J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

The Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago online

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we remember what times they were when these things happened,
and what kind of a man Dr. Rundle's patron. Sir Robert
Walpole, was, it is impossible not to admire the courage and
conscientiousness which Richard Venn displayed in the affair.
He died at the early age of forty-eight, when his son Henry
was only fifteen years old.

The facts recorded about Henry Venn, as a boy, are few, but
interesting. They aire enough to show that from his earliest
childhood he was a " thorough " and decided character, and
one who never did anything by halves. In fact, Dr. Gloucester
Ridley was so struck with his energy of character when young.
that he said, " This boy will go up Holborn, and either stop at
Ely Place (then the London palace of the Bishop of Ely), or go
on to Tyburn I" (the place where criminals were hanged.) The
following three anecdotes will show what kind of a boy he was.
I give them in his son's own words : —

" While he was yet a child, Sir Robert Walpole attempted to
introduce more extensively the system of Excise. A violent

* It is only fair and just to the character of one long dead to say, that living descend-
ants or connections of Dr. Rundle deny the correctness of the statement here made about
his opinions. I can only say that my authority is Mr. Venn's biography.

{I'jc) 17


opposition was excited, and the popular feeling ran strongly
against the measure. Young Henry Venn caught the alarm,
and could not sleep in his bed lest the Excise Bill should pass ;
and on the day when it was to be submitted to Parliament, his
boyish zeal made him leave his father's house early, and wander
through the streets, crying 'No Excise!' till the evening, when
he returned home exhausted with fatigue, and with his voice
totally lost by his patriotic exertions."

"A gentleman, who was reported to be an Arian, called one
day upon his father. Young Henry Venn, then a mere child,
came into the room, and with a grave countenance earnestly
surveyed him. The gentleman, observing the notice which the
child took of him, began to show him some civil attentions, but
found all his friendly overtures sternly rejected. At length,
upon his earnestly sohciting him to come to him, the boy indig-
nantly replied, ' I will not come near you ; for you are an Arian.'"

" As he adopted with all his heart the opinions which he
imbibed, he early entertained a most vehement dislike of all
Dissenters. It happened that a Dissenting minister's son, two
or three years older than himself, lived in the same street in
London with his father ; and young Henry Venn, in his zeal
for the Church, made no scruple to attack and fight the unfor-
tunate Nonconformist whenever he met him. It was a curious
circumstance, that, many years after, he became acquainted
with this very individual, who was then a Dissenting minister.
He frankly confessed that young Venn had been the terror of
his youthful days, and acknowledged that he never dared leave
his father's door till he had carefully looked on every side to see
that this young champion of the Church was not in the street."

Henry Venn's education began at the age of twelve, in a
school at Mortlake, near Barnes. From this school he was
removed to one kept by a Mr. Croft, at Fulham, but only
stayed there a few months. He left at his own request under
very singular circumstances. He complained to his mother, as


very few boys ever do, '' that his master was too indulgent, and
the discipline was not sufficiently strict." From Fulham he
went to a school at Bristol, kept by Mr. Catcott, author of a
work on the Deluge, and an excellent scholar, though a severe
master. From thence he removed to a school kept by Dr. Pit-
man at Alarkgate Street, in Hertfordshire, and there finished
his early education.

In June 1742, at the age of seventeen, Henry Venn entered
St. John's College, Cambridge. He only continued a member
of that house three months, as he removed to Jesus College in
September, on obtaining a scholarship there, and remained on
the books of Jesus for seven years. In the year 1745, he took
the degree of B.A. In 1747, he was appointed by Dr. Battle,
who had been a ward of his father's, to one of the university
scholarships which he had just founded ; and in June the same
year he was ordained deacon by Bishop Gibson, without a title,'
from the respect which the bishop bore to his father's memory.
In 1749, he became jNI.A., and was elected Fellow of Queen's
College. This was the last of the many steps and changes in
his educational career. At this date his ministerial life begins;
and although he held his fellowship until his marriage, in 1757,
from this time he had little more close connection with Cam-

