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A Sermon by Richard Hooker

with Introductory comments by James Kiefer

Richard Hooker (1554?-1600) was possibly the greatest theologian that England has ever produced. In 1585, he was appointed Master of the Temple: that is, was assigned to one of the most visible pulpits in England. Almost immediately, he incurred the suspicions of the Puritan party. In the course of one of his sermons, he said: "I doubt not but God was merciful to save thousands of our fathers living in popish superstitions, inasmuch as they sinned ignorantly." This sentence, which today would be fiercely attacked by those who thought it arrogant, narrow, and bigoted, was at the time attacked on opposite grounds. Walter Travers, the afternoon lecturer at the Temple, said that since the adherents of the Pope did not believe in justification by faith, they could not be justified by faith, which meant that they could not be justified at all, which meant that they were certainly damned, with no exceptions. Hooker, he claimed, had sold out to the enemy. The sermon given below is Hooker's reply.

In reading it, remember that, when he argues that the popish errors do not automatically damn all who hold them, he needs to state emphatically that he is not himself one who hold such views.

Note also, that he frequently devotes a paragraph to stating the case for the Puritan position (as represented by Travers) and then the following paragraph to a rebuttal. The reader must be attentive to when Hooker is speaking for the prosecution and when for the defense. Doubtless, when the sermon was delivered "live," there were clues in the manner of delivery that are not evident in the written script. I have taken the liberty of inserting the signposts [OBJECTION:] and [REPLY:] where I thought they might be helpful. I have also included the paragraph numbering (which I think to be standard) from the Everyman's edition, and the section titles (which I do not think to be standard) from the P E Hughes edition.

The standard edition of Hooker's writings, edited by John Keble, has footnotes for most of the quotations, from Scripture and other sources. Some of these have been reproduced here, but those interested in his quotations other than from Scripture will want to consult the Keble notes.

For a general account of the writings and thought of Hooker, see C S Lewis's ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, EXCLUDING DRAMA (Oxford U Pres, 1954), especially pages 441-463. (To the reader anxious to understand the issues of the Reformation, I recommend the whole work, but especially pages 32-44, 162-165, 177-180, 181-192, 438-463.)

To Lewis's account of Hooker, one bit of information must be added. In Lewis's day there was some doubt about the authenticity of the last three of the eight books of Hooker's masterpiece, the LAWS OF ECCESIASTICAL POLITY. Only the first five were published in Hooker's lifetime. Since then, the manuscript of the last three books, in Hooker's handwriting, has come to light, and there is accordingly no scholar (as far as I know) who disputes their genuineness.

And now for Hooker's sermon.

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