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John Donne and Conformity in Crisis in the Late Jacobean Pulpit

By Jeanne Shami | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

“THE INDISCRETION OF THAT FOOLE”: JOHN KNIGHT AND THE JACOBEAN PULPIT, 1620—2

CENSORSHIP: TIGHTENING REGULATIONS

ALTHOUGH the conditions for preaching and publishing sermons in the early 1620s did not mark a sharp break with the early part of James's reign, some principles governing allowable pulpit speech can be extrapolated. These principles do not amount to a clearly defined code; however, they suggest that sermons could be examined for both doctrinal and political lapses: exceeding the boundaries of orthodox divinity on the one hand, or meddling with matters of state on the other. Reported cases also suggest that definitions of both kinds of lapse were unstable. 1 Edmond Peacham's case indicates that it was perilous even to possess questionable manuscripts. 2 Peacham's examination and trial for treason engaged some of the best legal minds of the day, demonstrating that regulating words was an important issue for James's administration, even when those words did not enter the public sphere via the pulpit. Peacham never delivered the offending sermon, but in his papers he commented directly upon James, criticizing his prodigality, the misconduct of his officials, and his refusal to subject the ecclesiastical to the temporal courts. The sermon suggested that the king might be smitten with sudden death (after the examples of Ananias and Nabal), or that the people might rise in rebellion. Under examination, Peacham justified his words by authority of his vocation, but James had other ideas. In the judgment that he himself wrote, James revealed his standard for treasonable pulpit speech by explaining that “had he [Peacham] compiled a sermon upon any other ground, or stuffed the bulk of it with any other matter, and only powdered it here and there, with some passages of reprehension of the king; or had he never so bitterly railed against the king and upbraided him of any two or three, though monstrous vices, it might yet have been some way excusable” (II, 878). So, too, would have been such words spoken

____________________
1
Undoubtedly, it was difficult to publish things that commented (even tangentially) on official policies or to import controversial materials (Milton, Catholic and Reformed, p. 235n.). Thomas Goad is alarmed in 1621 for economic rather than religious reasons by a proposal to grant monopoly on the import of foreign books written by popish authors. He sees the policy as prejudicial to scholarship in that it will raise the price of books (Bodleian MS Tanner 290, fols. 46, 47 [9 and 15 January 1620/21]).
2
This account of Peacham's trial is recorded in Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials, II, 870—80. Chamberlain follows the story in his Letters, but introduces the charges against Peacham of “having written seditious discourses, under colour of petitions to the last parlement” (I, 568). The case is discussed in Gardiner, History, II, 272—83.

-36-

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