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Introduction

Latimer is the best example the English Church can show of the popular preacher. The sermons of Andrewes or Donne make their appeal to a trained intelligence which can “divide,” even to the last scruple, “the word of truth”; Latimer, whether he is preaching in a country town or before the king at Westminster, always speaks so that the servants and handmaids shall carry away as much as the gentler sort. He has but one subject, that of righteousness, and the appeal of righteousness is not to the intellect, but to the conscience.

This is not to say that Latimer was himself unlearned. As a young man he was elected fellow of his college (Clare Hall) at Cambridge, and was one of twelve preachers licensed by the University to preach in any part of England. When his university suspected him of the Lutheran heresy, and he was summoned before Wolsey, he is said to have shown himself more at home in Duns Scotus than Wolsey’s chaplains, who were set to examine him. It is probable that he was not deeply versed in the New Learning, being born a little too early for that. The year 1510, in which Erasmus went to Cambridge to teach Greek, was the year in which Latimer took his degree, and we know that at first the new professor found but few pupils.

The story of Latimer’s first attraction to the Reformed doctrines is told by himself in the first sermon on the Lord’s Prayer:

Master Bilney, or rather Saint Bilney, that suffered death for God’s word sake, the same Bilney was the instrument whereby God called me to knowledge; for I may thank him, next to God, for that knowledge that I have in the word of God. For I was as obstinate a papist as any was in England, insomuch that when I should be made bachelor of divinity, my whole oration went against Philip Melancthon and against his opinions. Bilney heard me at that time, and perceived that I was zealous without knowledge; and he came to me afterward in my study, and desired me, for God’s sake, to hear his confession. I did so: and, to say the truth, by his confession I learned more than before in many years. So from that time forward I began to smell the word of God, and forsook the school-doctors and such fooleries.

This was in 1524, and already the next year we find that he had become suspected of favouring what in his bachelor’s thesis he had attacked; for his diocesan, Bishop West of Ely, came up “suddenly and secretly” to Cambridge to hear a Latin sermon he was to preach ad clerum, and entered the church with unepiscopal astuteness after the sermon was begun. But for once the greatest diplomatist of his age was overmatched. With extraordinary readiness Latimer changed his text, and preached a sermon extempore from the text Christus existens Pontifex futurorum bonorum, “A new auditory requireth a new theme, therefore it behoveth me to entreat of the honourable office of a bishop.” The bishop thanked Latimer for his “good sermon,” and asked him to preach against Martin Luther’s doctrine. To which Latimer very fairly replied that he could not refute what he was prohibited from reading. It is ill setting one’s wits against authority; and according to Cranmer’s secretary Morice, from whom this story comes, the bishop, who had the last word, replied, “I perceive that you somewhat smell of the pan, Mr. Latymer; you will repent this gear some day.” He was inhibited by the bishop from preaching in the university, but continued to use the church of the Austin Friars, which was extra-diocesan. It was on occasion of this dispute that Wolsey interfered and had Latimer examined, with the result that he licensed him to preach anywhere in England.

Of the Cambridge period we have two sermons preserved, those on the Card, preached about 1529, which raise the question what it was that the Bishop of Ely and the party of the Old Learning found to complain of in Latimer’s preaching. The answer of course is that here, as in all theological controversies, it was not the heresy, but the heretic, that was attacked. The sermons only “smelt of the pan.” They disparaged “voluntary works” — church-building, pilgrimages, gilding of saints, and so forth, not absolutely, but in comparison with “necessary works” of righteousness and mercy. Still it is not prudent for the clergy to disparage works of popular religion. Responsible rulers must “doubt whereunto this will grow.” The conceit of comparing the Commandments to playing-cards is not to our modern taste; but Latimer was wise in his generation and knew what he was doing. Probably by such a trick he caught the ear of the undergraduates of the day, who were younger then than now. It is interesting to compare these early sermons of Latimer’s with the almost contemporary sermons of Bishop Fisher.

