Tuesday 29 October 2019

An Introduction to the Sermon in Early Modern England

In the morning I went to Mr. Guning’s, where he made an excellent sermon upon the 2 of the Galatians, about the difference that fell between St. Paul and Peter (the feast-day of St. Paul being but a day or two ago); whereby he did prove that contrary to the doctrine of the Roman Church, St. Paul did never own any dependence or that he was inferior to St. Peter, but that they were equal; only, one a perticular charge of preaching to the Jews and the other to the Gentiles.
Samuel Pepys, 29 January 1660 [1]

The extract above, taken from one of the earliest entries in Samuel Pepys’s diary, provides a valuable insight into a contemporary auditor’s experience of a sermon in early modern England. Pepys informs us of the preacher’s name (in this case, Peter Gunning, future Bishop of Ely); the chosen biblical text which formed the foundation of the sermon, albeit with only the chapter specified as opposed to the exact verse; the occasion; and the key Protestant lessons to be derived from the sermon. This excerpt constitutes a window into the world with which the GEMMS database is preoccupied: namely, the central ritual events of the English Reformation and their surviving manuscript remains.

The sermon in early modern England was the most important form of communication for Protestants and the dominant genre of religious literature in the English Reformation.[2] The sermon in this era was, broadly speaking, an analysis of a passage from Scripture that was ‘applied’ to the audience and occasion of its delivery. Ordained ministers would choose a single extract from the Bible, which usually comprised no more than three verses, and structure their sermon around the interpretation of this passage. First, the preacher would explicate the text; that is, decipher it in a way that revealed its meaning. This would frequently involve a discussion of the verse’s context within the Bible and its grammatical construction. He would then proceed to explain the doctrines which the scriptural text contained, often with recourse to various Bible translations, patristic writings, and theological works and sermons composed by contemporary Protestant clergy. After the explication came the application, in which the preacher would explain why such doctrines were necessary and relevant to his hearers.[3]

Figure 1: A Ramist diagram demonstrating the parts of a sermon. George Downame, Abrahams Tryall. LONDON[:] Printed for Humfrey Lownes, 1602. Bodleian Library, Oxford, Mason AA 50.
Figure 1 presents a ‘Ramist’ table which sometimes formed part of the prefatory material of published sermons. This particular diagram provides a detailed construction of the work, the two principal branches being the Explication and the Application.[4] Refined techniques of rhetoric and persuasion were key if the minister was to impress his message fully upon his listeners in the final exhortation. Once the audience had received the instruction, it was essential that they would be sufficiently moved to take away the spiritual lesson of the day. Several Protestant clergymen were not averse to strong gesticulations and even the use of props to achieve their desired effect upon their congregations. John Donne’s employment of the hourglass constitutes perhaps the most famous example. He would draw attention to its diminishing grains of sand to remind his auditors of the brevity of human life. However, there was also John Rogers, lecturer at Dedham, who would take hold of the supporters of the canopy over the pulpit and imitate the torments of the damned, earning him the nickname of ‘Roaring Rogers’.[5]

Figure 2: Late seventeenth-century sermon speech timer. St. Vedast-alias-Foster, City of London.
The duration of sermons would be measured with a speech timer (see Figure 2). Before the Restoration, sermons would typically last for one hour. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the length of Anglican sermons was most frequently just half an hour, although sermons by Dissenters continued to be closer to one hour.[6] However, it was not unusual for sermons earlier in the period to last for even longer than an hour.[7] Before the era of the English Civil Wars (1642–1649), two-hour sermons regularly took place at St. Paul’s Cross, the most famous pulpit in early modern England. Paul’s Cross was an octagonal structure situated outside of Old St. Paul’s in London (see Figure 3), which is commemorated today with a small paved slab outside of the Cathedral.[8] Upon this very spot, some of the most politically influential sermons of early modern England were delivered, such as John Fisher’s denunciation of Lutheranism in 1521, after which followed the public burning of Luther’s books.

Figure 3: John Gipkyn, Old Saint Paul’s (1616). Diptych, verso of left panel. Oil on panel. 127 × 101.6 cm. Society of Antiquaries of London.
Certainly, sermons were preached at a vast range of different occasions. Aside from regular sermons on Sundays and the obvious dates within the Christian calendar such as Christmas and Easter, sermons were also delivered at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Such survivals represent essential means to uncover the minutiae of Protestant ritual. A tradition of preaching at collections for charities was established later in the period. There was also a ‘political’ calendar for sermons, as ministers were instructed to preach on national fast and thanksgiving days, in addition to important anniversaries such as the Gunpowder Plot and the execution of Charles I. Sermons constituted ‘one of the most valuable media for the representation and exaltation of the monarch’; accordingly, they were utilised to celebrate accessions to the throne and royal births and marriages, as well as to commemorate royal deaths.[9] Finally, they were also delivered in response to wars, natural disasters, and plague epidemics. The venues at which all of these events took place were equally widespread, from the Elizabethan and Stuart courts to the modest churches in the parishes. Other significant spaces included the churches used by the Houses of Parliament and the town corporations, universities, institutional and domestic chapels and, later in the period, Dissenting meeting-houses. The diversity of occasions, audiences, and places meant that the clergy were able to comment on a large variety of topics, including current affairs and the state of society. Not only, then, are sermons fundamental for the study of religious literature in this era, but they are also crucial sources for discovering aspects of early modern society and political culture. The field of gender studies can also benefit from using sermons as sources. Jeanne Shami has revealed the extent to which women interacted with them, particularly as listeners and patrons.[10]

