The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Hugh Latimer: the preaching prelate #3 Latimer’s practice of preaching

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Part onePart two ∙ Part three

Latimer’s practice of preaching, as befits a man with a reputation for integrity of character, is very much in keeping with his principles. We can identify several distinctive features, acknowledging that others could be chosen, or different divisions drawn and nuances identified, and that some necessarily overlap.

Firstly, Latimer is a vivid and lively preacher. He readily employs anecdotes about himself (for example, how he got locked out of a church building because it was Robin Hood’s day and the people did “prefer Robin Hood to God’s word”[34]) and others (in addition to the napping gentlewoman,[35] we have a variety of visiting bishops,[36] complaining chaplains [who are usually complaining about Latimer],[37] traitorous Lord Admirals,[38] thieves on the gallows[39] and such like). His illustrations and imagery are rich and effective, ranging from a “captain and defender” charged by the king with the defence of “his town of Calais . . . against the Frenchmen especially, above all other enemies”[40] (one can almost hear the venom in his voice and the muttered satisfaction of his congregation), through the whole central conceit of the “Sermon of the Plough,” to an allegory of Faith as “a great state, a lady, a duchess, a great woman” who “hath ever a great company and train [of graces and virtues] about her,”[41] or the Lord Christ’s work highlighted by a prisoner on his way to “the dungeon of Ludgate” whose friend becomes surety for him and so spares him his punishment.[42] Neither must we bypass the jokes, for Latimer is a master of harnessed humour in the pulpit, whether the sarcastic aside about the possibility of a sincere pilgrim chancing “to visit pigs’ bones instead of saints’ relicks,”[43] the faux-wounded innocence when he reports that he answered challenges about the whereabouts of Jairus’ daughter’s soul between her death and rising with an innocent sounding, “I cannot tell; but where it pleased God it should be, there it was,” followed by the congregational nudge-and-wink, “Is not this a good answer to such a clerkly question?”[44] or the more developed tale, for example, concerning the

bargain that I heard of late should be betwixt two friends for a horse: the owner promised the other should have the horse if he would; the other asked the price; he said twenty nobles. The other would give him but four pound. The owner said he should not have him then. The other claimed the horse, because he said he should have him if he would. Thus this bargain became a Westminster matter: the lawyers got twice the value of the horse; and when all came to all, two fools made an end of the matter.[45]

So adept is Latimer in this sphere that he has on occasion, when he has caught the imagination of his congregation with some apposite tale, to tell them, “It is no laughing matter, my friends, it is a weeping matter, a heavy matter.”[46] In short, Latimer knows how to catch and keep the ear of his congregation.

Secondly, and allied with that vividness and liveliness, Latimer is – in the best sense of the word – popular, having a thoroughly engaging grasp of the world in which he lives and the people to whom he speaks. He is not afraid to take events and habits in the world as the occasions of his sermons. In his Christmas “Sermons on the Card” he uses the common seasonal practice of card games to create his own game and deal out some sermonic “cards” from the pulpit. The illustration of Calais above would have been of immediate relevance to any right-thinking Englishman (and Latimer’s further hint that you could liken the French to the fiend[47] probably did him no harm in their estimation). He does not speak around or over his audience, but to them, engaging their esteem and affections, never unnecessarily insulting them. Consider the subtle wisdom of his address to a London congregation: “Now if I should preach in the country, among the unlearned, I would tell what propitiatory, expiatory, and remissory is; but here is a learned auditory; yet for them that be unlearned I will expound it.”[48]

Drawing on his experience among the ordinary people, he readily puts himself in the shoes of his hearers:

But some will say, “Our curate is naught; an ass-head; a dodipole; a lack-latin, and can do nothing. Shall I pay him my tithes, that doth us no good, nor none will do?” “Yea,” I say, “thou must pay him his duty; and if he be such a one, complain to the bishop.” “We have complained to the ordinary, and he is as negligent as he.” Complain to the council. “Sir, so have we done, but no remedy can be had.” Well, I can tell where thou shalt complain; complain to God, he will surely hear thee, he will remedy it.[49]

He knows that real people are before him, and so he deals in the known business of earth and the substantial realities of heaven.

