John Donne and Conformity in Crisis in the Late Jacobean Pulpit

By Jeanne Shami | Go to book overview

Chapter 11

“BLESSED SOBRIETY”: JOHN DONNE, THE PUBLIC SPHERE, AND CAROLINE CONFORMITY

N THE LAST years of the Jacobean church, John Donne emerged as an important public figure at the center of political culture. In several high-profile sermons — especially his sermon defending James's Directions to Preachers in 1622 and his first sermon before King Charles in 1625 — Donne tested the boundaries of this sphere and the limits of its capacity to tolerate public dispute. Both sermons were preached on official occasions, published at royal command, and reprinted. Increasingly in the late Jacobean years, however, Donne's sense of vocation demanded a private discourse of conscience as well as a public discourse of religious identity. Both of these are brought together in sermons that negotiate the crises of censorship and controversy affecting the public sphere by creating a space within it to “stand inquiring right.” The identity formed in this crucible is one that exposes tensions and fault lines in the integrity of the English church as a community of believers as well as a public, national institution still working out the terms of its doctrine, discipline, and piety.

Because we have more evidence on which to evaluate his role, Donne's importance as a public figure ought to be even more apparent to us than to his contemporaries. However, despite a reputation as an engaging preacher, Donne does not figure in the annals of political and ecclesiastical power generally documented by historians. 1 And yet, more than any of his contemporaries, Donne embodied a vision of the church as a self-consciously inclusive English institution. The doctrine of that church was articulated in a set of articles that did not simply paper over the cracks dividing its most extreme critics (both external and internal), but offered a way of seeing, thinking, and discoursing about religion that could negotiate a stable ground between these views. Some divines, notably the English delegates to the international Synod of Dort, had participated in the compromises required for a harmony of confessions. 2 These delegates persisted in that process because the public good deriving from such

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1
In large part we can explain this neglect by the inadequacy of the instruments used to measure his contribution. Donne's impact cannot be calculated by the narrow standard of direct political influence, for example: numerous officially invited sermons, an extensive publication record, or promotion through the church's administrative ranks. Nor can even his most prominent sermons be easily interpreted as the direct cause of any discernible material effect. In most recent historical narratives about the character and identity of the English church, then, Donne figures, if at all, in footnotes or appendices.
2
Historical scholarship on the role of the English delegation at the Synod is clear on the labour of consensus enacted by most of the delegates, and particularly the English who reported on the degree

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