It is a daunting task for researchers to reconstruct these vivid events. Fortunately, the GEMMS database provides invaluable assistance to such researchers who are attempting to capture these moments of performance in order to assess their significance. The types of sermons which are recorded on our database include, inter alia, notes taken by listeners in addition to those taken into the pulpit by preachers, drafts displaying the compositional processes involved in writing sermons, and full transcriptions of complete sermons copied from manuscript or print. We have also documented reports of sermons, most commonly found within diaries, personal notebooks, and letters (see ‘GEMMS’s Sermon Taxonomy’ for more details). While printed sermons have been able to tell us much about their role as religious and political pamphlets and their prevalence within the book market, sermons in manuscript can reveal a greater diversity of religio-political issues, including those too seditious to be published. In some cases, it has been possible to chart the editorial progress from script to print and investigate the parts of the sermon which were excised and those which were expanded. The manuscript sermons composed by laypeople show the extent of the sermon genre’s influence upon the writing cultures of the period. Indeed, renowned literary figures such as Daniel Defoe were keen attendees of sermons; his notebook, held at the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, California contains six full transcriptions of sermons preached in 1681 (Huntington Library, HM 26613; GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001204).

What other resources are available which bring the early modern sermon back to life? The Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project is one means by which academics, students and curious laypeople alike can gain insights into the experience of listening to a sermon preached by Donne at St. Paul’s.[11] Also available is a period performance of two abridged sermons originally dating from the English Civil Wars, filmed at All Saints Parish Church, Middle Claydon, Buckinghamshire, illustrating the sermon’s vital role as a political instrument of the state.[12] These resources, together with the information collated within the GEMMS database, build up a picture of ‘[t]he centrality of religion to early modern culture, and the sermon as that culture’s hallmark’.[13]

Further Information

Book Chapters

McCullough, Peter, ‘Sermons’, in The Oxford Handbook of English Prose 1500–1640, ed. by Andrew Hadfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 560–75.

Shami, Jeanne, ‘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.


‘Sermon Reception and Religious Identity’, a series of workshops examining how sermons were heard and understood in sixteenth-century Europe, <www.st-andrews.ac.uk/reformation/sermonreception/index.html> [accessed 23 September 2019]


[1] The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. by Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vols (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1970–1983), I (1970), p. 32.

[2] Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 194.

[3] 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).

[4] For Ramist diagrams in printed sermons, see Mary Ann Lund, ‘Early Modern Sermon Paratexts and the Religious Politics of Reading’, in Material Readings of Early Modern Culture: Texts and Social Practices, 1580–1730, ed. by James Daybell and Peter Hinds (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 143–62. Note that such paratexts were not exclusive to sermons in print; see, for example, Inner Temple Library, London, Petyt MS. 531 C, which contains a Ramist diagram within an autograph sermon composed by Andrew Marvell, the father of the famous poet (GEMMS-SERMON-012161).

[5] Emma Rhatigan, ‘Preaching Venues: Architecture and Auditories’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, ed. by Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 87–119 (pp. 92–95).

[6] Gilbert Burnet, A Discourse of Pastoral Care (London, 1692), p. 222–23; James Caudle, ‘Measures of Allegiance: Sermon Culture and the Creation of a Public Discourse of Obedience and Resistance in Georgian Britain, 1714-1760’, 2 vols (unpublished doctoral thesis, Yale University, 1996), I, p. 87; Jennifer Farooq, Preaching in Eighteenth-Century London (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2013), p. 8.

[7] Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and Their Audiences, 1590–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 272.

[8] Mary Morrissey, Politics and the Paul’s Cross Sermons, 1558–1642 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. xi; 'Paul's Cross in the Reformation', St Paul's Cathedral
<www.stpauls.co.uk/history-collections/history/reformation500/pauls-cross-in-the-reformation> [accessed 23 September 2019].

[9] Kevin Sharpe, Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603–1660 (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 184.

[10] Jeanne Shami, ‘Women and Sermons’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, ed. by Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 155–77.

[11] Virtual Paul's Cross Project, <vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu> [accessed 23 September 2019]. See also Liz Bury, ‘Relive John Donne’s 17th-century sermons in virtual reality project’, Guardian, 11 November 2013, <www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/11/john-donne-virtual-reality-sermon> [accessed 23 September 2019].

[12] The Earl of Manchester's Regiment of Foote, ‘Royalist and Parliamentarian English Civil War preachers preach authentic 17th Century sermons, YouTube, 10 September 2018,
 <http://youtu.be/Mt_bUvRrLSY> [accessed 23 September 2019].

[13] 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. 560).

~ Hannah Yip