Henry Venn was one of the shapers and movers of the nineteenth-century missionary movement. Today he is known chiefly as a father of the “indigenous church” principle (self-supporting, self-governing, self-propagating). There was considerably more to the man and his long service than this. In addition to his missionary statesmanship, Venn influenced government policy and stood in the front ranks of nineteenth-century evangelicals.
Venn’s background and training equipped him for the several roles he was to play. He was born February 10, 1796, on London’s outskirts at Clapham. His father, John (1759 -1813), was rector of Clapham parish and pastor to William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton, James Stephen, and others who made up the famous coterie later called the “Clapham Sect.”
The “Clapham Sect” was the center of initiative among second-generation Evangelicals.  The first-generation Evangelical Revival had been dominated by the Wesleys and George Whitefield. Another prominent personality was Henry Venn (1725-1797), father of John and grandfather of Henry. In a movement that was torn between Whitefield and the Wesleys, Anglicans like Henry Venn took a mediate position. They rejected Whitefield’s Calvinism and Wesley’s perfectionism while affirming the need for conversion, genuine piety, warm fellowship, and evangelism. Although it was often questioned by their critics, they maintained their fidelity to the Church of England. It was this theological position that informed the social and missionary activism of the second generation. The first Henry Venn was spiritual father of the Clapham Sect. Whereas the first-generation Evangelicals were preoccupied with leading a revival, the second generation organized an almost endless series of philanthropic and religious societies. They helped the poor, taught children to read, wrote and published literature, combated the slave trade, and sent missionaries to other lands. Wilberforce led the antislave trade movement in Parliament but had the full cooperation and support of his Clapham circle. John Venn presided at the meeting at which the Church Missionary Society (CMS) was organized in 1799 and wrote the original charter. The Clapham Sect had a major part in formation of the Religious Tract Society in 1799 and the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804.
The Venns had an unusually happy family life, but when Henry was seven his mother died and ten years later his father also passed away. At seventeen he was left as family head. One of the duties that fell to him was to complete the work his father had begun on a biography of his venerated grandfather. The Life and Letters of Henry Venn was finally published in 1834 and subsequently went through at least five further editions. In the style of the day, this bulky volume consisted largely of his grandfather’s letters. But in the preface Venn had tried to come to terms with and disentangle the origins of Evangelicalism. With the publication of this Life of his grandfather, Venn established himself as an interpreter of the Evangelical tradition. For the rest of his life he influenced the Evangelical course through his writing.
Venn did not possess the same outstanding preaching gifts as his grandfather. He exerted leadership in the committee room and through administrative initiative. The Church Missionary Society had risen to preeminence among Evangelical societies and this fact was not lost on Venn. The third-generation Evangelicals extended the work begun by the second-generation leaders. Lord Shaftesbury and others pioneered legislative social reform as well as home missions from the 1830s onward. Annual meetings of these many religious societies took place during the spring. The “May meetings” held at Exeter Hall on the Strand were an annual celebration lasting for six weeks when the hearts of the faithful were warmed, new commitments were made, and enthusiasm for a plethora of evangelical causes was rekindled.
Evangelical leaders in Victorian Britain continued both to organize channels of ministry and to define and defend the Evangelical position. Starting in the 1830s Evangelicalism had been affected by both the Tractarians (some of whom were of Evangelical background) and the Brethren and other elements on the right. As Evangelicals grew in strength and influence, they were also criticized by other parties in the Church.
Venn sought to maintain the tradition handed down by his grandfather and father. This tradition was Evangelical in doctrine and spirit and loyal to the Anglican Church. It was moderate in outlook. Theological innovations or fads had little appeal. For example, Venn had no sympathy for the millenialism introduced by the Irvingites and Brethren. When the Evangelical Alliance was launched in 1846, Venn and many other Evangelicals remained aloof because of the Alliance’s attitude toward the established Church. Although Venn was open-minded about the 1859 revival, he sought to steer people away from emotionalism toward a more balanced attitude and into constructive service.