Henry Venn's ministerial life began in 1749, when he was
twenty-five years old.* He first served the curacy of Barton,
near Cambridge, and afterwards officiated for various friends,
at Wadenhoe in Northamptonshire, and Little Hedingham in
Essex, and other places of which I cannot find out the names.
In 1750 he ceased to reside at Cambridge, and became curate
of Mr. Langley, rector of St. Matthew, Friday Street, London,
and West Horsley, near Guildford. Venn's duty was to serve

* By a comparison of dates it would appear that Henry Venn became a Fellow, was or-
dained, and took a curacy near Cambridge in the very same year that the famous John
Berridge became curate of Stapleford, near Cambridge. But I can find no proof that
they were friends at this time.


the church in London during part of die summer, and to reside
the remainder of the year at Horsley. In this position he re-
mained continuously for four years, until he became curate of
Clapham in 1754.

I can find no evidence that Venn had any distinct theologi-
cal views for some little time after he was ordained. In fact,
he appears, like too many, to have taken on him the holy office
of a minister without any adequate conception of its duties and
responsibilities. It is clear that he was moral and conscien-
tious, and had a high idea of the deportment suited to the
clerical life. But it is equally clear that he knew nothing
Avhatever of evangelical religion ; and in aftertime he regarded
his college days as " days of vanity and ignorance."

One thing, however, is very plain in Venn's early history — he
was scrupulously honest and conscientious in acting up faith-
fully to anything which he was convinced was right. Indeed,
he used often to say " that he owed the salvation of his soul to
the resolute self-denial which he exercised, in following the
dictates of conscience in a point which seemed itself of only
small importance."

" The case," says his son, " was this : He was extremely fond
of cricket, and was reckoned one of the best players in the
university. In the week before he was ordained he played in a
match between Surrey and All England, which excited great
interest, and was attended by a very numerous body of specta-
tors. When the game terminated in favour of the side on which
he was playing, he threw down his bat, saying, ' Whoever wants
a bat which has done me good service ftiay take that, as I have
no further occasion for it' His friends mquiring the reason, he
replied, ' Because I am to be ordained on Sunday ; and I will
never have it said of me, "Well struck, parson."' To this
resolution, notwithstanding the remonstrances of friends, he
strictly adhered ; and, though his health suffered by a sudden
transition from a course of most violent exercise to a life of


comparative inactivity, he never could be persuaded to play any
more. From being faithful in a little, more grace was imparted
to him."

" His first considerable religious impressions," adds his son,
" arose from an expression in the form of prayer, which he had
been accustomed to use daily, but, like most persons, without
paying much attention to it — ' That I may live to the glory of
thy name/ The thought powerfully struck his mind, 'What is
it to live to the glory of God % Do I live as I pray ? What
course of life ought I to pursue to glorify God f After much
reflection, he came to the conclusion that to live to God's glory
required that he should live a life of piety and religion in a
degree in which he had not yet lived ; and that he ought to be
more strict in prayer, more diligent in reading the Scriptures and
pious books, and more generally holy in his conduct. And,
seeing the reasonableness of such a course of life, he showed his
honesty and uprightness by immediately and steadily pursuing
it. He set apart stated seasons for meditation and prayer, and
kept a strict account of the manner in which he spent his time
and regulated his conduct. I have heard him say that, at this
period, he used to walk almost every evening in the cloisters of
Trinity College while the great .bell of St. Mary's was tolling at
nine o'clock, and amidst the solemn tones of the bells, and in
the stillness and darkness of the night, he would indulge in '
impressive reflections on death and judgment, heaven and

" In this frame of mind," his son continues, " Law's ' Serious
Call to a Devout and Holy Life ' was particularly useful to him.
He read it repeatedly, with peculiar interest, and immediately
began, with great sincerity, to frame his life according to the
Christian model there delineated. He kept a diary of the state

* The close resemblance between Henry Venn's experience at Cambridge, and George
Whitelield's at Oxford, cannot fail to strike any one who reads attentively the biographies
of the two men.


