The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Hugh Latimer: the preaching prelate #1 Introduction

with 3 comments

Part one ∙ Part twoPart three

Hugh Latimer speaks best for himself:

For preaching of the gospel is one of God’s plough-works, and the preacher is one of God’s ploughmen. . . . Ye may not then, I say, be offended with my similitude, for because I liken preaching to a ploughman’s labour, and a prelate to a ploughman. But now you will ask me, whom I call a prelate? A prelate is that man, whatsoever he be, that hath a flock to be taught of him; whosoever hath any spiritual charge in the faithful congregation, and whosoever he be that hath cure of souls. And well may the preacher and the ploughman be likened together: first, for their labour of all seasons of the year; for there is no time of the year in which the ploughman hath not some special work to do as in my country in Leicestershire, the ploughman hath a time to set forth, and to assay his plough, and other times for other necessary works to be done. And then they also may be likened together for the diversity of works and variety of offices that they have to do. For as the ploughman first setteth forth his plough, and then tilleth his land, and breaketh it in furrows, and sometime ridgeth it up again; and at another time harroweth it and clotteth it, and sometime dungeth it and hedgeth it, diggeth it and weedeth it, purgeth and maketh it clean: so the prelate, the preacher, hath many diverse offices to do. He hath first a busy work to bring his parishioners to a right faith, as Paul calleth it, and not a swerving faith; but to a faith that embraceth Christ, and trusteth to his merits; a lively faith, a justifying faith; a faith that maketh a man righteous, without respect of works: as ye have it very well declared and set forth in the Homily. He hath then a busy work, I say, to bring his flock to a right faith, and then to confirm them in the same faith: now casting them down with the law, and with threatenings of God for sin; now ridging them up again with the gospel, and with the promises of God’s favour: now weeding them, by telling them their faults, and making them forsake sin; now clotting them, by breaking their stony hearts, and by making them supplehearted, and making them to have hearts of flesh; that is, soft hearts, and apt for doctrine to enter in: now teaching to know God rightly, and to know their duty to God and their neighbours: now exhorting them, when they know their duty, that they do it, and be diligent in it; so that they have a continual work to do. Great is their business, and therefore great should be their hire. They have great labours, and therefore they ought to have good livings, that they may commodiously feed their flock; for the preaching of the word of God unto the people is called meat: scripture calleth it meat; not strawberries, that come but once a year, and tarry not long, but are soon gone: but it is meat, it is no dainties. The people must have meat that must be familiar and continual, and daily given unto them to feed upon. Many make a strawberry of it, ministering it but once a year; but such do not the office of good prelates.[1]

But now for the fault of unpreaching prelates, methink I could guess what might be said for excusing of them. They are so troubled with lordly living, they be so placed in palaces, couched in courts, ruffling in their rents, dancing in their dominions, burdened with ambassages, pampering of their paunches, like a monk that maketh his jubilee; munching in their mangers, and moiling in their gay manors and mansions, and so troubled with loitering in their lordships, that they cannot attend it.[2]

And now I would ask a strange question: who is the most diligentest bishop and prelate in all England, that passeth all the rest in doing his office? I can tell, for I know him who it is; I know him well. But now I think I see you listening and hearkening that I should name him. There is one that passeth all the other, and is the most diligent prelate and preacher in all England. And will ye know who it is? I will tell you: it is the devil. He is the most diligent preacher of all other; he is never out of his diocess; he is never from his cure; ye shall never find him unoccupied; he is ever in his parish; he keepeth residence at all times; ye shall never find him out of the way, call for him when you will he is ever at home; the diligentest preacher in all the realm; he is ever at his plough: no lording nor loitering can hinder him; he is ever applying his business, ye shall never find him idle, I warrant you. And his office is to hinder religion, to maintain superstition, to set up idolatry, to teach all kind of popery. He is ready as he can be wished for to set forth his plough; to devise as many ways as can be to deface and obscure God’s glory. Where the devil is resident, and hath his plough going, there away with books, and up with candles; away with bibles, and up with beads; away with the light of the gospel, and up with the light of candles, yea, at noon-days. Where the devil is resident, that he may prevail, up with all superstition and idolatry; tensing, painting of images, candles, palms, ashes, holy water, and new service of men’s inventing; as though man could invent a better way to honour God with than God himself hath appointed. Down with Christ’s cross, up with purgatory pickpurse, up with him, the popish purgatory, I mean. Away with clothing the naked, the poor and impotent; up with decking of images, and gay garnishing of stocks and stones: up with man’s traditions and his laws, down with God’s traditions and his most holy word. Down with the old honour due to God, and up with the new god’s honour. Let all things be done in Latin: there must be nothing but Latin, not so much as Memento, homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris: “Remember, man, that thou art ashes, and into ashes thou shalt return:” which be the words that the minister speaketh unto the ignorant people, when he giveth them ashes upon Ash-Wednesday; but it must be spoken in Latin: God’s word may in no wise be translated into English.

Oh that our prelates would be as diligent to sow the corn of good doctrine, as Satan is to sow cockle and darnel! [3]

These rich passages are taken from perhaps the most famous of Hugh Latimer’s sermons, the “Sermon of the Plough,” and are truly representative of this preaching prelate.