Thirdly, this preaching prelate is always direct. He communicates in plain language which – even taking into account the distance of time and development of language – rarely leaves you asking what Latimer means. This does not mean his vocabulary is dull and his tone predictable. Rather, he has a knack for a ripe and telling turn of phrase that carries his meaning clearly. So in discussing the tension between two neighbours who are pretending to get on while one bears an ancient grudge against the other, he warns that “you may both laugh and make good cheer, and yet there may remain a bag of rusty malice, twenty years old, in thy neighbour’s bosom.”[50] There is an unembarrassed and manly vigour that lends itself to straight and sometimes earthy talking, which Latimer admires in the prophets:

Esay, that faithful minister of God, he is a good plain fellow; he telleth them the matter in plain, saying, Argentum tuum versum est in scoriam, principes tui infideles, socii forum: “Thy silver is turned to dross, thy princes are unfaithful, and fellows of thieves.” He is no flatterer, he telleth them the truth.[51]

Latimer calls on others to demonstrate what he himself exemplifies even in the very act of making that call:

Therefore, you preachers, out with your swords and strike at the root. Speak against covetousness, and cry out upon it. Stand not ticking and toying at the branches nor at the boughs, for then there will new boughs and branches spring again of them; but strike at the root, and fear not these giants of England, these great men and men of power, these men that are oppressors of the poor; fear them not, but strike at the root of all evil, which is mischievous covetousness.[52]

Another strength is Latimer’s gift for vernacular paraphrase. He does it repeatedly, bringing Scripture and theology into common speech, but surely never so freely and boldly as when he is speaking on John 7 and quotes the Pharisees in verse 47: “Then answered the Pharisees, Num et vos seducti estis?” A fairly sober modern translation of the Greek will offer something like “Are you also deceived/led astray?” Latimer provides a personal and far riper paraphrase of the Latin: “What, ye brain-sick fools, ye hoddy-pecks[53], ye doddy-pouls[54], ye huddes[55], do ye believe him? are you seduced also?”[56] When we criticise Latimer’s homiletical structure (or lack of it), we must recognise that his strength as a homiletician lies in his memorable and easy style.

But this directness also shows itself in searching applications. Latimer pulls no punches. When speaking of the shepherds of Luke 2 to the servants of the household of the Duchess of Suffolk at Grimsthorpe, he makes plain that his hearers should

note the diligence of these shepherds: for whether the sheep were their own, or whether they were servants, I cannot tell, for it is not expressed in the book; but it is most like they were servants, and their masters had put them in trust to keep their sheep. Now if these shepherds had been deceitful fellows, that when their masters had put them in trust to keep their sheep, they had been drinking in the alehouse all night, as some of our servants do now-a-days, surely the angels had not appeared unto them, to have told them this great joy and good tidings. And here all servants may learn by these shepherds to serve truly and diligently unto their masters: in what business soever they are set to do, let them be painful and diligent, like as Jacob was unto his master Laban.[57]

After a few more Biblical examples of such diligence, he asks, “But, I pray you, where are these servants now-a-days ? Indeed I fear me, there be but very few of such faithful servants.”[58] (Never one to miss a sitting duck, he also has a few choice comments from the diligent shepherds for lazy clergy.) But we are not surprised to hear our preacher speak with equal force to men of all ranks. We find him before the young Edward VI, not only declaring to the scheming court the validity of a youthful king but also pointing out the sufficiency of the Scriptures for a king to live by, and descending to particulars:

In speaking these words, ye shall understand that I do not intend to speak against the strength, policy, and provision of a king; but against excess, and vain trust that kings have in themselves more than in the living God, the author of all goodness, and giver of all victory. Many horses are requisite for a king; but he may not exceed in them, nor triumph in them, more than is needful for the necessary affairs and defence of the realm. What meaneth it that God hath to do with the king’s stable, but only he would be master of his horses? The scripture saith, In altis habitat, “He dwelleth on high.” It followeth, Humilia respicit, “He looketh on low things;” yea, upon the king’s stables, and upon all the offices in his house. God is the great Grandmaster of the king’s house, and will take account of every one that beareth rule therein, for the executing of their offices; whether they have justly and truly served the king in their offices, or no. Yea, God looketh upon the king himself, if he work well or not. Every king is subject unto God, and all other men are subjects unto the king. In a king God requireth faith, not excess of horses.[59]

