J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

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

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The parish of Yelling, to which Henry Venn retired on
leaving Huddersfield, is a little agricultural district on the
south-east border of Huntingdonshire, about seven miles south ■
of Huntingdon, five east of St. Neots, and twelve miles west of
Cambridge. At this present day it has a population of about
400 souls. It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast
than the great evangelist of Yorkshire found between his new
cure and his old. Vast indeed is the transition from the warm-
hearted and intelligent worshippers of a northern manufacturing
district to the dull, and cold, and impassive inhabitants of a
purely agricultural parish in the south of England ! Venn felt it
deeply. He says himself in a letter to Stillingfleet, " Your letter
found me under great searchings of heart, upon the point of
beginning my ministry in this place. What a change from
thousands to a company of one hundred! from a people
generally enlightened, and many converted, to one yet sitting
in darkness, and ignorant of the first principles of the gospel !
from a house resounding with the voice of thanksgiving, like
the noise of many waters, to one where the solitary singers
please themselves with empty sounds, or gratify their vanity by
the imagination of their own excellence! from a Bethel to
myself, and many more, to a nominal worship of the God of
Christians ! A change painful indeed, yet unavoidable. With
a heavy heart, therefore, did I begin yesterday to address my
new hearers."

Trying, however, as the change was to Henry Venn's mind,
there can be Uttle doubt that it was exceedingly beneficial to


his body. The comparative rest and entire change of his new
position in all probability saved his life. Little by little his
constitution rallied and recovered his tone, until he was able to
get through the work of his small parish with comparative ease.
In short, after going away from Huddersfield, apparently to
die, he lived on no less than twenty-six years, to the great joy
of his friends, the great advantage of his family, and the great
benefit of the Church of Christ. How little man knows what
is best for his fellow-creatures ! If the Vicar of Huddersfield
had remained at his post, and died in harness, his children
would have lost the best training that children perhaps ever
had, and the world would have lost a quantity of most valuable

Venn's life at Yelling was singularly quiet and uneventful.
His second marriage, soon after his settlement there, appears
to have added much to his happiness. The lady whom he
married was the widow of Mr. Smith of Kensington, and
daughter of the Rev. James Ascough, Vicar of Highworth,
Wilts. In her he had the comfort of finding a thorough help,
and a most wise and affectionate stepmother to his children.
She lived with him twenty-one years, and was buried at Yelling.
The domestic arrangements and employments at his country
home were truly simple and edifying. The following sketch,
drawn out by himself for a Huddersfield friend, gives a pleasing
impression of the way in which his life went on : " You tell me
you have no idea how we go on. Take the following sketch.
I am up one of the first in the house, soon after five o'clock ;
and when prayer and reading the blessed Word is done my
daughters make their appearance, and I teach them till Mrs.
Venn comes down at half-past eight. Then family prayer
begins, which is often very sweet, as my own servants are all,
I believe, born of God. The children begin to sing prettily ;
and our praises, I trust, are heard on high. From breakfast
we are all employed till we ride out, in fine weather, two hours



for health, and after dinner employed again. At six, I have
always one hour for solemn meditation and walking in my
house till seven. We have then sometimes twenty, and some-
times more, of the people, to whom I expound God's Word.
Several appear much affected ; and sometimes Jesus stands in
the midst, and says, 'Peace be unto you !' Our devotions end
at eight, we sup and go to rest at ten. On Sundays I am still
enabled to speak six hours, at three different times, to my own
great surprise. Oh the goodness of God in raising me up !"

