John Donne and Conformity in Crisis in the Late Jacobean Pulpit

By Jeanne Shami | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

“THE FISHING OF WHALES”: JOHN DONNE'S SERMONS, 1620—2

LTHOUGH not published in his lifetime, a number of sermons preached by John Donne in the crucial period from 1620 to August 1622 have survived. These sermons span the period during which Donne was Reader at Lincoln's Inn, and after November 1621, Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. They offer an important single case of the responses of a perceptive and complex preacher to the political climate registered in historical studies, and represented in the sermons already examined. Donne is a key figure for several reasons. It was Donne who was commissioned to defend James's Directions at Paul's Cross on 15 September 1622. There, the pressures wrought by censorship upon pulpit discourse are both inscribed and addressed. Donne's homiletic response to these restrictions is paradigmatic of the kinds of obedient counsel that could be practised in the pulpit. In it, Donne interrogates the boundaries of the public sphere and of his commitment to state institutions and authorities, and models for his hearers an actively engaged conformist identity. His sermons provide the most complex and most fully documented examples of such discreet conformity operating within the prevailing conditions of censorship and controversy. 1 They reveal the fault lines within the English church, but, more important, they reveal the integrity of Donne's spirited religious imagination.

Donne's activities in 1620—2 after his return from the continent with the Doncaster embassy need to be reassessed in light of circumstances affecting preaching and controversial expression of any kind in the months leading up to the Directions. 2 It is by no means clear that Donne's selection to preach the sermon defending the Directions was the inevitable consequence of his reputation as an apologist for the Jacobean ecclesiastical administration. 3 Donne's reputation as a conformable minister, however, cannot be doubted. On 23 April 1621, for example, Donne was authorized to judge the conformity of one Anthony Hunt,

____________________
1
The phrase “discreet or religious” is used by Abbot in his letter accompanying the Directions (in Visitation Articles and Injunctions, ed. Fincham, I, 214) to clarify that James does not intend to discourage “obedient” and orderly preaching. Donne quotes the phrase to stress that “heere is no abating of Sermons, but a direction of the Preacher to preach usefully, and to edification” (IV, 209).
2
Donne's participation in the Doncaster embassy is treated in Sellin.
3
Donne had defended James's Oath of Allegiance in Pseudo-Martyr (1610); however, whereas Donne's Catholic background had enhanced the ethical appeal of that work, that same background could have weakened his effectiveness in September 1622, especially in light of puritan fears that the Directions were intended to curb puritan sermons and encourage toleration of Catholics.

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