Henry Venn (1796-1873) was an Anglican missionary leader. His contribution to missions was to propose and implement a new way of doing missions and then have that start changing his own church back home.
Let’s remember that Venn lived much of his adult life lived in a era when European nations were conquering countries around the world and making them into colonies. This activity was accompanied by a belief in the superiority and supremacy of Europeans and European nations. As a citizen of the UK, Venn was surrounded by the thinking of his times. As one author notes of Venn’s times:
This was also the age when European culture was not self-critical. Indeed, the superiority of western civilization could be assumed.
Venn was the Honorary Secretary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) from 1841 to 1873. He used that position to shape the missions activities of the CMS in a direction away from European superiority. The belief in European superiority had crept into the church and into missions. For example, it was not uncommon for missionaries to retain control of the congregations they founded, stunt the development of local leadership, and demand respect for their authority from churches and converts.
Venn believed in a different approach. He wrote:
Regarding the ultimate object of a mission, viewed under its ecclesiastical aspect, to be the settlement of a native Church, under native pastors, upon a self-supporting system, it should be borne in mind that the progress of a mission mainly depends upon the training up and the location of native pastors; and that, as it has been happily expressed, ‘the euthanasia of a mission’ takes place when a missionary, surrounded by well-trained native congregations, under native pastors, is able to resign all pastoral work into their hands.
Wilbert R. Shenk describes Venn’s approach as follows.
He insisted that the mission organization should be viewed as a temporary scaffolding, to be dismantled once the church was fully organized and functioning.
He held before his missionaries the ideal of a church possessed of a healthy self-reliance.
By promoting the training of Africans and insisting on their competency in managing their own lives, he helped combat the effects of racism…
These ideas were very different from the ideology of his day. The supposed superiority of the white man implied that he would permanently run everything. But Venn wanted the opposite of the churches newly established by missionaries: As Shenk notes:
Instead the new church needs to receive encouragement as early as possible to try its own wings and move toward self-responsibility.
But, as Yale Professor Lamin Sanneh has noted, ideas like Venn’s planted a seed which would eventually push out the concept of white supremacy. For, if Africans, Asians and others are capable of governing themselves in eternal matters of faith then the lesser and temporal matter of politics must follow.
And follow it did. It was in their churches that not a few of those who protested for the freedom of their countries got their first taste of freedom from White rule
As I noted, the racist belief in European superiority had crept into the churches. A variety of factors would eventually oust it, at least formally. But missions was the tip of the spear. It was there that Venn and others developed a different approach and implemented it. From missions it seeped back into the church at home. I suspect that today missions might again be the tip of the spear. Missions and Christian organizations like World Vision are taking an approach to the world’s refugee crisis quite different from those that dominate the US political landscape.
Here’s a seldom-cited reason to support missions: the mission may help get your church back home out of false thinking that has crept into it from the surrounding culture.
Many of my thoughts in this blog draw on the following two documents:
* The Contribution of Henry Venn to Mission Thought; WILBERT R. SHENK
* Protestant Christian Missions, Race and Empire: The World Missionary Conference of 1910, Edinburgh, Scotland; Kim Caroline Sanecki