of his mind — a practice from which he derived great benefit,
though not in the way he expected, for it chiefly made him
better acquainted with his own deficiencies. He also allotted
the hours of tlie day, as far as was consistent with the duties of
his station, to particular acts of meditation and devotion. He
kept frequent fasts ; and was accustomed often to take solitary
walks, in which his soul was engaged in prayer and communion
with God. I have heard him mention, that in these retired walks
in the meadow behind Jesus College he had such a view of the
goodness, mercy, and glory of God, as elevated his soul above
the world, and made him aspire toward God as his supreme

Such was the religious condition of Henry Venn's mind when
lie first began the active work of the Christian ministry.
Earnest, zealous, moral, conscientious, and scrupulously deter-
mined to do his duty, he put his hand to the plough and went
forward. At Barton he distributed religious tracts and con-
versed with the poor in such an affectionate manner, that some
remembered him after an interval of thirty years. At Horsley
he instructed many of the poor on the week-days at his own
home. His family prayers were attended by thirty or forty poor
neighbours, and the number of communicants increased from
twelve to sixty. In fact, the neighbouring clergy began to regard
him as an enthusiast and a Methodist. But his zeal, unhappily,
was so far entirely without knowledge. He knew nothing what-
'ever of the real gospel of Christ, and, of course, could tell his
hearers nothing about it. The consequence was, that for nearly
four years of his ministerial life his labours were in vain.

Henry Venn's four years at Horsley, however, were by no
means thrown away. If he did little good to others, he cer-
tainly learned lessons there of lasting benefit to his soul. The
solitude and seclusion of his position gave him abundant time
for reading, meditation, and prayer ; and in the honest use of
such means as he had, God was graciously pleased to show him


more light, and to lead him onward towards the full knowledge
of the gospel. Little by little he began to find out that " Law's"
divinity was very defective, and that his favourite author did not
give sufficient honour to Christ. Little by little he began to
discover that he was, in reality, trying to " work out a righteous-
ness" of his own, while, in truth, he had nothing to boast of;
and that, with all his straining after perfection, he was nothing
better than a poor weak sinner. Little by little he began to
see that true Christianity was a scheme providing for man's
wants as a ruined, fallen, and corrupt creature ; and that the
root of all vital religion is faith in the blood and righteousness
and mediation and mercy of a Divine Saviour— Christ the
Lord. The scales began to fall from his eyes. The tone of
his preaching began sensibly to alter. And though, when he
left Horsley for Clapham he had not even yet attained full
light, it is perfectly evident that he w^nt out of the parish in a
totally different state of mind from that Avith which he entered.
It was true that even now he "saw men as trees, walking;"
but it is no less true that he could have said, " I was blind, and
now I see."

I pity the man who can read the story of Henry Venn's reli-
gious experience without deep interest. The steps by which
God leacis his children on from one degree of light to another
are all full of instruction. Seldom does He seem to bring his
people into the full enjoyment of spiritual knowledge all at
once. We must not, therefore, " despise the day of small
things." We should rather respect those who fight their way
out of darkness and grope after truth. What has been won by
hard fighting is often that which wears the longest. Theological
principles taken up second-hand have often no root, and en-
dure but for a little season. Striking and curious is the simi-
larity in the experience of Whitefield, Berridge, and Venn.
They all had to fight hard for spiritual light ; and having found
it, they held it fast, and never let it go.


The five years during which Henry Venn was curate of Clap-
ham completely settled his theological creed, and formed a
turning-point in his religious history. His work there was very
heavy, as he held two lectureships in London, beside his curacy.
His regular duty on Sunday consisted of a full service at Clap-
ham in the morning ; a sermon in the afternoon at St Alban's,
Wood Street ; and another in the evening at Swithin's, London
Stone. On Tuesday morning, he preached again at Swithin's ;
on Wednesday morning, at seven o'clock, at his father's old
church, St. Antholin's ; and on Thursday evening at Clapham.
To preach six sermons every week was undoubtedly a heavy
demand on a curate of only four years' standing ! Yet it is not
unlikely that the very necessity for exertion which his position
entailed on hini was the means of calling forth latent power.
Men never know how much they can do, until they are put
under the screw, and obliged to exert themselves. At any rate
Venn was compelled to learn how to preach from notes, from
sheer inability to write six sermons a-week, and thus attained a
facility in extemporaneous speaking which he afterwards found
most useful.

