John Donne and Conformity in Crisis in the Late Jacobean Pulpit

By Jeanne Shami | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

“WISE AS SERPENTS, AND INNOCENT AS DOVES”: ZEAL AND DISCRETION IN THE PULPIT, 1623—5

LTHOUGH fewer sermons were challenged following the Directions, those that survive bear all the marks of anxiety, tension, and pressure that the Directions had identified. To begin with, the Directions had proscribed virulent anti-papism, and yet anti-papist rhetoric continued to dominate the pulpit. What had changed were the uses to which this rhetoric was put, the particular aspects of Roman iniquity that were stressed, and the polarizing effect this rhetoric produced within the church. While the Directions had sought to contain the divisive effects of controversy (by forbidding personal attacks, labeling, and controversy), extant sermons suggest that it had entirely the opposite effect. “Puritan” and “Arminian” emerged as well- understood enemies, while the perceived crisis of religion in England (mirroring the advance of counter-Reformation forces on the continent) was exacerbated by political events in both places. Ongoing negotiations for a Spanish match for Charles, pressure to intervene in the Thirty Years War on the continent, and sectarian threats from the margins of the established church provoked intense public debate. Whereas in the period immediately preceding the Directions, very few controversial sermons had been published, the period following shows an increase in controversial topical application of scriptural texts. And where the Directions had sought to prevent discussion of matters of state, preachers in the late Jacobean years commented obsessively — if more obliquely — on questions of authority and jurisdiction, the duties of their callings, and the application of their texts to present crises, including war and peace, the miseries of continental co-religionists, and the religious and political leadership of their ailing monarch. To the topical matters handled in sermons before the Directions were added a large number of sermons dealing with marriage.

This chapter surveys late Jacobean sermons in preparation for a methodological shift in the remaining chapters to “moments of crisis” in the English church. Five such flashpoints will be spotlighted: the prince's departure for Spain in early 1623; his return in October 1623; the parliamentary session of early 1624; completion of negotiations for a French match in late 1624; and the death of James and accession of Charles in the first half of 1625. Each of these moments will provide a lens for viewing the battle for the public sphere conducted in the pulpit. And each will demonstrate the degree to which controversial questions of doctrine moved outward from the private sphere of conscience into a public institutional domain. The fault lines observed will not yield their full cataclysmic potential in these years, but they will make its emergence in the 1630s more understandable.

And what of John Donne? Having delivered the sermon both defending the king's Directions and modeling the discretion required from preachers, he

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