Hugh Latimer: the preaching prelate #2 Latimer’s principles of preaching
The first demand that Latimer lays on all prelates – and he uses the word to describe any cleric of whatever rank in his system who have “a flock to be taught of him,” “any spiritual charge in the faithful congregation,” any “cure of souls” – is that they be diligent preachers. As we have already heard, Latimer is unsparing in his denunciation of those in the office of preachers who will not preach. He has a ripe vocabulary and rich invective which he regularly unleashes against men whose pulpits are like bells without clappers, men who should learn diligence of the devil if they will not heed the commands of God. But it is not merely formal disquisitions on set occasions that are to occupy gospel ministers. They are to preach whenever opportunity provides:
I would our preachers would preach sitting or standing, one way or other. It was a goodly pulpit that our Saviour Christ had gotten him here; an old rotten boat, and yet he preached his Father’s will, his Father’s message out of this pulpit. He cared not for the pulpit, so he might do the people good. Indeed it is to be commended for the preacher to stand or sit, as the place is; but I would not have it so superstitiously esteemed, but that a good preacher may declare the word of God sitting on a horse, or preaching in a tree. And yet if this should be done, the unpreaching prelates would laugh it to scorn. And though it be good to have the pulpit set up in churches, that the people may resort thither, yet I would not have it so superstitiously used, but that in a profane place the word of God might be preached sometimes; and I would not have the people offended withal, no more than they be with our Saviour Christ’s preaching out of a boat. And yet to have pulpits in churches, it is very well done to have them, but they would be occupied; for it is a vain thing to have them as they stand in many churches.
This insistence on preaching is the direct result of his convictions about the God-ordained nature and effect of preaching: “God’s instrument of salvation is preaching” which is why “the devil wrestleth most against [it]: it hath been all his study to decay this office.” The minister of the gospel must go about his business in dependence on God without being dissuaded. He must issue the gospel call, but
can do no more but call; God is he that must bring in; God must open the hearts, as it is in the Acts of the Apostles: when Paul preached to the women, there was a silk-woman, cujus cor Deus aperuit, “whose heart God opened.” None could open it but God. Paul could but only preach, God must work; God must do the thing inwardly.
He puts such convictions in the context of opposition to the truth, referring to a complaint against his preaching from a chaplain to his bishop (one cannot help but note how often Latimer is forced to begin a sermon with a defence of his previous one!). The bishop advised the chaplain to
“. . . let his unfruitful sermon alone.” “Unfruitful,” saith one; another saith, “seditious.” Well, unfruitful is the best: and whether it be unfruitful or no, I cannot tell; it lieth not in me to make it fruitful: and God work not in your hearts, my preaching can do you but little good. I am God’s instrument but for a time; it is he that must give the increase: and yet preaching is necessary; for take away preaching, and take away salvation. I told you of Scala coeli, and I made it a preaching matter, not a massing matter.
Referring immediately to Christ as “the preacher of all preachers, the pattern and the exemplar that all preachers ought to follow,” he asks,
And if he had no better luck that was preacher of all preachers, what shall we look for? Yet was there no lack in him, but in the ground: and so now there is no fault in preaching; the lack is in the people, that have stony hearts and thorny hearts. I beseech God to amend them! And as for these folk that speak against me; I never look to have their good word as long as I live; yet will I speak of their wickedness, as long as I shall be permitted to speak. As long as I live, I will be an enemy to it. No preachers can pass it over with silence: it is the original root of all mischief. As for me; I owe them no other ill will, but I pray God amend them, when it pleaseth him!
However, in relying upon God Latimer is not ignorant of the human dynamic of the pulpit, and insists that the preacher be adaptable. Paul and Barnabas in Iconium “went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed” (Acts 14.1). Latimer likewise requires that a preacher preach to the people in front of him. He reports how he asked King Henry VIII to “give me leave to frame my doctrine according to mine audience: I had been a very dolt to have preached so at the borders of your realm, as I preach before your Grace.” So we find him wisely employing the tools of his ministerial trade: he moulds his language, illustrations, structure, humour and applications to the precise congregation to which he preaches.
However, such righteous accommodation to place, occasion, and congregation, can never, in Latimer, be mistaken for compromise. Preachers must be faithful:
I know that preachers ought to have a discretion in their preaching, and that they ought to have a consideration and respect to the place and the time that he preacheth in; as I myself will say here that I would not say in the country for no good. But what then? Sin must be rebuked; sin must be plainly spoken against.
