John Venn—The Forgotten Center of the Clapham Sect
The fascination of Newtonian physics, the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the rise of the Industrial Revolution, and the religious downgrade at Oxford and Cambridge all combined to make church life listless in eighteenth-century England. Emerging from the Enlightenment, Deism (the belief that if God exists, He is not directly involved in world affairs) held a stranglehold on the nation’s life. John Venn, the Rector of Clapham, sought to remedy the situation no matter the cost. Religious scholars and various academic clerics had attempted to refute the claims of Christianity, but Venn saw the church as the problem. Believing the best, most biblical method to counteract the pitfalls of heresy to be the careful and passionate preaching by local church ministers, Venn sought to emulate his father’s work in a local church. Henry Venn (John’s father) was part of the evangelical revival which swept through the church in England prior to the work of Whitefield or Wesley. Young John was tutored at the feet of his father in preparation for one of the most important ministry positions in all of England—Holy Trinity Church, Clapham.
No sooner had John Venn accepted the position at Clapham did advice come pouring in on exactly what and how to preach. Venn was coming from a smaller church in Dunham to the large, educated, and wealthy parish of Clapham. He was cautioned to be very careful “otherwise they will think you have come to turn all topsy-turvy.”1 Another friend warned of difficulties with “your opulent parishioners should they become offended.”2
To the contrary, William Wilberforce, a member of the Clapham congregation, advised him to challenge his people from the start. Long before Venn came to Clapham, Wilberforce had become friends with John Newton who later introduced him to Henry Thornton. John Venn’s preaching would greatly influence Thornton in the formation of what came to be known as the Clapham Sect.
One of Venn’s most famous sermons was before the Church Missionary Society on June 5, 1805. He rebuked politicians and philosophers for their failure to rightly understand the Church and her dutiful impact on the world:
Was a single hospital founded through their persuasion? Were schools provided through their suggestions for instruction of the inferior orders? Did they bear testimony against slavery? Or was the civil state of the poor at all meliorated by their labours?3
John Venn’s sermons continually stressed that Christianity affects the totality of human existence. Venn often called the Christian faith “a seven-day-a-week religion and not just a Sunday one.”4
Venn so often stressed that his hearers would appear for their “future audit at the bar of God”5 that William Pitt once asked Henry Thornton (a Member of Parliament as well as the Clapham Church) why he had voted against him. Thornton replied, “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.”6
The influence of John Venn’s preaching was seen by the implementation of policies through the lives of his congregation. Wilberforce would often borrow the written manuscripts of Venn’s sermons as a guide for his thinking in matters of governmental policy.7 “The Saints,” as they were called in Parliament, restored integrity to public life. They challenged and reformed education policy, attacked slavery, and sought to rid the country of pornography.
John Venn often preached about the themes of Easter and the Ascension. Once, when giving a funeral sermon, he spoke with such power about heaven that some thought he had actually been there.8 Contemplation of the next world did not lead John Venn away from this one, but into it. He urged his congregation to always live as citizens of heaven so that they might bring the fruits of heaven here on earth.
Michael Hennel, John Venn and the Clapham Sect (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 113.