Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lori Anne Ferrell and Peter McCullough, Revising the Study of the English Sermon

Lori Anne Ferrell and Peter McCullough, Revising the study of the English sermon; in The English Sermon Revised; Religion, Literature and History 1600-1750, ed. Lori Anne Ferrell and Peter McCullough, Machester Univ. Press, Manchester and New York, 2000

Until the last decade, the only, therefore standard, general studies of the early modern sermon were four in number: W. F. Mitchell’s English Pulpit Oratory from Andrewes to Tillotson (1932, reprinted 1962), Alan Fager Herr’s The Elizabethan Sermon: a Survey and Bibliography (1940), Millar Maclure’s The Paul’s Cross Sermons, 1534-1642 (1958), and J. W. Blench’s Preaching in England in the late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (1964). Their unchallenged status as works of reference for students and scholars alike over at least generations… But further study of the sermon has largely failed to evolve beyond the three aspects of the early institutionalized study of Renaissance English literature that set the agendas of those four defining monographs: the history of English prose style, antiquarian literary history, and a preoccupation with ‘the Metaphysical’. (3)

One of the great debates that animated first-generations English departments in North America was over the exact evolution of English prose from (to parody slightly) medieval crudity, through the humanist tyranny of ‘aureate’ Ciceronianism, to the graceful dawn of the modern plain style in either Bacon’s anti-Ciceronian Senecanism, or the clinical linguistic precision of the Restoration Royal Society. [The principal positions were Morris W. Croll’s advocacy of a Baconian beginning for modern prose in a series of essays dating from 1914 to 1929 and collected by J. Max Patrick et al., eds, ‘Attic’ and Baroque Prose Style: the anti-Ciceronian Movement. Essays by Morris W. Croll, (Princeton, 1969), and R. F. Jones’s work in the next decade arguing for the Restoration origins of the plain style, collected at The Seventeenth Century: Studies in the History of English Thought and Literature from Bacon to Pope, (Stanford, 1951, reprinted 1965). For a lucid summary and corrective to the debate, see Janel Mueller, The Narrative Tongue and the Word: Developments in the English Prose Style, 1380-1580 (Chicago Univ, 1984), pp. 1-38.] The vast tracts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sermon prose were fields too rich not to be plundered in the prose-style war, and some of the most insightful formal criticism of sermons is still to be found not in studies of sermons per se , but in studies of English prose such as George Williamson’s The Senecan Amble: Prose from Bacon to Collier (Chicago, 1951). But in the hands of some in the first generation of sermon scholars an obsession with the taxonomy of English prose style stretched and hacked a vibration, heterogeneous species of English verbal art to fit a Procrustean bed of periodized styles. (4)

…still the only overview of the English sermon in its seventeenth-century Golden Age. For its time, Mitchell’s was a laudably thorough survey of hitherto uncharted academic territory; for our own, excepting its still serviceable summary of the relationship between humanist rhetoric and homiletics, it is woefully outdates. … But wedded to an evolutionary model that privileged the pure simplicity of post-Restoration prose, Mitchell’s 400 page chronological survey from 1603 to 1715 replicates, rather than interrogates, the eighteenth-century argument that Restoration stylists rescued English prose from the corruptions and crudities of early Stuart times. (5)

Mitchell’s answer was to propose an ecclesiological umbrella under which he could fit ‘metaphysical’ poets who should be ‘metaphysical’ preachers. In the wake of nearly twenty years of detailed reassessment of once confidently used ecclesiastical party labels like ‘puritan’ and ‘Calvinist’ (discussed below) Mitchell’s choice of the howlingly anachronistic phrase ‘Anglo-Catholic Preachers’ to describe preachers ranging from the Calvinist Playfere to the anti-Calvinist Andrewes (with Donne somewhere between them) hardly needs refutation. This state of affairs was not helped, though, when, rightly acknowledging how unacceptable it was to apply a Tractarian label to the seventeenth century, Horton Davies firmly reasserted the fitness of ‘metaphysical’ to describe dozens of preachers (‘at least forty-one’) who shared little more than their grammar school education, conformity to the Church of England, and Davies’s own estimation of their ‘eloquence’. Discussing sermons as ‘metaphysical’—a term historically inaccurate, critically amorphous, and too laden with poetic associations to be of service when analyzing pulpit oratory, has been a non-starter for generations, and the sooner abandoned the better. (6)

