Had the Church of England's evangelism operation been the nation's royalty, Henry Venn would have been a king. His eponymous grandfather was one of the most influential evangelicals of his day (known largely for his shaping of Charles Simeon). His father, John, was rector of Clapham during its emphasis on moral renewal (antislavery crusader William Wilberforce was among his parishioners) and one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society (CMS).

But Henry Venn was no elitist—especially where race was concerned. Though Venn spent his life as a missions administrator, rather than as a missionary (in fact, he rarely spoke publicly, and never visited the mission field), he befriended Africans throughout his life.

One of his earliest memories was of playing with Africans sent to England for education. And he later recalled the words of an African merchant he had met. "Treat us like men, and we will behave like men," the merchant had told him. "Treat us as children and we shall behave like children."

This idea became a foundation of Venn's thinking as president of the CMS, a position he held from 1841 to 1872. European missions to Africa could produce infant Christians, but these could only grow to adulthood under a "self-supporting, self-governing, and self-extending" native church.

He likened a mission to scaffolding: "The master builder is the chief actor, and all the poles and platforms which he creates are the chief objects; but as the building rises the builders occupy less and less attention—the scaffolding becomes unsightly and when the building is completed it is taken to pieces." The purpose of sending missionaries, he said, is "the euthanasia of a mission."

Venn was not alone in his ideas, which were based in the vision of racial equality his father and other Clapham Sect members had promoted in their fight against slavery. But racism, backed by the rising philosophy of Social Darwinism and a growing state interest in colonialism, soon undermined his long-term goal of promoting indigenous Christianity.

"Even missionary societies suffer from the tendency to underrate the social and intellectual capacities of the native races," he lamented.