. So it was Luther’s preface to Galatians that strangely warmed Wesley’s heart. It was the Word that said to Augustine, ‘Take up and read,’ which drew Augustine to Romans 13:13, 14, ‘Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh.’ The Lord Jesus on the road to Emmaus opened up the Scriptures and the two companions’ befuddlement and sadness was rebuked by the Word. They had been slow of heart to believe the Word of God that the prophets had fully spoken. So Luther and his followers emphasised the existentiality of the Scriptures, their overpowering aliveness and their relevance in what they say. There is a peremptory self-assertion of Scripture as the speaking of God, even when a congregation’s heart is as cold as ice. God talks to them, and calls for their trustful obedience to what he says in the words of the Bible, presenting them with the momentous issues of life and salvation.

The Swiss Reformers, and then Calvin, took the view that the word of the Bible is as some dead and ineffectual thing for us if it is not divinely vivified. As soon as it is separated from the living God it becomes a dead body of letters without soul. God alone can make the Word live. There has to be a distinction between that which imparts authority to Scripture and that which is the source of our conviction that it is authoritative, between that in which the authority lies and that from which our assurance proceeds. It is the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity as it pertains to this question. In this area Calvin is not as clearly formulated as we could desire. In the 1539 edition of the Institutes Calvin says that the authority of Scripture is to be sought in the internal testimony of the Spirit, but from much else of what Calvin wrote he ascribes the authority to the divine Speaker. Certainly there is sustained insistence on Calvin’s part on the intrinsic character and divinity of Scripture. It is self-authenticating. The Spirit’s work is to seal its truth to us, not to add anything to the Scripture.

The discussion dealt with the danger of confidence in the mere expositions of the Word, thinking that that is all the preacher has to do. The need for the accompanying power of the Spirit, something more than mere exegesis, was accepted by most although there was some difficulty in finding how best to express that idea.

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