An important vehicle for Evangelical leadership was the monthly Christian Observer. This was another venture founded by the Clapham Sect in 1802 and Venn’s father was a major contributor in its first years. The Christian Observer always remained a private publication but from the beginning won a respected role as an authoritative Evangelical voice. Venn was a longtime member of the Observer’s board and contributed regularly to its pages. Finally, in 1869, he “temporarily” assumed the editorship. From this position he pronounced vigorously on various theological issues before the Church.
Venn’s standing as an Evangelical leader can be measured by the fact that twice he was asked by the Prime Minister to serve on Royal Commissions. In 1864 he was a member of the Commission on Clerical Subscriptions and in 1867 he was named to the Ritual Commission. Both commissions dealt with ecclesiastical questions on which Evangelical feeling was deep. Venn tried to represent these concerns in the work of the commissions without sacrificing the welfare of the entire Church.
Public Policy Proponent
The Clapham tradition combined personal piety with social activism. The Clapham Sect were men of wealth and social standing. A number of them were members of Parliament. They had access to the corridors of power and believed they should exert Christian influence on public policy. The younger James Stephen, son of a prominent Clapham Sect member, became legal counsel to the Colonial Office. He also married Henry Venn’s older sister. Stephen rose to a top position in the civil service when he became Permanent Under-Secretary of the Colonial Office in 1836. Besides his considerable contribution to the development of the civil service system itself, Stephen exerted major influence on colonial policy for an entire generation. He argued that British colonies were a temporary responsibility. Eventually each of the colonies would sue for independence. Official policy should set the course for this development by encouraging each colony to evolve social, political, and legal institutions suited to its unique circumstances. Meanwhile it was the responsibility of Great Britain to guard the integrity of the peoples in the colonies and use her power to eradicate such evils as slavery.
The Stephen viewpoint was generally shared by missionary leaders. During the 1830s, for example, the Methodist Missionary Society and Church Missionary Society worked to prevent the colonization of New Zealand. Another Clapham son, the younger Charles Grant (by then Lord Glenelg), was Secretary for the Colonies and entirely sympathetic to these views. CMS Secretary Dandeson Coates helped form a society for the protection of “native” rights. Commercial interests eventually won out but the Evangelicals had put up strong opposition.
Venn became CMS Secretary in 1841, less than eight years after Parliament passed the act abolishing slavery from all British territories. Yet the slave trade was flourishing. Sir T. F. Buxton popularized the concept that the “Bible and plow” would eradicate slavery by providing a legitimate alternative to this illicit commerce. When Buxton died in 1845, no one took up the cause more vigorously than Venn. He lobbied with Parliament to maintain the British Squadron Patrol on the West African coast. When the Squadron issue came up for review in 1849, he led a delegation of some dozen persons to see Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, armed with a sixteen-page closely reasoned and well-documented memorandum. Palmerston was impressed and the Squadron was continued. Not until 1865 was the West African slave trade brought under control. Without the vigilance and moral leadership of Venn and others, the outcome would have been different.
No sooner was the West African slave trade ended than Venn turned his attention to slavery on the East African coast. He did not live to see the back of the East African slave trade broken but he had a hand in mapping out a strategy and mounting the first attack.
Education was the second focal point of Venn’s public policy concern. Venn, Alexander Duff, and other missionary society leaders took an active part behind the scenes in influencing the drafting of the famous 1854 Education Despatch. This order committed the East India Company to a substantial enlargement of the Indian educational system and paved the way for grants-in-aid. This latter provision became the cornerstone for the extensive system of mission-sponsored schools throughout the country.
Venn urged that education should be conducted in the vernacular. He recognized that education would remain the privilege of only a small elite if English were the medium of instruction. He organized the Christian Vernacular Education Society for India to promote such schools. At the same time he also argued that the government should authorize the use of the Bible in all public schools in India. Not even Venn’s friends were persuaded that this was the right policy. Although it was never adopted by government, Venn always believed that a “Christian” government was obligated to provide for its citizens’ religious welfare. This did not mean the people should be forced to accept the established religion but only that a “Christian” government should exert a Christian influence consistent with its character.