The nobles receive their due instruction. When speaking to them of Jonah’s ministry in Nineveh, the parallels he draws are hard to mistake:

There were noblemen, rich men, wealthy men; there were vicious men, and covetous men, and men that gave themselves to all voluptuous living, and to worldliness of getting riches. Was this a time well chosen and discreetly taken of Jonas, to come and reprove them of their sin; to declare unto them the threatenings of God; and to tell them of their covetousness; and to say plainly unto them, that except they repented and amended their evil living, they and their city should be destroyed of God’s hand within forty days? And yet they heard Jonas and gave place to his preaching. They heard the threatenings of God, and feared his stroke and vengeance, and believed God: that is, they believed God’s preacher and minister; they believed that God would be true of his word that he spake by the mouth of his prophet, and thereupon did penance, to turn away the wrath of God from them. Well, what shall we say? I will say this, and not spare: Christ saith, Ninive shall arise against the Jews at the last day, and bear witness against them; because that they, hearing God’s threatening for sin, ad praedicationam Jonae in cinere et sacco egerunt poenitentiam, “They did penance at the preaching of Jonas in ashes and sackcloth,” (as the text saith there:) and I say, Ninive shall arise against England, thou England; Ninive shall arise against England, because it will not believe God, nor hear his preachers that cry daily unto them, nor amend their lives, and especially their covetousness. Covetousness is as great a sin now as it was then: and it is the same sin now it was then: and he will as sure strike for sin now, as he did then.[60]

We have seen him confront the clergy[61] with language that is terse and penetrating: “Wherefore lift up your heads, brethren, and look about with your eyes, spy what things are to be reformed in the church of England. Is it so hard, is it so great a matter for you to see many abuses in the clergy, many in the laity?”[62]

Latimer will never shy away from dealing with particular sins and calling for particular repentance and enjoining to particular duty, and in this he stands in stark contrast with many modern pulpits.

Fourthly, Latimer is appropriately polemical. While we recognise his readiness to take on sin in all its forms – preachers, like the Christ who rebuked his own mother, “shall not bear or comfort any man in his sins and wickedness, but admonish him; nor flatter him against our conscience, as some do, which will not displease, but rather allow things against their own conscience”[63] – he has two primary targets in this regard: false religion and injustice (including abuse of privilege and position). With regard to false religion, popery gets shortest shrift, as when Latimer offers the thought that

the devil, by the help of that Italian bishop yonder, his chaplain, hath laboured by all means that he might to frustrate the death of Christ and the merits of his passion. And they have devised for that purpose to make us believe in other vain things by his pardons: as to have remission of sins for praying on hallowed beads; for drinking of the bakehouse bowl; as a canon of Waltham Abbey once told me, that whensoever they put their loaves of bread into the oven, as many as drank of the pardon-bowl should have pardon for drinking of it. A mad thing, to give pardon to a bowl![64]

But Latimer also includes the superstition and paganism, often walking in lockstep with Roman Catholicism, that plagued Reformation England. Neither can Latimer abide injustice. Bribery sickens him, and he inveighs against it repeatedly:

It is very sure that they that be good will bear, and not spurn at the preachers: they that be faulty they must amend, and neither spurn, nor wince, nor whine. He that findeth himself touched or galled, he declareth himself not to be upright. Wo worth these gifts! they subvert justice everywhere. Sequuntur retributiones: “they follow bribes.” Somewhat was given to them before; and they must needs give somewhat again: for Giffe-gaffe[65] was a good fellow; this Giffe-gaffe led them clean from justice. “They follow gifts.”