So, that recorded request about “framing doctrine according to mine audience” comes in a sermon to Edward VI, referring to an altercation with his unstable and dangerous father, Henry VIII:
In the king’s days that dead is a many of us were called together before him to say our minds in certain matters. In the end, one kneeleth me down, and accuseth me of sedition, that I had preached seditious doctrine. A heavy salutation, and a hard point of such a man’s doing, as if I should name him, ye would not think it. The king turned to me and said, “What say you to that, sir?” Then I kneeled down, and turned me first to mine accuser, and required him: “Sir, what form of preaching would you appoint me to preach before a king? Would you have me for to preach nothing as concerning a king in the king’s sermon? Have you any commission to appoint me what I shall preach?” Besides this, I asked him divers other questions, and he would make no answer to none of them all: he had nothing to say. Then I turned me to the king, and submitted myself to his Grace, and said, “I never thought myself worthy, nor I never sued to be a preacher before your Grace, but I was called to it, and would be willing, if you mislike me, to give place to my betters; for I grant there be a great many more worthy of the room than I am. And if it be your Grace’s pleasure so to allow them for preachers, I could be content to bear their books after them. But if your Grace allow me for a preacher, I would desire your Grace to give me leave to discharge my conscience; give me leave to frame my doctrine according to mine audience: I had been a very dolt to have preached so at the borders of your realm, as I preach before your Grace.”
Later in the same series to the young Edward, he draws again on his prior experience:
You that be of the court, and especially ye sworn chaplains, beware of a lesson that a great man taught me at my first coming to the court: he told me for goodwill; he thought it well. He said to me, “You must beware, howsoever ye do, that ye contrary not the king; let him have his sayings; follow him; go with him.” Marry, out upon this counsel! Shall I say as he says? Say your conscience, or else what a worm shall ye feel gnawing; what a remorse of conscience shall ye have, when ye remember how ye have slacked your duty!
Latimer preaches to kings as kings, and to particular kings under particular circumstances. It would be easy to rail at the carnal clergy or the corrupt nobility when addressing the poor and oppressed, or to complain of the laziness and superstition of the common man to the clergy and nobility. But not Latimer. He charges those before him with their particular sins – he is a master of “a nipping sermon, a pinching sermon, a biting sermon,” being persuaded that the man who “dare not rebuke sin and wickedness, no doubt he is not meet for his office” – and declares to them their particular duties and entreats them to avail themselves of the grace of God. That “Sermon of the Plough” was preached in the Shrouds at St. Paul’s Cathedral, probably a sheltered spot against the weather, but hardly a shelter for the clergy who would have been there to hear him. Thus we find him preaching to the convocation of the clergy before Parliament began (under Henry VIII) in the summer of 1536. In the morning, speaking as if from God himself, he tells them,
All good men in all places complain of you, accuse your avarice, your exactions, your tyranny. They have required in you a long season, and yet require, diligence and sincerity. I commanded you, that with all industry and labour ye should feed my sheep: ye earnestly feed yourselves from day to day, wallowing in delights and idleness. I commanded you to teach my commandments, and not your fancies; and that ye should seek my glory and my vantage: you teach your own traditions, and seek your own glory and profit. You preach very seldom; and when ye do preach, do nothing but cumber them that preach truly, as much as lieth in you: that it were much better such were not to preach at all, than so perniciously to preach. Oh, what hear I of you? You, that ought to be my preachers, what other thing do you, than apply all your study hither, to bring all my preachers to envy, shame, contempt? Yea, more than this, ye pull them into perils, into prisons, and, as much as in you lieth, to cruel deaths. To be short, I would that Christian people should hear my doctrine, and at their convenient leisure read it also, as many as would: your care is not that all men may hear it, but all your care is, that no lay man do read it: surely, being afraid lest they by the reading should understand it, and understanding, learn to rebuke our slothfulness. This is your generation, this is your dispensation, this is your wisdom.
