Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 2. The Printing of Sermons in the Vernacular

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

§ 2. The Printing of Sermons in the Vernacular

From Fisher to Donne, almost all great preachers preached without book. William Perkins, in his Art of Prophesying, first published in 1592, can still speak of “the received custom for preachers to speak by heart (memoriter) before the people.” To print a sermon gave it a second life, but it commonly entailed all the pangs of a new birth. Donne speaks of his spending eight hours over writing out a sermon which he had already preached. It was at the lady Margaret’s request that Fisher’s Penitential Psalms and his sermon preached at king Henry’s lying in state were printed. Appropriately enough, the patroness of Wynkyn de Worde helped to establish the custom of committing sermons to print. The prejudice against publishing theological writings of any pretension in English had diminished since Pecock’s day, but was not to disappear till Hooker’s great work made a precedent. Even sermons originally delivered in English, like bishop Longland’s Tres Conciones, were translated into Latin for publication. For another half century, divines would have to experiment with the English language before they found it a more natural medium for theological thought than the traditional Latin, with its stock of technical terms. It is, therefore, a real gain to English literature that Fisher did not count it below his dignity to issue some treatises in the vernacular, while he continued to use Latin for his larger efforts.