Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington, and Emma Rhatigan, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon
by Margaret Christian

McCullough, Peter, Hugh Adlington, and Emma Rhatigan, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. xvi + 608 pp. ISBN 978-0199237531. $150.00 cloth.


In his letter to Raleigh, Spenser contrasts his method in The Faerie Queene with that of preachers. Readers of The Spenser Review may be less used to how good discipline was “sermoned at large” than his original audience, but Peter McCullough’s excellent Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, generously documented and rationally organized, will bring them up to speed.

Twenty-five contributors (including the editors) offer what the editors call “a comprehensive guide to the key rhetorical, ecclesiological, and historical precepts essential to study of early modern sermons” as well as essays “illustrating the principal trends in recent research” (xiv). This promise is amply fulfilled. A keynote of the Handbook is the careful analysis of selected sermons which illustrate helpful generalizations, making this work useful to newcomers as well as specialists. In what follows, I will summarize and comment on the essays focusing on the earlier century or so of the handbook’s coverage.

“Part I: Composition, Delivery, Reception” offers 11 topical chapters, each organized chronologically. In the first, “Ars Praedicandi: Theories and Practice,” Greg Kneidel cites patristic discussions of the identity of preacher and auditors, preaching’s relation to classical rhetoric, and its purpose: to explicate scripture. The patristic homily, which explicated long passages of scripture, was superseded by the thematic sermon, which gleaned a theme from a short passage and then subjected it to division into parts and subparts (essentially mini-sermons developed by proofs) and recombination in the concluding peroration. But by our period, Erasmus and others promoted a Ciceronian model of preaching, particularly deliberative oratory. Melanchthon refined the deliberative model as a pattern of extracting doctrines from scripture and applying them, and the doctrine-use scheme became the dominant sermon form in England from the late 16th century, though the others never disappeared. Kneidel cites English sermon manuals like William Perkins’ The Arte of Prophecying and closely analyzes three sermons to demonstrate preachers’ awareness of formal issues.

Lori Anne Ferrell, in Chapter 2, “The Preachers’ Bibles,” offers an able review of the progression of texts that provided preachers with their fundamental materials: Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s translations, Henry’s Great Bible, humanist polyglot Bibles, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, the Rheims-Douai “Englished Vulgate,” and the King James Bible, quoting Luke 2:8-14 in several versions to illustrate their distinctive flavors. (She observes that these failed to displace the Vulgate, which many preachers, notably John Donne and Lancelot Andrewes, continued to consult and quote.)  Both the Bishops’ and King James, promoted by those reacting against the popular and paratext-heavy Geneva, were Bibles more suited to liturgical than individual or small-group use.

According to Katrin Ettenhuber, in “The Preacher and Patristics” (Chapter 3), the Vulgate was not the only traditional resource for English preachers. John Jewel’s “Challenge Sermon” of 1559 claimed “the doctors and old catholic fathers” (41), and thus an antiquity prior to the Roman church’s, for the Elizabethan Settlement. Though the Bible held higher authority and the Fathers were not regarded as infallible, preachers cited them in polemic and pastoral contexts through the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries.

Spenserians who imagine a bright line between Protestant and Catholic thought on the subjects of church authority and the nature of the will might imagine that traditional ideas on these topics were radioactive. But Carl Trueman in “Preachers and Medieval and Renaissance Commentary” demonstrates that post-Reformation clerical education continued to emphasize, and even Puritan preachers continued to demonstrate, engagement with medieval biblical commentators like Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas as well as contemporary Catholics like Cajetan and Erasmus. Emphasis on the scriptures likewise explains a rise in preacherly interest in Jewish exegesis.

Noam Reisner’s Chapter 5, “The Preacher and Profane Learning” reviews reading lists from grammar schools and the universities and use of Latin and Greek quotations in sermons to show that preachers not only ornament their discourses with proverbial secular learning from their commonplace books, but learnedly engage with “the implicit profane context” with “allusive sophistication” (81, 83).

In “Preaching Venues: Architecture and Auditories,” Emma Rhatigan provides “a survey of the major preaching venues” at outdoor pulpits, in local parish churches, and “elite pulpits in the royal courts, the Inns of Court, and the universities” (87). Photographs illustrate the position and typical decoration of the pulpit, reflecting its liturgical importance among the items typical of the early modern sacred space (chancel screen, rood loft, reading desk, even hourglass and tester), establishing the physical context of the early modern sermon.