Quiet, however, as Henry Venn's life was at Yelling, we
must not suppose that he had no opportunities of being useful
to souls. Far from it. He was within reach of good old John
Berridge, and the two fellow-labourers often met and strength-
ened one another's hands. Though he seldom came before the
public as he did in his Huddersfield days, he still found many
ways of doing his Master's business, and proclaiming the gospel
which he loved. The value of his preaching was soon dis-
covered even in his secluded neighbourhood, and he had the
comfort of seeing fruit of his ministry in Huntingdonshire as
real and true, if not so abundant, as in Yorkshire. Occasion-
ally he preached out of his own parish, though not perhaps so
often as his friend and neighbour Berridge could have wished
him. He delighted in the society of the good Vicar of Ever-
ton whenever he could have it. " Just such a Calvinist as Mr. ,
Berridge is," he used to say, " I wish all ministers of Christ to
be." Sometimes he preached in London, and was not ashamed
to appear in the pulpit of Surrey Chapel so late as 1786. His
vicinity to Cambridge gave him many opi:)ortunities of seeing
members of the University who valued evangelical truth, and
men like Simeon, Jowett, Robinson, and Farish, long testified
their deep sense of the advantage they derived from his society
and conversation. Above all, the leisure that he enjoyed at
Yelling enabled him to keep up a very extensive correspondence.
He hved in the good old time when letters were really well thought


over and worth reading, and the letters that left Yelling parsonage
are a proof to this day how wisely and well he used his pen.

On the whole, the evening of Henry Venn's life seems to
have been a singularly happy one. He had the immense
comfort of seeing his four children walking in their father's
footsteps, clinging firmly to the doctrines he had loved and
preached, and steadily serving their father's God. Not least,
he had the joy of seeing his son John an able minister of the
New Testament, and of leaving him rector of Clapham, and a
man honoured by all who knew him. Indeed, it is recorded
that there were few texts so frequently on Henry Venn's lips,
in his latter years, as the saying of Solomon, " A wise son
maketh a glad father."

At the age of sixty-eight, he withdrew almost entirely from
the public work of the ministry. His constitution had never
entirely recovered from the effect of his work at Huddersfield,
and old age came prematurely upon him. Yet even then he
was never idle. In fact, he knew not what it was to have a
tedious or a vacant hour.

His last days are so beautifully described by his grandson,
in his admirable biography, that I shall give the account just
as he has set it down.. He tells us that "he found constant
employment in reading and writing, and in the exercise of
prayer and meditation. He often declared that he never felt
more fervency of devotion than whilst imploring spiritual bless-
ings for his children and friends, and especially for the success
of those who were still engaged in the ministry of the blessed
gospel, from which he was himself laid aside. For himself, his
prayer was, that he might die to the glory of Christ. ' There
are some moments,' he once said, ' when I am afraid of what
is to come in the last agonies ; but I trust in the Lord to hold
me up. I have a great work before me, to suffer and to die
to his glory.' But the spread of his Redeemer's kingdom lay
nearer to his heart than any earthly or personal concerns. Even


when the decay of strength produced occasional torpor, tins
subject would rouse him to a degree of fervency and joy, from
w^hich his bodily frame would afterwards suffer. I have under-
stood that nothing so powerfully excited his spirits as the pre-
sence of young ministers whose hearts he believed to be devoted
to Christ.

" About six months before his death he finally left Yelling,
and settled at Clapham, near his son. His health from this
time rapidly failed, and he was often on the brink of the grave.
A medical friend, named Pearson, who often visited him,
observed that the near prospect of death so elated his mind
with joy, that it actually proved a stimulus to life. On one
occasion Mr. Venn remarked some fatal appearances, and said,
' Surely these are good symptoms.' Mr. Pearson replied, 'Sir,
in this state of joyous excitement you cannot die ! '

"At length, on the 24th of June 1797, his happy spirit was
released, and, at the age of seventy-three, Henry Venn entered
into the long anticipated joy of his Lord."

I have yet more to say about this good man. His preaching,
his literary remains, his correspondence, and the leading features
of his character, all seem to deserve further notice. But I must
reserve all to another chapter.


His Preaching Analysed — His Literary Remains examined — Extraordinary Power as a
Letter-writer— Soundness of Judgment about Doctrine — Wisdom and Good Sense
about Duties — Prudent Management of his Children — Unworldliness and Cheerful-
ness — Catholicity and Kindliness of Spirit — Testimony of Cowper, Simeon, and Sir
James Stephen.

