Monday 18 March 2019

Silent Preaching: Laypeople’s Manuscript Sermons, c. 1530 – c. 1700

One Sunday, Mr Hackit’s nephew, Master Tom Stokes, a flippant town youth, greatly scandalised his excellent relatives by declaring that he could write as good a sermon as Mr Gilfil’s; whereupon Mr Hackit sought to reduce the presumptuous youth to utter confusion, by offering him a sovereign if he would fulfil his vaunt. The sermon was written, however; and though it was not admitted to be anywhere within reach of Mr Gilfil’s, it was yet so astonishingly like a sermon, having a text, three divisions, and a concluding exhortation beginning “And now, my brethren,” that the sovereign, though denied formally, was bestowed informally, and the sermon was pronounced, when Master Stokes’s back was turned, to be “an uncommon cliver thing.”[1]
Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the standard definition of an early modern sermon, summarised concisely by Peter McCullough as ‘a discourse upon a text from the Bible delivered to a congregation or auditory by an authorized minister’. They will be aware that the typical structure of a sermon dating from this era was tripartite, comprising an explication of the chosen verse, an application to the audience’s lives, and a final exhortation to act upon the lessons learnt in the space of that sermon’s delivery.[2] Holding data from almost 1,000 manuscripts to date, GEMMS contains tens of thousands of sermons in various different forms (see ‘GEMMS’s Sermon Taxonomy’) which can be categorised according to McCullough’s definition. But how about the sermons in the database which do not conform to this description? The diversity of approaches by which Protestant ministers selected and dissected their texts has been a prominent concern of the existing literature. However, little consideration has been given to sermons that were not especially based upon any text but which were more discursive or devotional in nature. Moreover, English sermons written by men and women who were not ordained and could claim no professional connection with the Church have attracted almost no attention whatsoever.[3] While the notes of lay auditors in congregations have been carefully researched by historians such as Ian Green, John Craig and John Spurr, sermons written by laypeople, and not only by the ‘tub-preachers’ satirised by the likes of John Taylor the Water-Poet in Revolutionary England, remain an untapped source.[4] The Master Tom Stokes of George Eliot’s short story had more serious predecessors; that is to say, the sermon genre was not restricted to the clergy and the upstart ‘holders-forth’.[5] This blog post investigates these particular works which were likely never preached, but which exist in manuscript. Sermons which are not structured around scriptural texts are also discussed. In doing so, it seeks to shed further light on the extensive influence of the sermon on the writing cultures of early modern England. It also calls into question the rather singular interpretation of an ‘early modern sermon’ prevalent in much recent scholarship, and invites prospective contributors to GEMMS to consider if they have encountered similarly unusual examples.

If a ‘sermon’ is not based on a text, and if it was never spoken, can it still be classified as a sermon? It would, of course, be easy to dismiss all these works in question as examples of religious writings which are decidedly not sermons. Indeed, it is sometimes the case that these texts are primarily identifiable as sermons because they possess a single endorsement, often written in a nineteenth-century hand, and have remained labelled thus in the archive catalogues ever since. An example is St. Paul’s Cathedral Library, MS 38.F.48.01 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000913), in which the word ‘Sermons’ has been pencilled on the verso of the third flyleaf. ‘MSS. SERM’ has also been stamped on a leather label which has been pasted onto the spine of this volume. The manuscript contains two anonymous works possibly dating from the early seventeenth century which could be considered more as treatises than sermons, although it is possible that they may have had origins in oral discourse. The first, entitled ‘A Brief, But A true and Perfect Discouery of the Sinfull Estate, and Miserable Condition of Man’ (GEMMS-SERMON-013356) is a meditation on Original Sin. Although there is a citation of Psalms 39:1 at the beginning of the work (‘I will take heed Vnto my Wayes, that I Sin not with my Tongue’), the author does not stay with this text throughout. The second treatise in the manuscript, ‘A true Discouery of the Vanity of the Creature, Collected Out of the Sacred Scriptures, As also, Out of the Laborious Works of Ancient, and Modern Diuines’ (GEMMS-SERMON-013357), displays some of the rhetorical features of transcribed sermons (‘Let vs apply the Authority of the Word to Our Own Particular Sicknesse and disease’ (f. 18v)) but is not based on a single biblical verse.

The conclusions which could be drawn so far is that these works have been mistakenly catalogued as sermons; the above instance presents a somewhat ambiguous case which has been included in the database in order that users can draw their own conclusions. But the idea that lay writers could, in some cases, adopt a more flexible approach to the sermon genre can be entertained further if one contemplates a number of examples which are specifically classified as sermons by their authors or contemporary scribes. The rest of this blog post is dedicated to showcasing these atypical ‘sermons’.

