Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 6. The second generation of Reformation Preachers: Lever, Bradford and Gilpin

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

§ 6. The second generation of Reformation Preachers: Lever, Bradford and Gilpin

The older generation of reformers was soon finding valuable recruits for the work of preaching. Bishop Ridley had particular success in discovering able men and promoting them. In 1550, he ordained two Lancashire and Cambridge men—John Bradford of Pembroke, the converted lawyer, whom he made his chaplain and a prebendary of St. Paul’s, and Thomas Lever, fellow and, afterwards, master of St. John’s college. Ridley grouped Bradford and Lever with Latimer and Knox as the most incisive preachers of the age. Bradford’s short career was ended by his imprisonment and martyrdom in 1555. Lever lived on far into Elizabeth’s reign, and was among the most distinguished of the first nonconformists. Three fruitful sermons of the year 1550 remain to vindicate his right to be remembered as a preacher to Edward VI. The “yonge simple scholar,” as he describes himself, shows remarkable self-confidence, and is prepared to be thought “sumwhat saucye” for his hitting out freely. “Thus hath God by Esaye in his tyme, and by me at this tyme, described Rulers Faultes, with a way how to amend them.” Parsons who do not reside on their cures, covetous landlords who let their labourers’ cottages go into decay and “turn all to pasture,” “covitous carles” who “forstall the markettes and bye corn at all tymes, to begynne and encrease a dearth,” judges who take bribes and give wrong judgments, all come under Lever’s lash, especially when he is preaching before the king. It is particularly to his credit that he does not blink his eyes to the evils which have grown up out of the reformation. If the abolition of abbeys, chantries and guilds has only enriched covetous men, and actually set back the condition of schools and universities, then it is time to look to these Judases which have the bag. Lever does not resemble Latimer only in his fiery denunciation of social wrongs, but has also something of his rough humour and racy vernacular. In such a passage as the following, where he attacks those lay-rectors who put in an incompetent and underpaid curate to serve the parish, we might believe ourselves to be reading Latimer himself.

  • Yes, forsoth, he ministreth Gods sacramentes, he sayeth his servyce, and he readeth the homilies as you fyne flatring courtiers, which speake by imagination, tearme it: But the rude lobbes of the countrey, whiche be to symple to paynte a lye, speake foule and truly as they fynde it, and saye: He ministreth Gods sacraments, he slubbers up his service, and he cannot reade the humbles.
  • But Lever does not maintain our interest like his predecessor, and he has some irritating affectations. Few writers before or since can have abused more completely the habit of grouping words in triplets. He will pursue this same trick through clause after clause:
  • From whence shal we that be governors, kepers, and feders, bye and provide with our own costes, labor and diligence, bread, foode and necessaryes, etc.?
  • John Bradford’s preaching is represented by two sermons, which afford an interesting contrast to one another. The first, on repentance, unlike most of the other extant sermons of that period, was not a London sermon, but was delivered “as I was abroad preaching in the country.” He was with much difficulty persuaded to print it. Once before, when he had been diffident about his preaching, Bucer had counselled him, “If thou have not fine manchet bread, give the pore people barley bread.” He had considerable learning, but he was probably not a practised writer, and he certainly gets into difficulties with long sentences. He tries to satisfy the prevailing taste for alliteration, and produces astounding examples with as many as eight words in sequence. The most interesting literary feature is his free use of colloquial and provincial words. More than any preacher of his age, he requires a glossary for the modern reader. He has a plentiful supply of similes and metaphors, but they are often tasteless and undignified. Still, he is always forcible and, upon fitting occasion, can be eloquent.

  • This death of Christ therefore look on as the very pledge of God’s love toward thee, whosoever thou art, how deep soever thou hast sinned. See, God’s hands are nailed, they cannot strike thee: his feet also, he cannot run from thee; his arms are wide open to embrace thee: his head hangs down to kiss thee: his very heart is open.
  • Bradford’s other sermon was not published till nearly twenty years after his death. It was, perhaps, preached to his fellow-prisoners in queen Mary’s reign before they took the Sacrament together, as their gaolers suffered them to do. It was, at any rate, written where he had no access to books, as he expressly says. The sermon was sent in manuscript, with other of Bradford’s writings, to his friend Ridley for corrections. Whether the older writer pruned away any extravagances of style, or whether Bradford had himself learnt better, there are few traces left of the tricks and provincialisms which had disfigured his first sermon. His theme, the Lord’s Supper, almost necessitated controversial treatment, but he sets out his argument with clearness and learning and religious feeling.

    Another famous preacher made a single appearance at king Edward’s court, and, like many of his immediate predecessors, found empty benches. Yet no one had arisen since Latimer who deserved a hearing better than Bernard Gilpin. If the courtiers had attended, they would have heard a sermon as free from literary affectations and almost as entertaining as the sermon on the Plough.