Arthur Middleton on Henry Venn (1725-97)

Henry Venn, described as a ‘post Reformation saint,’ is a product of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival that produced many saintly types. His son and grandson in their generation were Evangelical leaders and influenced greatly a younger generation outside his own family.

He was born in 1725 in Barnes, Surrey, into a clerical family. His father, as Rector of St Antholin’s London, was a prominent and respected member of the High Church Party and his mother’s father was John Ashton, regarded as a Jacobite martyr. His evangelical views were not a family inheritance nor attributable to any individual nor any one set of influences.

Venn was educated at Jesus College and St John’s Cambridge where he found time to play cricket for England. He was ordained in 1747, and from 1749 to 1757 was a fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge. After curacies at Barton, Cambridgeshire, St Matthew, Friday Street, London, and West Horsley,
Surrey and Clapham, he became Vicar of Huddersfield in 1759, accepting maximum work and little pay.
His spiritual awakening was much influenced by Law’s Serious Call and he framed his life on Law’s Christian Perfection but became more drawn towards the views of the rising Evangelical School, no doubt due to his five-year curacy in Clapham (1754-9) and his admirable wife Miss Bishop.

In Huddersfield his preaching and pastoral care made a great impression in those easy-going days, so that a rich elderly widow wanted to leave him a substantial legacy. He dissuaded her because his sincerity would be questioned when he urged his flock to love not the world neither the things of the world’, even though money was short.

Local clergy regarded him a ‘Methodist’ (in later terms, an Evangelical), since he taught Scripture in his home, and the number of communicants at West Horsley increased from twelve to sixty. This friend of the Wesleys and Whitefield was identified with their practical work, but his views diverged for he was a parish priest rather than an evangelist, and identified more with a rising Evangelical school in the Church of England, being as much a pastor as a preacher and against intinerant ministry.

He wrote a readable devotional book, The Complete Duty of Man, not to be confused with The Whole Duty of Man, but having the same purpose. It is a sensible practical piety enforcing its teaching on different principles and is the distilled wisdom and experience of the faithful pastor. As a literary work it is not highly rated but it became a manifesto of Evangelicals, concentrating on the practical duties of the Christian to God and man – truthfulness, honesty, meekness, courtesy, candour and the relative duties in various spheres of life’s relationships.

At the age of forty-seven, ill health compelled him to leave Huddersfield for the smaller parish of Yelling where for twenty-five years he ministered, afterwards retiring to his son’s rectory in Clapham where he died in 1797.