Hugh Latimer lived from about 1490 (the birth date is sometimes given as late as 1492) until 16th October 1555, when he was martyred with Nicholas Ridley (c. 1500-1555) at Oxford. His sermons are in the two volumes of his Sermons & Remains.[4] The first volume is almost entirely sermons (thirty-three in all); the second contains fifteen sermons and some miscellaneous remains. With regret, our focus on the sermons means that we must pick up what we can of the person from our study of the preacher. Neither can we dwell much on his history as person or preacher, or the theology of his sermons, except incidentally.

The sermons span a period of about twenty-five years and three monarchs (1529 through to 1553 – two years before his death – and Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I). They are often grouped by time, occasion or place of preaching (e.g. “Seven Sermons preached before King Edward the Sixth, 1549” or “Sermons preached in Lincolnshire, 1552”) or by their matter (“Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, 1552”). They are the productions of Latimer’s heart and mouth but not necessarily of his pen, nor were they revised by their author (with the possible exception of the “Sermon[s] before the Convocation”). Rather, they were gathered by Latimer’s friend and attendant, and one who himself became a gospel preacher, Augustine Bernher, “albeit not so fully and perfectly gathered as they were uttered; yet nevertheless truly.”[5] We must take into account that we have, in the language of the introduction to one, “the effect and tenor”[6] of the sermon, more a full and careful sense of the substance than a transcription of every word. So we must exercise care in making absolute judgements while confident that we get our material from one who knew the preacher well, was sympathetic to his theology, was concerned to preserve his teaching accurately, and learned to preach – at least in part – from hearing Latimer. And, we might ask, who can capture the thunder and the lightning anyway?

Latimer is a man of his time, not least in his theology (it being more of a developing Lutheranism and therefore sometimes lacking the clarity of his reforming successors, and sometimes being simply inaccurate) and his sociology. As a preacher, he can ramble with the best (or worst!): one finds either a telling phrase of pith and moment, or must resort to a paragraph or two to get the sense and flow of some holy harangue.

His capacity for the unexpected excursus (or, to be more frank, the rabbit trail) is close to unparalleled. In one sermon, speaking of Jairus’ daughter, he gives some pointed counsel on how to make sure that someone is genuinely dead before burying them, concluding, “Therefore, I admonish you not to be too hasty with dead corses: as long as they be warm, keep them in the bed; for when a man is dead indeed, he will soon be cold.”[7] One might defend this on the grounds of pastoral or practical necessity while questioning whether or not it is entirely germane. Neither could we describe Latimer as an exegetical nonesuch (at least in the commendatory sense): we do not turn to him for a robust demonstration of the grammatico-historical approach. In terms of sermonic structure, he has a variety of approaches, none of them regular. We might kindly describe him as exegetically and homiletically untrammelled, with a style that is essentially natural and conversational.

He is not unaware of his idiosyncrasies. Some are deliberate, a part of his convictions concerning the pulpit and his concern for the people who hear him:

I have a manner of teaching, which is very tedious to them that be learned. I am wont ever to repeat those things which I have said before, which repetitions are nothing pleasant to the learned: but it is no matter, I care not for them; I seek more the profit of those which be ignorant, than to please learned men. Therefore I oftentimes repeat such things which be needful for them to know; for I would speak so that they might be edified withal.[8]

Despite well-intentioned nitpicking, we must acknowledge that Latimer is easy to read and to hear read. P. E. Hughes speaks of him as a man “who was the most remarkable preacher of the day, and indeed one of the greatest preachers the Church universal has ever had.”[9] Bishop Ryle is no more restrained:

Few, probably have ever addressed an English congregation with more effect than he did. No doubt his sermons now extant would not suit modern taste. They contain many quaint, odd, and coarse things. They are very familiar, rambling, and discursive, and often full of gossiping stories. But, after all, we are poor judges in these days of what a sermon ought to be. A modern sermon is too often a dull, tame, pointless religious essay, full of measured, round sentences, Johnsonian English, bald platitudes, timid statements, and elaborately concocted milk and water. It is a leaden sword, without either point or edge: a heavy weapon, and little likely to do much execution. But if a combination of sound Gospel doctrine, plain Saxon language, boldness, liveliness, directness, and simplicity, can make a preacher, few, I suspect, have ever equalled old Latimer.[10]

With such testimonies before us, rather than try to identify and examine a typical sermon (for I am not sure one exists), we shall attempt to draw from the complete corpus briefly to explore and assess the principles and practice of this preaching prelate.

Part one ∙ Part twoPart three


[1] Latimer, Sermons & Remains (Cambridge: CUP, 1844), 1:60-62. All references to the sermons are from this edition, sometimes referred to as Latimer’s Works.

[2] 1:67.

[3] 1:70-71.

[4] Sometimes referred to as Latimer’s Works; they are readily obtainable online, or secondhand in the Parker edition from the Cambridge University Press.

[5] 1:xvi and 455, fn 5.

[6] 1:3.

[7] 1:537-8.

[8] 1:341. I have to think that the fact that in three sentences he twice states that he is given to repetition for the sake of the ignorant is an example of the preaching tongue firmly in the prelatic cheek.

[9] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Theology of the English Reformers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 127

[10] J. C. Ryle, Five English Reformers (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1981), 106.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 21 January 2012 at 20:03

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] Hugh Latimer: the preaching prelate #1 Introduction (eardstapa.wordpress.com) […]

  2. A colosus. ;a ight. That will never cease to burn viva hugh la timer

    george peterson

    Tuesday 8 October 2013 at 14:23

  3. […] Library (including delivering the lecture on ‘Hugh Latimer’s Preaching’ that is found on my blog, as well as among others at the […]


By all means, consider chipping in . . .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: