Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview

P. G. Stanwood


Critical Directions in the Study of
Early Modern Sermons

We have difficulty today in recognizing the supreme importance of sermons in early modern times, but they were once fundamental to the general culture and affected almost everyone, providing religious inspiration, theological analysis, political commentary, and—certainly not least—a great measure of entertainment. The excitement of hearing a good sermon had special force in James's reign, for that theologically minded king would not miss the chance to hear one of his favorite preachers. He commonly took his preachers hunting with him, and would hear a sermon at eight in the morning, before eating and then setting off on the hunt. James was still thinking of Lancelot Andrewes's sermon at court on Christmas Day 1609, when, early the next year, it was reported that “the King with much importunitie had the copie delivered him ... before his going toward Roiston, and sayes he will lay yt still under his pillow.” 1.

Sermons were popular among all classes of people, not merely those at court, and the sermon was the preeminent literary genre in earlier seventeenth- century England—certainly not the drama, and surely not poetry, whether lyric or epic. Preachers might be heard anywhere in the country, without charge or inconvenience, though the best or most ambitious of them hoped for an audience in London, and a few preachers, who were thought interesting or challenging enough, were chosen to preach at court or else at such popular and prestigious locations as St. Paul's, or outside the cathedral, at Paul's Cross. This was a theological age, and its principal expression the homiletic discourse. However, the sermon was not, as W. Fraser Mitchell long ago wrote, “inspired

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1.
John Chamberlain, The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N. E. McClure, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939), 1:292, 295, quoted in Peter McCulloch, Sermons at Court: Politics and Religion in Elizabethan and Jacobean Preaching (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 126.

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