John Henley

John Henley

John Henley (August 3, 1692October 13, 1759), English clergyman, commonly known as 'Orator Henley,' and one of the first entertainers and a precursor to the talk show hosts of today.

The son of a vicar, John Henley was born in Melton Mowbray. After attending the grammar schools of Melton and Oakham, Rutland, he entered St John's College, Cambridge, "Ye College where I had ye Stupidity to be educated," as he himself said. After having taken a B.A. degree, he became assistant and, afterwards, director in the grammar school of Melton Mowbray. He was also assistant curate there.

In 1714, he wrote a poem styled "Esther, Queen of Persia", which was received with applause, and in 1719–1721, he published "The Compleat Linguist; or, An Universal Grammar of all the Considerable Tongues in Being". In November 1721, after having taken his degree as Master of Arts, he moved to London, where he obtained the appointment of assistant preacher and wrote several books. Quarrelling with the Bishop of London, he gave up his benefice, and began his lectures or 'Orations' on theological subjects and mundane matters.

On July 3, 1726 he opened his so-called 'Oratory', a meeting room built over the shambles in Newport Market. In 1729, he transferred the scene of his operations to an old theater at Clare Market, near Lincoln's Inn Fields, where he continued to preach "on the world as it is, serious or ridiculous." "The Truth of the Gospel is in its Spirit and Moral, its practical Graces," he said, " the rest is, in Comparison, as sounding Brass, or as a tinkling Cymbal." His discourses were extremely popular and, as a kind of show, mainly addressed to the least educated audiences, so that there were several rowdy disturbances in his 'Oratory'.

Into his services he introduced many peculiarities. He drew up a 'Primitive Liturgy,' in which he substituted for the Nicene and Athanasian creeds, two creeds taken from the Apostolical Constitutions; for his 'Primitive Eucharist' he made use of unleavened bread and mixed wine; and, most interestingly, he distributed medals of admission to his 'Oratory' at the price of one shilling. A visitor accused Henley that money was the god whom he worshipped: "we must give One Shilling to the Door-Keeper, for the Seats were personal Property. A very fine Story indeed! And such a one, that is not to be paralleled, that we should pay a Shilling before we can worship GOD!"

Henley knew that the most original element in the services was he himself. In his "Dunciad", Alexander Pope called him a "great restorer of the good old Stage / Preacher at once and Zany of thy age." He possessed some extraordinary oratorical ability and adopted a very theatrical style of elocution, tuning his voice and balancing his hands. His addresses were a strange medley of solemnity and buffoonery, of clever wit and the wildest absurdity, of able and original disquisition and the worst artifices of the oratorical charlatan.

Henley also seems to have been the first talk show host in England, as he was the head of discussion shows held in his 'Oratory'. No wonder that "The Connoisseur", a critical weekly paper, wrote that "the Clare-Market Orator, while he turns religion into farce, must be considered as exhibiting shews and interludes of an inferior nature, and himself regarded as a Jack-pudding in a gown and cassock." Despite such harsh criticism, the energetic and eccentric 'Orator' was very popular among most Londoners. His services were much frequented by the Freethinkers, and he himself expressed his determination "to die a rational."

For some years Henley edited the "Hyp Doctor", a weekly paper established in opposition to the "Craftsman". He died in London on October 13, 1759.

Henley was the subject of several contemporary caricatures, among them works by George Bickham the Younger and William Hogarth.


* Graham Midgley, "The Life of Orator Henley" (Oxford, 1973).

External links

* [ National Portrait Gallery: John Henley]

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