It is no easy matter, in the latter part of the nineteenth century,
to form a correct estimate of Henry Venn's gifts and character.
In fact, the materials for forming it are singularly scanty. He
was peculiarly a man of one thing, absorbed in the direct work


of liis calling, always about his Master's business, and regard-
less of the verdict of posterity. He spent the greater part of
his life in Yorkshire and Bedfordshire, in days when the public
press was in its infancy, and there was but little communica-
tion between county and county. The only trustworthy bio-
graphy of the man is a short account begun by his son, but not
completed, and finished by a grandson who never saw him.
As a specimen of biography, Venn's " Life " is beyond all
praise; but still it is the work of a loving relative, and not of a
bystander. Under these circumstances I feel unusual difficulty
in handling the subject of this chapter. I cannot help thinking
that the famous Vicar of Huddersfield was a man who is scarcely
understood by the present generation. However, 1 must throw
myself on the indulgence of my readers, and do the best 1 can.

There are two things which I propose to do in this chapter, I
will first give some account of my hero, as a preacher, a writer,
and a correspondent. I will then point out certain prominent
features in his character, which appear to me of such rare beauty
and excellence that they deserve the special notice of Christians.

As a preacher, I venture to think we know next to nothing
of what Venn was. His sermons still extant, consisting of
fourteen preached at Clapham, before he removed to Hudders-
field, and eight single discourses preached on various special
occasions between 1758 and 1785, most certainly fail to give
us any idea of- his pulpit powers. Perhaps the best of them
are his luneral sermons for Grimshaw and Whitefield. In
doctrine they are all, no doubt, sound, scriptural, and evan-
gelical. But it is useless to deny that, at this day, they seem,
as you read them, rather tame and commonplace. There is
nothing striking, brilliant, or powerful about them. There is
nothing that appears likely to lay hold of men's minds, to arrest
or to keep up attention. In short, you find it hard to believe
that the man who preached these sermons could ever have been
considered a great preach.er.


Yet it is clear as daylight tliat Henry Venn \vas a great
preacher. The extraordinary effects that his sermons produced
at Huddersfield — his undeniable popularity with congregations
accustomed to hear such mighty orators as Whitefield — the
high opinion entertained of his powers by Lady Huntingdon
and other good judges — all these are facts that cannot possibly
be explained away. The Vicar Of Huddersfield may not have
possessed the glowing eloquence of Rowlands or Whitefield.
But for all that he must evidently have been a man of great
pulpit powers.

The truth of the matter, I suspect, is simply this. Venn's
sermons were precisely of that sort which are excellent to hear,
but not excellent to read. Listened to, they are clear, satisfy-
ing, interesting, and instructive. Written down, they seem
poor, and ungrammatical, and diffuse, and commonplace.
Whether men will believe it or not, it is a fact that English for
hearing, and English for reading, are almost two different lan-
guages, and that speeches and sermons which sound admirable
when you listen to them, seem curiously flat and lifeless when
you sit down to read them in cold blood. Of all the illustra-
tions of this principle in rhetoric, I venture the conjecture that
there seldom was a more remarkable one than Venn. To read
his sermons over, there seems no more life or fire in them than
there is in an empty stove in July. And yet the Vicar of
Huddersfield, by the universal testimony of all his contempo-
raries, was a mighty preacher.

Let us add to all this tliat Venn's action and delivery, by all
accounts, were singularly lively and forcible. The witness of
his hearers at Huddersfield, on this point, was unanimous. His
face, his voice, his hands, his eyes, his whole manner in preach-
ing, arrested attention, and clothed all that he said with power.
Who can deny the immense effect of good delivery? The
ancients went so far as to call it the first, second, and third
qualification of a good orator. Who can fail to see, from the


traditional account, already quoted, that Venn had a peculiar
gift of delivery % The sermons of a man who " looked as if he
would jump out of the pulpit," may contain nothing that is
original or remarkable, but they are just the sermons that often
turn the world upside do\\'n. Printed sermons can show us a
preacher's matter, but they cannot show us his manner as
delivered. Second-rate matter, if only well delivered, will never
fail to beat first-rate matter badly •dehvered, as long as the
world stands.

