Bishop Andrewes' Sermons

Critic: James Bowling Mozley
Source: The British Critic, Vol. XXXI, No. LXII, January, 1842, pp. 169-205. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 5

[Mozley was an English clergyman, theologian, essayist, and sermonist who is best known for his tracts in support of the Oxford High Church Movement. In the following excerpt from his review of the 1841 edition of XCVI Sermons, he assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Andrewes's sermons and private prayers.]

[Bishop Andrewes] has peculiarities of style partly belonging to his age, and partly his own, which considerably prejudice us against him at first, and to which, accustomed as we are to so much more flowing and regular a way of writing, we can never quite reconcile ourselves; but with these peculiarities of his own, he has also felicities of his own, which are displaying themselves at every step. His theological explanations show the connexion of one great doctrine with another, the bearings of one great fact of Christianity upon another, with admirable decision and completeness. He is so quick and varied, so dexterous and so rich in his combinations; he brings facts, types, prophecies, and doctrines together with such rapidity; groups, arranges, systematizes, sets and resets them with such readiness and multiplicity of movement, that he seems to have a kind of ubiquity, and to be every where and in every part of the system at the same time. He no sooner thinks of one thing than he thinks of another, and of another after that. He has every thing in his head at once, not in the sense in which a puzzle-headed person may be said to have, who has every idea confused in his mind, because he has no one idea clear, but like a man who is at once clear-headed and manifold, if we may be allowed the word, in his ideas, who can do more than apprehend one point keenly, or many points dimly,--can apprehend, that is to say, many keenly. And this peculiarity of intellect has a good deal to do with the formation of his style, which though partly that of the age in which he lived, is at the same time obviously a natural style and expresses the working of his own mind. He is never longer in stating a thing than he can possibly help, because, his mind being always, as it were, two or three steps a-head of his pen, he lays down the point in hand en passant on his way to something else, and therefore does not apply himself more to it than is necessary in the way of business. What he is going to say occupies him; what he is saying, he only says and no more. He pursues, rather than is carried on by his subject, and maintains the vigour of his style, by perpetually renewing rather than by sustaining it.

These characteristics of Bishop Andrewes are not plainly discoverable, we allow, at first sight, merged as they are in the general outside effect of harshness--some would say--pedantry, which short and broken sentences, irregular constructions, quaintnesses, colloquialisms, and perpetual Latin quotations can hardly fail to give. But when we have gone over three or four sermons we begin to see what lies underneath this surface. We begin to make allowance for peculiarities which our taste still opposes, and even to see a reason and a purpose in them, though that reason and purpose may not outweigh with us their evident disadvantages. (pp. 173-74)

It is remarkable how much high thought, of the more feeling and imaginative kind, is often hid under the external roughnesses and seeming pedantries of [Bishop Andrewes'] style; how often he unpremeditatedly, nay unconsciously, betrays the most lively fancy, and a spring of poetry at the bottom, ever salient and ready to flow over whenever an outlet offers. His prayers are perhaps the most striking of his writings in this point of view, and might sometimes be called in a certain sense hymns--hymns composed not absolutely on the severe ancient model, but more rich and glowing; uniting the sacred character of such religious compositions with the purer and higher kind of human poetry. They are primitive hymns, as it were, translated into the poetical language of the sixteenth century, containing the same spirit essentially, only transmitted through a different medium, brought home to us, made our own, created into original and native instead of a borrowed form of the devotional spirit, and, as being our own language, more suited to our own religious feelings than another and perhaps a more strictly primitive language would be. (pp. 187-88)

But we will explain a little what we mean by Bishop Andrewes' poetry. To begin with instancing his prayers: they are in the first place framed as a whole upon a plan and system essentially poetical, in the sense in which we have taken the word all along. The connexion of every day with the great works which that day saw in the week of the creation, converts the several days of the week into beautiful mementos of the fact that ourselves and all that we see are God's creatures, as well as of the sanctity of the week itself as a division of time; and evidences most clearly that character of mind in the writer which realizes the facts of Scripture, sees mysteries in common things, and feels itself still living amid visible traces of a divine dispensation. (p. 189)

To form then a general judgment of Bishop Andrewes' writings,--we should say that they display two main characteristics of the author's mind, strength and beauty: under the former head placing the argumentative, under the latter the poetical part of his theology; though, as the two constantly come into juxtaposition, it is impossible to carry the division into his actual works. His strength of mind is shown in his grasp of a subject, a comprehensive mode of collecting the most varied materials, arranging them under heads, and forming a whole out of them. The characteristic of beauty appears in the constant risings and spontaneous overflowings of feeling whenever anything comes up, that naturally elicits feeling,--overflowings, commonly sudden and short, sometimes only perceptible from the simple iteration of a word or two, or some other little emphatic sign which one unacquainted with his style might easily overlook. These little movements are very frequent, and, like lesser waves and ripples, keep the surface in a perpetual state of gentle and not unhealthy fluctuation; and occasionally one or other of them gathers strength and forms into a majestic swell, which carries him steadily and triumphantly along. And in all that he says, and in his way of saying it, whether it is argument or whether it is feeling that occupies him, there is apparent a simplicity and a singleness of mind, which makes us do what is more than admiring the power of the writer, or enjoying his poetry, viz. reverence and love the man. A simple transparent mind, and a conceited self-contemplative one are soon betrayed in the style; though it is so difficult to explain how, that we seem to find it out by a kind of instinct and intuition. But however this may be, when one has discovered such a tone as that of Bishop Andrewes, it is one of the most engaging features of a book, and a real source of moral pleasure to a reader. (pp. 204-05)

Source: James Bowling Mozley, "Bishop Andrewes' Sermons," in The British Critic, Vol. XXXI, No. LXII, January, 1842, pp. 169-205. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 5.