John Donne and Conformity in Crisis in the Late Jacobean Pulpit

John Donne and Conformity in Crisis in the Late Jacobean Pulpit

John Donne and Conformity in Crisis in the Late Jacobean Pulpit

John Donne and Conformity in Crisis in the Late Jacobean Pulpit

Synopsis

This book considers the professional contribution of John Donne to an emerging homiletic public sphere in the last years of the Jacobean English Church (1621-25), arguing that his sermons embody the conflicts, tensions, and pressures on public religious discourse in this period; while they are in no way "typical" of any particular preaching agenda or style, they articulate these crises in their most complex forms and expose fault lines in the late Jacobean Church. The study is framed by Donne's two most pointed contributions to the public sphere: his sermon defending James I's Directions to Preachers and his first sermon preached before Charles I in 1625. These two sermons emerge from the crises of controversy, censorship, and identity that converged in the late Jacobean period, and mark Donne's clearest professional interventions in the public debate about the nature and direction of the Church of England. In them, Donne interrogates the boundaries of the public sphere and of his conformity to the institutions, authorities, and traditions governing public debate in that sphere, modelling for his audience an actively engaged conformist identity. Professor JEANNE SHAMI teaches in the Department of English at the University of Regina.

Excerpt

His study proposes to examine the late Jacobean pulpit, and particularly the sermons of John Donne, as an index of “conformity” and its expression in the years immediately preceding and including the transition from the Jacobean to the Caroline monarchy (1621—5). During these years, sermons, always important in Jacobean religious and political culture, became sites of contention for important matters of religious and national identity, contention epitomized by James I's Directions to Preachers. These Directions, issued on 4 August 1622 by George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, were an attempt to reduce to order a pulpit that had become increasingly critical of and outspoken about the implications for religious belief and practice of James's domestic and foreign policies. The uncertainty created by James's inconsistent policies regarding Catholics, his negotiations for a Spanish marriage for his son Charles, and his apparent indifference to the affairs of his daughter Elizabeth, her husband the Elector Palatine (now claiming the title of King of Bohemia), and James's grandchildren on the continent contributed to the heightened religious tension. Even the decision to issue such directions attested to James's desperation, or perhaps to his waning political acuity. Such an edict was practically unenforceable, especially outside London, and subject to the energy, commitment, and political agenda of James's bishops and their agents. Whether or not the Directions were actually effective in controlling the kinds of pulpit discourse that James intended, however, their issuing exposed fault lines in the Church of England that contributed to a reconfigured Caroline church and the demise of the Jacobean order. The crisis they both reflected and precipitated was, to some, barely perceptible at the time. But the pressures they exerted worked a tectonic shift in the balance of forces within the English church, the effects of which were profound.

The crisis in the late Jacobean English church is evidenced first by the pressures of censorship to make language conform to certain “acceptable” standards at a time when these standards were not well understood or articulated, nor the consequences of unacceptable speech clear. Under pressure, some preachers exceeded the boundaries of conformity, and paid the legal and political consequences, while others applied strict laws of self-censorship to their words. The forces brought to bear also radicalized formerly conformist divines, many of whom became increasingly aware of the pulpit's persuasive power and attempted to manipulate it. Efforts to control . . .

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