The career of Clement Armstrong (c. 1477–1536), radical reformer, amateur preacher, grocer and decorator, has been subject to some scrutiny.[6] Armstrong wrote several substantial treatises on economics and the defence of the establishment of the Church of England. Ethan H. Shagan has gone so far to state that the latter series of tracts, written no later than 1533, may be the ‘most comprehensive and radical justifications for the royal supremacy over the Church ever written in England’.[7] There is no evidence that his ‘Sermons & declarac[i]ons agaynst Popishe ceremonyes’ were delivered orally (The National Archives, E 36/197; GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000980).[8] Armstrong’s approach to the sermon is loose and varied; while one sermon is quite closely anchored to Psalms 7:15, others in the volume are more like political tracts. In the case of the first sermon in the volume (pp. 3–55), it is not clear which verse within Jeremiah 30 is the central focus.

Figure 1: Beginning of Thomas Bromley's 'A Sermon from Mount Olivet'. © The British Library. Sloane MS 2569, f. 78r.

In some manuscript sermons, no biblical text at all can be discerned. British Library, Sloane MS 2569 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001037) contains an undated ‘Sermon from Mount Olivet’ delivered by Thomas Bromley (c. 1630–1691), a mystical writer (GEMMS-SERMON-015628). ‘A Sermon from Mount Olivet’, written in an unskilled round hand, opens with a rhetorical flourish: ‘Let me speak of The Beloved Jesus of Nazareth, who, This morning hath opened Hims. in Life & Pow’r; He is The Great High Priest, The Blessed Sheapherd of ye Sheep; Who fro[m] ye Heart of God Breatheth forth His Sweet Oyntm[en]ts all Over Paradice, & thro all Worlds, Down to ye Poor & Needy […]’ (f. 78r). Bromley was never ordained, nor did he seem to have a flock of his own at any point in his career. On the title page of The Way to the Sabbath of Rest (London: John Streater for Giles Calvert, 1655), a mystical treatise and the only work which he published (anonymously), he is simply identified as a ‘member’, as opposed to ‘minister’, ‘of the true Church’. He was a devout follower of the Behmenist John Pordage (c. 1607–1681), having declined to take up a Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford in order to join his community in 1654. Pordage’s congregation or ‘Family’ was described by Richard Baxter as ‘pretend[ing] to hold visible and sensible Communion with Angels, whom they sometime see, and sometime smell’.[9]

Figure 2: Conclusion of Thomas Bromley's 'A Sermon from Mount Olivet'. © The British Library. Sloane MS 2569, f. 79r.

Perhaps the most interesting manuscript, however, is an unassuming duodecimo volume formerly housed at Heythrop College, University of London Library.[10] Heythrop College, BT 3055 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000813) contains sixteen devotional sermons about the Passion of Christ, composed c. 1700. Based on the names inscribed within the volume, it is conjectured by Heythrop College that the work was written by a female ancestor of Cardinal Herbert Vaughan (1832–1903). Notably, the manuscript went through several owners and was presented as a gift by one person with the following words written in pencil on the front flyleaf: ‘This will give you an inspiration for preaching’. Although these texts self-identify as sermons, they deviate the most from the conventional characterisation of an early modern sermon. Instead of choosing the appropriate passages from the Bible and working through the Passion story progressively, as is the case with two sermons contained within St. Paul’s Cathedral Library, MS 38.G.16.01 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000938), each of these sermons begin by describing an episode of the Passion, narrated by ‘Christ’ in the first person. All of these sermons end with a section entitled ‘The fruit [of the sermon]’ which is the instructional part of the entry, often replete with admonitions and appeals to the reader, who is most often addressed as ‘the saruant’.

The three manuscripts above demonstrate some of the different ways in which the ‘sermon’ as a genre was interpreted; namely, as polemical treatise and as devotional literature. But there is one final, related observation to be made about unusual sermons not centred on biblical texts. There are a number of extant sermons purported to have been delivered under extraordinary circumstances. British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A XXV (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-1073) contains a short report of a sermon, apparently dating from the second half of the sixteenth century, by one ‘P[ar]son Hyberdyne’, which was ‘made att the com[m]andemente of certen theves aft[er] thay had robbed hym’ (GEMMS-REPORT-000085) [11]. The account transcribes Hyberdyne’s short oration in full, reporting that, once the sermon was finished, the satisfied thieves ‘gaue hy[m] his money agayne, that thay took from hym’ (f. 43v). Another report of a sermon preached to thieves considerate enough to return the money exists in a printed octavo volume dating from c. 1650, Forced Divinity, Or Two Sermons Preached by the Compulsion of Two sorts of Sinners.[12] It is possible that these sermons are apocryphal and perhaps fall under the category of early modern ‘fake news’, a topic which has attracted great interest in the scholarly community within the past few years.[13] While mock-sermons are beyond the scope of GEMMS, it is not entirely clear as to whether these intriguing sermon reports are real, satirical, or merely old wives’ tales. The inclusion of GEMMS-REPORT-000085 represents a springboard from which users can conduct further research into these texts.