A good fellow on a time bade another of his, friends to a breakfast, and said, “If you will come, you shall be welcome; but I tell you aforehand, you shall have but slender fare: one dish, and that is all” “What is that,” said he? “A pudding, and nothing else.” “Marry,” said he, “you cannot please me better; of all meats, that is for mine own tooth; you may draw me round about the town with a pudding.” These bribing  magistrates and judges follow gifts faster than the fellow would follow the pudding.[66]

Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest a rather grim remedy:

Cambyses was a great emperor, such another as our master is: he had many lords-deputies, lords-presidents, and lieutenants under him. It is a great while ago since I read the history. It chanced he had under him in one of his dominions a briber, a gift-taker, a gratifier of rich men; he followed gifts as fast as he that followed the pudding; a hand-maker in his office, to make his son a great man; as the old saying is, “Happy is the child whose father goeth to the devil.” The cry of the poor widow came to the emperor’s ear, and caused him to flay the judge quick, and laid his skin in his chair of judgment, that all judges that should give judgment afterward should sit in the same skin. Surely it was a goodly sign, a goodly monument, the sign of the judge’s skin. I pray God we may once see the sign of the skin in England![67]

He lists miscarriages of justice, and calls upon the king “to remedy the matter, and God grant you to see redress in this realm in your own person.”[68] Neither is he unwilling to stand himself against the expectations of the day: on one occasion he obtained pardon for an unloved wife whose husband used the death of their child as an excuse to rid himself of his spouse by accusing her of murder;[69] in the same connection he warns that “a man may sin deadly with his own wife, if he, contrary to God’s order, misuse her.”[70] Latimer’s life among the people before his elevation, both from his less privileged background and his visiting of those in prison, together with the perspective obtained from his appointment as a bishop, all inform an abiding concern for the poor and vulnerable, and a concern that, for them, justice should be done and provision be made. For those who are the victims of injustice, he has words of comfort:

You widows, you orphans, you poor people, here is a comfortable place for you. Though these judges of the world will not hear you, there is one will be content with your importunity; he will remedy you, if you come after a right sort unto him. . . . Thou widow, thou orphan, thou fatherless child, I speak to thee, that hast no friends to help thee: “call upon me in the day of thy tribulation, call upon me; Ego eripiam te, I will pluck thee away, I will deliver thee, I will take thee away, I will relieve thee, thou shalt have thy heart’s desire.”[71]

Fifthly, Latimer is pastorally thorough and thoroughly pastoral. Again, we should not imagine that – working within the confines of his own development as a theologian and the tools available to him – he is any way a careless preacher. This is the man  who, according to his servant Bernher, “every morning ordinarily, winter and summer, about two of the clock in the morning he was at his book most diligently.”[72] His series on the Lord’s prayer covers a lot of territory, and he clearly has an excellent grasp of his material. He works through the text verse by verse, commenting and applying, but in such a way as always to maintain the connection of the text with his congregation. There is never a theory in Latimer’s preaching that does not translate into practice, and that is not made to translate into the practice of the very people to whom he preaches. Today’s high-flying scholarly orations that never land on the earth of a man’s life are shot down in flames by Latimer’s solid cannons. Latimer never forgets that pastoral dynamic, that need to bring the Word of God into connection with the hearts of his people, and his preaching is governed by that sense of responsibility.

His searching applications and gospel comforts are intended to do people good as sinners and as saints. Again, it is evident that he knows them: their circumstances, their errors, their sins, their grievances, their ignorance, their needs. He sets out to meet them all in the course of his preaching. For those who wonder whether or not Latimer’s stinging rebukes can be considered pastoral, we might consider the demands of the times he lived in, and the demands of our own. A true shepherd cares enough about his sheep to keep them safe, and that sometimes demands a whack on the flanks as much as a tender embrace from the strong arms of the shepherd. Perhaps the problem lies not so much in the fact that Latimer has added so much to his conception of pastoral preaching and counsel, but that we have evacuated so much from ours.

