Christian Mathematicians – Venn

By Steve Bishop

(Disclaimer: The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of GodandMath.com. Guest articles are sought after for the purpose of bringing more diverse viewpoints to the topics of mathematics and theology. The point is to foster discussion. To this end respectful and constructive comments are highly encouraged.)

John Venn (1834-1923)

John Venn (1834-1923) was in a line of distinguished evangelical Venns. John’s grandfather John Venn[1] (1759-1813) was the founder of the Church Missionary Society and a member of the influential ‘Clapham sect’. His great-grandfather, Henry Venn (1725-1797), was involved with the revivalist George Whitefield and wrote The Complete Duty of Man (1763).[2] His father Henry (1796-1873) was the honorary secretary of the CMS 1841-1873.

Venn is perhaps best associated with Venn diagrams. These were introduced in 1880, in his ‘On the diagrammatic and mechanical representation of propositions and reasonings[3] Venn diagrams appear in a stained glass window at Caius Hall, Cambridge University commemorating the work of Venn.

His work in logic and statistics and then history was equally influential.

Venn was born on 4 August 1834 in Hull, the son of Henry (1796 -1873) and Martha Sykes. His mother died in 1840 while he was still young. He had a strict upbringing and it was always assumed that he would follow in the family tradition of attending Cambridge University and then entering the priesthood. He entered Goniville and Caius in Cambridge in 1853. He graduated in 1857. He was ordained deacon in 1858 and ordained as a priest a year later.

He served two curacies at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire (1858-59) and at Mortlake in Surrey (1860-62). He then returned to Caius as Lecturer in Moral Science. Part of his responsibilities involved the development of the Moral Science Tripos.

In 1867 he married Susanna Carnegie Edmonstone, the daughter of Revd Charles Welland. Their only son John Archibald Venn was born in 1883.

He was a Hulsean lecturer in 1869; his lectures were published as Some Characteristics of Belief, Scientific and Religious. During this time at Cambridge Venn was lecturing in logic and probability theory and wrote three important books on logic: The Logic of Chance (1866); Symbolic Logic (1881); and The Principles of Empirical Logic (1889). The first was described as ‘a book that should be read by every thinking man’, by the philosopher Charles Pierce.[4] It was in this book that the mathematical terms ‘significance’ and ‘rule of succession’ were first used.

In 1883 Venn made use of the 1870 Clerical Disabilities Act and left the priesthood. In the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. According to his son he always remained a man of religious conviction.

In 1888 he donated his collection of logic books to the university and he devoted himself to history. He wrote a history of his college Caius College[5], and with his son part 1 of Alumni Cantabrigienses: Biographical list of all known Students, Graduates , and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge from the earliest Times to 1900.[6] In 1904 he wrote a family history: The Annals of a Clerical family, which traced his family back to the seventeenth century.

He was made president of his college in 1903.

He died on 4 April 1923 and is buried in Trumpington, Cambridge.


[1] Michael M. Hennell John Venn and the Clapham Sect (Luterworth: Cambridge, 1958, reprinted 2002).

[2] Complete Duty of Man: or a System of Doctrinal and Practical Christianity. Designed for the Use of Families. A New Edition, Carefully Revised and Corrected by Rev. H. Venn, B.D. of St. John’s Holloway American Tract Society, 1838

[3] Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science S. 5. Vol. 9. No. 59. July 1880.

[4] North American Review 105 (July 1867): 317-21.

[5] Cambridge University Press, 1935.

[6] The ten volume 5700 pages has been reprinted By Thoemmes Press, 2001; the original was published fom1922-54.

Steve Bishop is the compiler of A Bibliography for a Christian Approach to Mathematics and the author of several articles on the relationship between faith and math. Look for future posts from him in this series on Christian Mathematicians.

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6 thoughts on “Christian Mathematicians – Venn

  1. d$ March 2, 2016 / 1:28 PM

    Can anyone say why Venn left the Anglican church and what he left it for?

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