After all, we must never forget that we know nothing of the
nature of Venn's sermons in the days of his greatest power.
They were extempore sermons, or sermons preached from notes;,
and that fact alone speaks volumes. Not one of these ser-
mons, I believe, was taken down shorthand, as most of White-
field's were, and the consequence is that we have not an idea
what they were like. But every intelligent hearer of the present
day knows well that a man may be a most powerful extempore
preacher, who is a very dull and uninteresting writer. There
are scores of men whom it is very pleasant to hear, but very
wearying to read. Perhaps if we possessed good shorthand
reports of some of Venn's best Huddersfield sermons, we should
see at a glance the secrets of his popularity as a preacher. As
matters stand, I must frankly confess it is a subject which is
now wrapped in some obscurity. I have done my best to throw
some conjectural light upon it, and must leave it here. I only
wish to remind my readers, in passing on, that there are few
things so little understood in the world as the true causes of
pulpit power.

As a writer^ Venn's reputation rests almost entirely on two
works, which are pretty well known, — " The Complete Duty of
Man," and " Mistakes in Religion." The first of them is a
" System of doctrinal and practical Christianity," and was
intended to supply something better than that mischievous and
defective volume, the " Whole Duty of Man." The second of


them is a collection of essays on the prophecy of Zacharias
(the father of John Baptist), in which the erroneousness of
many common views of religion is faithfully and scripturally
exposed. Besides these, Venn published two or three smaller
pamphlets, which are but little known.

The two works above-named were undoubtedly very useful
in their day, and are still to be found on the shelves of most
collectors of religious literature. They are sound, scriptural,
and evangelical. But I strongly suspect that they stick to the
shelves on which they stand, and are books which most people
know better by name than by reading. The plain truth is, that
every age has its own peculiar style of writing. Popular as the
" Spectator," and " Tatler," and " Rambler," were in their times,
it may well be doubted whether they would be much read if
pubhshed now. Even the pens of Addison, Johnson, and
Steele, would not command success. The same remark applies
to the sound and scriptural writings of Henry Venn. They did
good service in their day, when men loved a somewhat stiff
and classical style, and would have turned with disdain from
any other sort of English composition as unworthy of an
educated person. But like the jawbone of an ass, which
Samson once used so effectively, they are now laid aside.
Their work is done. Like the famous long-bows which our
forefathers used at Cressy and Agincourt, we still view them
with respect, and are proud of the victories which they won.
But we do not use them ourselves. Rifled artillery and breech-
loaders have superseded them. The fashion of our weapons
is changed.

After all, a close examination of Venn's two volumes will
soon show an intelligent reader why they are no longer
popular. The composition is of that stately and somewhat
high-flown style which was thought the standard of excellence
in the last century. The sentences are often very long, and
somewhat involved. The words are frequently of Latin or

(195) 19


French origin. There is a curious absence of that rich fund
of ready, happy illustration, which Whitefield and Rowlands
had at their finger ends. The appeals to the imagination
are it.^^^ and come in stiffly and awkwardly when they do
come, like men dressed in new or borrowed clothes. In short,
the style of the books is neither Saxon, nor sparkling, nor
racy, nor pithy, nor anecdotal, nor pictorial. We must not
wonder that they are no longer popular. Let us thank God
for them. They were read in their day and generation by
hundreds, who would probably have read no other evangelical
literature. They may still do good to good men, and be liked
by those who are really hungering for spiritual food. But we
must not insist on everybody admiring them, or call people
graceless and ungodly because they do not take pleasure in
reading them. We must not count it a strange thing if many
call them heavy, and dry, and cold.

As a corresp07idejit and letter-writer^ Henry Venn deserves the
highest admiration. Nothing gives me such a high idea of his
mental and spiritual stature, as the collection of letters which
accompanies his biography. I never wonder at his reputation
when I read these letters. I consider them above all praise,
and commend them to the special attention of all who want
to form a just estimate of the seventh great evangelist of
England a hundred years ago. The true measure of the Vicar
of Huddersfield and Yelling is to be found in his letters
much more than his books or printed sermons.

