No better introduction to the preaching of John Tillotson could be given than the epilogue set down upon his life by Bishop Gilbert Burnet in his funeral sermon for the late archbishop:
He set a Pattern to himself, and such an one it was, that 'tis to be hoped it will be long and much followed. He began with a deep and close study of the Scriptures, upon which he spent four or five years, till he had arrived at a true understanding of them. He studied next all the ancient Philosophers and Books of Morality: Among the Fadiers, St. Basil and St. Chrysostom were those he chiefly read. His joining with Bishop Wilkins in pursuing the Scheme for an Universal Character led him to consider exactly the Truth of Language and Style, in which no man was happier, and knew better the Art of preserving the Majesty of things under a Simplicity of Words; tempering those so equally together, that neither did his Thoughts sink, nor his Style swell: keeping always the due Mean between a low Flatness and the Dresses of false Rhetoric.1
The accuracy of Burnet's overview of Tillotson's preparatory education, though no doubt idealized to suit the genre of the encomium in which it appears, is largely confirmed based on the style and form of preaching that Tillotson evinced. In his preparation for preaching each sermon, that he began with the study of scripture itself appears in the facility with which he develops intrinsic arguments from the text for his sermons; only "next" did he turn to "the ancient Philosophers" and the church fathers to support or illustrate his own resolution of the argument.
Conspicuously absent from the encomium is notice of Tillotson's ever having studied some extant style, as John Donne and Lancelot Andrewes had studied Augustine and the Medieval traditions of the ars praedicandi.2 Rather, to his credit, Tillotson examined language and style at their roots and formed a style which would be most suitable to articulating the intrinsic arguments and proofs of Scripture, in a sort of "middle style" a few steps above the plain style of contemporary Puritans, but still worlds removed from the self-consciously rhetorical artifices of metaphysical preaching. Burnet continues:
Together with the Pomp of Words he did also cut off all Superfluities and needless Enlargements: He said just what was necessary to give dear Ideas of things, and no more: He laid aside all long and affected Periods: His sentences were short and dear: and the whole Thread was of a piece, plain and distinct. No affectation of Learning, no squeezing of texts, no superficial Strains, no false Thoughts nor bold Flights, all was solid and yet lively, and grave as well as fine... He conquered the Minds as well as commanded the Attention of his Hearers, who felt all the while that they were learning somewhat, and were never tired by him.3
So blended are his rejections of these elements from both styles and adoption of those elements from both styles, that perhaps his style is best considered his own formation, as Burnet would have his auditors believe. The strength of this style, then, rests in its pure inventiveness, and the events of his career gave this style substantial exposure to all parties and factions in England during the latter half of the seventeenth century. His own influence permitted the influence of his style to increase throughout the whole English church.
Tillotson was born to a strict Puritan father and educated at Clare Hall, Cambridge, under a tutor with strong Puritan leanings. Not surprisingly, then, he himself remained a Presbyterian for some time, even after his ordination by a Scottish bishop in 1661. When the Act of Uniformity was passed, he conformed to the teachings of the Church of England, and became the rector of Keddington, Suffolk. He left to become preacher to Lincoln's Inn in 1663, the office once held by John Donne. In 1668 Charles I appointed Tillotson a court chaplain. His upward motion never slowed, for he occupied the positions of prebendary and dean of Canterbury cathedral, prebendary, canon, and dean of St. …