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George Herbert's Homlletlc Theory by Sheridan D Blau It is an unfortunate fact that there are no extant copies of any of George Herbert's sermons. Whatever copies may have survived his death in 1633 were presumably destroyed during the Civil War when Puritan soldiers set fire to Highnam House, the home of Sir Robert Cook, husband to Herbert's widow who is reported to have kept many of her first husband's unpublished papers.' It is also our misfortune that the only seventeenth-century account we have of Herbert's pulpit oratory is that reported thirty-seven years after the poet's death by Izaak Walton in his Life of Herbert. According to Walton, Herbert addressed his parishioners in his first sermon as Rector of Bemerton: . . . after a most florid manner; both with great learning and eloquence. But at the close of this Sermon, told them, T7iaf should not be his constant way ofpreaching, for, since Almighty God does not Intend to lead men to heaven by hard Questions , he would not therefore fill their heads with unnecessary Notions; but that for their sakes, his languageandhis expressions should be more plain and practical In his future Sermons2 This is certainly a strange, if not unlikely, report, for it is difficult to imagine any minister, particularly one of Herbert's scrupulosity, delivering an entire sermon in a style which at his conclusion he finds he most forswear. On the contrary, it was Herbert's careful attention to the principle of decorum in his speech and writing that led him throughout his life to assume conscientiously a style of discourse befitting his role and audience.3 Aside from the remote possibility that what Walton reports actually happened, I believe there are only two plausible explanations for this implausible story. One explanation is that Walton may have been narrating a composite account derived from a few conflicting but not irreconcilable sources. One of them may have been the testimony of men whose memories of sermons they had heard or heard about were obscured by their more certain memory that 17 Sheridan D. Blau Herbert had been the learned and eloquent Reader in Rhetoric and Public Orator of Cambridge University. Such testimony combined with what Walton himself could read of Herbert's advice to the country parson on preaching in A Priest to the Temple (first published in Herbert's Remains in 1652) could yield the kind of dramatic account of Herbert's conversion to plain preaching that Walton provides us in the Life The second explanation, which I think more likely, is that Walton had no information at all about any particular sermon of Herbert's but that he fabricated his account of the first sermon to embellish one of his central themes in the Lite of Herbert: that a profession in the church was not too mean an employment even for men of the greatest birth and accomplishment. David Novarr has already shown us how the theme of renunciation preoccupied Walton in his Lives4 While Novarr does not question the authenticity of Walton's report of Herbert's first sermon, that account so clearly serves to promote the biographer's preconception of the pattern of Herbert's life and yet remains by itself so implausible that we must suspect that it originated with Walton himself. It is conceivable that Walton had only one authoritative source of information about Herbert's sermons and that his source was the same one that is available to us today: the body of Herbert's work in verse and prose and especially his chapter on preaching in A Priest To the Temple, Or, The Country Parson Herbert probably wrote 77ie Country Parson, his most extensive work in prose, during his brief tenure as an Anglican priest from 1 630 to 1 633. His purpose he says was "to set down the form and character of a true pastor" so that in his own ministry he might "have a mark to aim at." The treatise certainly provides a comprehensive guide both spiritual and practical for the rural minister and it has taken its place with the works of Baxter and Perkins asa standard handbook for Protestant...


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