[Jeanne Shami, ‘Introduction: Reading Donne’s Sermons’, John Donne Journal, 11 (1992) 1-20; ‘Donne’s Sermons and the Absolutist Politics of Quotation’, in Raymond-Jean Frontain and Francs M Malpezzi, eds, John Donne’s Religious Imaginations: Essays in Honor of John T. Shawcross (Conway Ark., UCA Press, 1995), pp. 380-412. There are of course important exceptions, though primarily products of mid-century style study. See Joan Webber, Contrary Music; William Mueller, John Donne: Preacher (Princeton, 1962); an important further editorial contribution is Janel Mueller, ed., Donne’s Prebend Sermons (Harvard Univ Press, 1971.)] Indeed, we reprint in Chapter 6 one piece of work at which Shami takes particular umbrage for what she views as its selective use of quotation form the sermons, Deborah Shuger’s powerful study of Donne’s ‘Absolutist Theology’. As many of the contributors to this volume acknowledge, Shuger has been at the forefront of a growing number of scholars who insist on the importance not just of religion, but of conformist thought, to early modern cultural studies. In the face of an American New Historicism known for its secularism, and a British literary-historical tradition known for its rich and sympathetic treatment of radical religious voices, Shuger’s work engages without apology the now less fashionable, but in early modern England the dominant, habits of thought emanating form a monarchically established Church. Shami, however, unlike Shuger, works less in a thematic vein than in a strictly contextual one. To do so requires reading the individual sermons as deeply occasional texts, and avoiding Shuger’s preference for culling evidence freely from the sermons as a homogenous body of systematic thought. (7-8)

Most detrimentally, however, the editorial tradition of excerpting prohibits the formal analysis of the sermons as a genre in its own right. To teach Shakespeare using only an anthology of soliloquies would give a class some sense of the dramatist’s skill with verse, imagery, and theme, but could never do justice to the larger structural crafts of scenic patterning, or the counterpoint of multiple plots, much less the thematic complexity or the sheer emotional impact upon an audience of the whole. And nothing was closer literary kin to the drama that flourished in early modern England than the sermon. Yet thorough editorial customs that insist on tying the sermon to arid prose style analysis, or encouraging the dangers of subjective biographical readings, or subjugating sermons extracts to a privileged poetic canon, we have heretofore presented the sermon as one of the most lifeless, ancillary aspects of Renaissance literary culture. (8-9)

In Chapter 1 Andrew Fitzmaurice shows how crucial an understanding of rhetorical theory is to the proper appreciation of the sermon in Jacobean England. But whereas earlier studies of sermon rhetoric focused very narrowly only on rhetorical styles and structures, Fitzmaurice recalls us to early modern culture’s fundamental faith in the practical engagement of those styles and structures with politics and government—the belief shared by preachers and sponsors of sermons that oratory, most prominently represented in their culture by sermons, was the most vital part of any attempt to construct a civilized commonwealth. (9)

One of the hallmarks of twentieth-century literary criticism has been its ability to appreciate the multivalent, ambiguous, even delightfully contradictory richness of the literary artifact. But literary critics, especially New Historicists, have been too blind to recent historians’ discovery of the multivalent, ambiguous, contradictory character of the age itself. Despite New Historicist appeals to history, simply invoking ‘history’ is not enough; literary critics must practice better historical method. Literary scholars must follow the lead of those historians who, influenced by debates sparked by ‘Revisionism’, have produced more nuanced readings of historical contexts. (9)

Mary Morrissey offers and outstanding overview of that historiography as well as a forceful critique of it by faulting (not unlike Andrew Fitzmaurice) the extrapolation of thematic and political readings from the sermons without first understanding important early modern assumptions about the political currency of certain rhetorical forms. (9)

Sermons were commissioned by trading companies and lawyers (to petition God’s approval for their profession and enterprise), the aristocracy (to mark rites of passage), and the monarch (to broadcast policy and tout the divine right to rule). (10)

