Volume XII: Sermons Preached at St Paul's Cathedral

Volume Editor: Mary Ann Lund

Old St Paul's Cathedral from the North - Project Gutenberg etext 16531

John Donne’s biographer R. C. Bald remarked that ‘the year 1626 was an unusually busy one for Donne in the pulpit, and more of his sermons survive for this year than for any other’. As this volume of The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne reveals, the year was even more busy and productive than Bald realised.  After a long absence from the St Paul’s Cathedral pulpit caused by the 1625 plague epidemic, Donne embarked on an intensive period of preaching. The volume contains nine sermons delivered in the cathedral in the first six months of 1626.  Five of these are undated in Potter and Simpson’s edition; this new edition assigns them to the first half of 1626 and lays out the large amount of evidence from the texts that supports this identification.  Thus the volume will give a fresh and much more detailed picture of Donne’s preaching activities in the period.  It shows Donne engaging closely and directly with political and doctrinal debate, a feature that Peter McCullough has already identified in his court preaching of this period. It also highlights the level and nature of Donne’s pastoral commitment to his cathedral congregation.  His surviving sermons from that venue are far more numerous than the few he was required to preach annually as dean and prebend.  Of the nine in this volume, seven are from series: the first four are from an eight-sermon group on Psalm 32, while three more are on the same verse from 1 Corinthians.  Even the Whitsunday sermon in this volume is the second on that text (the first features in Volume XI), and Donne was also preaching his prebend sermons in 1626-27.  Sermon series allowed him to explicate matters of doctrine and to address theological controversies in depth, often over a long time-span.  Little attention has been paid to them in modern scholarship, and this volume will cast important new light on their place in Donne’s clerical career and in cathedral worship.

By presenting these sermons in the framework of their place of delivery (a governing principle of The Oxford Edition), this volume will be able to pay close attention to the nature of Donne’s auditory.  The editors of all the sermons preached at St Paul’s Cathedral will collaborate to gain a better understanding of how public worship functioned at the cathedral.  However, it is important to view the sermons in this volume in the particular context of those who heard them in 1626.  Charles I’s second parliament sat between February 6th and June 15th, and some of these sermons clearly respond to the issues being debated in that turbulent session.  It is highly likely (and it is to be hoped that further research will show) that MPs regularly attended the cathedral during sessions.  Hence Donne’s comments about such contentious issues as subsidy and the strong opposition to the Duke of Buckingham (which ended in an attempted impeachment) may be seen as aimed towards those directly involved in them.  Convocation met at the same time as Parliament, and Donne acted as its prolocutor in 1626.  The sermons on Psalm 32 seem to be in part aimed at other senior clerics; again, it is almost unavoidable that members of convocation, which in that year sat in the chapter house of St Paul’s and in Westminster abbey, were among Donne’s congregation.  It is also notable that most of the sermons fall within the dates of the legal terms, which means that members of the Inns of Court would have heard them.  This volume will establish more precisely the types of people who attended St Paul’s cathedral and towards whom the nine sermons are addressed.

The first four (of eight) sermons on Psalm 32 open the volume.  Both their date and their place of delivery have been hitherto unknown, and some critics have argued that they belong to Donne’s Lincoln’s Inn years.  Collaborative efforts by editors and consultant editors of The Oxford Edition have now revealed that the first four of these can be firmly dated to early 1626 and located at St Paul’s.  Among the evidence is a reference in the first sermon to the recent plague, which had only fully subsided by January 1626, and another to the disgrace of Buckingham’s great rival, the earl of Bristol (who was barred by Charles from attending the 1626 Parliament).  The third sermon explicitly alludes to the current parliamentary session and the debate over subsidy, evidence which points to a date after the beginning of March, when the subject was first debated.  The strongest piece of evidence for location is a witty opening passage in the second sermon, in which Donne describes David as ‘Gods Precentor’.  The precentor, which was exclusively a cathedral position, superintended the singing school and was responsible for the conduct of cathedral services. The holder of this office in Donne’s time was Thomas Goad, who took an active role in the strong opposition to the Arminian Richard Montagu. Controversy over Montagu’s books reached a head in early 1626 with the York House Conference, and Donne’s sermons on Psalm 32 engage with the dispute.  The reference supplies key evidence that St Paul’s is the location and also provides an insight into Donne’s religio-political allegiances, which have been the subject of much debate among scholars in recent years.

This volume also features a series of three sermons on 1 Corinthians 15.29, preached in consecutive months.  Potter and Simpson are dismissive of them, finding little of interest according to their stylistic criteria.  This new edition will challenge their assessment by showing the significance of these sermons in the context of Donne’s cathedral preaching that year.  Donne’s extended treatment of the verse includes pastoral instruction, theological controversy, and political commentary, all of which are closely tied to the circumstances of the day.  The second sermon is self-consciously militant, aligning the preacher’s anti-Catholic polemic with the Thirty Years’ War and the prospect of English intervention in it. The sermons are also significant for Donne’s articulations of theology in the light of pastoral concerns.  Indeed, many of the sermons in this volume contain important expositions of Donne’s theology of predestination, atonement, faith and action, and the will, and his handling of these questions at times departs from more strictly Calvinist interpretations, while it cannot be categorised as Arminian either.  The Whitsunday sermon is one of these, and is tentatively dated to 1626 in this volume; the editor will continue to consult with the editor of volume XI about this dating, since it is the second sermon on the verse and the two were clearly preached in successive years.  The volume’s presentation of these sermons aims to give a nuanced sense of Donne’s theological standpoint in relation to the religious disputes of the mid-1620s, an aspect which is wholly neglected by Potter and Simpson’s edition.

The final sermon in the volume is undated and Potter and Simpson give no suggestions about when it might have been preached.  This edition will argue for a date soon after 14 June 1626, since the sermon appears to be a direct response to Charles’ ‘Proclamation for the Establishing of the Peace and Quiet of the Church of England’ of that date, which sought to restrict the preaching and publishing of theological opinion to that which was ‘clearly grounded, and warranted by the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England’.  An early remark in Donne’s sermon about God’s ‘Proclamations’ seems to allude specifically to it, while the second part of the sermon supports the Proclamation’s stated purpose by outlining the dangers of doctrinal and disciplinary wranglings within the Church and arguing for peace in relation to disputed points.  Like the Easter day sermon, this one warns against too narrow an interpretation of atonement and predestination, precisely the topics of heated debate which led to the Proclamation.  The sermon illustrates the simultaneously pastoral and political bent of Donne’s 1626 St Paul’s sermons.  By showing the sermon in its context for the first time, this volume will provide a new insight into the relationship between Donne as preacher and royal authority. 


  • Preached upon the Penitential Psalms [Jan-Mar 1626]. [Psal. 32.1-2]
  • Preached upon the Penitential Psalms [Jan-Mar 1626]. [Psal. 32.3-4]
  • Preached upon the Penitential Psalms [Mar-June 1626]. [Psal. 32.5]
  • Preached upon the Penitential Psalms [Mar-June 1626]. [Psal. 32.6]
  • Preached at St Paul’s, in the Evening, upon Easter-day, 1626, on I Corinthians 15.29. The First Sermon upon this Text (April 9 1626). [I Cor. 15.29]
  • Preached at St Paul’s, May 21, 1626. [I Cor. 15.29]
  • Preached upon Whitsunday [May 28, 1626?]. [John 16.8-11]
  • Preached at St Paul’s, June 21, 1626. [I Cor. 15.29]
  • Preached at St Paul’s [after 14 June 1626?]. [Phil. 3.2]