When is a sermon not a sermon in early modern England? Should it be the case that an oration such as Bromley’s, which does not expound upon a verse, should automatically be excluded? If a writer named his or her work ‘Sermon’, and if this work lacks many of the attributes of a typical early modern sermon, should such a text also be disregarded (Heythrop College, BT 3055)? Why should a sermon which existed only on the page, and never as a speech, not be considered as a sermon (British Library, Egerton MS 1043)? And what about potentially apocryphal ‘sermons’, which circulated widely in manuscript as well as print? In response to these questions, we argue that they should not be excluded. In particular, we contend that we should follow the writer or contemporary scribe in classifying their works as sermons. In GEMMS, we have therefore included all of the above into our remit, allowing for a very broad definition of a sermon in order that GEMMS users and contributors can be encouraged to reflect upon the manner in which such manuscripts defy certain commonplace definitions. We have also found it pertinent to include treatises which potentially originated as sermons and which retain some of their rhetorical features, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral Library, MS 38.F.48.01, in line with Arnold Hunt’s remark regarding printed sermon-treatises: that ‘on closer examination the two categories start to blend into one another’.[14] Most importantly, this blog post has argued that the consideration of laypeople’s interpretations of sermons is essential to furthering our understanding of the place of sermons in early modern literature and society. In addition, these manuscripts are vital for recovering the aspects of sermons which laypeople valued. The manuscripts examined above highlight the fluidity of the sermon genre as a textual form, an aspect of manuscript sermon culture which has hitherto been little acknowledged. While it is well known that the sermon as delivered ‘transcended the boundaries of class, geography, gender, and doctrinal difference’, it is also to be observed that sermon composition was not exclusive to the clergy.[15] By recognising the flexibility of the genre, GEMMS, therefore, is aimed not only towards scholars who are specifically interested in Protestant preaching, but also researchers who are interested in manuscript culture and prose writing of the period more generally.


[1] George Eliot, ‘Mr Gilfil’s Love-Story’, in Scenes of Clerical Life and Silas Marner (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1863), pp. 71–182 (p. 78).

[2] Peter McCullough, ‘Sermons’, in The Oxford Handbook of English Prose 1500–1640, ed. by Andrew Hadfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 560–75 (p. 566). See also Mary Morrissey, ‘Sermons, Primers, and Prayerbooks’, in The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, Volume I: Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660, ed. by Joad Raymond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 491–509 (p. 507).

[3] A highly significant exception is Suzanne Trill’s work on British Library, Egerton MS 1043. See Suzanne Trill, ‘The First Sermon in English by a Woman Writer?’, Notes and Queries, 47.4 (2000), pp. 470–73; Suzanne Trill, ‘A Feminist Critic in the Archives: reading Anna Walker’s A Sweete Savor for Woman (c. 1606)’, Women’s Writing, 9.2 (2002), pp. 199–214.

[4] Ian Green, Continuity and Change in Protestant Preaching in Early Modern England (London: Dr Williams’s Library, 2009), especially pp. 19–26; John Craig, ‘Sermon Reception’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, ed. by Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 178–97; John Spurr, The Laity and Preaching in Post-Reformation England (London: Dr Williams’s Trust, 2013). For John Taylor and the tub-preachers, see Bernard Capp, The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet 1578–1653 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 144–46.

[5] Famous examples of eighteenth-century authors who employed the sermon genre include Horace Walpole and Samuel Johnson. See Horace Walpole, ‘A Sermon on Painting’, in Horace Walpole, Ædes Walpolianæ (London: [n. p.], 1747), pp. 87–99; Howard Weinbrot, ‘Samuel Johnson’s Practical Sermon on Marriage in Context: Spousal Whiggery and the Book of Common Prayer’, Modern Philology, 114.2 (2016), pp. 310–36.

[6] S. T. Bindoff, ‘Clement Armstrong and His Treatises of the Commonweal’, The Economic History Review, 14.1 (1944), pp. 64–73; Ethan H. Shagan, ‘Clement Armstrong and the Godly Commonwealth: Radical Religion in Early Tudor England’, in The Beginnings of English Protestantism, ed. by Peter Marshall and Alec Ryrie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 60–83; A. L. Beier, Social Thought in England, 1480–1730: From Body Social to Worldly Wealth (Abingdon and New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), ch. 5.

[7] Shagan, p. 61.

[8] Shagan, p. 73 n. 63.

[9] Ariel Hessayon, ‘Bromley, Thomas (bap. 1630, d. 1691)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, <> [accessed 17 February 2019]; Reliquiæ Baxterianæ, ed. by Matthew Sylvester (London: T. Parkhurst, J. Robinson, J. Lawrence, and J. Dunton, 1696), Part I, p. 77.

[10] The collections at Heythrop College have recently been redistributed. See <> [accessed 15 February 2019].

[11] Another manuscript witness is British Library, Lansdowne MS 98/25.

[12] British Library, General Reference Collection 12330.b.21.

[13] See, for example, <> [accessed 15 February 2019] and <> [accessed 15 February 2019].

[14] Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and Their Audiences, 1590–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 161.

[15] Jeanne Shami, ‘The Sermon’, in The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern English Literature and Religion, ed. by Andrew Hiscock and Helen Wilcox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 185–206 (p. 185).

~ Hannah Yip