George Herbert's Sacramental Puritanism (*)

By Whalen, Robert | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

George Herbert's Sacramental Puritanism (*)


Whalen, Robert, Renaissance Quarterly


The relationship in the early Stuart church between doctrine and discipline -- between formal theological belief and outward matters including church governance, polity and ceremonial practice -- is important for our understanding of George Herbert's devotional lyrics. Eucharistic theories which entertained notions of "real presence" tended to support a sacerdotal style of divinity in which priest, ceremony and outward conformity were key features. Belief in the centrality of inward spiritual life, on the other hand, was reinforced by a theology in which the external elements are less effectual instruments than mere signs of a strictly invisible grace. This paper elucidates a sacramental poetics through which Herbert sought to reconcile the ideologically contrary imperatives of public ceremony and private religious devotion. The two are brought together successfully in The Temple, but this success consists largely in the drama resulting from the conflict the poems trace. Unmistakably inward in focus, Herbert' s devotional enthusiasm is cultivated nonetheless through a fully sacramental and sacerdotal apparatus.

George Herbert (1593-1633) has been identified as among the earliest of divines "to proclaim the new Anglo-centric orthodoxy" o the English church (Milton, 528). Whereas for earlier conformists the Church of England was a champion of true religion against anti-Christian Rome, the later Jacobean and Caroline ecclesiastical establishment sought to extricate itself from the confessional struggles of European Protestantism. This middle road, it is crucial to note, was based not on the ideal moderation it eventually came to signify in later historiography, but rather on a complex mixture of nationalism, the need to establish a greater sense of contiguity with tradition, and the growing inclination to jettison an earlier Protestant identity. Distinct from foreign Calvinism, the English middle way in the 1 620s and 1630s yielded increasingly to an emphasis on sacrament and ceremony to support the inclusivist policies of a state institution. Though most mainstream bishops and ministers sought to combine the ceremonia l and doctrinal elements of English Christianity, long-standing conflict over the church's confessional identity intensified and threatened seriously to erode relations among the establishment clergy. With its strained fusion of Reform doctrine and Roman Catholic ecclesiology, the English via media was compromised whenever sacrament and ceremony on the one hand conflicted on the other with a religious practice more devotional, scriptural and homiletic in orientation. (1)

An elaboration of C. A. Patrides's observation that the Eucharist is "the marrow of Herbert's sensibility" (Herbert, 1988, 17), this paper elucidates a sacramental poetics through which the poet sought to reconcile the potentially contrary imperatives of public ceremony and private religious devotion. There is in The Temple a marked ambivalence toward the relationship between these modes of piety, particularly as they converge on Herbert's treatment of sacrament. The two are brought together successfully, but this success consists precisely in the drama resulting from the ideological conflict the poems trace. Unmistakably inward in focus, Herbert's devotional enthusiasm is cultivated nonetheless through a fully sacramental apparatus. Similarly, while in certain respects exemplary of what Peter Lake has described as "avant-garde conformity" -- the aggressive promotion of a predominantly sacerdortal and ceremonial vision of the church (1991, 113-14) -- Herbert's verse also typifies the "internal religious exper ience" Anthony Milton identifies as a distinctive feature of both moderate and more radical Puritan divinity (12).

Critical proponents of a coherent Stuart via media discern in Herbert a balance of Protestant doctrine and reverence for traditional ceremonial forms. In recent scholarship, however, the middle road rends often to veer in a decidedly Genevan direction. …

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