Posts Tagged ‘Puritans’

Sermon Studies: More Possibilities than We Can Imagine

Friday, May 31st, 2013

by David M. Powers

I am grateful to Robert H. Ellison for the useful suggestions raised in his post “On the Discipline of ‘Sermon Studies,’” and I endorse his hopes for more systematic attention to the vast and often undervalued resource which sermons provide. Basing his comments in part on Keith A. Francis’ proposals in The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689-1901 (2012), Ellison has specified several areas for potential gleanings. It occurs to me there may be additional benefits we can scarcely envision.

Certainly sermons offer a source for accessing the issues, the questions, the flavor of any given point in Christian history. They not only provide snapshots of the character of popular theological discourse at particular moments in the past; they also encompass the observations of community leaders who were charged with addressing a “word from the Lord” to their contemporaries. Depending on how carefully sermons were recorded and preserved, they can offer the possibility of listening in on long-lost community conversations from a variety of times and places. Add imagination, and exploring past sermons can provide a time-warp way to recover an hour spent in a social setting, as if one were seated in the midst of a worshipping congregation, witnessing a community experience from possibly centuries ago. And read with care, through the various lenses Francis proposes, sermons can offer what he calls “detail — depth and contour” (p. 615) which can greatly help us get inside the thought and word patterns of previous eras.

At its best the approach does need to be interdisciplinary. When it comes to the area with which I am most familiar, namely, American Puritan sermons, much careful work is being done by persons in the fields of literature and rhetoric. I think of Lisa M. Gordis’ Opening Scripture: Bible Reading and Interpretive Authority in Puritan New England (2003), and Patricia Roberts-Miller’s Voices in the Wilderness: Public Discourse and the Paradox of Puritan Rhetoric (1999), as well as Meredith M. Neuman’s forthcoming Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England. Each of these offers insightful observations on the dynamics of communication as they apply to sermons and other forms of public discourse in the Puritan world.

I suspect the treasure trove of sermons is even richer than we are probably aware. Although taking every fragmentary note into consideration would be both impossible and unnecessary (Wilberforce’s single word on the back of an envelope may possibly be an exception!), it seems to me that sermon studies runs the risk of privileging printed materials. Scholarly awareness of the contribution of sermons to the Puritan enterprise has evolved significantly since Perry Miller’s The New England Mind (1939), with its heavy reliance on sermons in print. By exploring non-published materials, Harry S. Stout developed a substantially revised understanding in The New England Soul (1986); his study leaves Puritan preachers looking much kinder and more versatile than the stereotypical haranguers of “Jeremiads” we used to assume they were.

I have deciphered and transcribed sermon notes taken in a “short writing” code of his own invention by a teenager in Springfield, Massachusetts. At the time those notes were composed in 1640, Springfield was on the western colonial frontier. John Pynchon, the young man in question, was what Neuman calls an “aural auditor:” he wrote what he heard of the Rev. George Moxon’s preaching.


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It is his notes, with their sporadic phonetic spelling of Moxon’s Yorkshire words and pronunciation and his recording of Moxon’s occasional interpositions, like “Well,..” and “Only, by the way, one thing I forgot,” that make me confident that some recorded sermons offer vivid links to recoverable if not relivable moments. Again, in Sermon Studies imagination as well as analysis plays a part.

But access does remain a very large problem. My question is, will anyone beside me be able to make use of those notes on thirteen mid-seventeenth century sermons? What is the vehicle for making such primary material more widely available, more thoroughly studied, more carefully discussed? Short of a journal dedicated to this discipline, sessions on sermon studies at academic conferences could extend the conversation around this rich resource and the sometimes surprising access sermons provide to the past.

Banned Books Week and an Incident in Boston

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

By David M Powers

The American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week” (September 30-October 6) underscores a disturbing recurrent theme in American life — and a trait we clearly share with other parts of the world. While perhaps more notorious and frightening in other countries, the dangers from banning and burning books continue in our own, as we have seen when a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Quran on September 11, 2010.

The Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts, has one copy — and there are only nine known in the world — of the first book banned and burned on American territory. This significant event occurred in Boston on October 17, 1650. The volume in question is The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption. Its author was William Pynchon (1590-1662), a merchant and magistrate of considerable importance to the puritan venture in New England.

