Volume XI: Sermons Preached in St Paul’s Cathedral, 1623-1625

Volume editor: Lori Anne Ferrell

This is the second of six planned volumes containing John Donne’s sermons preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  It observes the organizing and defining principle of this OUP edition, which collates Donne’s sermons chronologically by place of preaching.  The method has already allowed the editorial team to re-date (no. 10 to 5 June 1625) and re-locate (no. 2, from St. Dunstan’s) two of this particular volume’s eleven sermons.  The placing of the latter is justified by Donne’s extended discussion of cathedral ceremonies and officeholders not applicable to a parochial context (readers will be alerted, however, to the possibility that the sermon as it survives may in fact be a palimpsest of a sermon preached at one venue and then revised for the other); the date 1623 is supplied by Donne’s opening allusion to the sermon he had just preached at court on 28 February 1623.  The dating of the Whitsunday sermons is as yet tentative.  The first, here tentatively 1623, is further complicated by the fact that one of the obligations of Donne’s prebendal stall (distinct from his deanery) was to preach on Whitmonday.  There is as yet no evidence that Donne kept the prebend’s Whitmonday obligation as well as his decanal one for Whitsunday, but the text of this sermon (1 Cor. 12.3) is from the prayer book lesson for Whitmonday.  If this point cannot be resolved by further research, the copytext title of ‘Whitsunday’ will be preserved, but the Whitmonday complication acknowledged in the notes.  The second Whitsunday sermon, here tentatively 1625, could also arguably belong to 1624.  Further editors’ work on the recusancy laws (to which this sermon refers) should confirm dating.  This sermon will be considered carefully with Dr Lund, proposed editor of Vol. XI (which includes the linked sermon on the same text preached on the subsequent Whitsunday, hence either 1625 or 1626).

The significance of the cathedral venue - the routines of its preachers, the responsibilities of the dean, the role played by its prebendaries, the characteristics of cathedral worship, and the urban and ecclesiastical composition of the cathedral’s audience - will have been thoroughly discussed by the editor of the first St. Paul’s volume (X), Peter McCullough.  The introduction to this volume will efficiently recapitulate those details and then go on to discuss how they shaped the style and content of Donne’s cathedral sermons between March 1623 and January 1624/5; and how they reflected the politically-fraught period marked by the decline and death of James I (27 March 1625) and the accession of Charles I. These sermons are thus freighted with the socio-political anxieties that attend upon a change of monarchical government - even in this, the least-contested accession in Britain since that of Henry VIII.

Indeed it can be argued that the accession of Charles I was the only issue not under contest by the spring of 1625.  The final years of James’s reign had witnessed the collapse of the king’s dreams of peace at home and abroad, a programme undermined by the humiliating failure of Prince Charles and the Duke of Buckingham’s unofficial trip to Madrid.  Court and parliament alike were racked with suspicion about the intentions of Buckingham, and about subsequent plans to make a new marriage alliance between Charles and another Catholic princess, this time French.  At the same time the Church’s equilibrium, always delicate, had begun to shift perceptibly towards an ecclesiastical faction with liturgical, theological, and ecclesiological designs to thwart the then Calvinist majority. 

The years spanned by the sermons in this volume witnessed, then, the involvement of the heir to the throne in ill-fated Spanish intrigue (February to October 1623), the call to arms by Charles and Buckingham and the reluctant calling of Parliament by James (24 February 1624); the failure of that Parliament to produce sufficient subsidy and its subsequent prorogation (the end of May 1624); a diplomatic strategy to marry the Prince to a French princess; the attempts to ally with the United Provinces and against the Hapsburgs, and the disastrous military failure of the English in the Palatinate in January 1624/5.

For its part, the Church of England in this period was vexed by the failure of the Synod of Dort (1618) to produce anything like a Calvinist consensus in the episcopate at home.  Sermons preached in influential pulpits at university and court, as well as in the City, by men who would come into unprecedented power in the next reign, took an increasingly bellicose tone towards predestinarian Calvinism, now equated openly with puritan “sectarianism.”  Many of these sermonic opinions later took on more substantial life in print, making an indelible impression (whether true or not) that the Church had finally become irrevocably divided over protestant doctrine as well as protestant practice.  The “Directions to Preachers” issued by James in 1622 did nothing to allay this fear.