Kate Armstrong’s “Sermons in Performance” (Chapter 7), beings with John Chamberlain’s account of young Henry King’s maiden sermon at Paul’s Cross (1617), but the rest of the chapter focusses on theory: Cicero, Quintillian, Thomas Wilson, Richard Bernard, and William Perkins. Thus we learn what rhetorical delivery (pronunciation and action, or gestures) was considered appropriate to the sermon: “on the evidence of these manuals, no decorous public speaker strained his voice, spoke excitedly in the opening sentences of his speech and then calmly while exhorting his audience, or used his left hand alone” (130). Armstrong also emphasizes the stress laid on the preacher’s physical appearance during the Jacobean period. One wishes for more evidence of how the theory of sermon delivery compared to practice, and two chapters farther on, John Craig, in “Sermon Reception” (Chapter 10), offers many anecdotes that give a strong sense of individual preachers as cherished, amusing, or offensive characters. Craig, like Armstrong, samples prescriptions: “The people were to abide soberly and orderly, they were not to talk or babble, walk or jangle or play the fool. They were ordered not to molest, disquiet, or grieve the minister with noise, brute cries, or clamours” (181)—the implication being that such behaviors were common enough to warrant reprehension. Indeed, some parishes employed dogwhippers, whose tasks sometimes included “quieting children” (187). But evidence of earnest listening includes notebooks where parishioners like Robert Saxby recorded sermon notes to assist their personal devotion.

Ian Green, in “Preaching in the Parishes” (Chapter 8), cautions that little evidence of the “content, style of delivery, or reception of parish sermons” survives, other than complaints lodged against ministers in court. Green’s other caution is that, notwithstanding optimistic directives that any given parish hear a sermon at least once every three months, during Spenser’s lifetime only 20-40% of clergy were university-educated or licensed to preach. Thus, “the great majority probably did no more than read out the official homilies” (138). Green demonstrates from published work and priests’ notebooks that preachers might deliver a sermon series on a specific book of the Bible, a particular topic, or a cherished passage like the Lord’s Prayer or Ten Commandments. Alternatively, a preacher might let the church calendar or liturgical lessons determine the sermon text. Of the formal sermon types distinguished in Chapter 1, all are represented, and the tone cultivated by parish preachers seems inclusive and pacific rather than hectoring. In all, Green finds more continuity in parish preaching between 1560 and 1720 than in court, Parliamentary, and university sermons.

In “Women and Sermons” (chapter 9), Jeanne Shami surveys sermons with women as subjects, finding that both funeral sermons and those celebrating queens tend to eulogize the woman into a conventional biblical composite. Women patrons sponsored sermons by engaging private chaplains in their royal courts or aristocratic households, funding lectures by bequests, and extending hospitality. Women were important “consumers, transmitters, and audience for sermons” (164), buying printed sermons, attending parish sermons and gadding to those outside, and urging members of their household to do likewise. And women preached (or at least wrote sermons, as did Anna Walker, lady in waiting to Anne of Denmark). Most of this “preaching” was done at home “to children, servants, and occasionally other women” (169), but Shami also discusses Quaker women preachers.

The title of Chapter 11, “Sermons into Print,” led me to expect that author James Rigney would explain the process intervening between hearers being favorably impressed and a printed sermon going on sale in bookseller’s shop. Who went between the preacher and the printer? To what extent were the hackneyed insistence-of-friends or replacing-imperfect-copy prefatory apologies warranted? Rather, Rigney reviews the debate over the relative benefit of hearing vs. reading sermons (the occasion of a public sermon was felt to enhance its efficacy, though print gave it a wider opportunity for good), examines the propriety of publishing (preparing sermons for the press was regarded as a distraction from legitimate clerical duties, but again, broadened a sermon’s potential benefit), and compares book trade statistics with sermons’ higher profile in catalogues and book lists.