In reading Fisher there rises to memory the wonderfully beautiful and suffering face that we know from Holbein’s drawing, a face that is certainly not of the world. And the sermons also are not of the world. They are full of a sense of the hollowness of all earthly satisfaction; but they do not strike us as showing any acquaintance at first hand with what they despise and renounce. In one place, for example, commenting on the text “Can a woman forget her sucking child?” Fisher lays down that “the affection of fathers is longer-during than that of mothers.” Throughout we feel the lessons to be a little too abstract, the similes a little forced, the examples conventional; although there is no mistaking the passion of the preacher. Now, whatever we may think of Latimer’s divinity, about his humanity there can be no manner of doubt. From the first his sermons display a quite remarkable insight into the working of the human mind and will. In the second Sermon on the Card, on the words, “Go first and reconcile thy neighbour,” he has this penetrating counsel:

Be not ashamed to do thy Master’s and Lord’s will and commandment. Go, as I said, unto thy neighbour that is offended by thee, and reconcile him whom thou hast lost by thy unkind words, by thy scorns, mocks, and other disdainous words and behaviours, and be not nice to ask of him the cause why he is displeased with thee: require of him charitably to remit; and cease not till you both depart, one from the other, true brethren in Christ. Come not to thy neighbour whom thou hast offended, and give him a pennyworth of ale, or a banquet, and so make him a fair countenance, thinking that by thy drink or dinner he will shew thee like countenance. I grant 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.

The topic which aroused the bitter resentment of his clerical brethren, the disparagement of voluntary works, introduced into this sermon as an illustration of the text “leave there thy oblation,” forms no small part of Latimer’s practical teaching from first to last. He saw that religion had come to be identified in the popular mind with certain observances, none of which had any necessary connexion with the “weightier matters of the law.” As against this view of religion, as a system of merely ecclesiastical duties, he is always endeavouring to recall men’s interest to the fundamental verities of righteousness and mercy.

While they thus preached to the people, that dead images not only ought to be covered with gold, but also ought of all faithful and christian people, (yea, in this scarceness and penury of all things,) to be clad with silk garments, and those also laden with precious gems and jewels; and to be lighted with wax candles, as who should say, here no cost can be too great; whereas in the meantime we see Christ’s faithful and lively images, bought with no less price than with his most precious blood, (alas, alas!) to be an hungred, a-thirst, a-cold, and to lie in darkness, wrapped in all wretchedness, yea, to lie there till death take away their miseries.11   Sermon before the Convocation, 1536.

For a while after his triumph over the Bishop of Ely Latimer’s enemies had to possess their souls in patience, because, having taken the king’s side in the matter of the divorce, he was in high favour at court. He was one of twelve Cambridge divines appointed with twelve from Oxford as a Royal Commission to examine heretical books. Among the books they condemned was Tyndale’s Bible. The accession of Anne Boleyn brought him the bishopric of Worcester, which he held for four years; doing his best during that period for the reform of abuses, especially making a crusade againgst the popular images — “our great Sibyl, with her old sister of Walsingham, her young sister of Ipswich, with their two other sisters of Doncaster and Penrice,” but resigning his see when the Statute of the Six Articles was passed (1539), which made him a heretic. It is said that the king saved him from the stake only on the direct intercession of Cromwell. But even when highest in favour he must have realised, as every good man who served the King had sooner or later to realise, how little the Supreme Head of the Church of Christ in England cared for the lives of any of its members. As early as 1531, and again in 1532, he was accused of heresy in Convocation; and though he appealed to the king, Henry refused to interfere, and Latimer escaped the heretics fate only by a full recantation. Among the articles he was compelled to sign are such as these: There is a place of purgatory. Souls in purgatory are helped by masses and alms-deeds. Pilgrimages and oblations are meritorious. It is profitable to invocate saints. Images are profitable. It is profitable for them to be decked and trimmed and to have candles set before them. His opinion on these matters is well set out in a letter to Archbishop Warham of the same year: “I have never preached anything contrary to the truth, nor contrary to the decrees of the Fathers, nor as far as I know contrary to the Catholic faith. I have desired, I own, and do desire, a reformation in the judgment of the vulgar, that they should distinguish between duties; that all men should know that there is a very great difference between those works which God hath prepared for each of us (zealously discharging the duties of our respective callings) to walk in, and those that are voluntary, which we undertake by our own state and pleasure. It is lawful, I own, to make use of images, to go on pilgrimage, to pray to saints, to be mindful of souls abiding in purgatory; but these things, which are voluntary, are to be so moderated that God’s commandments of necessary obligation, which bring eternal life to those that keep them, and eternal death to those that neglect them, be not deprived of their just value.” The only one of these topics that calls for any particular comment is that of purgatory: what was Latimer’s belief about it? Latimer’s attack upon purgatory took the form, at first and in the main, of denying the Pope’s claim to deliver from it, which had been made so profitable a source of revenue. He calls it, again and again, “purgatory pick-purse.” It was only by degrees that he came to renounce a belief in purgatory altogether, and even in his latest sermons he is not consistent with himself. In one he says distinctly, “You must understand that there are but two places appointed of Almighty God for all mankind, that is, heaven and hell”;22   Sermon on Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Feb. 1552, Park. Soc. ii. 191. in another he allows that he did not know the answer to the question where the soul of the young maid, the ruler’s daughter, was, after it went out of her; “but where it pleased God it should be, there it was. If the Bishop of Rome had gone no further we should have been well enough.”33   Sermon of same year, Park. Soc. i. 550. His earlier view is well set out in the answer he drew up to some articles “untruly, unjustly, falsely, uncharitably imputed to me by Dr. Powell of Salisbury.”44   Dr. Powell, prebendary of Salisbury, a theologian of great learning, who had been engaged by the king to write against Luther, had preached, with others, against Latimer for his sermons at Bristol in 1533. A commission was appointed to inquire into the dispute, and Dr. Powell was sent to the Tower. He was executed in 1540, among that famous six at Smithfield, three hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason, in denying the king’s supremacy, and three burned for heresy. See Dixon’s History of the Church of England, ii. 245-253. One of these articles is that “there is no purgatory after this life.” This Latimer shews to have been a misunderstanding; his doctrine had been that the souls in purgatory have less need of our prayers, as being “always in charity,” than we have of theirs. “We may well pray for them, and they much better for us; which they will do of their charity, though we desire them not.” But the conclusion of the whole matter for him was that too much attention to souls in purgatory, “who are in God’s favour and have Christ with them,” diverted attention from souls on earth, who might be in extreme necessity.

