Title: The Act of Preaching and the Art of Prophesying.
Subject(s): DONNE, John; REFORMATION -- England; AUTHORS, English -- Biography
Author(s): Crockett, Bryan
Source: Sewanee Review, Winter97, Vol. 105 Issue 1, p39, 14p
Abstract: Presents an essay about the English Reformation preacher named John Donne. Intention for a painting to prophesy death and resurrection; Release of final sermon in the book `Deaths Duell'; Similarity with other preachers in being both prophets and performers.
AN: 9703171685
ISSN: 0037-3052
Database: TOPICsearch
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Shrouded in a winding sheet and perched atop a funeral urn, John Donne struck a dramatic pose for a life-size painting that he commissioned shortly before his death. Donne himself elaborately staged the portrait's details to anticipate his pose as he would rise from the grave on the Day of Judgment. It is appropriate, then, that the posthumous first edition of Deaths Duell, his final sermon, reproduced the portrait as its frontispiece. For, just as Donne intended the painting to prophesy death and resurrection, so he intended the sermon to prophesy. And just as he self-consciously staged his pose in the portrait, so he self-consciously staged his performance in the pulpit.

In that regard Donne is not unusual: English Reformation preachers often described themselves as both prophets and performers. To be sure, the sermons of Shakespeare's day contained their share of polemics against the stage; anti-theatrical rhetoric was standard fare in the pulpits of Tudor and Stuart England. But the preachers nonetheless thought of themselves as actors.

A strong case can be made that the true age of antitheatrical homiletics is not the Reformation but our own--that the divorce between homiletics and theatrics, like the one between religion and politics, is a distinctly post-Enlightenment phenomenon. In the twentieth century, a time when the drama of faith and the sacredness of theater are not as apparent to us as to our forebears, we need reminding that in the England of the Tudors and Stuarts, church and stage were no more separate than church and state. And we need reminding that if the Renaissance marriage of homiletics and theatrics was at times troubled, the marital turbulence is also an index of the union's vitality.


According to Izaak Walton's biography of Donne (1640), the ailing preacher carefully arranged the details of his final portrait:

Several charcoal fires being first made in his large study, he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies are usually fitted to be shrouded and put into their coffin or grave .... He thus stood, with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might shew his lean, pale, and death-like face, which was purposely turned towards the East, from whence he expected the second coming of his and our Saviour Jesus.

As Walton remarks, it seems curious that a clergyman as self-effacing as Donne would take such extravagant pains to leave a monument to himself, particularly such a gruesome reminder of his emaciation just before death.

Yet that is the point. Like a good many of his contemporaries, Donne is a poet and preacher of paradox. He delights in offering his audience unsettling combinations of contrary principles: it is perfectly in character that he would flaunt his wasted body even as he denigrated it--that he would bequeath to posterity a portrait of living death. Walton reports that even the actual moment of Donne's death betrayed this macabre concern for appearance: "as his soul ascended, and his last breath departed from him, he closed his own eyes, and then disposed his hands and body into such a posture as required not the least alteration by those that came to shroud Donne had been preparing for the moment of his death for weeks, months--even, he would have said, his whole life. And so when premature reports of his demise circulated through London in January of 1631, Donne hastened to dispel the rumors. He wrote to a friend that, although his illness had left him severely weakened, he hoped that arrangements could be made for his usual sermon at court on the first Friday of Lent. He added a hint that the audience could well be in for a memorable performance: "It hath been my desire (and God may be pleased to grant it) that I might die in the pulpit." King Charles speedily appointed him to preach the sermon.

Three years earlier Donne had explicitly related deathbed and pulpit: "The pulpit is more than our deathbed; for we are bound to the same truth and sincerity here as if we were upon our deathbed." In 1631, with his death imminent, he seized the chance to make the point emphatically. Upon his arrival in London, according to Walton,

many of his friends--who with sorrow saw his sickness had left him but so much flesh as did only cover his bones--doubted his strength to perform that task ....And when, to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body and a dying face. And doubtless many did secretly ask that question in Ezekiel: "Do these bones live?"

Donne's tears and his faint, hollow voice gave rise to the paradoxical impression recorded when the sermon was printed: the title page carried the notation "the Doctors Owne Funerall Sermon." Donne must have seen it as God's judgment on him that he survived the performance. But, although he was unable to gratify himself--or his audience--by expiring in the pulpit (his death came a few weeks later), the sermon left a lasting impression.