Latimer wants none to wander and none to stray once brought in. So he rebukes, instructs, and entreats with a view to the present and eternal good of all who hear him. His evident concern readily overflows, and it drives all his preaching. Here is his encouragement to repent of sin:

You have heard how needful it is for us to cry unto God for forgiveness of our sins: where you have heard, wherein forgiveness of our sins standeth, namely, in Christ the Son of the living God. Again, I told you how you should come to Christ, namely, by faith; and faith cometh through hearing the word of God. Remember then this addition, “As we forgive them that trespass against us;” which is a sure token, whereby we know whether we have the true faith in Christ or no. And here you learn, that it is a good thing to have an enemy; for we may use him to our great commodity: through him or by him we may prove ourselves, whether we have the true faith or no.[73]

And here are some more of his gospel comforts:

Call this, I say, to remembrance, and again remember that our Saviour hath cleansed through his passion all our sins, and taken away all our wickedness; so that as many as believe in him shall be the children of God. In such wise let us strive and fight against the temptations of the devil; which would not have us to call upon God, because we be sinners. Catch thou hold of our Saviour, believe in him, be assured in thy heart that he with his suffering took away all thy sins. Consider again, that our Saviour calleth us to prayer, and commandeth us to pray. Our sins let us, and withdraw us from prayer; but our Saviour maketh them nothing: when we believe in him, it is like as if we had no sins. For he changeth with us: he taketh our sins and wickedness from us, and giveth unto us his holiness, righteousness, justice, fulfilling of the law, and so, consequently, everlasting life: so that we be like as if we had done no sin at all; for his righteousness standeth us in so good stead, as though we of our own selves had fulfilled the law to the uttermost. Therefore our sins cannot let us, nor withdraw us from prayer: for they be gone; they are no sins; they cannot be hurtful unto us. Christ dying for us, as all the scripture, both of the new and old Testament, witnesseth, Dolores nostros ipse portavit, “He hath taken away our sorrows.”[74]

Such, then, is the preaching in principle and in practice of the man who was, according to Sir Marcus Loane,

the recognised exponent of the moral teaching of the Reformation, and the practical character of his oratory was the surest means to arouse the conscience of his England . . . his was the voice of righteousness. . . . There was nothing crude or vulgar in his sermons; they were plain and opportune, shrewd and vigorous, with a touch of racy humour, and flair for homely illustration, and a magnificent verve, and a colloquial dash, that gave his words instant penetration.[75]

And so it was that Sir John Cheke, the learned tutor of Edward VI, said of this preaching prelate, “I have an ear for other preachers, but I have a heart for Latimer.” I hope that we can now begin to understand why, and are perhaps more ready to ask the Head of the church to raise up men of God with integrity of soul, courage of conviction and penetration of speech for the pulpits of today.

Part onePart two ∙ Part three


[35] 1:201, see above.

[36] 1:207.

[37] 1:154-55.

[38] 1:161-65.

[39] 1:163.

[40] 1:5.

[41] 1:168.

[42] 1:223.

[43] 1:53.

[44] 1:550.

[45] 1:89.

[46] 1:208.

[47] 1:5-6.

[48] 1:73.

[49] 1:304.

[50] 1:20.

[51] 1:381-2.

[52] 1:247.

[53] A hoddy-peck, hoddypeak or hoddypake is a blockhead or simpleton, although some suggest it may also indicate a cuckold.

[54] A doddy-poul or doddy-poll is a thickhead or dolt.

[55] Huddes are husks, offscourings or refuse.

[56] 1:136.

[57] 2:119.

[58] 2:119.

[59] 1:92-93.

[60] 1:241-2.

[61] See above on the preacher’s faithfulness.

[62] 1:52.

[63] 2:118.

[64] 1:74.

[65] “Giffe-gaffe” seems to be personified mutual back-scratching.

[66] 1:140. Again, note that this is not preached to those who are suffering from these injustices, but to those who are committing them.

[67] 1:146.

[68] 1:189-91.

[69] 1:335.

[70] 1:343.

[71] 1:142-143.

[72] 2:xxi.

[73] 1:426-7.

[74] 1:329-30.

[75] Sir Marcus Loane, Masters of the English Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005), 147.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 24 January 2012 at 11:22

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  1. […] Hugh Latimer: the preaching prelate #3 Latimer’s practice of preaching (eardstapa.wordpress.com) […]


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