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Section III: Central Records

Part 20: Papers of Henry Venn (Secretary of CMS, 1841-1873) and Family

Henry Venn (1796-1873), Secretary of the Church Missionary Society for thirty-one years from 1841-1873, was one of the key figures of the nineteenth century missionary and evangelical movement. He is known as the father of the indigenous church principle – self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating.

Peter Williams provides a very good account of Henry Venn’s importance and strategic vision in his essay, “Not Transplanting”: Henry Venn’s Strategic Vision see pp 147-172 of The Church Mission Society and World Christianity, 1799-1999 edited by Kevin Ward and Brian Stanley.

Peter Williams writes:

“….The third quarter of the nineteenth century provides a particularly rich seam. And at its apex stands the great CMS secretary, Henry Venn. If his importance is now well-enough recognized by historians who are specialists in missionary history, he and the ideas he stood for have yet to be appreciated even by historians of nineteenth-century religion, and that inevitably means that he is largely unappreciated by the more general reader….

What Venn did in essence was to wrestle with the reality of cultural distinctiveness and to map out a missionary strategy that both took this seriously and sought to extrapolate and implement biblical and historical principles of church growth. And in doing this he was no lonely beacon seeking to spread light amid the darkness of his generation. He was rather the most articulate and systematic exponent of ideas that had a very wide currency in missionary circles and beyond….”

The papers of Henry Venn (1796-1873), part of the Accessions of the CMS in Special Collections at Birmingham University Library, include not only his private papers and those of his wife Martha but also other members of his family, including his father John, his grandfather Henry and his brother John. It will be helpful for researchers to have a brief note on the relationship between the members of the family:

  • Henry Venn, (1796-1873) Secretary of CMS, married Martha Sykes.
  • His brother, John Venn (1802-1890) married Frances Turton.
  • Henry Venn had two sons, John Venn (1834-1923) and Henry Venn (b1838) and one daughter, Henrietta (1832-1902).
  • His father, John Venn (1759-1813) was Rector of Clapham and member of the Clapham Sect and one of the founders of the CMS. He married Katherine King.
  • His grandfather, Henry Venn (1725-1797), a member of the first-generation evangelicals, married Eling Bishop.

The papers have been divided into two parts with the following sections forming the second part, Section III Part 20:

• Personal correspondence, 1813-1877 of Henry Venn (1796-1873), Secretary of CMS. These include many from William Wilberforce. Also personal correspondence of his wife Martha (d 1840) and his son John (1834-1923)

• Family correspondence of Henry Venn’s brother, John Venn (1802-1890) plus correspondence of the King, Newton and Thornton families

• Miscellaneous papers including two log books of East India Company Ships, religious pamphlets and books

Biographical Details

Henry Venn was born in 1796 on the outskirts of London, at Clapham. His father, John Venn (1759-1813) was rector of Clapham parish and a pastor to William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton, James Stephen and others who made up the famous Clapham Sect.  This was a group of around twelve second-generation Evangelicals, mostly members of Parliament, the best known member being William Wilberforce, the campaigner against slavery. The first-generation Evangelical Revival had been dominated by the Wesleys, George Whitefield and Henry Venn (1725-1797), father of John and grandfather of Henry. Whereas the first-generation Evangelicals were intent on leading a religious revival, the second-generation were more preoccupied with philanthropic and religious societies. They helped the poor, taught children to read, wrote and published literature, campaigned against the slave trade and formed missionary societies. John Venn presided at the meeting of the Clapham Sect when the Society for Missions in Africa and the East was formed in 1799, later renamed the Church Missionary Society.

Henry Venn (1796-1873) was orphaned at the age of seventeen and was entrusted with the completion of the biography of his grandfather, Henry Venn (1725-1797). The Life and Letters of Henry Venn was published in 1834 and went through five editions, establishing Venn as an interpreter of the evangelical tradition. As a third-generation evangelical Henry Venn extended the work of his father and colleagues by pioneering legislative social reform and home missions. Annual meetings of the many religious societies of the period took place at Exeter Hall on the Strand. These meetings lasted six weeks and were an opportunity for the faithful to gather and pledge their enthusiasm for the evangelical cause. The main newspaper for the cause was the Christian Observer, Venn serving as a longtime member of the paper’s board and in 1869 becoming editor. He also served on two Royal Commissions which dealt with ecclesiastical questions.

As Secretary of the CMS for over thirty years from 1841-1873, Venn was the chief executive of the Society at an extremely important time in its development, a time when Britain was expanding its colonies and the young churches in these countries needed Bishops. Venn however was unsure about the place of episcopacy in the mission of the Church, seeing the Bishop as the “crown”  of the mission rather than the “keystone”.

He took on the role as Secretary  in 1841 at a time when CMS was in dire financial straits, but as a result of various appeals organized by Venn, by 1847 things were looking much better and the number of missionaries sent out was rising steadily. This state of affairs continued almost to the very end of Venn’s time in office, until 1870, when there was again a financial crisis and retrenchments and the CMS decided to install an Honorary Clerical Secretary to take the society forward by producing more publications and income.

Venn dealt with all aspects of CMS work- personal dealings with missionaries, committees, minutes and reports, relations with government officials and deputations for churches.

Venn became CMS Secretary in 1841, shortly after the British Parliament had passed the act for the abolition of slavery. The slave trade however was still flourishing and Venn was concerned that the British Squadron Patrol on the West African coast should continue. The Government agreed to his demands and by 1865 the West African slave trade had been brought under control.  

Venn’s second main concern was education and together with other missionary leaders he was influential in the drafting of the 1854 Education Despatch. This order committed the East India Company to an enlargement of the Indian educational system and an expansion of the mission-sponsored schools. Venn recommended that education in India should be conducted in the vernacular and he organised the Christian Vernacular Education Society for India to this purpose. He was also keen for the missions in West Africa to concentrate on education of the local people believing that they were very capable of taking on responsibility and exercising leadership and he brought young Africans to Great Britain for training, one of these being Samuel Adjai Crowther who was to become Bishop of Nigeria.

Venn also devoted much of his time to the study of missionary history, publishing a biography of the Roman Catholic missionary Francis Xavier in 1862.

He will be remembered as a great administrator and one of the greatest Secretaries the CMS ever had. As one of his successors wrote one hundred years later, “Venn was essentially an administrator of missions”.

Venn’s wife Martha died in 1839 leaving him to bring up three children. Venn’s son John (1834-1923) became president of Gonville and Caius College and another son Henry became a parish priest.

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