Letter-writing, we must never forget, was a much more im-
portant business in the last century than it is at the present day.
The daily newspaper was a very different affair from what it is
now. Periodicals and cheap publications had a very limited
circulation. The result was, that letters became most powerful
instruments either for good or evil. Men of the world, like
Lord Hervey, Lord Chesterfield, or Horace Walpole, were not
ashamed to throw their whole minds into their correspondence.


Religious men entered so fully into doctrinal, practical, and ex-
perimental questions with their correspondents, that their letters
were almost as useful as their sermons. John Newton's well-
known volume of letters, called " Cardiphonia," has perhaps
done as much good to Christ's cause as anything that ever came
from his pen. In days like those, it is no mean praise to say
that Henry Venn was second to none as a letter-writer. Com-
pare the letters that he wrote after settling down in Huntingdon-
shire, with the very best that Newton published, and I venture
to say boldly that no impartial judge would hesitate to pro-
nounce that the epistolary mine at Yelling yielded quite as rich
metal as that at Olney.

It is curious, indeed, to observe how free Venn's letters are,
comparatively, from the faults which impair the usefulness of
his books and printed sermons. There is a striking absence
of that stiff and laboured mode of expression to which I have
already adverted. He writes easily, naturally, and pleasantly,
and makes you feel that you would like to hear again from
such a correspondent. Like the letters of Mrs. Savage (Matthew
Henry's sister), you cannot help regretting that the editor made
so small and limited a selection from the stock he had in hand.
You close the volume with the impression that you would have
liked it better if it had been twice as long. For my own part,
I confess to a strong suspicion that we have in Venn's published
correspondence the real key of Venn's popularity as a preacher.
I suspect that his extempore sermons must have closely re-
sembled his letters. I give it, of course, as my own private
conjecture, and nothing more. All I say is, that if the vicar
of Huddersfield preached in his pulpit in the same clear, pithy,
and direct fashion that he wrote to his friends, I do not won-
der that he was a preacher of mighty power. Once more, I
advise those who want to know the secret of Venn's reputation
to study his letters.

It only remains for me now to point out what seem to me to


have been the prominent features in Henry Venn's character.
I approach this subject with much diffidence. I have no other
means of forming an opinion than a close examination of my
hero's hfe and letters. I am very sensible that I may err in my
judgment, and may say too much of some points and too little
of others. But after dwelling so much on this good man's life
and ministry, I cannot help inviting the attention of my readers
to some characteristics which appear to me to stand out with
peculiar brightness, as we look at him from a distance.

I. The first excellency that I notice in Venn's character is
the soundness of his judgment o?t difficult and disputable poiiits in
theology. He lived in a day when the controversy between Cal-
vinism and Arminianism was at its height, and when violent and
exaggerated statements were continually made on both sides.
In a day like this, he seems to me to have been singularly
happy in observing the proportion of truth in doctrine. I can
put my finger on no leading minister of last century whose
views, of the gospel appear to have been so truly scriptural and
well balanced. Of course he was alternately claimed as an ally,
or abused as an enemy, by extreme partisans on both sides.
But I can find no man of that era who seems to have under-
stood so thoroughly the relative value of every part and portion
of evangelical Christianity.

Let us hear what he says about Calvinism : " As to Calvin-
ism, you know I am moderate. Those who exalt the Lord
Jesus as all their salvation, and abase man, I rejoice in. I
would not have them advance further till they see more of tlie
plan of sovereign grace, so connected with what is indisputable,
that they cannot refuse their assent. Difficulties, distressing
difficulties, are on every side, whether we receive that scheme
or no. We must be as little children ; we must be daily exer-
cising ourselves in humble love and prayer ; we must be look-
ing up to our Saviour for the Holy Ghost. And after this has
been our employment for many years, we shall find how much


truth there is in that divine assertion, ' If any man think that
he knoweth anything yet as he ought to know, that man know-
eth nothing.' I used to please myself with tlie imagination, fif-
teen years ago, that by prayer for the Holy Ghost, and reading
diligently the lively oracles, I should be able to understand all
Scripture, and to give it all one clear and consistent meaning.
That it is perfectly consistent I am very sure ; but it is not so

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 24 of 36)