J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

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

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country parishes, or metropolitan chapels-of-ease. AVe all know
this now. Nobody would dream of denying it. But we must
remember it was not so well known a hundred years ago. Let
honour be given where honour is due. The first clergyman in
England who fairly proved the power of evangelical aggression
on a manufacturing parish, was Henry Venn.

A clergyman's work in a large town district in the last cen-
tury was very unlike what it is in these times. A vast quantity
of religious machinery, with which every one is familiar now, in
those days did not exist. City missions, Scripture readers'
societies, Pastoral aid societies, Bible women, mothers' meet-
ings, were utterly unknown. Even schools for the children of
the poor were few, and comparatively defective, and utterly out
of proportion to the wants of the population. In short, the
evangehcal minister of a great town a hundred years ago was
almost entirely shut up to the use of one weapon. The good
old apostohcal plan of incessant preaching, both " publicly and
from house to house," was nearly the only machine that he
could use. He was forced to be pre-eminently a man of one
thing, and a soldier with one weapon, a perpetual preacher ot
God's Word. Whether in the long run the minister of last cen-
tury did not do more good with his one weapon than many do
in modern times with an immense train of parochial machinery,


is a question which admits of much doubt. My own private
opinion is, that we have too much lost sight of apostolical sim-
plicity in our ministerial work. We want more men of " one
thing" and "one book," men who make everything secondary
to preaching the Word. It is hard to have many irons in the
fire at once, and to keep them all hot. It is quite possible to
maRe an idol of parochial machinery, and for the sake of it to
slight the pulpit.

These things ought to be carefully remembered in forming an
estimate of Venn's ministry at Huddersfield. Let us never
forget that he went to his great Yorkshire parish, like David
against Goliath, with nothing but his sling and stones, and an
unwavering faith in the power of God. He went there with no
sympathizing London committee to correspond with him, en-
courage him, and assist him with funds. He went there with
no long-tried plans and approved modes of evangelical aggres-
sion in his pocket. He went there with nothing but his Bible,
and his Master at his side. Bearing these things in mind, I
think the following extracts from his admirable biography ought
to possess a peculiar interest in our eyes.

His son, John Venn, says : " As soon as he began to preach
at Huddersfield, the church became crowded to such an extent
that many were not able to procure admission. Numbers be-
came deeply impressed with concern about their immortal souls;
persons flocked from the distant hamlets, inquiring what they
must do to be saved. He found them in general utterly igno-
rant of their state by nature, and of the redemption that is in
Christ Jesus. His bowels yearned over his flock, and he was
never satisfied with his labours among them, though they were
continued to a degree ruinous to his health. On the Sunday
he would often address the congregation from the desk, briefly
explaining the psalms and the lessons. He w^ould frequently
begin the service with a solemn and most impressive address,
exhorting the worshippers to consider themselves as in the


presence of the great God of heaven, whose eye was in a par-
ticular manner upon them, while they drew nigh to him in his
own house. His whole soul was engaged in preaching ; and as
at this time he only used short notes in the pulpit, ample room
was left to indulge the feelings of compassion, tenderness, and
love, with which his heart overflowed towards his people. In
the week he statedly visited the different hamlets in his exten-
sive parish ; and collecting some of the inhabitants at a private
house, he addressed them with a kindness and earnestness
which moved every heart." A letter written in 1762 to Lady
Huntingdon, informs us that in that year, beside his stated work
on the Lord's day, the Vicar of Huddersfield generally preached
eight or ten sermons in the week in distant parts of the parish,
when many came to hear who would not come to church. It
also mentions that his outdoor preaching was found especially

His grandson, Henry Venn, has gathered some additional
facts about his Huddersfield ministry, which are well worth
recording. He tells us that " Mr. Venn made a great point of
the due observance of the Sabbath, both in the town and parish.
He induced several of the most respectable and influential in-
habitants to perambulate the town, and by persuasion, rather
than by legal intimidation, to repress the open violation of the
day. By such means a great and evident reformation was ac-