Pynchon was so busy as the colonizing founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, that it is extraordinary that he had time for anything else. But much to everyone’s surprise copies of a theological treatise he wrote arrived in Boston in October 1650. As luck would have it –- or not –- the Massachusetts General Court (the colony’s legislature) was then in session. Even though it is a thin volume, 158 pages of text, the authorities did not need to read it. The Meritorious Price was a book you could tell by its cover: a glance at the title page convinced them that Pynchon’s views were somewhat unorthodox. That, in their judgment, was enough to make it potentially prejudicial to the Bay Colony, especially among those in the British parliament who were already skeptical about the Massachusetts experiment. Pynchon fell victim to the puritan versus puritan struggles which eventually doomed the English republican Commonwealth.

The General Court voted a “protestation” on October 16, 1650, which called for “the said book now brought over be burnt by the executioner… & that in the market place in Boston, on the morrow, immediately after the lecture.” (Mass. Records, III, 215)

As for the aftermath: the book-burning incident had a traumatic impact on Pynchon. Though he tried a conciliatory approach when he conferred about it with three Court-approved clergy, he never attended the Massachusetts legislature again. And while the dramatic public censure of The Meritorious Price reflected badly on Massachusetts, its result at the time was negligible, if not counterproductive. The symbolic execution by burning Pynchon’s book changed nothing. By 1653 Pynchon was back in England, where he wrote several more increasingly wordy volumes, mostly on the same theme. He never changed his mind. He died late in 1662.

Adapted from a posting on Beacon Street Diary

For a more extensive analysis see David M. Powers, “William Pynchon and The Meritorious Price: The Story of the First Book Banned in Boston and the Man Who Wrote It,” Bulletin of the Congregational Library, Spring 2009, pp. 4-13. For more on burning books, see Hans J. Hillerbrand, “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (and Powerlessness) of Ideas,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74, (2006: 593-614).

John Knox and His Role in the English Reformation

Friday, May 11th, 2012

by Roberta Shepherd


© Copyright Gwen and James Anderson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Via Geograph

Presbyterians are typically aware that John Knox was a leading figure in the Reformation in Scotland. He was also involved in the effort to establish the Reformation in England. Knox was born around 1514, and raised in Haddington, Scotland. Educated as a Roman Catholic priest, he did not join a priestly order but worked as a notary and as a tutor to the sons of Scottish nobles.

The Scottish government supported the Roman Catholic Church as the only true religion and allowed them to burn Protestants at the stake as heretics. During the 1540’s Knox became a Protestant, and in fear of being arrested and executed, he joined other Protestants who were seeking refuge from the Scottish government in St. Andrews’ Castle in April 1547. While at St. Andrew’s, Knox received his call to preach, and his sermons vigorously defended the Reformed faith. In August 1548 the Castle fell to the French allies of Scotland, and the inhabitants became prisoners of war. Some were imprisoned in castles in France; Knox and a few others were consigned to French galleys as slaves. After nineteen months, and extensive negotiations between the Duke of Somerset in England and the French King, some of the prisoners were released, including Knox.

In Scotland the people embraced Protestantism and opposed the government imposition of religion. In contrast, in England the people believed the King had the right to establish the religious doctrine for the country and appoint the clergy. Preachers were licensed by the King to preach. The advisors to Edward VI, who was a minor, had begun to implement Protestant reforms and they needed strong preachers to support the new doctrine.

In the spring of 1549, the English and Scots were fighting each other along the Scottish border, and Knox believed he was still in danger of arrest and execution by the Roman Catholics in Scotland for his Reformed views. Knox was offered, and accepted, a position as a preacher in Berwick-on-Tweed, an English military post three miles from the Scottish border, located in the diocese of Durham. Although the first Book of Common Prayer (“common” meant public) had been published and by law was to replace the Mass, the Bishop of Durham continued to support the celebration of the Mass. Knox was the first in the diocese to preach Reformed doctrine, and he won many converts.

Reformed preachers brought a very different experience to worship from the Roman Catholic priests. Priests gave short homilies since the primary focus of the service was celebration of the Mass. In contrast, Reformation preachers, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Heinrich Bullinger, and Ulrich Zwingli, typically preached on Scripture for two or three hours at a time, sometimes several times each week. Knox preached from both the Old and New Testaments, first reading the passage, then explaining it. His preaching, which he maintained was inspired by the Holy Spirit, influenced many to convert to Reformed beliefs. Knox looked to 2 Timothy 4:2 as his guide: “Preach thou the word, be fervent, be it in season or out of season: Improve, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.”

He later preached in Newcastle-on-Tyne, the seat of the diocese, as well as Berwick. His preaching is believed to have attracted Reformed Scots across the border to move to Berwick and Newcastle. During 1552 Knox was appointed as one of six Royal Chaplains to Edward VI. His role was to travel and preach. The Royal Chaplains also preached at court to the King and Council.

