HENRY VENN, (1724-1797)
from
A History of Preaching
by
F. R. Webber

Among the ten greatest English preachers of the eighteenth century one must include the name of Henry Venn of Huddersfield and Yelling. Venn was one of a remarkable family. Seven generations of Venns, in direct succession, were clergymen in the Church of England, and of these seven, five were men of distinction. They were known for their evangelical testimony for a period of 230 years.

Henry Venn was born in 1724 at Barnes, Surrey, near London. So strong was the evangelical spirit that prevailed in his father's home that Henry, while yet a small boy, refused to greet a visitor who held Arian views. The boy was sent to schools at Mortlake, Fulham and Bristol. He attended St. John's College, Cambridge, then changed to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he received his degree in 1746. For seven years he was holder of a fellowship in Queen's College. Ordained deacon in 1747 and priest in 1749, he served curacies at Barton, near Cambridge; St. Matthew, Friday Street, in London; West Horsley, Surrey and Clapham in London.

The first four years of his ministry were not especially fruitful. He had read Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, and for a time he forgot the excellent evangelical atmosphere of his father's rectory. He fasted, he engaged in acts of self-discipline, he set apart stated times for meditation and prayer, he distributed tracts and alms to the poor, and he invited 20 or 30 poor people to attend his family prayers. However, he did not neglect his study of the Bible, and through its influence he discovered that he had been attempting to "work out a righteousness" of his own, without a sufficient realization of his own sinful nature, and the blood and righteousness of his Divine Saviour. Gradually the tone of his preaching changed. During his curacy at Clapham he became acquainted with George Whitefield, Lady Huntingdon, Dr. Haweis and a devout layman named John Thornton. These people did much to encourage him.

Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, was a woman of exceptional gifts, and a great friend of the evangelical cause. After hearing a sermon by young Venn, she wrote him a letter. "My friend," she said, "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 righteousness 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, and receive from the outstretched hand of our Immanuel the riches of redeeming grace. But if you come at all you must come 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 sinners to fly to the City of Refuge; to look to Him Who is exalted as Prince and Saviour, to give repentance and the remission of sins. Go on, then, and may your bow abide in strength. Be bold, firm, be decided. Let Christ be the Alpha and Omega of all your 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." In the year 1756 Henry Venn discarded his old sermons and began to preach sin and grace. During his five years at Clapham he preached six times every week. In addition to a Sunday morning and a Thursday evening service at Clapham, he preached on Sunday afternoon at St. Alban's, Wood Street, London, on Sunday evening and Tuesday morning at St. Swithin's London Stone, and on Wednesday evening at his father's church, St. Antholin's. Finding it impossible to write out six new sermons every week, Venn learned to preach from notes, and he followed this method throughout his life.

Venn's great work began in 1759, when he was made vicar of Huddersfield, a large city in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In the old days of hand craftsmanship the English countryside was famed for its beauty. Its mild climate both in Summer and Winter, an abundant rainfall and its luxurious vegetation caused the hills and valleys of the British Isles to present to the visitor ever changing scenes of incredible beauty. With the invention of the steam engine and labor saving machinery, all this was changed. A wide, black scar began to creep across England, transforming magnificent forests and rich farm lands into a blackened, treeless waste. Over this picture of desolation hung a perpetual smoky haze through which the sun penetrates with difficulty. Picturesque thatched villages were transformed in a few years into large, grimy cities with their reeking slums. Fertile fields gave way to mountains of slag and endless rows of iron furnaces. Driven out of their ruined farms, many people emigrated to America, and many others crowded into the new industrial cities with their rows of ugly brick tenements. Industrial centers crowded one another so that one may travel from Liverpool on the southwest to York and Sunderland in the northeast and hardly ever be out of sight of rows of smoking factory chimneys. The destruction of the famed beauty of the English Midlands was calamitous, but even worse was the effect of it upon the people. Bewildered in their new surroundings, many people drifted away from church and chapel. A generation grew up without religious care, and there were many young people who had never seen the inside of a church, nor did most of them own a Bible.

Huddersfield had been a picturesque, sleepy village, spread over a hillside, but the Industrial Revolution had overtaken it. Great woolen mills took the places of timbered houses and thatched cottages, trees and flowers disappeared, and miles of workingmen's tenements covered the hillsides. Most of these people had not only forsaken the church, but in the new surroundings many had learned to lead rough, profane lives. Such was the Huddersfield not long after Henry Venn came to it at the age of 35. Strong of body when he came, energetic, and fired with missionary zeal, he began a remarkable pastorate of 12 years, during which period he preached 6,250 sermons--an average of slightly more than ten sermons a week. At the end of 12 years Henry Venn broke down physically under the pressure of his labors, and he was compelled to seek rest in a small country parish near Cambridge.

At Huddersfield he was successful from the outset. People came to his church in such numbers that it was necessary for him to divide the big parish into districts, and to preach during the week in various parts of the city and its surrounding country. His big church was crowded on Sunday, and people flocked to his various preaching stations. His congregation grew until its communicant members numbered thousands, and in the short space of 12 years Venn transformed Huddersfield as thoroughly as Robertson transformed Irvine and M'Cheyne Dundee. He laid great stress upon thorough catechization, and prepared an Explanation of the Church Catechism to meet the needs of his people. In addition to his preaching, he met with groups of catechumens in various parts of his parish.

All of this remarkable work was done entirely by preaching and teaching. Parish organizations were unknown in Henry Venn's day. There were no boards to whom one might apply for helpful material, no committees, no facilities for canvassing a parish, and none of the weekday activities that are supposed to promote the growth of a congregation. Henry Venn concentrated on preaching and catechization, and he knew of no other material than his well-worn Bible.

When his bodily strength gave way in 1771, and when it was feared that he had contracted tuberculosis, he gave up his large congregation and sought a recovery of health at Yelling, a small village 12 miles west of Cambridge. There the Lord spared his life for 26 years. He performed his duties faithfully, preached to his own little congregation in Yelling, and often in the surrounding country, and now and then in prominent churches in London.

Henry Venn was a preacher of excellent gifts. While he was not the equal of Whitefield or Rowlands, yet his power in the pulpit was far beyond the average, and he has been described as "a preacher at whose voice multitudes wept and trembled." Unfortunately very few of his sermons have survived to our time. In his days at Clapham he preached six sermons a week, and was compelled to preach from notes. The same was true in Huddersfield. Of the 22 sermons that have survived, 14 belong to his early days in Clapham and the remaining eight are sermons preached on special occasions, such as his sermons at the death of Whitefield and of Grimshaw. None of his existing sermons give one a clue to his great fame. . . .

That he was exceptional is certain. George Whitefield, the greatest preacher that England produced, spoke very highly of Venn. He said, "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!" Charles Simeon, the great evangelical preacher of Cambridge, said, "I most gladly bear my testimony that not the half, nor the hundredth part of what might have been justly said of that blessed man of God has been spoken. If any person now living, except his children, is qualified to bear this testimony it is I, who, from my first entrance into orders to his dying hour, had most intimate access to him, and enjoyed most of his company and conversation." Lady Huntingdon, whose standards were exacting, spoke words of highest praise, as does Sir James Stephen, the religious biographer.


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