Their lot does not improve after lunch, when – in addition to pointing out, with a modicum of social insensitivity, that a good number of those to whom he is preaching wanted to burn him at the stake – he asks as follows:
The end of your convocation shall shew what ye have done; the fruit that shall come of your consultation shall shew what generation ye be of. For what have ye done hitherto, I pray you, these seven years and more? What have ye engendered? What have ye brought forth? What fruit is come of your long and great assembly? What one thing that the people of England hath been the better of a hair; or you yourselves, either more accepted before God, or better discharged toward the people committed unto your cure? For that the people is better learned and taught now, than they were in time past, to whether of these ought we to attribute it, to your industry, or to the providence of God, and the foreseeing of the king’s grace? Ought we to thank you, or the king’s highness? Whether stirred other first, you the king, that he might preach, or he you by his letters, that ye should preach oftener? Is it unknown, think you, how both ye and your curates were, in [a] manner, by violence enforced to let books to be made, not by you, but by profane and lay persons; to let them, I say, be sold abroad, and read for the instruction of the people? I am bold with you, but I speak Latin and not English, to the clergy, not to the laity; I speak to you being present, and not behind your backs. God is my witness, I speak whatsoever is spoken of the good-will that I bear you; God is my witness, which knoweth my heart, and compelleth me to say that I say.
Such convictions are a rebuke to preachers who trim our sails rather than place our guns according to our congregations. We may win friends that way, but never souls. Fidelity to God and therefore to men compel a preacher to pursue what is often a thankless task. Latimer asks – with eerie premonition of his own fate – of those who call men to the gospel feast,
I pray you, what thanks had they for their calling, for their labour? Verily this: John Baptist was beheaded; Christ was crucified; the apostles were killed: this was their reward for their labours. So all the preachers shall look for none other reward: for no doubt they must be sufferers, they must taste of these sauces: their office is, arguere mundum de peccato, “to rebuke the world of sin;” which no doubt is a thankless occupation. Ut audiant montes judicia Domini, “That the high hills,” that is, great princes and lords, “may hear the judgments of the Lord:” they must spare no body; they must rebuke high and low, when they do amiss; they must strike them with the sword of God’s word: which no doubt is a thankless occupation; yet it must be done, for God will have it so.
But is Latimer all blood and thunder? Is he all judgement and no mercy, all law and no grace? Not at all! Although it is plain that Latimer is persuaded that preachers are to expose unrighteousness and rebuke sin, the purpose of such is ultimately that men be brought to Christ. Accordingly, Latimer wants preachers to be true ambassadors of Christ. The Lord Jesus is to be held up and earnestly presented by his ministers as the Saviour of sinners:
This office of preaching is the office of salvation; for St Paul saith, Visum est Deo per stultitiam praedicationis salvos facere credentes: “It hath pleased God to save the believers by the foolishness of preaching.” How can men then believe, but by and through the office of preaching? Preachers are Christ’s vicars: legatione funguntur pro Deo. “They are Christ’s ambassadors.” St Paul saith, Evangelium est potentia Dei ad salutem omni credenti; “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation for every believer.” It is the mighty instrument of God.
We therefore find Christ woven into Latimer’s sermons, and some of his highest flights of rugged eloquence are in the service of extolling the Lord Jesus. All preaching is to be carried out with this end in mind:
But how shall we come to Christ? How shall we have him? I hear that he is beneficial, as scripture witnesseth: Copiosa est apud Deum redemptio; “There is full and plenteous redemption by him.” But how shall I get that? how shall I come unto it? By faith. Faith is the hand wherewith we receive his benefits; therefore we must needs have faith. But how shall we obtain faith? Faith indeed bringeth Christ, and Christ bringeth remission of sins; but how shall we obtain faith? Answer: St Paul teacheth us this, saying: Fides ex auditu, “Faith cometh by hearing God’s word.” Then if we will come to faith, we must hear God’s word: if God’s word be necessary to be heard, then we must have preachers which be able to tell us God’s word. And so it appeareth, that in this petition we pray for preachers; we pray unto God, that he will send men amongst us, which may teach us the way of everlasting life.
Indeed, Latimer is greatly concerned for the supply and identification of faithful preachers. This is not an office to be entered lightly, not are preachers to be chosen for crass or carnal reasons (a warning that many congregations today would do well to heed):
Christ knew what a charge hangeth upon this necessary office of preaching, the office of salvation, and therefore most earnestly applied it himself. And when he chose his twelve apostles to send them forth unto this office, he first prayed all the night. He, being God almighty with the Father, might have given all gifts fit for this office; but to teach us, he would first pray all night. Here is good matter for bishops and patrons to look upon; and not to regard so little whom they give their benefice unto, or whom they admit to cure the souls they have charge of. A notable example: Christ prayed all night, ere he would send them forth, ere he would put them in this preaching office, this most necessary office of salvation. For he saw that they had need of great zeal to God and to souls’ health, that should take upon them to keep souls, and a bold courage and spirit, that should rebuke the world of their sin and wickedness. Many will choose now such a curate for their souls, as they may call “fool,” rather than one that shall rebuke their covetousness, ambition, unmercifulness, uncharitableness; that shall be sober, discreet, apt to reprove and resist the gainsayers with the word of God.