" He endeavoured to preserve the utmost reverence and de-
votion in public worship, constantly pressing this matter upon
his people. He read the service with peculiar solemnity and
effect. The Te Detcm, especially, was recited with a triumphant
air and tone, which often produced a perceptible sensation
throughout the whole congregation. He succeeded in inducing
the people to join in the responses and singing. Twice in the
course of his ministry at Huddersfield he preached a course of
sermons in explanation of the Liturgy. On one occasion, as


he went up to church, he found a considerable number of per-
sons in the churchyard, waiting for the commencement of the
service. He stopped to address them, saying, he hoped they
were preparing their hearts for the service of God, and that he
had himself much to do to preserve his heart in a right frame.
He concluded by waving his hand for them to go into the
church before him, and waited till they had all entered."

" He took great pains in catechizing the younger members
of his congregation, chiefly those who were above fourteen years
of age. The number was often very considerable ; and he wrote
out for their use a very copious Explanation of the Church
Catechism, in the way of questions and answers."*

The immediate effects produced by Henry Venn's preaching
appear to have been singularly deep, powerful, and permanent.
Both his son and grandson have supplied some striking illus-
trations of them.

His son says : " A club, chiefly composed of Socinians, in a
neighbouring market-town, having heard much censure and
ridicule bestowed upon the preaching of Henry Venn, sent two
of their ablest members to hear this strange preacher, detect his
absurdities, and furnish matter of merriment for the next meet-
ing. They accordingly went to Huddersfield Church ; but
were greatly struck, on entering, by seeing the multitude that
was assembled together, and by observing the devotion of their
behaviour, and their anxiety to attend the worship of God.
When Mr. Venn ascended the reading-desk, he addressed his
flock, as usual, with a solemnity and dignity which showed him
to be deeply interested in the work in which he was engaged.
The subsequent" earnestness of his preaching, and the solemn
appeals he made to conscience, deeply impressed the visitors,

■* I cannot make out whether this Explanation of the Church Catechism was ever pub-
lished. It certainly does not appear in a complete manuscript catalogue of Mr. Venn's
writings which, by the kindness of one of his descendants, is now lying before me. If it
was ever published, it seems a pity that it has fallen out of sight, and is not better known.
Something, perhaps, would be known of it in the town of Huddersfield at this day. Can
any reader throw light on the point?


SO that one of them observed, as they left the church, * Surely
God is in this place ! There is no matter for laughter here !'
This gentleman immediately called on Mr. Venn, told him who
he was, and the purpose for which he had come, and earnestly
begged his forgiveness and his prayers. He requested Mr.
Venn to visit him without delay, and left the Socinian congre
gation j and from that time to the hour of his death became
one of Mr. Venn's most faithful and affectionate friends."*

" Another gentleman, highly respectable for his character,
talents, and piety, the late William Hey, Esq., of Leeds, used
frequently to go to Huddersfield to hear Mr. Venn preach, and
he assured me that once returning home with an intimate friend,
they neither of them opened their lips to each other till they
came within a mile of Leeds, a distance of fifteen miles, so
deeply were they impressed by the truths which they had heard,
and the manner in which they had been delivered."

Henry Venn's grandson visited Huddersfield in 1824, fifty-
three years after his honoured grandfather had left the place.
On inquiry he found that even after the lapse of half a century,
the fruits of his wonderful ministry were yet remaining on earth.
The memorials he gathered together from these survivors of
the old congregation are so deeply interesting that I am sure
my readers will be glad to hear them, though in a somewhat
abridged form.

Mr. Venn's grandson says : " Through the kind assistance of
Benjamin Hudson, Esq., of Huddersfield, I saw all the old
people then living in the town and neighbourhood who had
received their first religious impressions under my grandfather's
ministry, and still maintained a religious character. They were
all in the middle or lower ranks of fife ; none of a superior class
had survived. What I am about to .record must, therefore, be
received as the genuine and unstudied testimony of persons of
plain, unpolished sense.