These eleven topical chapters in Part I lead up to a twelfth, editor Peter McCullough’s “Preaching and Context: John Donne’s Sermon at the Funerals of Sir William Cokayne,” at 64 pages more than twice as long as any of the preceding. Its sections discuss “The [sermon’s] Text,” “The Deceased” (a former Lord Mayor and alderman as well as a merchant “resented, if not despised” for wrecking the export trade with the Dutch [216]), “The Preacher” (Donne “in 1626 at the height of his powers and reputation” [218]), “The Place and Occasion” (“one scene in a piece of funerary theatre that would have lasted the better part of an entire day” [219]), “The Mourners” (including a procession of city dignitaries, tradesmen, family members, and “The Chilldren of [Christ’s] Hospital” [223]), the setting “In [St. Paul’s] Cathedral,” and the sermon itself, from “Scriptural Text” (Martha’s rebuke, “Lord, if thou hadst been here …”) through each division of doctrine and use. The whole amply demonstrates how a sermon, especially one by a rhetor of Donne’s stature, will repay a close reading in context.

Part II, “Sermons in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales,” comprises three chapters, one for each region. Of these, Raymond Gillespie’s Chapter 14, “Preaching the Reformation in Early Modern Ireland,” will interest Spenserians the most (though perhaps only in confirming preconceptions). Here again the scarcity of evidence is stressed: “only a small number of Irish preachers committed their words to print,” all after 1603 (288). In the pre-Reformation era, parish clergy, in the absence of a university education (Ireland had no university) probably left preaching to the Franciscans and Dominicans. Later in the Tudor era, Irish converts from the Roman Church to the new religion, “reading ministers” rather than preachers, were marginalized by “clergy from England who had come to Ireland in search of preferment” (290). Evangelical polemicist John Bale’s appointment as bishop of Ossory in 1552 (and frustration with the lack of cooperation he experienced) exemplifies this trend. In 1585, while Spenser held the lease to New Abbey, County Kildare, 75 miles south in Waterford, Catholics forced to attend the established church were allegedly contemptuous enough to “‘walk about like mill horses, chopping and changing, making merchandise…and those not small fools but the chief of the city’” (State Papers concerning the Irish Church, quoted 291). Trinity College Dublin was founded in 1592 to provide preachers for the established church, but any impact beyond Dublin came decades after Spenser’s death.

In Part III, “English Sermons, 1500-1660,” the chapters are arranged chronologically. Lucy Wooding’s Chapter 16, “From Tudor Humanism to Reformation Preaching,” demonstrates the 16th century sermon’s continuities with mediaeval prototypes as well as disjunctions. Late mediaeval churchmen such as John Colet and John Fisher agreed with English evangelicals of the 1530s and later in emphasizing the importance of preaching and promoting English as the medium for religious instruction for the laity. Humanism’s aim “to communicate direct knowledge of the Bible” was also compatible with later Reformation preaching (334). But while English humanists promoted the dignity of priestly office, “[t]he single most important transforming influence on the early sixteenth-century sermon” was “Henry VIII’s Supremacy over the church” (341). The Supremacy required a propaganda campaign, and Cromwell’s 1535 Injunctions provided preachers with the “use” to which a surprising number of biblical “doctrines” were now required to be put. The ensuing tug of war unfolded “a great many different, often conflicting, opinions about religious belief and practice,” and “much of the practical provision for preaching” dissolved along with the monasteries and mendicant orders (345).

Wooding mentions that many priests retained copies of mediaeval homilaries such as John Mirk’s Festial, crossing out references to the pope, abbots , and monks to prevent giving offence to the new order (332-3). Ashley Null, in “Official Tudor Homilies” (Chapter 17), reviews the many texts provided by the state and the church hierarchy to replace Mirk et al. in preachers’ libraries: the 1536 Ten Articles, the 1537 Bishops’ Book, and in 1540, Taverner’s Postyls. With the 1543 King’s Book, “a conservative revision of the Bishops’ Book,” Stephen Gardiner circumvented Thomas Cranmer’s plans for a collection until the publication of the Book of Homilies in 1547, which Null credits with establishing “a Protestant culture of the individual deciding for himself.” This in turn necessitated Edmund Bonner’s reluctant publication, in 1555, of a revision of the King’s Book, A Profitable and Necessarye Doctryne, together with a collection of Homilies (which included two from the 1547 collection). Elizabeth’s 1559 re-issue of the 1547 collection, authorization of a new volume in 1563, and then release of one last very long homily “Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion” in 1571, complete the story. Null sees the outcome of 35 years’ worth of the state’s dictation of religious teaching as successful in persuading the English “no longer to see themselves as Roman Catholics,” while (unintentionally) liberating them to decide, within their own individual consciences, “exactly what kind of Protestants they would be” (364).