In the Renaissance all Christian vocations were considered theatrical acts. Reform-minded Continental theologians like Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus made the point, as did English thinkers as different as Lancelot Andrewes and Thomas Hobbes. The leading English reformers followed suit: as the Holy Spirit bestowed various gifts, the believer assumed a different role for each of the Spirit's ministries. Renaissance theologians found nothing suspect about this kind of acting, nothing of the modem aversion to hypocrisy.

Just as, say, the sixteenth-century nobleman had one role as father, another as husband, another as subject of the king, and still another as adoptive son of God, the Christian clergyman took on various roles for his various ministries. Playing these roles was not mere play-acting: it was part and parcel of the believer's religious duty, indispensable to the process of becoming in the eyes of God a mature and complete person.

All Christian behavior was thus cast in theatrical terms. The special role of the preacher in the pulpit was that of God's anointed prophet. As the playwright-turned-preacher Stephen Gosson put it in a sermon called "The Trumpet of Warre" (1598), "Believe we cannot but by preaching, whereby it grows that the object of this act in this place is the Prophet." Preaching was called ars praedicandi--invariably translated in English homiletic manuals "the art of prophesying"

In his sermon "The Dignitie of Preaching" (1615), the popular reformer Samuel Hieron pointed out that, whereas in the Old Testament "prophesying" meant predicting the future, in the New Testament "it is even the very same which we term Preaching." In Hieron's view the Reformation preacher was to be a prophet in this New Testament sense. His inspired utterances did not simply predict God's action: they were God's action, working through the preacher to move the congregation as a play works through its actors to move the audience.

Reformation preachers were at pains to distinguish themselves from other public speakers. As Donne once told his congregation, "We are not upon a lecture, but a sermon." Or, as Hieron put it, "I am come hither to discharge the duty of a Preacher, not of an Orator." The ground for distinguishing preachers from lecturers and orators was not merely the subject, for the university theologian lectured about things divine. And it was not merely style of composition and delivery, for the orator's rhetorical resources were those of the preacher. The difference was that the preacher assumed a particular role: that of the divinely inspired prophet. In short the difference was theatrical. The preacher/prophet worked a kind of sacred magic, transforming the very souls of the listeners.

Just as there were compelling similarities between the Reformation preacher and the Renaissance mage or "cunning man," so there were similarities between the preacher and the professional actor--enough similarities in fact to make preachers nervous about their cultural counterparts. It is a little too simple to see the period's repeated homiletic denunciations of magic and drama as a Puritan insistence on defining and demonizing "Others" who had nothing to do with God's Elect. As often as not, the demon was within. Puritans bristled at the mage and the actor because they keenly felt the competition: rival performers were homing in on holy ground, luring the faithful away from the sacred theater of God's Church.

So, although he vilified the cunning man's magic circle and what Shakespeare called the wooden O of the public playhouse, the Reformation preacher worked by sacred magic in a sacred theater--a theater in which the pulpit displaced the altar from center stage. Not only were many of those at sacred services the same people gathered around cunning men or attending plays by the Lord Chamberlain's Men; the preacher, like the mage and like the actor, donned special vestments, heightened his diction, and used dramatic gestures for every performance.

Even John Calvin insisted that we live in a cosmic theater, that we recognize our God-given roles. Hardly antitheatrical (he allowed play production in Geneva), Calvin saw earthly life as a drama in which angels were the audience and human beings the actors. What mattered--a point picked up by Shakespeare--was playing one's part well. The preacher's part was analogous to Prospero's in The Tempest: he cast divinely ordained spells that brought out the best in his fellow characters.


In his manual for preachers The Arte of Prophecying (1607), the enormously popular William Perkins made the case that the preacher must not only understand the workings of the Holy Spirit but feel them. In a passage looking back to Cicero, Horace, and Quintilian and forward to the method school of acting, Perkins told the preacher to stir up his own emotions in the service of successful performance: "Wood, that is capable of fire, doth not burn, unless fire be put to it: and he must first be godly affected himself who would stir up godly affections in other men. Therefore what motions a sermon doth require, such the Preacher shall stir up privately in his own mind, that he may kindle up the same in his hearers." Moreover, according to Perkins, "it is an ecclesiastical secret that the Minister ought to cover his infirmities, that they be not seen. For simple people behold not the ministry, but the person of the Minister."