So-called ‘Whig history’ found its support in parliamentary sermons; Marxist history constructed some of its most influential historical narratives by redeploying puritan sermons and radical rants. Finally, sermon evidence has been central to ‘revisionist’ and ‘post-revisionist’ historical arguments. The value placed on sermon evidence, therefore, has not changed: what have are the methods by which they are researched and the ends to which they are put. (11)

Revisionism did not question the importance of the events of the 1640s. But where earlier scholars had invested what they saw as an unprecedented and unique event with modern political significance, the revisionists explained away the long-term socio-political or ideological ‘origins’ of the Civil War, thereby radically reappraising its significant effects. The revisionist toppling of the Whig historical argument for the origins of modern democracy in the process destroyed its religious infrastructure, the ‘puritan revolution’ thesis. This argument postulated that hot Protestantism lit the torch of parliamentary liberty. Twentieth-century Marxist histories also depended on the ‘puritan revolution’ to make their case for the 1640s as a bourgeois revolution gloriously hi-jacked by radical sectarianism. / Revisionist Tudor-Stuart history challenged the notion that Puritanism was a force for historical change. The ‘Whig’ interpretation thus eventually gave way to a variety of fragmented and contingent readings of the conflicts of the 1640s, in which the civil wars remained central but ‘puritanism’ and ‘revolution’ barely figured. (12)

Revisionists did not revamp historical methodology to construct a truly innovative approach to text evidence. They simply went back to the archives, winning their arguments with the sheer knock-out power of texts more closely read—without preemptive judgment (it would seem), without ideological inflections modern or historical. Theirs was a strategy that worked. Pointing with justifiable pride to its basis in diligent, accurate archival work, revisionism placed the text at the center of its concerns and allowed it rather than the nineteenth-century idealist or imperialist to speak. And, without recourse to an ideological subtext or literary context, the archives supported the revisionist enterprise rather well. Unsurprisingly, early modern writers rarely annotated their writings with the ‘long view’, nor id they make overt references to crisis, nor did they espouse much rebellion. But in their concern that ideology should not overwhelm historical veracity, many revisionists treated these texts with, oddly enough, too much respect. They placed so much trust in their uninflected close readings of the evidence that they inevitably became mouthpieces for the political, cultural, or social self-presentations of the past. (12)

…revision of the religious history of early modern England shattered the old argument for the origins of civil war while at the same time it reinscribed religious dispute as a major inducement to the conflicts of the 1620s. Most revisers of English religious history have questioned the power or even the existence of ‘puritanism’ before the ecclesiastical disputes of the 1630s. they claimed that the people of Tudor-Stuart England believed fervently in a unified Church, a consensual society, and in a harmonious polity, and that their monarchical and episcopal leaders ruled in the name of these ideals. Moreover, revisionists backed up their claims with page after page of archival proof texts meticulously read an, after discarding the cloudy lens of Whig ideology, reconstructed. (13)

…a puritanism revised, stripped of its association with revolution but not of its power to spark conflict in English society. (13)

Patrick Collinson identified Puritanism as a religious force dedicated to reforming the English Church from within. He suggested that many of the religious positions we would identify as ‘puritan’—the desire for a Church purged of papal remnants, the campaign for social respectability, and, most significantly for our concerns here, the love of preaching—could be considered normative cultural and doctrinal assumptions of most early modern Englishwomen and men. Puritanism was the leaven loaf of the Church of England: those who considered themselves ‘godly’ may have been easy targets of stage parody, but they were usually neither revolutionaries nor separatist. In fact, it was their very inclusion within a Church they felt honour-bound to criticize that earned them their opprobrious label: ‘puritans were not different from Protesants. They were Protestants in a particular set of circumstances to which they actively contributed, but were not of their own choosing; or rather puritans were Protestants as they were perceived in a particular set of circumstances. [Patrick Collinson, The Puritan Character: Polemics and Polarities in Early Seventeenth-Century English Culture (Los Angeles, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1989), p. 29] As regards the category of ‘puritan’, Collinson’s contribution thus can be neatly summarized. Defined not by the contentions of its adherents, but by the assessments of its observers, Collinsonian ‘puritanism’ is a malleable cultural image—not an unconditional historical classification. (13)

