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Striking upon the passions

by
02 November 2006

by Adrian Leak

 

IN JUNE 1747, Surrey beat All England at cricket.

 

After the match, one of the members of the winning team threw down his bat, exclaiming: “Whoever wants a bat which has done me good service, may take that; as I have no further occasion for it.”

 

“Why?” they asked.

 

“Because”, said Henry Venn, “I am to be ordained on Sunday, and I will never have it said of me, ‘Well struck, Parson!’”

 

A later generation might have regretted that a future parson felt it necessary to give up his cricket, but this was the 18th, not the 19th, century; sport, whether on the cricket pitch or the croquet lawn, did not then sit easily with serious religion.

 

Even so, it would be wrong to think that Venn was a dull fellow. He was known at Cambridge as “a never failing fund of high spirits and natural hilarity”.

 

Beneath the engaging smile lay a consciousness of sin and a thirst for salvation. A reading of William Law’s classic A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life convinced him of his need for a rule of life.

 

He kept set times of prayer and meditation; read the Bible daily; kept a diary to record his spiritual progress; and he fasted. Every evening as the clock struck nine, he made a solitary perambulation of the great court at Trinity, using the chimes to recall thoughts of death and judgement, heaven and hell.

 

 

Yet he felt there was something missing. His search for personal holiness brought him no joy, only remorse at his failure. Then he experienced a second conversion. He saw that it was only Christ’s mercy that could liberate him, not his own endeavour. By the time he went to Huddersfield, his preaching was all of “the unsearchable riches of Christ”.

 

Fifty years later, when his grandson — also called Henry — revisited Huddersfield, he searched out those who could remember. “He was such a preacher as I never heard before or since,” said one old man. “He struck upon the passions like no other man.” No one who heard him was unaffected. “They fell, like slaked lime, in a moment.”

 

It was not by any means all hell-fire and damnation. “He had a stern look that would make you tremble,” said another old man; “then he would turn off to offers of grace, and begin to smile, and go on entreating till his eyes filled with tears.”

 

When it became known that he was retiring from Huddersfield, people flocked from the surrounding villages to get a last glimpse of their parson. Mothers held up their children to look and to remember: “There is the man who has been our faithful minister and our best friend,” they said.

 

As a young curate in Surrey , Venn had been accused of “enthusiasm” by some of the local clergy. One of them — a hard-drinking hunting parson — had come to his defence. “Hush! I feel a great respect for men as Venn, and wish there were more of the kind. They are the salt of our order, and keep it from putrefaction. . . A few of these pious ones redeem our credit, and save for us our livings.”

 

The Revd Adrian Leak is Hon. Assistant Curate of Worplesdon.

 

 

Henry Venn 1725-97

 

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