Underrated: John Donne

John Donne, who served as Dean of St Paul’s during the reigns of James I and Charles I, was not what you might call a professional clergyman. He was ordained deacon and priest only on January 23, 1615, when he was 43. Before that, he had studied at Hart Hall, Oxford, and at the Inns of Court, acquiring (according to Walton) such proficiency in the law that he “was judged to hold proportion with many who had made that study the employment of their whole life”.  

He had seen military service, sailing in 1596 on the expedition to Cadiz, Faro, Corunna and Ferrol. For many years he had sought some kind of state employment, entering the service of the Lord Keeper Sir Thomas Egerton in 1597 or 1598. Afterwards, he had served as an MP, first for Brackley in Northamptonshire in 1601, and then for Taunton in Somerset in 1614. He had contracted a secret marriage, and sired sons and daughters. He had travelled in France, Germany and the Low Countries. This was no cloistered cleric.

Donne’s reluctance to enter the Church was vanquished only by kingly firmness.  Donne had been encouraged to think about taking orders by notable clergymen, such as Dr Morton who was the Bishop of Durham between 1632 and 1659. But he had declined, citing “some irregularities of my life”, which he thought had been “so visible to some men” that he risked dishonouring “that sacred calling”. 

It was only when the Earl of Somerset had petitioned James I to make Donne Clerk of the Council, and had been denied that Donne thought again. “I know Mr Donne is a learned man,” James is reported as saying, “has the abilities of a learned Divine; and will prove a powerful Preacher, and my desire is to prefer him that way, and in that way, I will deny you nothing for him.” Even so, it was almost three years before Donne took the plunge. Despite that appearance of delay, his resolution was surely fixed, for Walton tells us that he spent the time in “an incessant study of Textual Divinity, and to the attainment of a greater perfection in the learned Languages, Greek and Hebrew”.

Even in that heroic age of biblical scholarship Donne stood out, being given the degree of Doctor of Divinity by Cambridge for his Pseudo-Martyr (1610). But it was as a preacher that he excelled. By all accounts his manner in the pulpit could be flamboyant and dramatic. However, if Donne were to preach today, it would be what he said, rather than the manner of     the saying, which would electrify his congregation. 

Hear him, for instance, on social injustice:

…in every State…there will be some kind of oppression in some Lions, some that will abuse their power; but…woe unto us if we be scandalised with that, and seditiously lay aspersions upon the State and Government…The first blow makes the wrong, but the second makes the fray; and they that will endure no kind of abuse in State or Church, are many times more dangerous then that abuse which they oppose.

It would have been interesting to have heard this message preached in recent weeks from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. Or hear him comparing wealth and poverty:

the incorrigible vagabond is farther from all wayes of goodnesse, then the corruptest rich man is. And therefore labour wee all earnestly the wayes of some lawfull calling, that we may have our portion of this world by good meanes.

On December 12, 1626 Donne preached at the funeral of Sir William Cokayne, a merchant who a few years before had served as Lord Mayor of London, and who was reputed to be one of the richest men in England. Did Donne chide the dead man for his wealth? Far from it. Instead, he celebrated Cokayne’s prosperity as a sign of God’s favour:

God prospered his industry so, as that when his Fathers estate came to a distribution by death, he needed it not.  God was with him, as with David in a Dilatation, and then in a Repletion; God enlarged him, and then he filled him;…This man hath God accompanied all his life;…God was with him all the way.

Donne was not indifferent to the sufferings of those in want. As he became wealthier so he took care to be “charitable to the poor, and kind to his friends”. Preaching at the laying of the foundation stone of Lincoln’s Inn chapel, he made a shrewd thrust at the rich lawyers gathered before him by reminding them of their “excessive feasts” while “Lazarus hath lien panting, and gasping at the gate”. But Donne was sufficiently secure in his theology that he felt no need to transform the Church into an agency of social work. He knew that the “eternall glory”, the proper object of the Church’s attention, “makes all worldly prosperity as dung”, and “all worldly adversity as feathers”.

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