The son of a minister, Henry Venn became an evangelical after his marriage in 1750. Curate at Clapham from 1754, then vicar of Huddersfield from 1769, he moved to Yelling in Huntingdon, close enough to Cambridge to encourage young men such as Charles Simeon.
Upon his arrival in Yelling, Venn began to seek out others who held similar views as his own. He met several young university men at Cambridge, but worried that, as gifted as they might be, in their youthfulness they might be tempted to arrogance by the devil. In this excerpt from a letter to his son, John, in 1777—then at university himself—Henry Venn offers counsel worth repeating in an age of ministerial excesses and ladder climbing.
John Venn is probably best known as a member of the Clapham Sect and pastor to William Wilberforce. Doubtless, John Venn’s remarkable ministry in Clapham was shaped by his father’s good counsel about the work of the gospel preacher.
Sadly, the mark of the novice is that he is easily susceptible to pride. Courageous leaders must also be humble. God help us.
My first advice is, that you should beware of the device Satan too successfully practices against novices in religion. When he perceives they are no longer kept asleep in profaneness or formality—no longer to be deluded with the pleasures of gross sin, or the love of fame or wealth—when he sees they are determined to come out of the world and be separate—he alters his method to destroy them. “Be more separate,” he suggests, “distinguish yourself;immediately assume the preacher’s office: neglect the peculiar duties of your age and station, and intrude into what does by no means yet belong to you: force your sentiments upon others; and consider yourself, even in your youth (without experience, without knowledge, observe!) to be a reformer, authorized to despise your elders, to be impatient of submission, to be heady, high-minded: and then, to complete the whole, abuse learning, and be confident you have an impulse from heaven and a divine call to justify all you do!”—Thus I have seen religious young men perverted and become unsufferably disagreeable, by their false ideas of religion, and a stumbling-block in the way of others; they themselves seldom recovering from their forward, proud spirit. Under the influence of this proud spirit, they are always for overdoing, and for needless, nay, absurd singularities. They will even court persecution, and then swell with the idea that they are treated for Christ’s sake as the prophets and martyrs were of old. Take knowledge, therefore, of the important boundary between separation from the world and this offensive self-sufficient excess in things which our God does not require.1
1 Michael Hennell, John Venn and the Clapham Sect (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 48.