* This gentleman was James Kershaw, Esq., of Halifax.
(195) 1 8


^' ]\Ir. William Brook of Longwood gave me the following
account of the first sermon he heard at Hiiddersfield Church :
' I was first led to go by listening with an uncle of mine, named
W. Mellor, at the door of a prayer-meeting : we thought there
must be something uncommon to make people so earnest. My
uncle was about nineteen, and I was about sixteen ; and we
went together to the church one Thursday evening. There was
a great crowd within the church, all silent, and many weeping.
The text was, " Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found
wanting." W. Mellor was deeply attentive ; and when we came
out of church we did not say a word to each other till we got
some way into the fields. Then W. Mellor stopped, leaned his
back against a wall, and burst into tears, saying, " I can't stand
this." His conviction of sin was from that time most powerful,
and he became quite a changed character. I was not so much
affected at that time; but I could not after that sermon be easy
in sin. I began to pray regularly ; and so, by degrees, I was
brought to know myself, and to seek salvation in earnest. The
people used to go from Longwood in droves, to Huddersfield
Church, three miles off. Some of them came out of church to-
gether, whose ways home were in this direction ; and they used
to stop at the Firs' End, about a mile off, and talk over, for
some time, what they had heard, before they separated to go to
their homes. That place has been to me like a little heaven
below 1

" ' I never heard a minister like him. He was most powerful
, in unfolding the terrors of the law. When doing so, he had a
stern look that would make you tremble. Then he would turn
.off to the offers of grace, and begin to smile, and go on entreat-
ing till his eyes filled with tears.'

" The next person I saw was George Crow, aged eighty-two,
of Lockwood, a hamlet about a mile from the town. When I
asked him whether he ever thought of old times, he answered,
' Ah, yes ! and shall do to the last. I thought when Mr. Venn


went I shoukl be like Rachel for the rest of my days, weeping
and refusing to be comforted. I was abidingly impressed the
first time I heard him, at an early period of his ministry. He
was such a preacher as I never lieard before or since; he struck
upon the passions like no other man. Nobody could help
being affected : the most wicked and ill-conditioned men went
to hear him, and fell like slaked lime in a moment, even though
they were not converted. I could have heard him preach all
the night through.'

" I also visited Ellen Roebuck, eighty-five, living at Almond-
bury. She was very deaf and infirm, but when she understood
the object of my visit she talked with great energy. 'I well-
remember his first coming to Huddersfield, and the first sermon
he preached. It was on that text, "My heart's desire and
prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved :" and it was
as true of himself as it was of St. Paul. He took every method
for instructing the people ; he left nothing unturned. Always
at work ! it was a wonder he had not done for himself sooner.
The lads he catechized used to tell him that people said he was
teaching a new doctrine, and leading us into error; but he
always replied, " Never mind them ; do not answer them; read
your Bibles, and press forward, dear lads ; press forward, and
you cannot miss heaven." '

" I saw also John Starkey of Cawcliff, aged eighty. As I
conversed with him, he seemed gradually to wake up, till his
countenance glistened with joy. He said, ' I esteemed Mr.
Venn too much for a man. I almost forgot that he was a
creature and an instrument. His going away went nearer to
my heart than anything. He was a wonderful preacher. When
he got warm with his subject, he looked as if he would jump
out of his pulpit. He made many weep. I have often wept
at his sermons. I could have stood to hear him till morning.
When he came up to the church, he used to go round the
churchyard and drive us all in before him.' "


I make no excuse for making the above extracts. They
speak for themselves. I pity the man who can read them
without interest. If after fifty years such living witnesses to
the power of Henry Venn's ministry could be found, what may
we suppose must have been the effect of his preaching in his
day and generation % If the direct good he did was so marked
and unmistakable, what a vast amount of indirect good must
have been done by his presence in the district where God
placed him %