In Chapter 5, Arnold Hunt considers the evidence provided by sermons preached in London during and after the Essex rebellion in January 1601. He finds much evidence to confirm that Elizabeth’s government could, and did, use sermons as political tools to advocate adherence to an ‘official line’. And yet he also outlines the limits of such a strategy: tracking an ‘official line’ was no easy undertaking, for preachers were hardly ventriloquists, and audience reception did not always match homiletic intentions. Hunt thus explores the space between the sermons as preached and the sermon as heard, concluding that religion and preaching were much more central to the politics of the Essex revolted than has been previously understood. (14)

In 1973, Nicholas Tyacke shifted not only long-held assumptions of English Church historians, but also what had been two immovable paradigms of Whig history, that the innovating force in the late Tudor and early Stuart English Church was Puritanism, and that this religious and cultural force could be identified by its adherence to doctrinal Calvinism. Tyack’s meticulous survey revealed that, far from being an avenging sword, predestinarian Calvinist doctrine was the ‘ameliorating bond’ that united the broadly cast Elizabethan and Jacobean Church of England. (14)

In the reign of Charles I, according to Tyacke, old-fashioned predestinarian Calvinism proved no match for the religious opinions and polices of this small but powerful cadre of anti-Calvinist clergy led by Charles’s Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Calvinists, hitherto part of the conformist mainstream and used to positions of Episcopal and court power, suddenly found themselves labeled ‘puritans’ by their erstwhile ecclesiastical brethren. (14-15)

Peter Lake… According to Lake, these despisers of predestinarian theology also worked to suppress many extra-doctrinal positions held within the Church of England on Church government, social policy, and scenic apparatus of worship, the place of the sermon, and the royal supremacy. Conformist-Calvinist attitudes to any of these issues could be teased out by opponents into something called ‘puritansim’ and subsequently attacked, which is precisely what happened in the 1630s. (15)

Lake’s most distinctive contribution to the post-Tyackian debate, however, may have been his 1991 essay ‘Lancelot Andrewes, John Buckeridge, and Avant-garde Conformity at the Jacobean Court’. … The court sermon, which operates under constraints both formal and political, must inevitably make its controversial points by means of suggestion and allusion. Its theologies are almost always muted in its attempt to counsel yet please an alert and critical royal audience. The court sermon was a golden opportunity for the slightly left-of-center malcontents that Tyacke had led us to believe Andrewes and Buckeridge were, for here was the perfect means to deliver innovative theological opinions cloaked, in Andrewes’s case at any rate, in verbally dazzling defenses of unobjectionable ideals for prayer or comely worship. (15)

In Chapter 8 Lake takes up what he dubs the ‘rhetoric of moderation’ in the influential Caroline preaching of Joseph Hall and Robert Skinner (using ‘rhetoric here not, like several other contributors, in its purer technical sense of the art of persuasion, but in its generalized modern usage as ‘vocabulary’ or ‘language’). Using the claustrophobic politics of the early Stuart court as a backdrop, Lake shows how two cleric who employed virtually the same vocabulary of moderation were in fact not only strident adversaries, but also instruments in the redrawing of the Caroline boundaries of orthodoxy and conformity. If the English civil wars really were ‘wars of religion’ as John Morrill claims, then we can consider the sermons of Hall and Skinner early reports from the battlefield. (16)

These histories assert the continued importance of sermons after the Glorious Revolution, an era once thought of as characterized by rapid secularization and an increasingly languid, latitudinarian religiosity. / This new scholarship, in part introduced for the first time in this book in Chapters 10 and 11 by James Caudle and Tony Claydon, re-examines analyses (inspired by the work of Jurgen Habermas) of the impact of the expansion of a secularly oriented ‘public sphere’ on eighteenth-century British politics by emphasizing that the medium of its expansion continued to be religious polemic in the form of printed sermons and public preaching. (17)

Their arguments thus link the method, if not the content or provenance, of late Tudor and early Stuart England’s religious polemics with those of the Georgian Age. Unlike Hunt’s or Lake’s Elizabethan and Jacobean pulpits, however, the Georgian ones were ‘tuned’ to parliamentary rather than court or Paul’s Cross notes; we see, therefore, that the public sphere must be redefined to account for the fact that its formative literature remains religious even as its aims and instruments become increasingly secular. (17)


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