Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 1. Revival of Preaching in the Sixteenth Century

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XII. The English Pulpit from Fisher to Donne

§ 1. Revival of Preaching in the Sixteenth Century

THE REFORMATION, like every other popular religious movement—the crusades, lollardy, the rise of nonconformity or the methodist revival—owed much to preachers and preaching. But it cannot be said that, in England, any more than in Germany, preachers originated the reformation, or that the reformation originated popular preaching. A new day had dawned for preaching, before Luther’s influence was felt. The reproach of the neglect of preaching, which, in spite of some exaggerations, must still rest upon the fifteenth century in England, was already being rolled away in the opening years of the sixteenth, and the instigation came from orthodox quarters. For instance, in 1504, the king’s mother, the lady Margaret, countess of Richmond, doubtless upon the advice of her confessor, John Fisher, established by charter a preachership. The preacher was to be a resident Cambridge fellow, with no cure of souls, and his duty was to preach once every two years in each of twelve different parishes in the dioceses of London, Ely and Lincoln. Fisher himself signalised his elevation to the see of Rochester in this same year by preaching a course of sermons upon the penitential psalms. While some of his colleagues were seldom or never heard, bishop Fisher continued to preach unremittingly, till old age obliged him to “have a chair and so to teach sitting.” When he was vice-chancellor of Cambridge, he obtained a bull, allowing the university to appoint twelve doctors or masters to preach in all parts of the kingdom, “notwithstanding any ordinance or constitution to the contrary.” It was Fisher, too, who advised that the Lady Margaret’s Readers should give attention to preaching, and who urged Erasmus to write his treatise Ecclesiastes, sive concionator Evangelicus.

The renascence, also, with the marked religious character which it bore in England, could not fail to rouse interest in the pulpit. If Colet could hold the attention of doctors and students, as he expounded the Pauline epistles in an Oxford lecture-room, he might dream of a future for expository preaching from the church pulpit. His opportunity came in 1504, when Henry VII called him “to preside over the cathedral of that apostle, whose epistles he loved so much.” As Erasmus tells us, Colet set about restoring the decayed discipline of the cathedral body of St. Paul’s, “and—what was a novelty there—began preaching at every festival in his cathedral.” Among the many statutory duties of the dean, there was none obliging him to take any part in preaching. Colet pursued his Oxford plan of delivering courses on some connected subject, instead of taking isolated texts; and what Colet did at St. Paul’s perhaps inspired another dean to do the like at Lichfield. Ralph Collingwood, who may have known Colet at Oxford and must certainly have known of his doings, instituted a weekly sermon in his cathedral.

The practice of set preaching, as distinguished from the informal instruction which was the duty of every parish priest, had, therefore, received some impetus before the reformation. Yet that movement was to affect the pulpit more profoundly than the renascence and Catholic reformers were able to do. It was impatient of the “unpreaching prelates” who had not followed bishop Fisher’s lead, and it afforded the preacher an audience greedy to hear him: the more controversial he was, the better they liked him. In an age when men read few books and had no newspapers, the sermon at Paul’s cross or the Spital was the most exciting event of the week. Authority, whether ecclesiastical or civil, could not afford to ignore the power of the pulpit, and, therefore, sought to control it by a rigorous system of licensing. At every political crisis, general preaching was silenced and the few privileged pulpits were closely supervised by the government. At Mary’s accession, her chaplain preached at Paul’s cross with a guard of two hundred halberdiers; upon the very day of Mary’s death, Cecil was taking steps to ensure that the next Sunday’s preacher should not “stir any dispute touching the governance of the realm.” The result of this strict supervision was that, in the country at large, the pulpit was often reduced to silence or to the dull fare of homilies. “A thousand pulpets in England are covered with dust,” said Bernard Gilpin in a court sermon of 1552, “some have not had four sermons these fifteen or sixteen years, since friars left their limitations, and a fewe of those were worthie the name of sermons.” In London, however, there was throughout the century an abundance of preaching, and it is London preaching which, almost alone, finds any place in literature.