“As a supplement to our year long focus on Anglicanism: A Gift in Christ we are consider-ing important figures in the history of Anglicanism and especially those who are inspiration to us in their lives given to mission. The Rev Grant Crowe, Chaplain in Amersfoort, has prepared these reflections on Heroes of the Faith.”
John Venn was a vicar in the Church of England, whose father was Henry Venn. We shared about Henry Venn in last month’s article. John’s father was a man associated with the 18th century Evangelical Revival within the Church of England and across Britain as a whole. This Revival had men such as John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield and Henry was part of that ‘first generation of evangelicals.’ His father had been one of the clergy who helped turn the Evangelical Revival from being only about conversion to being a whole way of life.
John was to be associated with the Anglican evangelicals who would take their Christian faith into social action and transformation. And his preaching and own ministry would not only have an influence upon the United Kingdom but also in helping establish the wider Anglican Communion.
John Venn preached his first sermon at Holy Trinity Clapham on July 22nd 1792. He was to remain rector of Holy Trinity until his death. Clapham at the time was a village located 4 miles from Westminister the home of British Politics. He faced a number of pressures when he became vicar at Holy Trinity. Venn had come from a smaller church – Little Dunham, Norfolk (where he been rector from 1783), to a large, educated, wealthy parish. He was advised to be careful else parishioners would feel he’d come to change everything. He was also advised to be careful in case his wealthy parishioners become offended! There was also advice from another quarter – from William Wilberforce – a member of that congregation at Clapham. Wilberforce advised him to challenge his congregation right from the start!
Venn saw not only the wealthy in his congregation but had a heart for the poor in this parish. He established a new Sunday Service for the children of the poor – hoping their parents would attend as well. He had lighting installed for this purpose – not needed originally when the church was built in 1776!
As a clergyman, John Venn felt, when considering the temptations and heresy in the world, the remedy was: “careful and passionate preaching by local church ministers.” Easter and the Ascension were common themes in his sermons. Venn when he preached continually stressed that Christianity affects the totality of human existence – he declared often, “Christian faith is a seven day a week religion and not just a Sunday one.” He was mindful that believers would be called to account for how they had lived their lives and often stressed that his congregation members would appear for their “‘future audit at bar of God.” Once William Pitt – later be to the British Prime Minister– asked William Thornton, another Member of Parliament (MP), why he voted against him in Parliament. Thornton said “I voted today so that if my Master had come again at that moment I might have been able to give an account of my stewardship.” It was said when he was giving a funeral sermon, that he spoke with such power about heaven that some thought he had actually been there. However, “contemplation of the next world did not lead John Venn away from this one but into it. He urged his congregation to alway live as citizens of heaven so that they might bring the fruits of heaven here on earth.”
Revd Venn’s preaching influenced his congregation and they influenced a nation. Within that congregation, was a group which became known as the Clapham Sect. The Clapham Sect, of which William Wilberforce was perhaps its more famous member in contemporary knowledge, was a group of around 12 in number who were wealthy lay Anglicans who lived in London. It was not formally organised but gained its name from the area many resided within. It had been founded by three brothers – Henry, Samuel and Robert Thornton. They had helped appoint Venn to Holy Trinity and Wilberforce – in his 30s – was invited to attend, due to the parish now having an evangelical vicar. Wilberforce was to become the leader of the Clapham Sect. Most of the group but not all were MPs. They were part of the second generation of evangelicals, were greatly influenced by the Evangelical Revival, and were bound together by a social and political vision reinforced by their Christian convictions. These MPs – called the Saints by others – worked for social reform in the UK. They worked to reform education policy, attacked slavery and sought to rid the UK of pornography. They battled for better conditions in factories. They promoted schools for the poor, provided money for Sunday Schools. They sought the improvement of the treatment of the mentally ill, of chimney sweeps, of the unemployed and for those in financial debt. “They integrated their evangelical faith, their commitment to mission, and their concern for social reform.” And John Venn was part of the influence upon them. Wilberforce would borrow the written manuscripts of Venn’s preaching as a guide for his thinking on governmental policy. John Venn was, in effect the chaplain to this group, and he himself remained active as part of it. But the vision of the Clapham Sect was not limited to their homeland. They worked for the extension of Christianity in the world through mission activity. They established also the British and Foreign Bible Society which today is known as Bible Society. Their passions went beyond evangelism. This group challenged the slave trade within the British Empire and helped set up the free state of Sierra Leone. John Venn himself was one of the founders of the Anglican World Mission Agency known as CMS – Church Mission Society. It was founded in 1799. He chaired the founding meeting and wrote its first charter, vision and values document. CMS in the following years was involved since its founding in the planting or supporting up to two-thirds of the Anglican Communion. Revd John Venn’s had a son, Henry, who born in 1796, who was to become a clergyman, like his father and grandfather. And Henry was to be a leading missionary statesman within what has been ‘the Great Century of Protestant Missions’, which was the nineteenth century. John Venn died on 1st July 1813, the date the Church of England remembers he, his father, and his son.
This picture is from Holy Trinity Clapham, listing the names of the group, including John Venn. The marks are from bomb damage during the Second World War.