To produce an artful performance, the preacher needed not only to distinguish the workings of the Holy Spirit from mere human ingenuity, but also to conceal the human element. Like an actor the preacher was to disguise his ordinary role as a biblical scholar in order to play a prophet. According to Perkins,

In the Promulgation two things are required: the hiding of human wisdom, and the demonstration (or shewing) of the spirit. Human wisdom must be concealed, whether it be in the matter of the sermon, or in the setting forth of the words: because the preaching of the word is the Testimony of God, and the profession of the knowledge of Christ, and not of human skill: and again, because the hearers ought not to ascribe their faith to the gifts of men, but to the power of God's word.

Perkins defended both the use of human ingenuity in the sermon's composition and the concealment of that ingenuity in its performance: "If any man think that by this means barbarism should be brought into the pulpits, he must understand that the Minister may, yea and must privately use at his liberty the arts, philosophy, and variety of reading, whilst he is in framing his sermon: but he ought in public to conceal all these from the people." The paradox is that while the impulse behind concealing eloquence was to avoid deceptive ostentation, the deliberate concealment amounted to an artful dramatic deception.

In the twentieth century such instructions might appear disingenuous--a combination of moral earnestness and deliberate deception impossible to maintain and dishonest in intent. But sixteenth-and seventeenth-century pulpit performances depended on this earnest theatricality. Advice similar to Perkins's came from as fervently religious a poet and priest as George Herbert. In The Country Parson Herbert advised preachers to comport themselves properly in order to make their performances effective: "When [the country parson] preacheth, he procures attention by all possible art, both by earnestness of speech, it being natural to men to think that where is much earnestness, there is somewhat worth hearing; and by a diligent and busy east of his eye on his auditors, with letting them know that he observes who marks, and who not." The preacher was to employ not only "earnestness of speech" and "a busy cast of his eye" but also appropriate gestures (or as Perkins called them, "holy motions of affections").

The number of complaints about overdone gestures indicates that preachers frequently got carried away with their theatrics. The Marburg theologian Andreas Hyperius remarked that "by reason of their undiscreet and unseemly gesture, some are made the common talking stock and public pastime of the people." Two mid-seventeenth-century English preachers objected to the extravagance of "holy performance." John Eachard complained: "How often have you seen a preacher heat himself, beyond the need of any vestments? Throwing off his cloak, nay and his gloves too, as great impediments to the holy performance, squeaking and roaring beyond the example of any lunatic?" And Robert South demanded, "Can any tolerable reason be given for those strange new postures used by some in the delivery of the word? Such as shutting the eyes, distorting the face, and speaking through the nose, which I think cannot so properly be called preaching, as toning of a sermon .... For none surely will imagine, that these men's speaking as never man spoke before, can pass for any imitation of him."

One is reminded of Hamlet's instructions to the players at Elsinore:

do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently .... O, there be players that I have seen play--and heard others praise, and that highly--not to speak it profanely, that, neither having th' accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellow'd that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

And yet, just as Hamlet would replace bad acting with good acting rather than no acting at all, those who complained of the excesses of Tudor and Stuart pulpit performances were not arguing that there should be no performances in the pulpit; like Hamlet, they simply wanted the performers to "suit the action to the word, the word to the action." Overdone or not, Reformation pulpit performances were clearly a form of theater.


Everywhere in Europe, educated audiences at religious services knew the theater. Just as the universities of Reformation England turned out innumerable student-acted plays, so the Catholic schools of the Continent--Jesuit ones in particular--included in the curriculum a strong dose of dramatics. The list of those who entered the world of professional theater after acting in Jesuit schools includes Lope de Vega, Calderon de la Barca, Moliere, and Carlo Goldoni.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe was the age of the performance. The culture of print may have been making inroads, but it was not until the Enlightenment that the Renaissance cult of the ear gave way to the cult of the eye. In fact, since the reformers thought the power of sight especially vulnerable to idolatry, they typically saw themselves as champions of hearing. As the prolific preacher Ralph Brownrig put it, "Popery is a religion for the eye; ours for the ear." The "silver-tongued" Henry Smith played on the paradox that "the eyes oftentimes draw the soul out of light into darkness."