We must not for a moment suppose that Henry Venn's
labours in Christ's cause were entirely confined to Huddersfield
during the time that he was vicar of that parish. So far from
this being the case, there is abundant evidence that he occa-
sionally did the work of an evangelist in many parts of England
very distant from Yorkshire. We possess no journal of his
movements, but a close examination of that interesting but
oddly-arranged book, " Lady Huntingdon's Life and Times,"
shows plainly that the Vicar of Huddersfield preached every
year in many pulpits besides his own. It could hardly be
otherwise. He was on terms of intimate friendship with all the
leading evangelists of his day, such as W^esley, Whitefield, Grim-
shaw, and Fletcher. These apostolic men not unfrequently
found their way to Huddersfield vicarage, and preached for him
in his pulpit. We cannot wonder that, so long as health per-
mitted, Venn helped them in return. In fact, he seems fre-
quently to have made excursions through various parts of
England, and to have laboured in every way to preach the
gospel, as an itinerant, so far as parochial engagements would
allow him. We hear of him constantly in Lady Huntingdon's
chapel at Oathall near Brighton, and at Bath. At one time he
is at Bretby near Burton-on-Trent. At another he is at
Fletcher's famous establishment at Trevecca in South Wales.
Occasionally we read of his preaching at Bristol, Chelten-
ham, Gloucester, Worcester, and London. The half of his

FRIENDL V RELA 770 N IV7777 IV777TEF7ELD. 2^1 7

labours, probably, outside his own parish, is entirely un-

The truth must be spoken on this point. It is vain to
attempt to draw any broad line of distinction between Henry
Venn and his great contemporaries in the revival of the last
century. No doubt he had a large town parish, and of course
found it more difficult than others to be long absent from home.
But in all spiritual points, in matters of doctrine and practice,
and in his judgment of what the times required, he was entirely
one with Whitefield and Gjrimshaw. He delighted in their
labours. He stood by their side and helped them, whenever
he had an opportunity. When Grimshaw died, it was Henry
Venn who preached his funeral sermon in Luddenden Church.
When Whitefield died, the man who preached the noblest
funeral sermon in Lady Huntingdon's chapel at Bath was the
same Henry Venn. Conduct like this, I am afraid, will not
recommend my hero to some Churchmen. They will think he
would have done better had he confined his labours to Hud-
dersfield, and abstained from apparent irregularities. I content
myself with saying that I cannot agree with them. I think that
in keeping up intimate relations with the itinerant evangelists of
last century, Venn did what was best and wisest in the days in
which he lived. I think his unhesitating attachment to White-
field to the very last a singularly noble trait in his character. It
ought never to be forgotten that the last sermon preached by
Whitefield in Yorkshire, before he sailed for America to die,
was delivered in the pulpit of Huddersfield Church.

An extract from a letter written by Venn to Lady Hunting-
don, about the year 1768, will give a very clear idea of the
unhesitatinsf course of action which the Vicar of Huddersfield


adopted, and the boldness with which he supported Whitefield.
It was written on the occasion of Whitefield preaching on a
tombstone in the churchyard of Cheltenham Parish Church,
after permission had been refused to preach in the church.


Venn says: "To give your ladyship any just description of
what our eyes have witnessed and our hearts have felt within
the last few days at Cheltenham, exceeds my feeble powers.
My inmost soul is penetrated with an overwhelming sense of
the power and presence of Jehovah, who has visited us with an
effusion of his Spirit in a very eminent manner. There was a
visible appearance of much soul-concern among the crowd that
filled every part of the burial-ground. Many were overcome
with fainting; others sobbed deeply; some wept silently ; and
a solemn concern appeared on the countenance of almost the
whole assembly. But when he pressed the injunction of the
text (Isa. Iv. i) on the unconverted and ungodly, his words
seemed to act like a sword, and many burst out into piercing
cries. At this juncture Mr. Whitefield made an awful pause 01
a few seconds, and wept himself. During this interval Mr.
Madan and myself stood up and requested the people, as much
as possible, to restrain themselves from making a noise. Oh,
with what eloquence, what energy, what melting tenderness, did
Mr. Whitefield beseech sinners to be reconciled to God, to
come to Him for life everlasting, and to rest their weary souls
on Christ the Saviour ! When the sermon was ended th£
people seemed chained to the ground. Mr. Madan, Mr.
Talbot, and myself, found ample employment in trying to com-
fort those who seemed broken down under a sense of guilt.
We separated in different directions among the crowd, and each
was quickly surrounded by an attentive audience still eager to
hear all the words of this life. Of such a season it may well be
said, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of
salvation I have succoured thee ; behold ! now is the accepted
time — behold ! now is the day of salvation !"

