Wednesday 25 May 2022

‘My Doubts and scruples in Religion’: The Recantation of John Gibbs in the GEMMS Database (GEMMS Sermon #25000)


But ’tis no matter, let what will, befall,

                               A Recantation Sermon payes for all.[1]

Sermon#25000 in the GEMMS database is a recantation sermon delivered by John Gibbs, rector of Gissing, Suffolk, on 2 December 1688 at his own church. This entry represents an extremely rare example of a full transcription of a recantation sermon in manuscript dating from the post-Restoration period.[2] This blogpost considers briefly this significant genre of sermon before discussing Gibbs and the circumstances surrounding his recantation.

Recantation sermons were prevalent in 1530–1715, the period covered by the GEMMS project.[3] If a preacher had been tried and convicted of heresy, he was required to recant and to make a public penance, frequently reading a confession at the event and sometimes delivering a sermon. On some occasions, the sermon would be preached by another clergyman in the presence of the guilty party. In the early years of the Reformation, refusal to recant would often result in execution by burning (see Figure 1).[4] Recantation sermons therefore constitute valuable sources for scholars researching religio-political censorship, the activities of wayward clergy, and the consequences of heresy in the long English Reformation.


Figure 1: ‘The death and burning of the most constant Martyrs of Christ, Doctor Robert Barns, Thomas Garret, and William Hierome, in Smithfield, an. 1541.’ From John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments
(exact edition unknown). British Museum, 1880,1113.4120.

Within the GEMMS database, there are three examples of inflammatory sermons which caused their authors to be condemned and subsequently to recant.[5] However, full handwritten transcriptions of recantation sermons appear to be scarce. This is somewhat surprising as recantation sermons could prove extremely popular in print; Mary Morrissey notes that Theophilus Higgons’s recantation sermon, preached at Paul’s Cross on 3 March 1611, ‘went through three editions in the year of its delivery, something that few sermons achieved’.[6]

Dating from a somewhat later period than Higgons’s sermon, one full transcription of a recantation sermon within the GEMMS database can be found within the commonplace book of William Lloyd, bishop of Norwich (British Library, Add MS 40160 / GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001583). Lloyd was later to be deprived himself, on account of being a nonjuror, on 1 February 1690.[7] The scribe has not been identified; however, at the top of the first page of the sermon transcription, a title has been provided in Lloyd’s own hand: ‘Mr Gibbs his recantation sermon preached by my order att his parish church att Gissing’ (see Figure 2).[8]


Figure 2: The first page of John Gibbs’ recantation sermon. British Library, Add MS 40160, f. 49r.

‘Mr Gibbs of Gissing’ was John Gibbs, who was admitted pensioner at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1660, graduating B.A. in 1663/4 and proceeding M.A. in 1667. From 1668 until 1690, he was rector of Gissing, Norfolk; in 1671, he also became rector of Banham, Norfolk.[9] According to Francis Blomefield, he had been presented to Gissing by King Charles II and was ejected, like Lloyd, as a nonjuror in 1690. Moreover, he was ‘an odd but harmless man, both in life and conversation’. After his ejection, he lived in the north porch chamber at the church at Gissing, positioning his bed in order that he could see the altar; when he died, he was buried at Frenze, Norfolk.[10] In his short account of Gibbs, Blomefield fails to mention one crucial detail; namely, that Gibbs had apparently considered converting to Catholicism in 1687 before returning to the Church of England.[11]

Gibbs’s temptation to convert must be understood within the religio-political setting of the late 1680s. The position of the High Church, led by bishops such as William Lloyd, was becoming increasingly undermined by the Catholic James II.[12] However, the question of whether Gibbs was directly motivated to join the Catholic Church owing to James II’s Catholicism and its impact upon the clergy is difficult to answer without concrete evidence.[13] The events leading up to Gibbs’ recantation remain obscure; it is not certain whether Gibbs confessed to Lloyd himself or if Lloyd had received information about Gibbs from another source. Furthermore, the exact timing of Lloyd’s condemnation and order for Gibbs’s recantation is nebulous; we cannot be sure whether Lloyd had to wait for some time before he was able to carry out his censure of Gibbs. James II eventually fled England for France at the end of December 1688, arriving on Christmas Day. Gibbs’s recantation sermon was preached, in any case, at an opportune moment, a time when the fall of James was imminent.