Arnold Hunt’s Chapter 18, “Preaching the Elizabethan Settlement,” appears to prove Null’s point, with preachers mindful of courting popular support rather than issuing authoritative teaching on behalf of a univocal church. Hunt uses John Jewel’s 1560 “challenge” sermon at Paul’s Cross to illustrate how early Elizabethan preachers flattered their hearers that lay Christians such as themselves, though unversed in theological learning, could judge the superiority of Protestant to Catholic ideas. The intra-Protestant vestments controversy (over the appropriateness of clerical garments such as the surplice to those conducting reformed religious services) exposed religious ideas to further “rough-and-tumble of insult and invective” (375), and Catholic controversialists reacted with glee. By Foxe’s 1570 sermon at Paul’s Cross, however, the Catholic threat appeared less immediate. Though controversy (including insult and invective) did not disappear from sermons, themes of sin and repentance, charity and other social virtues began to come into focus for preachers once more.

Though Kevin Killeen’s focus in Chapter 19, “Veiled Speech: Preaching, Politics, and Scriptural Typology,” is on sermons from the 1620s, his examination of how their “use of the Bible constituted … a primary discursive language of political thought” (388) is of interest to students of Spenser’s “historicall fiction.” An introduction to typological exegesis shows the relevance of Old Testament battles fought at God’s behest (or by God himself) to episodes in the Thirty Years’ War: God and his allies were still fighting the same enemies in the same biblical campaign. Killeen’s contention is that sermon-goers were biblically literate[1] and that typological comparisons gave a sermon great polemical force—to the point that political authorities sought to limit their use in urging England’s involvement in Europe’s war.

Part III’s last chapter (“Preaching and Parliament, 1640-1659”) and Part IV, “English Sermons, 1660-1720,” will be of interest to Miltonists and those Spenserians whose research and teaching interests extend into the 18th century.

Part V has several Appendixes comprising selected primary sources. “Preachers on Preaching” quotes, among others, John Fisher (from his 1521 Paul’s Cross sermon “concernynge certayne heretickes”), Hugh Latimer (from his 1549 series of Lenten sermons at Edward VI’s court), Thomas Watson (from his 1558 sermon ‘Of the Sacrament of Order’), Edmund Grindal (from his 1576 letter to Elizabeth), John Donne (“A Lent-Sermon Preached at White-hall,” 1618/19), and Lancelot Andrewes (“A sermon Prepared to be Preached on … Ash-Wednesday” 1624). Appendix II, “Preaching Observed,” illustrates “how varied were the contexts” of preaching “and how varied were the responses” (536) with quotations from Sir Thomas More, John Foxe, and Thomas Nashe, John Manningham, John Chamberlain, and Ben Jonson representing the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. “Preaching Regulated,” the third Appendix, selects the relevant passages from Injunctions and Articles of the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth, as well as later edicts of comparable authority. While complete texts of most of the regulations in Appendix 3, along with many others, are available in in Gerald Bray’s Documents of the English Reformation (and all are accessible via Early English Books Online to those with library privileges), the selections here are helpfully pointed and gracefully introduced.

The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon is beautifully conceived and successfully executed, with clearly organized information, sensitively chosen examples, and well supported judgments. If you want to understand the sermon culture which formed Spenser’s biblical mindset without reading hundreds of sermons, this is your book.


Margaret Christian
The Pennsylvania State University, Lehigh Valley Campus

[1] Though I agree with Killeen’s larger argument, he garbles some details in his example sermons and the biblical texts behind them. For instance, he mistakes Thomas Gataker to be finding fault with “the tardy hanging back in tents while the battle is raging” (those in tents are actually on the battlefield, while David is lounging on the palace rooftop ogling another man’s wife [396]) and misreads Samuel Buggs to claim that “the Ark’s talismanic status empowered the Israelites that carried it into battle” (a sacrilege that 1 Samuel credits with rout, stillbirth, and maternal death the only time it was put into practice [398]). 




  • There are currently no comments

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Margaret Christian, "Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington, and Emma Rhatigan, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon," Spenser Review 44.1.18 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed March 21st, 2018.
Not logged in or