In the autumn of 1552, the second Book of Common Prayer was being prepared to address the shortcomings of the first edition. This contained a new instruction that the communicant was required to kneel while receiving the bread and wine. The Reformed preachers were concerned that this would encourage the communicant to worship the elements instead of Jesus. Knox rode to London with the Duke of Northumberland in October.

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Via Geograph

A few days before the Book of Common Prayer was to go to press, Knox preached a sermon to the King and Council at Windsor Castle against the new requirement to kneel during communion, preferring to sit at a table as the disciples did in the Gospels. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer defended the practice of kneeling, but the Council appeared to have been swayed by Knox’s reasoning. When the Book of Common Prayer went to press, it contained the “black rubric” that kneeling was an act of respect and did not constitute worship of the elements. A rubric was an instruction, and was normally printed with red ink. In this case, the printer was out of red ink and so printed it in black. Jasper Ridley wrote in his biography of Knox that “The black rubric would never have been issued if it had not been for Knox’s sermon at Windsor.”

That same autumn Knox also preached against one of the articles of the Forty-two Articles of Religion which declared the ceremonies in the Book of Common Prayer to be consistent with Scripture. Although several of the preachers collaborated in writing the sermon, it was Knox who delivered it before the King and Council. His objection was primarily the requirement to kneel for communion. This article was modified to state that the doctrine of the Book was consistent with Scripture. Ridley considered Knox to have been one of the leaders of the Reformed preachers in England (John Knox 126-128).

The Duke of Northumberland, a Regent for Edward VI, was displeased with the immigration of Scottish Protestants to Berwick and Newcastle to hear Knox preach. Knox was offered the post of Bishop of Rochester, and a position as Vicar at All Hallows Church in London, both of which he refused, arguing that he would better serve the church elsewhere. He was concerned that these posts would corrupt him, and he wanted to return to Berwick and Newcastle where he had close friends and a fiancée. However, he was assigned to Amersham in Buckinghamshire that spring, which was near London.

As discussed above, as a Scotsman he was not limited by the English worldview that the monarch had the right to establish the religion of the people. He was aware of two things in spring of 1553: Edward’s half sister Mary was still being allowed to celebrate Mass, and Edward was terminally ill with tuberculosis. He predicted that the Roman Catholics would again take control of England and persecute the Protestants. In the summer of 1553 Edward VI died and Mary I ascended the throne. She reinstated the Roman Catholic religion and began to arrest the Reformed preachers and bishops. Knox continued to travel and preach until the early fall, at which time he went into hiding and eventually fled to the Continent in January 1554.

While on the Continent, Knox accepted a call to preach to English exiles in Frankfurt. He participated with William Whittingham, Christopher Goodman, and others in drawing up an order of service known as the Book of Common Order as a substitute for the Book of Common Prayer. Due to political machinations by an English preacher, Dr. Cox, who preferred the Book of Common Prayer, Knox lost his post and moved to Geneva. Part of the congregation in Frankfurt followed him to Geneva and they formed a new church. John Calvin approved the Book of Common Order and its format was used by the Presbyterians in England and the Reformed Church in Scotland.

Peter Lorimer wrote that the manner in which Knox celebrated the Lord’s Supper was influential in the Puritan religion in England later that century. When Mary I died, her half-sister, Elizabeth I, reinstated Protestantism. During her reign Knox’s approach to worship spread in the northern borders of England. Goodman, Whittingham, and others of Knox’s colleagues on the Continent returned to England and formed the Puritan church. Knox returned permanently to Scotland in 1560 and was involved in the establishment of the Reformed Church in that country.

Middle Ground: Reflections on the Historiography of David D. Hall

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

by E. Brooks Holifield

David Hall, recently retired from the Harvard Divinity School, has done as much as any historian of the past three decades to shape the direction and hone the methodology of both American religious history and the history of the book and of reading. We have much to learn by looking at his career — his career so far — and I would like to examine his style of historical thinking by noting a series of metaphors that began to appear in his books and articles in the 1970s. The metaphors assumed different shadings of meaning, but they exhibit a consistent habit of mind, a way of thinking historically that will influence us for a long time.

The central image is “middle ground,” or the “middle way,” or “middle space,” or “middling spaces.” And it attracts other related metaphors: negotiation, adaptation, appropriation, mediations, mediating contexts, reciprocities, tangled reciprocities. These metaphors, in turn, attract a related set of conceptions: ambivalence, paradox, overlapping contradictions, ambiguity, and dialectic.