In the year 1771, Henry Venn's useful Yorkshire ministry
came to an end. Most reluctantly he left Huddersfield, and
became the rector of Yelling, a small country living in Hunting-
donshire. Tliis happened when he was only forty-seven years


old. There were many who blamed him for the step, and
thought that he ought to have died at his post in Yorkshire.
But really, when the circumstances of the case are fairly con-
sidered, it seems impossible to say that he was wrong. His
health during the latter period of his residence at Huddersfield
failed so completely, that his public usefulness was almost at an
end. He had a cough and spitting of blood, beside other,
symptoms of approaching consumption. He was only able to
preach once a fortnight ; and even then the exertion rendered
him incapable of rising from his couch for several days. In
short, it is very evident that if he had continued at Hudders-
field much longer, he would have died. Just at this crisis, his
friend the Lord Chief Baron Smythe, who was one of the Com-
missioners of the Great Seal, offered him the Chancellor's living
of Yelling. The offer appears to me to have been a providential
opening, and I think Venn was quite right to accept it.

It is easy to find fault with Venn for " overworking" himself
at Huddersfield, and to hold him up as a beacon and warning
to young ministers who are full of zeal and abundant in labours.
I venture to doubt, however, whether it is quite just and fair.
It was not " overworking " alone that made his health break
down. There were mental causes as well as physical. Nothing
I suspect, had so much to do with his removal from Hudders-
field as the death of his wife in 1767, leaving him a widower
with five young children. Up to this time, his position at
Huddersfield had been one of many trials, partly from the bitter
opposition of many who hated evangelical religion, partly from
the straitened circumstances to which his very scanty income
often reduced him. But so long as his wife lived, none of these
things seemed to have moved him. Mrs. Venn was a woman
of rare prudence, calmness, good sense, affection, and sympathy.
She was, in fact, her husband's right hand. When she died,
Such a load of care and anxiety was accumulated on his head,
that his health gradually gave way. People who have not been



placed in similar circumstances, may probably not understand
all this. Those who have had this cross to carry, can testify
that there is no position in this world so trying to body and
soul as that of the minister who is left a widower, with a young
family and a large congregation. There are anxieties in such
cases which no one knows but he who has gone through them;
anxieties which can crush the strongest spirit, and wear out the
strongest constitution. This, I strongly suspect, was one chief
secret of Venn's removal from Huddersfield. He left it, no
doubt, because he felt himself too ill to do any more work
there. But the true cause probably of his breaking down was
the load of care entailed on him by the death of his wife. It
was just one of those secret blows from which a man's bodily
health never recovers.

Venn's own private feelings, on leaving Huddersfield, are best
described in a letter which he wrote at the time to Lady
Huntingdon : — " No human being," he says, " can tell how
keenly I feel this separation from a* people I have dearly loved.
But the shattered state of my health, occasioned by my un-
pardonable length and loudness in speaking, has reduced me to
a state which incapacitates me for the charge of so large a
parish. Providence has put it into the heart of the Lord Com-
missioner to offer this small living to me. Pray for me, my
most faithful friend, that God's blessing may go with me, and
render my feeble attempts to speak of his love and mercy effi-
cacious to the conversion of souls. At YeUing, as at Hudders-
field, I shall still be your ladyship's willing servant in the service
of the gospel ; and when I can be of any use in furthering your
plans for the salvation of souls and the glory of Christ, I am
your obedient servant at command."

It is recorded that the last two or three months of Venn's
residence at Huddersfield were peculiarly affecting. At an
early hour the church was crowded when he preached, so that
vast numbers were compelled to go away. Many came from


a great distance to take leave of him, and tell him how much
they owed him for benefits received under his ministry.
Mothers held up their children, saying, " There is the man who
has been our faithful minister and our best friend !" The
whole parish was deeply moved; and when he preached his
farewell seniion (Col. iii. 2) he could hardly speak for deep

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 23 of 36)