John Cliffordwas born Sawley, a small village near Derby, in 1836. His father worked in a lace-factory and was a follower of the Chartist leader, Thomas Cooper. After a brief education at the local elementary school, at the age of eleven, Clifford began work in a lace-factory. Clifford had a great love of reading and over the next few years he educated himself and by the time he was sixteen he had risen to the position of book-keeper.
In September, 1855, Clifford entered the Midland Baptist College at Leicester. Three years later he became the minister at the Praed Street Baptist Church in the Paddington area of London. During the early years of his ministry, Clifford continued his education at London University where he obtained a B.A. (1861), a B.Sc (1862) and an M.A. (1864).
Clifford was a strong supporter of social reform and self-help. In Paddington he helped establish the Westbourne Park Institute, an institution that provided free adult education, the Mutual Economic Benefit Society, an organisation that provided sickness benefit, the Westbourne Park Permanent Building Society to encourage saving and a Labour Bureau to help those seeking work.
In the 1870s Clifford emerged as the leader of the Baptist Church in England. He held several senior positions including the presidency of the London Baptist Union, National Baptist Union and the Baptist World Alliance. As a religious individualist, Clifford clashed with the other main Baptist leader at the time, Charles H. Spurgeon, who advocated a more conservative approach to religion.
Clifford was a strong supporter of the Liberal Party. He especially admired William Gladstone, who he believed applied Christian principles to political issues. In Clifford's view, the politician should always base his policies on "what would further the cause of liberty and equality."
Gladstone temporarily lost the support of Clifford after his government passed the 1870 Education Act. Clifford believed that the legislation was an attack on the Nonconformist Church and as editor of the General Baptist Magazine, Clifford withdrew support for the Liberal Party in the 1874 General Election.
Other causes supported by Clifford included disestablishment of the Church of England, extension of the franchise, repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, the admission of the atheist Charles Bradlaugh to the House of Commons, Irish Home Rule, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, and the Temperance Society. An advocate of trade unionism, Clifford was a strong supporter of the Matchgirls (1888) and the London Dockers (1889) in their struggles for better pay and working conditions.
In 1899 Clifford became a national political figure when he became one of the leaders of the campaign against the Boer War. He was president of the Stop-the-War Committee and a member of the South Africa Conciliation Committee executive. Clifford was a fierce critic of the policy of burning Boer farms and herding women and children into concentration camps. Clifford also opposed the negotiated terms of the Union of South Africa because it did not give equal rights to the country's black population.
When Arthur Balfour introduced the 1902 Education Act, Clifford became the leader of the campaign against the legislation. Clifford was opposed to Balfour's bill for three main reasons: (1) the rate aid was being used to support the teaching of religious views to which some rate-payers were opposed; (2) sectarian schools, supported by public funds, were not under public control; (3) teachers in sectarian schools were subject to religious tests.
After the 1902 Education Act became law, Clifford formed the National Passive Resistance movement. The main strategy of the organisation was to persuade Nonconformists not to pay the education rate. Between 1902 and 1906 over 170 people went to prison for refusing to pay their school taxes.
Clifford hoped that the Liberal Government that came to power following the 1906 General Election would repeal the 1902 Education Act. However, attempts at reform in 1906 and 1908 were frustrated by the House of Lords. When the lords rejected the budget proposals of David Lloyd George in 1909, Clifford played an important role in the campaign to have the upper house reformed.
In the period leading up to the First World War Clifford supported W.T. Stead and his Peace Crusade and condemned the press for its open hostility towards the Germans. However, once war was declared, Clifford supported British participation because of Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality. Clifford supported the right of the individual to develop their own moral views on the war and was totally opposed to conscription and the punishment of conscientious objectors.
By the end of the war Clifford had become a Christian Socialist. In the 1918 General Election Clifford deserted the Liberals and instead supported the Labour Party. Clifford was especially critical of the nationalist speeches made by David Lloyd George during the election campaign.
Clifford retired as pastor of Westbourne Park in 1915. He continued his campaign against the 1902 Education Act and in December 1922, received his fifty-seventh summons to appear before the magistrates for refusing to pay his education rate.John Clifford died on 20th November, 1923.