We see not who needeth in purgatory; but we see who needeth in this world. And John saith, “If thou see thy brother, and help him not, how is the charity of God in thee?” Here we be bound to help one another, as we would be holpen ourselves, under pain of damnation. Here, for lack of help, we may murmur and grudge against God, dishonour God, foredote ourselves: which inconveniences shall not follow if we do our duty one to another. I am sure the souls in purgatory be so charitable, and of charity so loth to have God dishonoured, that they would have nothing withdrawn from the poor here in this world to be bestowed upon them. Therefore, howsoever we do for purgatory, let us provide to keep out of hell. I would have difference betwixt that that may be done, and that that ought to be done; and this to go before that, and that to come after this.55   Park. Soc. ii. 237.

When Protestantism was set up with the accession of Edward VI., Latimer did not return to his bishopric, but lodged with Cranmer at Lambeth, and devoted himself to preaching. His Swiss servant Bernher, who edited some of his sermons, tells us that he preached twice every Sunday during King Edward’s reign. The first of these sermons, “preached in the Shrouds at Paul’s Cross,” i.e. in a sheltered place where the sermons were held in bad weather, is the only one that has survived of a course on “the plough.” It is mainly directed against “unpreaching prelates,” and contains the memorable saying that the devil is “never out of his diocese.”

“Circuit,” he goeth about in every corner of his diocese: he goeth on visitation daily: he leaveth no place of his cure unvisited; he walketh round about from place to place, and ceaseth not.

But the sermon contains one passage which was to be the precursor of many such in future — a cry to London to repent of its covetousness. “Charity is waxen cold, none helpeth the scholar nor yet the poor.” In the first sermon of the Lent following, preached before the king, he returns to the subject in regard to rural England. The dissolution of the monasteries had meant the destruction of the monastic schools, with their free education. It had meant also the transference of the manors to lay landlords who were disposed to exact the uttermost farthing of rent; and also to enclose the commons. Moreover, the development of the wool trade encouraged them to lay down their estates in pasture; and this threw a large number of the labourers out of employment, and filled the towns with beggars. On all these topics — upon which, himself the son of a Leicestershire yeoman, he could speak from experience — Latimer probes the consciences of his courtly hearers. In these sermons before King Edward we have one of the most vivid pictures of the age. Here, for example, is a striking contrast between the old times and the new:

My father was a yeoman, and had no lands of his own, only he had a farm of three or four pound by year at the uttermost, and hereupon he tilled so much as kept half a dozen men. He had walk for a hundred sheep; and my mother milked thirty kine. He was able, and did find the king a harness, with himself and his horse .... He kept me to school, or else I had not been able to have preached before the king’s majesty now. He married my sisters with five pound or twenty nobles apiece; so that he brought them up in godliness and fear of God. He kept hospitality for his poor neighbours, and some alms he gave to the poor. And all this he did of the said farm, where he that now hath it payeth sixteen pound by year, or more, and is not able to do anything for his prince, for himself, nor for his children, or give a cup of drink to the poor.