Within the commonplace book, the recantation sermon is preceded by a list of John Gibbs’s ‘Considerations moveing to the Church of Rome with Answers thereunto’.[14] There are seven principal reasons why Catholicism appealed to Gibbs; to provide just a couple of examples, he argued that ‘Protestants seem to imitate ancient Hereticks seeking Religion in the way of Science and reason, to the Contempt of Church Authority.’ Besides, the invocation of Saints was ‘a splendid, and magnificent way of worshipping of God’.[15]

The biblical text for Gibbs’ recantation sermon, chosen by Lloyd, was an extract from Luke 22:32 (‘[…] and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren’).[16] Gibbs opened his sermon by referring to Peter as ‘a Great instance of humane frailty, and Infirmity in thrice denying his Lord and Master’. He proposed in the first instance to speak of Peter’s ‘State and Condition before his Fall’, his Fall itself, and of his repentance and conversion.[17] Referring to Peter’s denial of Christ, Gibbs argued that one of the causes of his Fall was ‘his Pride and Confidence of himselfe, and in the power of his own will’; what is more, ‘[h]is faith was not strong enough, nor his contempt of the world great enough’. Gibbs posited that Peter’s Fall was ‘not a Totall Apostacy’, but rather ‘a timerous Negation of the Faith’.[18] Once the sermon had drawn to a close, Gibbs continued by admitting that he had been ‘makeing Adventures in Religion, to find out the safest way to Heaven’. ‘One great mistake in this Adventure’ was his lack of communication with William Lloyd regarding his ‘Doubts and scruples in Religion’; his transgressions may otherwise have been thwarted. He proceeded to denounce ‘the Pompe and Ceremony’ of Catholicism with its ‘great inconvenience of haveing all performed in an unknown tongue’, concluding that he had erroneously admired ‘the things of Strangers, to the prejudice of those of his own Country’.[19] The names of ten churchwardens, witnesses to the sermon, follow this statement.

John Gibbs was swiftly forgiven. A letter from William Lloyd, addressed to William Sancroft, archbishop of Canterbury, and dated 4 December 1688, describes Lloyd’s impression of Gibbs as a ‘melancholy pious man’ (see Figure 3).[20] Tantalisingly, Lloyd’s letter also outlines his reaction to Gibbs’s recantation sermon, which was apparently satisfactory to the extent that he recommended its publication. Whether Sancroft approved of Lloyd’s suggestion to publish the sermon is not known; there are no surviving records relating to the sermon’s publication.[21]


Figure 3: Letter from William Lloyd to Archbishop William Sancroft, 4 December 1688. Bodleian Library, MS. Tanner 28, fol. 274.

Recantation sermons continued to be preached later in the period and beyond until 1779 when the genre ceased, and many of these were never published.[22] It remains to be seen whether further manuscript witnesses, or reports, of these fascinating sermons dating from the years 1530 until 1715 will be uncovered as the GEMMS Team resume on-site visits to archives in 2022.



[1] Anonymous, [A] Pulpit To Be [Let] (London, 1665). English Broadside Ballad Archive, EBBA 36352.

[2] For the scarcity of extant recantation sermons in manuscript dating from post-Restoration England, see Simon Lewis, ‘“The Scum of Controversy”: Recantation Sermons in the Churches of England and Ireland, 1673–1779’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 55.2 (2022), 215–33 (p. 216).

[3] Early modern recantation sermons, particularly those preached in the late seventeenth century, have received comparatively little scholarly attention. See Michael C. Questier, ‘English Clerical Converts to Protestantism 1580–1596’, Recusant History, 20.4 (1991), 455–77 (pp. 470–71); Susan Wabuda, ‘Equivocation and Recantation During the English Reformation: The ‘Subtle Shadows’ of Dr Edward Crome’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 44.2 (1993), 224–42; Michael C. Questier, Conversion, Politics and Religion in England, 1580–1625 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), ch. 6; Mary Morrissey, Politics and the Paul’s Cross Sermons, 1558–1642 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 113–20; Kate Roddy, ‘Recasting Recantation in 1540s England: Thomas Becon, Robert Wisdom, and Robert Crowley’, Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, 39.1 (2016), 63–90. Note that Morrissey focuses on recantation sermons principally preached by clergy converting from Catholicism until the 1640s, while Kate Roddy conducts close readings of recantation texts from the early years of the English Reformation.