Even those Protestants who did not wholly impugn the power of sight tended to subordinate the eye to the ear. Donne, for example, explained,

Man hath a natural way to come to God, by the eye, by the creature; so visible things shew the invisible God: But then, God hath super-induced a supernatural way, by the ear. For, though hearing be natural, yet that faith in God should come by hearing a man preach is supernatural. God shut up the natural way in Saul: seeing; he struck him blind; but he opened the supernatural way: he enabled him to hear, and to hear him. God would have us beholden to grace, and not to nature, and to come for our salvation to his ordinances, to the preaching of his word, and not to any other means.

This thought that the aural reception of the preacher's words ought to displace the visual signs of God's presence--is typical of the reformers; in the reformed liturgy the ear displaced the eye.

Or so, at least, the reformers would have it. In fact the substitution was anything but total. In the shift from the altar to the pulpit, from performing the Eucharist to performing the sermon, a new liturgy superseded the traditional sacraments--embodying in the physical presence of the speaker the Word that had been incarnate in bread and wine. The reformers' impulse to shift from the visual to the aural was checked by the physical presence of the preacher's body, just as the impulse to abolish the priest as mediator resulted in a different kind of mediation in the person of the preacher. Rather than beholding a profusion of visually alluring icons and then taking part in a communal act of sacrifice--all of which the Reformation denounced as idolatrous theatrical performance--the worshipper in the Protestant church would watch and listen as the preacher delivered his own inspired performance. Even as the reformers thought to rid Christianity of theatrical distraction, their insistence on the centrality of the spoken word reintroduced theater into the liturgy.


In our own day it has to be urged that what Walter Ong calls the pre-Enlightenment sensorium was still oral/aural rather than visual: sixteenth-century Protestants are not twentieth-century fundamentalists. While the Bible was undeniably at the center of Reformation culture, salvation was a function of the word preached, not read. The claim, in an otherwise excellent article by Michael O'Connell, that "religious truth was perceived to reside in exact texts" is simply false. Calvin, for example, called attention to the New Testament writers' habit of quoting the Hebrew Scriptures imprecisely: "They never made conscience in changing the words, so as they hit upon the effect of the matter."

Just as Shakespeare would be astounded by the labor that has gone into establishing authoritative texts of his plays (he apparently saw his scripts as works-in-progress, tentative blueprints for performance), Reformation preachers showed considerable resistance to reducing their performances to print. The dedicatory epistles to printed editions of sermons often bear witness to the loss. John King, for example, complained of the "prodigal and intemperate age of the world, wherein every man writeth more than need is." King claimed that even to read the titles of all books recently published "were the sufficient labor of our unsufficient lives" and then lamented: "[I] have changed my tongue into a pen, and whereas I spake before with the gesture and countenance of a living man, have now buried my self in a dead letter of less effectual persuasion." Thomas Playfere complained that, while the readers of his sermon "The sick-mans Couch" would be able to discern the preacher's meaning, they must unfortunately remain "unacquainted with his affection." Henry Smith, constrained by illness late in his life to refrain from preaching, said that he was "ashamed" to resort to the dead letter of the written word, for "the bane of printing" was the absence of the "pains" with which the preacher performed.

Similarly Hieron vilified those who attempted "to equal bare and naked reading unto preaching." He found "the word being urged and pressed by preaching to be far more powerful, more piercing, more majestical, more awaking to the conscience" than mere reading. As Etienne Gilson put it, "reading is not preaching," for reading tantalizes with "only the smell of religion," while preaching grants "the taste of it." And, according to Richard Hooker, it was difficult for the preacher who merely read his sermons from the official Homilies to match the performative force of the preacher who composed a sermon for the occasion. Hooker preferred a sermon responsive to the needs of the audience, one with the power "to put life into words by countenance, voice, and gesture, to prevail mightily in the sudden affections of men."

The issue of reading from the prescripted Homilies was very much a live one in Renaissance England. Just as Tudor/ Stuart plays were subject to censorship, Elizabeth, James, and Charles attempted to exercise control over the pulpits. In 1559 Elizabeth revised and reissued the Booke of Homilies (1547), of which Thomas Cranmer had been one of the principal authors; and in 1563 she issued an expanded version. Elizabeth licensed a few preachers to compose their own sermons; but, in an attempt to control the parish clergy throughout England, she required the vast majority to read theirs from the Homilies. It is noteworthy that the one sermon added to the Book of Homilies during Elizabeth's reign was the "Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion" (1570).

