On this day in history : 3rd August 1692 – The birth of English clergyman John Henley – known as ‘Orator Henley’ because of his eccentricity and showmanship….

Orator Henley christening a child – Public domain

Born in Melton Mowbray, the son of a vicar, Henley had received a grammar school education and had then gone on to study at St. John’s College, Cambridge…. Or, as he put it – “Ye college where I had ye stupidity to be educated”….

He became assistant, then director at Melton Mowbray Grammar School before moving to London in November 1721 to become an assistant preacher…. It was also during this period that he wrote several books…. It was after quarrelling with the Bishop of London that he began his own series of lectures – or ‘orations’ as he liked to call them – on ‘theological subjects and mundane matters’….

In 1723 he became Rector of Chelmondiston in Suffolk and on the 3rd of July 1726 opened his ‘Oratory’ – in a meeting room over the Shambles in Newport Market…. So keen were people to hear his somewhat unorthodox method of preaching that he moved his Oratory to a bigger premises – in an old theatre at Clare Market, near to Lincoln’s Inn Fields….

His well-attended meetings, in which he preached “on the world as it is, serious or ridiculous’ would often turn into a rowdy affair…. His theatrical approach prompted the weekly critical paper ‘The Connoisseur’ to write: “the Clare Market Orator, while he turns religion into farce, must be considered as exhibiting shrews and interludes of an inferior nature, and himself regarded as Jack-Pudding in a gown and cassock”….

Despite this criticism his services remained as popular as ever – not just with those attending for their entertainment value but also by freethinkers – those who inquire into the basis of traditional religious beliefs….

Orator Henley – Image credit : The Wellcome Collection CC BY

One cannot help wondering if the more cynical amongst his ‘flock’ didn’t have a point though…. It was once suggested that the god he actually worshipped was money….after all, he did charge a shilling to attend his meetings…. When questioned on this policy he replied that the seats were his personal property….

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