In a spiritual point of view, Venn's character was greatly
influenced, during his five years' residence at Clapham, by three
circumstances. The first of these was a severe illness of eight
months' duration, which laid him aside from work in 1756, and
gave him time for reflection and self-examination. The second
was his marriage, in 1757, to the daughter of Dr. Bishop,
minister of the Tower Church, Ipswich ; a lady who, from her
piety and good sense, seems to have been admirably qualified
to be a clergyman's wife. The third, and probably the most
important circumstance of his position, was the friendship that
he formed with several eminent Christians, who were of great
use to his soul. At Horsley he seems to have had no help
from any one, and whatever he learned there he did not learn
from man. At Clapham, on the contrary, he at once became


intimate with the well-known layman John Thornton and Dr.
Haweis, and afterwards with George Whitefield and Lady Hunt-

To Lady Huntingdon, Henry Venn seems to have been under
peculiar obligations for advice and counsel. The following
extract from a letter which she addressed to him about the
defects in his first preaching at Clapham, is an interesting
example of her faithfulness, and throws much light on the
precise state of her correspondent's mind at this period. She
says : " O my friend, we can make no atonement to a violated
law ; we have no inward holiness of our own ; the Lord Jesus
Christ is ' the Lord our righteousness." Cling not to such
beggarly elements, such filthy rags, mere cobwebs of Pharisaical
pride ; but look to him who hath wrought out a perfect right-
eousness for his people. You find it a hard task to come
naked and miserable to Christ ; to come divested of every
recommendation but that of abject wretchedness and misery,
an(i receive from the outstretched hand of our Immanuel the
riches of redeeming grace. But if you come at all you must
com.e thus ; and, like the dying thief, the cry of your heart must
be, ' Lord, remember me.' There must be no conditions ;
Christ and Christ alone must be the only mediator between
God and sinful men ; no miserable performance can be placed
between the sinner and the Saviour. And now, my dear friend,
no longer let false doctrine disgrace your pulpit. Preach Christ
crucified as the only foundation of the sinner's hope. Preach
him as the Author and Finisher as well as the sole Object of
faith, that faith which is the gift of God. Exhort Christless sin-
ners to fly to the City of Refuge ; to look to Him who is
exalted as Prince and Saviour, to give repentance and the re-
mission of sins. Go on, then, and may your bow abide in
strength. Be bold, be firm, be decided. Let Christ be the
Alpha and Omega of all you advance in your addresses to your
fellow-men. Leave the consequences to your Divine Master^


May his gracious benediction rest upon your labours ! and may
you be blessed to the conversion of very many, who shall be
your joy and crown of rejoicing in the great day when the Lord
shall appear." — The date of this faithful letter is not given. I
am inclined, however, to conjecture that it was written between
the time of Venn's illness in 1756 and his marriage in 1757.
At any rate, it is a remarkable fact, recorded by his son, that
Mie used to observe that after 1756 he was no longer able
to preach the sermons which he had previously composed.
Lady Huntingdon's faithful letter was probably not written in

Whatever defects there may have been in Venn's doctrinal
views during the first few years of his Clapham ministry, they ap-
pear to have completely vanished after his restoration to health
in 1757. He was soon recognized as a worthy fellow-labourer
with that noble little company of evangelists which, under the
leading of Whitefield and Wesley, was beginning to shake the
land ; and from his gifts as a preacher took no mean position
among them. Whitefield seems especially to have delighted
in him. In a letter written some time in 1757, he says to Lady
Huntingdon : " The worthy Venn is valiant for the truth, a son
of thunder. He labours abundantly, and his ministry has been
owned of the Lord to the conversion of sinners. Thanks be to
God for such an instrument to strengthen our hands ! I know
the intelligence will rejoice your ladyship. Your exertions in
bringing him to a clearer knowledge of the everlasting gospel
have indeed been blessed. He owes your ladyship much,
under God, and I believe his whole soul is gratitude to the
Divine Author of mercies, and to you the honoured instrument
in leading him to the fountain of truth." Testimony like this
is unexceptionable. George Whitefield was one of the last
men on earth to be satisfied with any preaching which was not
the full gospel. We cannot for a moment doubt that during
the last two years of Venn's curacy at Clapham, he at length


walked in the full light ot Christ's truth, and " declared all the
counsel of God."

