HENLEY, JOHN (1692-1759), English clergyman, commonly known as " Orator Henley," was born on the 3rd of August 1692 at Melton-Mowbray, where his father was vicar. After attending the grammar schools of Melton and Oakham, he entered St John's College, Cambridge, and while still an undergraduate he addressed in February 1712, under the pseudonym of Peter de Quir, a letter to the Spectator displaying no small wit and humour. After graduating B.A., he became assistant and then headmaster of the grammar school of his native town, uniting to these duties those of assistant curate. His abundant energy found still further expression in a poem entitled Esther, Queen of Persia (1714), and in the compilation of a grammar of ten languages entitled The Complete Linguist (2 vols., London, 1719-1721). He then decided to go to London, where he obtained the appointment of assistant preacher in the chapels of Ormond Street and Bloomsbury. In 1723 he was presented to the rectory of Chelmondiston in Suffolk; but residence being insisted on, he resigned both his appointments, and on the 3rd of July 1726 opened what he called an " oratory " in Newport Market, which he licensed under the Toleration Act. In 1729 he transferred the scene of his operations to Lincoln's Inn Fields. Into his services he introduced many peculiar alterations: 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; he distributed at the price of one shilling medals of admission to his oratory, with the device of a Sun rising to the meridian, with the motto Ad summa, and the viordslnveniam viam autfaciam below. But the most original clement in the services was Henley himself, who is described by Pope in the Dunciad as " Preacher at once and zany of his age."
He possessed some oratorical ability and adopted a very theatrical style of elocution, " tuning his voice and balancing his hands "; and 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. His services were much frequented by the " freethinkers," and he himself expressed- his determination " to die a rational." Besides his Sunday sermons, he delivered Wednesday lectures on social and political subjects; and he also projected a scheme for connecting with the " oratory " a university on quite a Utopian plan. For some time he edited the Hyp Doctor, a weekly paper established in opposition to the Craftsman, and for this service he enjoyed a pension of 100 a year from Sir Robert Walpole. At first the orations of Henley drew great crowds, but, although he never discontinued his services, his audience latterly dwindled almost entirely away. He died on the 13th of October 1759.
Henley is the subject of several of Hogarth's prints. His life, professedly written by A. Welstede, but in all probability by himself, was inserted by him in his Oratory Transactions. See J. B. Nichols, History of Leicestershire; I. Disraeli, Calamities of Authors.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)