Unlike Elizabeth, King James proved a strong advocate of evangelical preaching. He appointed and supported licensed preachers who fervently endorsed a broad range of reformed ideas. But, like Elizabeth, he remained wary of the sermon's politically subversive potential--and ready, especially toward the end of his reign, to use the ecclesiastical courts to keep in cheek preachers who used their sermons to discuss either matters of state or the increasingly controversial doctrine of predestination. With the accession of Charles the anti-Calvinists got the upper hand, and royal instructions were soon sent to the bishops to punish preachers whose messages appeared at all controversial. The magistrates' relentless efforts to control the preaching clergy brought large numbers of preachers before the courts (where playwrights also made occasional appearances)--a proof of the rhetorical power of the pulpit.

The Tudor/Stuart state's suspicion of the preaching clergy arose from the same impulse that Jonas Barish has identified with the antitheatrical prejudice in all of Western culture: the fear of Proteus. Barish argues that one reason actors have often seemed suspect is their resistance to a single stable identity. Their profession as role players carries the threat of instability, the threat of Proteus.

In one sense the threat of the pulpit performance was even more acute than that of the stage play: while the actor's words were controlled by the playwright, and while every play had to pass muster with the state-controlled Stationers' Company before it could be performed, no one knew what the preacher who had composed an original sermon would say until he said it. Some playwrights, most notably Shakespeare, acted in the plays they wrote. But, even more than such actor-playwrights, the preacher in the pulpit controlled the content and rhetoric of his performance.

In 1630 the theologian and poet Richard James denounced the protean instability of pulpit performance:

'tis almost impossible to hinder schisms, malignancies and heresies, where there is and hath been still permitted that liberty and luxury of preaching. If we be senseless not to feel the mischief, our neighbors smart in the Netherlands. And where hath not the lavish tongue of our preaching infected? so that it seemed long since good wisdom in the Greek Church to cut off and root out the voluntary use and abuse of it.... For 'tis not for us saith Jeremie the Patriarch of Constantinople in an answer to the Ministers of Wittenburg, in trust of our own wisdom to understand and expound the Scriptures, lest we should be carried up and down, as changeable as Proteus in variety of opinions.

James was arguing against both the theologically (and therefore socially) schismatic force of preaching and its unsettling effect on the individual: if preaching caused theological and social "schisms, malignancies, and heresies," it also left the individual dangerously untrustworthy, "as changeable as Proteus." It is no small irony that Richard James delivered his tirade against preaching from the pulpit. It seems that the threatening flexibility of pulpit performances allows for a protean variety of stances--even an antiprotean one.

Certainly Elizabeth registered the threat. Throughout the country during the 1570s "prophesyings"--weekday preaching workshops in which several ministers would participate while a lay audience observed--gained such widespread popularity that Elizabeth feared they would shift the balance of power away from the central authorities. She instructed the archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, to reduce the number of licensed preachers and to suppress the prophesyings. Grindal refused. In 1576 he wrote a letter to the queen, arguing that reading from the official Homilies was no substitute for pulpit performance:

The godly preacher... can apply his speech according to the diversity of times, places, and hearers, which cannot be done in homilies. Exhortations, reprehensions, and persuasions are uttered with more affection, to the moving of the hearers, in sermons than in homilies. Besides, homilies were devised by the godly bishops in your brother's time, only to supply necessity, for want of preachers; and are by the statute not to be preferred, but to give place to sermons, whensoever they may be had.

Other passages in the letter attest to the extent of Grindal's willingness to play the prophet. He not only wrote, "I cannot marvel enough how this strange opinion should once enter into your mind, that it should be good for the church to have few preachers"; he went on to say, "Remember, Madam, that you are a mortal creature." The letter effectively ended Grindal's career.

But the next half century, precisely the golden age of the Renaissance theater, saw an explosion of original performances in the pulpit. All over England preachers played the prophet. Even in the corners of the country, where the people knew little of Shakespeare's London, university-trained preachers drew the people into the drama of faith.

If Donne's death dramatically marks the end of the theatrical sermon's golden age, Grindal's protest marks the start. Even reading what Hieron called "the bare and naked" texts of the sermons throws light on our own age. In a culture that prefers analytics over theatrics, or the homiletic chat over the pulpit performance, reading those old sermons yields some sense of how much we have lost.


By Bryan Crockett