In the year 1759, Henry Venn was appointed vicar of Hud-;
dersfield, in Yorkshire, by Sir John Ramsden, at the solicitation
of Lord Dartmouth. He accepted the appointment from the
purest of all motives, a desire to do good to souls. The town
itself presented no great attractions. In point of income he
was positively a loser by the move from Clapham. But he felt
deeply that the offer opened "a great and effectual door" 01
usefulness, and he did not dare to turn away from it. He
seems also to have had a strong impression that he had not
been successful at Clapham, and that this was an indication
that he ought not to refuse a change. His wife was averse to
his moving; and her opinion no doubt placed him in much
perplexity. But the result showed beyond doubt that he de-
cided rightly. In leaving Clapham for Yorkshire, he was in
God's way.

Henry Venn became vicar of Huddersfield at the age of,
thirty-five, and continued there only twelve years. He w^ent
there a poor man, without rank or influence, and with nothing
but God's truth on his side. He found the place a huge, dark,
ignorant, immoral, irreligious, manufacturing town. He left it
shaken to the centre by the lever of the gospel, and leavened
with the influence of many faithful servants of Jesus Christ,
whom he had been the means of turning from darkness to light.
Few modern ministers appear to have had so powerful an in-
fluence on a town population as Henry Venn had on Hudders-
field. The nearest approach to it seems to have been the work
of Robert M'Cheyne at Dundee.

The story of Henry Venn's life from the time of his settle-
ment at Huddersfield is a subject which I must reserve for
another chapter. I do not feel that I could possibly do justice
to it now. How he lived, and worked, and preached, and
prospered in his great manufacturing parish — how he turned


the world upside down throughout the district around, and be-
came a centre of light and life to hundreds — how his health
finally gave way under the abundance of his labours, and
obliged him to leave Huddersfield — how he spent the last twenty
years of his life in the comparative retirement of a little rural
parish in Huntingdonshire, — all these are matters which I can-
not enter into now. I hope to tell my readers something about
them in another chapter.


Mode of Working at Huddersfield— Effect of his Ministry' — Fruits found in 1824— Extra-
parochial Labours— Friendly relation with Whitefield— Health Fails— Wife Dies-
Leaves Huddersfield for Yelling, 1771— Description of Yelling— Second Marriage-
Description of Life at Yelling — Dies, 1797.

Henry Venn was Vicar of Huddersfield from 1759 to 1771.
These twelve years, we need not doubt, were the period of his
greatest public usefulness. In the full vigour of his bodily and
mental faculties, with his mind thoroughly made up about all
the leading doctrines of the gospel, with his heart thoroughly
set on his Master's business, he entered his new sphere with
peculiar power and acceptance, and soon " made full proof of
his ministry." His time there was certainly short, if measured
by years alone, in consequence of his failing health ; but it
measured by action and usefulness, like Edward the Sixth's
reign, it was very long indeed.

For more than one reason a peculiar interest attaches to
Venn's ministry at Huddersfield. For one thing, he was the
only one of the seven spiritual heroes of the last century who
ever became incumbent of a large town population. Wesley
and Whitefield were itinerant evangelists, whose parish was the
world. Romaine was the rector of a little confined district in
the City. Rowlands lived and died among Welsh mountains,
Grimshaw on Yorkshire moors, and Berridge on Bedfordshire


plains. Venn was the only man among the seven who could
number his lawful parishioners by thousands. — For another
thing, he was the first evangelical clergyman in the Church of
England who proved that the manufacturing masses of our
fellow-countrymen can be thoroughly reached by the gospel.
He proved to a demonstration that the working-classes in our
great northern towns are to be got at just like other men, if
they are approached in the proper way. He proved that the
preaching of the cross suits the wants of all Adam's children,
and that it can " turn the world upside down " among looms
and coal-mines, just as thoroughly as it can in watering-places,

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 22 of 36)