Educational developments in West Africa were even more dependent on the missions than in India. Venn believed education to be the foundation for political, economic, and social development. In 1864 he prepared a long brief urging a more enlightened government policy with regard to West Africa. He insisted that the Africans themselves should be trained to assume full responsibility for government and commerce. Years before, he had begun bringing young Africans to Great Britain for training. One of the first West African medical doctors was Africanus Horton whose training was arranged for by Venn.
Venn also wanted the government to take a more aggressive role in economic development. Security was a major problem in West Africa because of the slave trade and lack of government services. Venn lobbied to get government support for shipping and exploration of the interior. He did not wait, however, for official action. He privately encouraged Manchester merchants to establish a cotton industry in Sierra Leone and Yorubaland. He invested his own capital in machinery, seeds, and the training of Africans for the cotton industry. This venture was ultimately doomed to failure because the soil was not suitable for cotton growing, but his confidence in Africa’s potential was unbounded.
This interest in economic development, of course, stemmed from Venn’s conviction that if peoples’ economic needs were met through constructive and legitimate commerce, evils such as slavery would be eliminated.
In his thirty-one years as senior CMS Secretary, Venn met government representatives on many occasions. He was respected, even if his viewpoint did not always prevail, because he prepared thoroughly and articulated his case well. He often had superior sources of information and marshaled his facts with care. He also had influential friends to stand with him on the issues.
Although missions were no longer a novelty by the time Venn became a missions administrator, he recognized that there were gaps. The modern missionary movement operated without a special theoretical or theological framework. It was a movement based on pragmatic considerations. Venn frequently mentioned the need to identify and codify missionary principles. Toward the end of his life he spoke of the “science of missions.” This reflected both his feeling that missions were in an exploratory and experimental phase and his personal commitment to search for these principles.
The nineteenth-century missionary movement received its major impulse from the eighteenth-century revival, but it was also the age of exploration and discovery. Captain Cooke’s Journals were influential. Some of the most important missionary literature during the first half of the nineteenth century was in the form of Christian “researches” and missionary travelogues. There was nothing approximating a theology of mission until Anthony Grant published his Bampton Lectures in 1843. Grant’s High Church views of episcopacy made his theology of mission unacceptable to Evangelicals like Venn.
Venn worked inductively at finding the principles of mission. He observed weaknesses in a missionary-founded, missionary-led church. What, he asked, gave a church integrity? A church had to feel self-worth. Over a period of fifteen years he identified three aspects of that self-worth. A church must be led by persons drawn from its own membership. So long as a group of people must look to an outsider to furnish leadership, they will feel less than fully responsible. Similarly, if they do not bear the burden of supporting the life of the church financially, their membership will lack integrity. The final test of the integrity of the life of a church is the readiness to evangelize and extend itself. When a church has been founded through the work of an outsider, it is easy for it to become dependent on the missionary to continue this function. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of self-responsibility to acquire. These three ingredients of a church’s integrity were finally stated as self-support, self-government, and self-propagation.
As already implied, Venn posited two conditions to be met in successful church development: a self-reliant church and a properly responsive mission structure. He likened the relationship between church and mission to that of edifice and scaffolding. From this he derived the oft-quoted phrase, “the euthanasia of a mission.” This was no foolhardy, simplistic slogan. It presupposed that a vigorously mission-minded church had developed, that a formal mission structure was an abnormality to be removed as early as expedient, and that the true calling of a mission was to be engaged in continuous advance into the “regions beyond.” To help keep the mission of the new church in the foreground, he repeatedly arranged for the training and appointment of members of the younger churches to serve as missionaries. A notable example of this was the sending of Samuel Adjai Crowther from Sierra Leone to Yorubaland in 1845 and later to the Niger Delta. Eventually Crowther presided over the Delta as bishop.
