A Brief History of How Friendships Like Yours Can Change the World
Every Christian wants to make a difference. But few of us know how to turn that desire into action. We look around at all the needs and opportunities, and we think to ourselves, “So . . . what do I already have that can make actually a difference?”
There are countless ways to answer that question. But here’s one easy answer that’s usually overlooked: “Your friends!” Let me explain.
WILBERFORCE’S CLAPHAM SOCIETY
In the late 18th century, a group of influential friends coalesced around the personality and vision of William Wilberforce, the charismatic MP for Yorkshire who successfully led a decades-long abolitionist campaign in Britain. Though Wilberforce the man united the group, it was his cause \ that drew this eclectic collective together. They’re known to history as the Clapham Society (or the Clapham Sect), and they draw their name from a well-known district in south London where many members lived and met together. Apart from Wilberforce, the Clapham Society included Hannah More, John Newton, John Venn, Henry Thornton, Thomas Clarkson, and several others.
In his excellent biography of Wilberforce, William Hauge describes this extraordinary network of friendships. He writes,
Wholly relaxed in each other’s company, they observed no restrictions in wandering into each other’s homes and gardens, discussing any great cause or biblical text that came to mind. . . . The intimacy they developed was remarkable, it being their custom “to consider every member of that coterie as forming part of a large united family, who should behave to each other with the same simplicity and absence of formality, which, in the usual way, characterises intercourse only among the nearest of relatives.”
Almost all of the members of the Clapham Society were evangelical Anglicans. Motivated by a clear biblical vision and distinctly Christian goals, they initiated a program of public reform that effectively reshaped British national and religious life. They partnered together to plant churches, publish books and tracts, agitate for political reform, pioneer ministries, and promote a host of philanthropic causes. The total list of their collective achievements is simply extraordinary.
Nearly 200 years later, it’s worth asking the question, “What made this group of saints so successful?” In God’s providence, we can point to intimate Christian friendship, strategically leveraged for kingdom enterprise. They supported one another, reinforced one another, and gave one another the strength to carry on, especially when things looked bleak. Like many saints before and after them, the Clapham Society understood a fundamental principle of Christian experience: God gives us friendships because we’re more fruitful serving him together rather than alone.
Of course, God sometimes raises up lonely voices that cry in the wilderness. He uses men and women in relatively isolated spheres. I think of the subtitle of Iain Murray’s J. C. Ryle biography: Prepared to Stand Alone.
But God usually supplies his people with friendships to create the context for God-honoring cooperation. We see this story over and over throughout history.
Consider the English Baptist Missionary Society, born out of the friendships between Andrew Fuller, William Carey, John Ryland, and John Sutcliffe. God used the mutual bonds between these men to sustain extraordinary efforts for God’s glory. David Calhoun has written of the intimate network of friends that worked together to make Princeton Seminary such a success throughout the nineteenth century. John Newton, the dissolute slave-trader-turned-evangelical-pastor, and William Cowper, the troubled but brilliant poet, partnered together to co-pastor a church and to write a hymn book. In the preface to Olney Hymns, Newton wrote that in addition to promoting the evangelical faith, the hymn book served a second purpose: “It was likewise intended as a monument to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.”
Church history is full of Christian friends who have said, “We both love Christ, his church, and one another. Let’s do something for God’s glory together!”
We see this happening in our own day, too. Well-known ministries were born of friendship, such as The Gospel Coalition and the Together for the Gospel conference. How many churches, missions efforts, seminaries, schools, non-profits, and benevolent ministries have been started through strategic friendships? It’s simply remarkable what Christian friends can accomplish when they work together.
The Bible recognizes the sanctified synergy of friendship. Consider the memorable language of Ecclesiastes:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecc. 4:9–12)
What if more Christians began to view their friendships as stewardships from God? We should all actively look for opportunities to leverage our friendships for practical, kingdom-minded endeavors.
LESSONS FOR US
Take stock of your closest friendships. Who has God placed in your life? Are there other Christians in your orbit with whom you share substantial like-mindedness and mutual affection? Now ask the questions: what holy burdens do you share? What ministries are you both passionate about? What needs keep you up at night? What gifts has God given you and your friends? Do they complement one another? What might God be pleased to do within the circle of your own friendships?
I warmly encourage you to consider these questions. Perhaps you can do so with some close friends.
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 William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (Orlando, FL: Harcourt), 219.
 Ibid., 220–21.
 Iain Murray, J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016).
 David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, Vol I: Faith and Learning, 1812–1868 and Princeton Seminary, Vol II: The Majestic Testimony, 1869–1929 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994).
 John Newton and William Cowper, Olney Hymns: In Three Books on Select Texts of Scripture, on Occasional Subjects, On the Progress and Changes of Spiritual Life (London: J. Nisbet and Co., 1799), iii.