Those metaphors and concepts have carried the weight of David Hall’s consistent opposition to binary constructions, sharp polarities between orality and literacy, piety and indifference, tradition and the market, clergy and lay, misogynist patriarchs and insurgent women, literate and illiterate, theocrats and democrats, purity and declension, formality and ecstasy, the people and the elite, dominating and dominated, communal and individualist, local and metropolitan, genteel and common, and European and American.

He has always acknowledged differentiations, but he has also relativized them, situated them in historical settings in which one finds both oppositions and mediations. He has been a critic of “stark extremities” and simple dichotomies. When he has looked at the past, he has found conflicts but also subtle negotiations.

He has written about educated elites, but he has uncovered their intimate linkage to “the people.” He has insisted that we look at both social history and intellectual systems, at both behavior and language, at both the liminal and the ordinary, at both the conserving and the radical, and the ways in which they are entangled with each other.

His position has been hard-earned, grounded in prodigious research in the primary sources and a mastery of the secondary literature that few can equal. When Hall published his study of the New England clergy in 1972 — The Faithful Shepherd — a growing array of colonial social historians were ready to say that the clergy were largely irrelevant to understanding early America, even the New England colonies. And intellectual history and the history of ideas were largely irrelevant to understanding almost everything about the past.

The opponent of choice for the social historians of colonial America was Perry Miller, whom they accused of overstating the power of “elite ideas,” and they published a variety of local studies that ignored religion, and especially religious leaders and their ideas, built a wall between high and popular culture, and accented the vast distance between the collective mentality of folk belief and the rarified and isolated mental world of the literate. Intellectual history seemed “irretrievably displaced by numbers-driven social history.” [“Witchcraft and the Limits of Interpretation,” 281] There was always, he wrote later, both conflict and negotiation, and so unpredictability and uncertainty, in the hunt for witches. He urged the necessity for a vision of mediation in the historiography of witch-hunting.

By 1989, when he published Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment, he had become an incisive critic of the Americanization thesis (with its pronounced contrast between Europe and America). He also called into question notions of decline from supposedly pristine orthodoxies and over-precise distinctions between the people and their leaders. And he had found imaginative ways to get inside the heads of ordinary people who lived in both an enchanted universe and a Protestant world.

The 1990s brought a shift of interest in his scholarship in at least four ways: (1) First, he began to publish the results of his research on the history of reading and the book. Second, an assignment to edit one of the volumes of the Yale Edwards edition cast him into the manuscripts of Jonathan Edwards. (3) Third, he moved deeper into social history by exploring the dynamics of the colonial family and of women in New England religion. (4) And fourth, he began to develop his concept of “lived religion” as an alternative to the binary “popular” and “elite.” In all these endeavors, he exemplified a resistance to simple binaries.

In Cultures of Print (1996) and A History of the Book in America, Vol. 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (2000), with Hugh Amory, he emphasized again the ambiguities and overlaps. Had there really been a revolutionary transition from intensive reading in colonial America to extensive reading in the nineteenth century? Did the polarity of domination and resistance really clarify the role of gender in reading? Should we distinguish high and low with as much confidence as we sometimes do? Was there really a vast gulf between local and metropolitan readers? The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World —rich in detail— will be, for our lifetimes and beyond, the classic, comprehensive study of the book in early America.

His work on Edwards led him to look closely at the institutional settings and the family dynamics in the background of Edwards’s ideas about the church. In fact, Hall’s study of the family helped him explain the ways in which the desires of women to protect their children helped define both seventeenth and eighteenth century Puritanism as a continuing “negotiation between extremes,” a multilayered system out of which both clergy and laity selected motifs and symbols that sometimes overlapped and sometimes did not. [“Introduction,” Jonathan Edwards: Ecclesiastical Writings, 82]

Finally, his concept of lived religion — a concept that has deeply influenced recent directions of American religious history — enabled him to look at how religions and cultures embodied overlapping tensions and even contradictions in early America.

The notion of lived religion was an effort to move beyond an undifferentiated notion of popular religion and to see both the continuities and the discontinuities between the religion of the people and official religion. For example, his essay on Samuel Sewall in Worlds of Wonder — a small masterpiece — showed through imaginative detailed reading of the diaries the ways in which this seventeenth-century Puritan layman partook both of Protestant tradition and popular sensibilities in his quest for protection in a frightening world of harsh contrasts and unpredictable forces.

Now, simply to trace a few continuities — a few motifs — in David Hall’s historical writing is to miss, of course, the textured complexity of his work. He has not written history that admits of simply summary. He has immersed himself in the detail — and unearthed both the spoken and the unspoken in early America. He has taken us into the stubborn recalcitrance of a history that is sometimes messy, rarely malleable and submissive to our simplifying categories, and always engaging of our serious attention.