We should also note that Latimer is equally clear about the need for faithful hearing. Indeed, Latimer is so confident of the power of God’s Word and so determined for preachers to be effective that he would rather have people come to hear a sermon for a poor reason than not to come at all:
I had rather ye should come as the tale is by the gentlewoman of London: one of her neighbours met her in the street, and said, “Mistress, whither go ye?” “Marry,” said she, “I am going to St Thomas of Acres to the sermon; I could not sleep all this last night, and I am going now thither; I never failed of a good nap there.” And so I had rather ye should go a napping to the sermons, than not to go at all. For with what mind soever ye come, though ye come for an ill purpose, yet peradventure ye may chance to be caught or ye go; the preacher may chance to catch you on his hook. 
Nevertheless, Latimer obviously desires that people would come with an ear to hear, because of the issues at stake:
Where ye may perceive, how necessary a thing it is to hear God’s word, and how needful a thing it is to have preachers, which may teach us the word of God: for by hearing we must come to faith; through faith we must be justified. And therefore Christ saith himself, Qui credit in me, habet vitam aeternam; “He that believeth in me hath everlasting life.” When we hear God’s word by the preacher, and believe that same, then we shall be saved: for St. Paul saith, Evangelium est potentia Dei ad salutem omni credenti; “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all that believe; the gospel preached is God’s power to salvation of all believers.” This is a great commendation of this office of preaching: therefore we ought not to despise it, or little regard it; for it is God’s instrument, whereby he worketh faith in our hearts. . . . Here I might take occasion to inveigh against those which little regard the office of preaching; which are wont to say, “What need we such preachings every day? Have I not five wits? I know as well what is good or ill, as he doth that preacheth.” But I tell thee, my friend, be not too hasty; for when thou hast nothing to follow but thy five wits, thou shalt go to the devil with them. David, that holy prophet, said not so: he trusted not his five wits, but he said, Lucerna pedibus meis verbum tuum, Domine; “Lord, thy word is a lantern unto my feet.” Here we learn not to despise the word of God, but highly to esteem it, and reverently to hear it; for the holy day is ordained and appointed to none other thing, but that we should at that day hear the word of God, and exercise ourselves in all godliness. But there be some which think that this day is ordained only for feasting, drinking, or gaming, or such foolishness; but they be much deceived: this day was appointed of God that we should hear his word, and learn his laws, and so serve him.
Latimer’s view of preaching is of a high calling to be humbly embraced:
But we preachers, we have a greater and higher degree: we are magistrates, we have the spiritual sword of God, in a higher degree than the common people; we must rebuke other men, and spare no man. Our office is to teach every man the way to heaven; and whosoever will not follow, but liveth still in sin and wickedness, him ought we to strike, and not to spare. Like as John Baptist did, when he said to the great and proud king Herod, Non licet tibi; “Sir, it becometh not thee to do so.” So we preachers, must use God’s word to the correction of other men’s sins; we may not be flatterers or claw-backs. Other people, that have not this vocation, may exhort every one his neighbour to leave sins; but we have the sword, we are authorised to strike them with God’s word.
The good bishop portrays for us the preacher as a man of fidelity and courage, with wisdom from God and insight into men, unflinching in his stand against sin and unstinting in his declaration of Christ. “The properties of every good preacher,” says Latimer, are
to be a true man; to teach, not dreams nor inventions of men, but viam Dei in veritate, “the way of God truly”; and not to regard the personage of man; not to creep into his bosom, to claw his back; to say to the wicked he doth well, for filthy lucre’s sake. Ah, these flatterers! no greater mischief in the commonwealth, than these flatterers!
By Latimer’s standards, I would suggest that there are a lot of people today who stand up in pulpits to talk who would be thoroughly denounced by this pulpit giant as no preachers but mere flatterers, and a great mischief in the commonwealth.
 1:292. See also 2:26, where Latimer describes at greater length the kind of character required in the preacher, and the prayer required for choosing a godly and faithful man.