 [4] Wabuda, pp. 226–27.

 [5] The three controversial sermons were preached by Samuel Harsnett at Paul’s Cross in 1584; Thomas Lushington at St Mary’s, Oxford, on 29 March 1624 (Easter Monday); and Richard Spinke on 19 May 1632, also at Oxford. Witnesses of Harsnett’s sermon appear in Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. th. e. 57 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001472) and Bodleian Library, MS. Rawlinson D 1349 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000145). Lushington’s sermon appears in Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. th. f. 14 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001469), Bodleian Library, MS. Rawlinson E 21 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000133) and Bodleian Library, MS. Rawlinson E 95 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000135). There are three witnesses of Spinke’s sermon: Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. th. e. 57 (appearing directly before Harsnett’s sermon); Bodleian Library, MS. Rawlinson E. 148 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000523); Trinity College Dublin, MS 232 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001076). For Harsnett’s anti-Calvinist sermon, see Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism c. 1590–1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), pp. 164, 252–53. See Frank L. Huntley for the notoriety of Lushington’s sermon (‘Dr. Thomas Lushington (1590–1661), Sir Thomas Browne’s Oxford Tutor’, Modern Philology, 81.1 (1983), 14–23). For Spinke’s sermon, see Anthony Milton, Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought 1600–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 71; Jeanne Shami, ‘The Love-sick Spouse: John Stoughton’s 1624 Paul’s Cross Sermon in Context’, in Paul’s Cross and the Culture of Persuasion in England, 1520–1640, ed. by Torrance Kirby and P. G. Stanwood (Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 2014), pp. 389–409. 

[6] Theophilus Higgons, A Sermon Preached at Pauls Crosse the third of March, 1610 (London, 1611); Morrissey, p. 118. See also Alec Ryrie, The Gospel and Henry VIII: Evangelicals in the Early English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 82; Lewis, p. 216.

[7] Stuart Handley, ‘Lloyd, William (1636/7–1710)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn (2004), <> [accessed 3 March 2022]. For a summary of the contents of Lloyd’s commonplace book up to f. 171v, see Peter Smith, ‘Bishop William Lloyd of Norwich and his Commonplace Book’, Norfolk Archaeology, 44.4 (2005), 702–11.

[8] British Library, Add MS 40160 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001583; GEMMS-SERMON-025000), f. 49r.

[9] Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses: The Members of the University of Oxford, 1500–1714, 4 vols (Oxford: Parker, 1891), Vol. II, p. 561; John Venn and J. A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses, Part I, 4 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922–27), Vol. II, p. 209. See also John Gibbs (CCEd Person ID 12516)The Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540–1835 <> [accessed 4 February 2022].

[10] Francis Blomefield, ‘Hundred of Diss: Gissing’, in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 1 (London, 1805), pp. 162–81. British History Online, <> [accessed 4 February 2022]. For Gibbs’ ejection, see also ‘A Catalogue of the English Clergie and other Schollars, who haue refused to take the New Oaths’, British Library, Add MS 40160, ff. 74r–78r (f. 74r).

[11] Letter from William Lloyd to Archbishop William Sancroft, 14 November 1688, Bodleian Library, MS. Tanner 28, fol. 248.

[12] John Spurr, The Restoration Church of England, 1646–1689 (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1991), ch. 2; Smith, p. 706.

[13] For the promotion of Catholicism in Jacobite sermons, see William Gibson, ‘Engines of Tyranny: The Court Sermons of James II’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 97.1 (2021), 11–24.

[14] British Library, Add MS 40160, ff. 45r–46r.

[15] British Library, Add MS 40160, f. 45r.

[16] Letter from William Lloyd to Archbishop William Sancroft, 4 December 1688, Bodleian Library, MS. Tanner 28, fol. 274 (GEMMS-REPORT-000378).

[17] British Library, Add MS 40160, f. 49r.

[18] British Library, Add MS 40160, f. 49v.

[19] British Library, Add MS 40160, f. 52r.

[20] Smith, p. 706.

[21] Letter from William Lloyd to Archbishop William Sancroft, 4 December 1688, Bodleian Library, MS. Tanner 28, fol. 274.

[22] Lewis, p. 216.


~ Hannah Yip