Heroes of the Faith: Henry Venn (The Younger) 1796-1873

As a supplement to our year long focus on Anglicanism: A Gift in Christ we are considering 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.”

Henry Venn (sometimes called ‘Henry Venn the Younger’ to distinguish from his noted grandfather Henry Venn), has been called one of the greatest mission thinkers, theoreticians and strategists of the nineteenth century. His principles were to dominate British mission work for over 100 years.

Born in 1796, in Clapham, his father was John Venn – who had served as vicar at Holy Trinity Clapham, and who was one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). And his grandfather, Henry Venn, was a man associated with the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival within the Church of England, a revival which included men such as John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield. 1

Henry Venn the younger was educated in Cambridge, ordained and served in parishes in Hull and London. Venn was part of the movement that worked through Parliament to finally abolish the slavery in the Empire in 1833. 2

However, he knew that while the law had changed, the practice in West and East Africa had not, so he researched and persuaded the Government of the need for British naval ships to remain off West Africa to seek to bring an end to the illegal trade. Only in 1865 was the West African slave trade finally brought to an end. He advocated for the importance of education in the native languages across the Empire, and how such education would benefit a country socially, politically as well as economically. He also sought to work to grow the Church of England’s episcopacy model into one more suited to the needs of the growing churches in the two third world.

However Venn is primarily known and remembered for his work in what was known as ‘missions’ – organisations, such as CMS, who were seeking to communicate the Christian gospel in lands and regions where it was barely known. In 1841 he became the secretary of CMS, and he became known for being a mission theorist and an effective hard working administrator. He did not have the preaching gifts of his grandfather, but “he exerted leadership in the committee room and through administrative initiative.” He wrote to hundreds of missionaries across the globe, was involved in shaping many policy statements within CMS. Though he never travelled to the mission fields himself, he continued to read contemporary mission accounts and thinking, but he also studied past mission history across the denominations. For a generation of British Christians, he was the dominant mission influence and contributed greatly to the statement by Dr Ephraim Radner (Wycliffe College Toronto) who, on our Anglicanism course suggested that the CMS were the ‘single most important group in world Anglicanism over the last 200 years.’

Venn believed that much mission of his day was approached from a pragmatic approach. He believed in the need for missionary principles. What is mission? How do we know when a work is completed? Over 15 years of reflection, he came to some conclusions. Since 1854, he began to articulate his belief that mission’s aim – its strategic aim – should be what became known as the ‘three-self’ formula. Another mission thinker – Rufus Anderson – the mission administrator of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions – had come, independently, to similar conclusions. This thinking was to dominate American and British mission thought from middle of nineteenth century until World War Two.

Three Self formula. For Venn the aim of overseas mission was about creating Churches that were 1)self governing, 2) self supporting and 3) self extending (self propagating – was the phrase used by Anderson). His argument followed that once a mission work, for example by CMS, had, through the work of God, brought a Church into being, then that mission would finish in that area. This meant, in practice, missionaries would cease supporting the newly appointed indigenous clergy, and the missionaries would then move into another area or country, which remained untouched by the gospel of Christ. In short, a shift from an area with missionary leadership to one of indigenous leadership and the formation of a national church.

The new Church would then be left, as led by the Spirit of God, to fulfil all the functions expected of a Church.. Anderson and Venn argued that churches built on upon the indigenous culture, led by the local peoples, “could thrive with integrity and independence.” (Harvey M. Conn). Venn argued for the provocative phrase of ‘euthanasia in mission’ ie plant churches, train clergy, then move on. So the missionary work would ‘die’ because the missionaries have left and moved on. Missionaries, for Venn, were to be ‘temporary workers and not permanent fixtures, ’ missions were the scaffolding to be removed once an indigenous church was established. Venn and Anderson exhorted the missionaries to make that their aim – establishing churches that could support themselves, govern themselves, and engage in service and evangelism within its region and ultimately inside its continent.

Missionaries should not be drawn into pastoring and maintaining these new churches, but instead, to seek primarily to plant new churches and to train new indigenous pastors and priests and at the earliest opportunity to hand over leadership to them. It was the stage reflected in 2 Timothy – the growth and development of new leaders – indigenous pastors / priests leading well trained indigenous congregations. While a church had outside help, the new church would not feel fully responsible for itself.

It has been considered that Venn and Anderson championed and helped form a new paradigm of missionary churches. Prior to their time, from 1500 until the mid 1800s, the vision for church planting was the planting of carbon copies of Western Ecclesiastical Structures, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic or Orthodox. The vision, in effect, was that to become a Christian made you a member of a Church, and to become a member of a Church was to become American or European. Now Venn and Anderson were advocating a much more independent indigenous model, a truly African Anglican Christianity, rather than an European Anglicanism within African clothing. An example of this was how in 1864, Revd Samuel Adjai Crowther, from Nigeria, was ordained an Anglican Bishop over what today is Nigeria.

It was a mission theory that had great influence until the Second World War. And even in the decades that followed it, and today in world missions, this approach deeply shapes the thinking and practice of many global organisations that engage in church planting in our world. Did it work? Was it correct? Missiologist Stephen Neil questions if the Three Self vision, if this sharp divide could be seen always, for example, in Acts and the epistles, where even though Paul, for example, desired to move into areas unreached by the gospel (Romans 15:v20-24), he did however remain in contact and exercise a form of oversight, or encouraged those in oversight, over these new churches. Neil also notes the first time this was applied in practice, was in Sierra Leone in 1860. Unfortunately the church was not ready for when the missionaries departed. Twenty years later, when the attempt was repeated, again, the new church was not yet mature or spiritually grown to be truly independent and in that case, the missionaries needed to step in once again to provide the senior leadership and provide direction. Of course much depended upon the support both of the CMS leadership in London and the CMS missionaries on the mission field.

Sadly, after Venn ceased leading CMS – mission executives as well as those on the mission field, increasingly took the view that Africans were of inferior quality for leadership and so European missionaries would always be needed.3 So it meant the local church became a colony of the foreign planting church. In Crowther’s case – after Venn’s death, and amidst growing friction with white European CMS missionaries, he resigned in 1880. The next African Bishop in West Africa was only consecrated in 1952.

When Venn’s writings are considered, certain principles are seen, about how to approach mission: 1) Follow God’s leading (Proverbs 16:1-9); 2) Begin on a small scale (Matt 13:33); 3) Money in second place – because money follows ministry, let prayer and study precede its collection. (Hebrews 13:5-6);  4) Send

High Calibre People (Acts 13:1-3); 5) Depend on the Holy Spirit (John 16:13- 15). Henry Venn, in character, was known for his humour and his great hospitality. He was married for 11 years, before his wife Martha died. He was left to raise his three young sons. 4

Henry Venn, died January 13, 1873, and was buried, at his request, at Mortlake Cemetary, West London in a simple wooden coffin. The service was a simple one, and contained missionary themed hymns which reflected his own lifelong commitment to world mission.

The Church of England remembers all three Venn’s as Anglican priests and evangelical divines, on July 1st  each year.

  1. We considered in March and April newsletters, Henry’s father and grandfather
  2. Wilberforce and others had won the first victory in 1807 to ban the slave trade in the Empire. The final achievement was the banning of slavery in its entirety across the Empire, achieved in law, in 1833.
  3. This sadly was an attitude not limited only to CMS, but in the last quarter of the nineteenth century this imperialist attitude (Europeans and Americans best, all others second), became embedded in many
  4. Two sons became Anglican priests. One, John, was a man with a great love for the sciences. It was John Venn who created what is now known as Venn Diagrams