As an Evangelical, Venn assumed there was a fixed theological deposit on which mission was based. In his search for missionary principles, he did not draw on biblical or theological insights as much as on contemporary experience. The theological base was nonnegotiable but the emerging principles were. The integrity of the young church continued to be central to his system of thought but Venn was less doctrinaire than some of his successors in the way he used his formulation. Furthermore, he never assumed that the formulation was the last word. He was constantly scanning the horizon to see whether there was a new insight breaking in on current missionary practice.
In the last decade of his secretariat he was particularly intrigued with cases of “spontaneous” expansion that he studied. This raised important new questions about the role of the missionary and the work of the Holy Spirit in mission. His waning physical strength prevented him from investigating and developing his thought in this area.
In addition to keeping abreast of contemporary missions through reading missionary magazines and reports, Venn also devoted some time to the study of missionary history. For some fourteen years he studied the life and work of the great Roman Catholic missionary Francis Xavier. His book-length study was published in 1862. It was misunderstood by fellow Evangelicals and disliked by Roman Catholics. Yet it furnished Venn with a valuable historical reference point in his evaluation of “modern missions.”
Venn’s statesmanship rested also on his abilities as an administrator. He had suffered a near-fatal heart disease in 1838 -1839. Spurning medical advice to lead a quiet life, he learned to pace himself and took on the CMS secretaryship at age forty-five. His 6,000 official letters in the CMS archives and 230 items in the bibliography of his printed writings bear testimony to his capacity for disciplined work. Unlike his great American contemporary Rufus Anderson, Venn never visited any of the missions overseas. He was an avid and astute reader of missionary reports. He early learned to make allowance for lack of perspective in missionary accounts and mistrusted the “romance of missions.” He maintained a wide circle of friends among Africans and Asians and entertained them in his home when they came to London. These contacts had a definite influence on the development of Venn policies.
Venn’s wife Martha died in 1839 after eleven years of marriage, leaving him to rear their three young children. The Venns had had an unusually happy marriage which, according to nephew Sir Leslie Stephen, was spoken of with awe by other family members. Venn’s son John eventually became president of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and son Henry was a parish priest.
When Henry Venn died January 13, 1873, he was buried, according to his request, in Mortlake parish cemetery, West London, in a plain wood coffin. The simple dignity of the service reflected the strength of the man. The missionary theme of the hymns sung on that occasion pointed to his lifelong commitment to world mission. Venn the man was remembered for his warm hospitality and irrepressible sense of humor.
Wilbert R. Shenk
This was not a formally organized group. The name derives from the village of Clapham on London’s outskirts. Not all were Anglicans and not all were regular residents of Clapham. Approximately a dozen men comprised the group of which William Wilberforce was the best-known member. Nearly all were members of parliament. The group was bound together by a social and political vision reinforced by religious convictions. Cf. E. M. Howse, Saints in Politics, for a vivid account of this influential group.
Following British convention, “Evangelical” here designates members of the Church of England who espoused the preaching of justification by faith, personal conversion, and warm and fervent piety. Early Evangelicals often used the term “experimental religion” to signify both an inwardly intense religious experience and practical actions through service and missions. (The “evangelicals” denotes nonstate church evangelicals.)
For a more complete exposition of Venn’s missiology see my forthcoming article “Henry Venn’s Instructions to Missionaries” to be published in Missiology.
The Missionary Life and Labours of Francis Xavier Taken From His Own Correspondence: With A Sketch of the General Results of Roman Catholic Missions Among the Heathen (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Robert and Green, 1862), p. 324.
Wilbert R. Shenk, comp., Bibliography of Henry Venn’s Printed Writings with Index (Elkhart, Indiana: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1975, distributed by Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa.), p. 100. All Venn correspondence has now been indexed. Indexes and letters are in the Church Missionary Society archives, London. A brief selection of Venn writings was edited by Dr. Max Warren, To Apply the Gospel: Selections from the Writings of Henry Venn (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971).
This article, is reproduced from the Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research, Apr. 77, Vol. 1 Issue 2, p. 16-19, copyright© 1977, edited by G. H. Anderson, and N. A. Horner. All rights reserved.