And amidst this roiling set of political and ecclesiastical controversies, Donne’s personal life took its own fearful turn in the winter of 1623/4, as he battled the illness that was to become the subject of his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624).   His malady, plus the resurgence of plague that effectively emptied London in the summer of 1625, became themes that also surfaced in poignant ways in his preaching.  They provided a lens through which he surveyed not only issues under contemporary discussion in Britain, but also the major preaching occasions offered by the church calendar, and, most important, the questions of life, death, and eternity that are the proper and primary concerns of theology and homiletic.

The sermons in the volume are thus exemplary in their connection of timeless, time-bound, and timely concerns.  Eight were preached on ecclesiastical holidays:  numbers one, two, four, and seven on Easter; numbers three and nine on Whitsunday; and numbers five and ten on Christmas.  These sermons would have attracted the disparate and influential urban cohort that made up the cathedral’s auditory: mayors, aldermen, members of the Corporation of the City of London.  Numbers nine and eleven, by contrast, are sermons fulfilling a peculiar ecclesiastical assignment.  Donne, who held the prebend of Chiswick, was thus one of the thirty clerical members of the cathedral chapter, all of whom were required as a condition of their prebendal appointments to recite and meditate upon five Psalms daily.  Donne’s were Psalms 62-66, which became for him the stuff of meditations so personally fulfilling that he chose also to preach them on a systematic basis. This group, Donne’s six ‘Prebend sermons’, preached between 1625 and 1627, alone from Donne’s sermon oeuvre, have been edited and annotated to a superior standard by Janel Mueller (1971).  Her outstanding work on them will be fully taken into account in this and the other Oxford volumes in which they appear.

Volume XI opens aptly then, with a sermon preached in the evening on Easter-day 1623 which, in the course of a sophisticated explication of Trinitarian doctrine, also manages to make reference to a Spanish devotional writer, an obvious reference to the issues of the Spanish match.  The other three Easter sermons included here, all preached after Donne’s experience of life-altering illness, display his rhetorical facility with the analogy of recovery to resurrection.  Other sermons explore the relation of illness and sin in more exotic, alchemical tones.  For example, sermon three, preached on Whitsun 1625 (re-dated from Potter and Simpson’s 1624), makes reference to Paracelsian physic, stating the preacher’s belief that “everything hath in it…a natural Balsalmum, which, if any wound or hurt which that creature hath received be kept clean…will heal of itself.”

Donne goes on to compare this physicians’ truism with the state of original sin, and then stresses the importance of ceremonial worship as part of the process by which humankind will be convinced of the truth of the doctrine of redemption.  Here we have the personal, the political, and the prophetic allied in singular sermonic performance.  The Donne revealed in his sermons is not to be bound by occasion, even as he discusses it thoughtfully: he is, at heart, a talented prose stylist, a skilled biblical exegete and a subtle Christian theologian.

Sermons contained in this volume

  • Preached at St. Paul’s, in the Evening, upon Easter Day [March 28], 1623 [Acts 2.36]
  • Preached at St. Paul’s [I Thessalonians 5.16]
  • Preached upon Whitsunday, 1623 [I Cor. 12.3]
  • Preached upon Candlemas, 1623[Mat. 9.2]
  • Preached at St. Paul’s, upon Easter Day, in the evening, 1624 [Rev. 20.6]
  • Preached upon Whitsunday, (1624) [Acts 10.44]
  • Preached at St. Paul’s upon Christmas Day, in the evening, 1624 [Isa. 7.14]
  • Preached at St. Paul’s, the Sunday after the conversion of St. Paul, [February] 1624 [/5] [Acts 9.4]
  • Preached at St. Paul’s, in the evening, upon Easter Day(1625) [John 5.28 and 29]
  • Preached at St. Paul’s, May 8, 1625 [Psa. 62.9]
  • Preached upon Whitsunday [5 June, 1625] [John 16.8-11]
  • Preached at St. Paul’s on Christmas Day, 1625 [Gal. 4.4 and 5]
  • The Second of my Prebend Sermons upon my five Psalms. Preached at St. Paul’s, January 29, 1625/6 [Psa. 63.7]