On one topic, as became his office, Latimer was urgent: that maintenance should be found for poor scholars at school and the universities, so that they might recruit the ranks of the preachers. “Is this realm,” he asks, “taught by rich men’s sons? No, no, read the Chronicles. Ye shall find sometime noblemen’s sons which have been unpreaching bishops and prelates: but ... by yeomen’s sons the faith of Christ is, and hath been, maintained chiefly.” The name of Edward VI is still held in pious memory for the schools he founded; but it is forgotten that those he founded, or refounded, were but a fraction of those that were suppressed by the merciless confiscation of the property of the Guilds. Preaching at Stamford in 1550, Latimer says: “To consider that hath been plucked from abbeys, colleges, and chantries, it is marvel no more to be bestowed upon this holy office of salvation. Schools are not maintained; scholars have not exhibition; the preaching office decayeth.” And he asks his hearers, in another place, “to bestow as much in the feeding of scholars of good wits, of poor men’s sons, as ye were wont to bestow in pilgrimage matters, in trentals, in masses, in pardons, in purgatory matters.” But not only do agriculture and education come within the scope of this denouncer of covetousness; he has a word for the judge who takes bribes: and having in the third sermon before King Edward told the tale of Cambyses flaying an unjust judge and covering the judgment seat with his skin, he recurs to this again and again. “It were a goodly sign, this of the judge’s skin. I pray God we may once see the sign of the skin in England.”66   See the curious reference to the “silver bason and ewer” in the Last Sermon before King Edward. He has a word also for the receiver of fraudulent commissions, and the adulterating manufacturer. On the text “Thy wine is mingled with water” he comments: “Here he meddleth with vintners; belike there were brewers in those days as there be now.... I hear say there is a certain cunning come up in mixing of wares. How say you? were it no wonder to hear that cloth-makers should become poticaries? Yea, and (as I hear say) in such a place, where as they have professed the gospel and the word of God most earnestly of a long time.” And he goes on to explain the mystery of flock-powder.77   Third Sermon before King Edward. To all classes he is a faithful monitor. “The servant who has his whole wages and does but half his work, or is a sluggard, that same fellow is a thief before God.”

The fearlessness of Latimer was one of his marked characteristics. The man who had his trunk packed ready to start when the pursuivant came to summon him to a trial that could have no issue but the stake was not the man to be daunted by kings or mobs. When he first came into favour with Henry VIII by his judgment about the divorce, and thus for a moment quieted his enemies, the first thing he must do is to remonstrate with the king in a Lent sermon for ordering that his horses should be pastured on abbey lands, “abbeys being ordained for the comfort of the poor.” His sermon before the Convocation of 1536, of which we have only a translation, recalls in its boldness the great sermon of Colet, a quarter of a century before. He said as strong things many times afterwards about unpreaching prelates; but that was in the reign of Edward, when he was safe. Under Henry he was never safe.

There is no need to make the attempt to sum up Latimer’s characteristics as a preacher. A single page of any sermon shews the whole man, in his simplicity, his directness, his burning zeal, his humanity, his quaint terms, his garrulousness. His sermons were talked; and as they were expected to last for a couple of hours, humorous relief was very welcome to both preacher and hearer. No preacher had so inexhaustible a stock of merry tales — not the cut-and-dried moralised anecdotes of the Gesta Romanorum, but incidents that he had noted in his busy life among the people. A good example will be found in the third sermon before Edward VI. Now and then he does not disdain what we should call a “Joe Miller,” as when he tells of the gentlewoman who went to St. Thomas of Acres to the sermon, because she “never failed of a good nap there.” Frequently he illustrates from his own personal history — as the question of giving tribute to Caesar, by an examination he had to undergo before the bishop.88   Sermon preached at Stamford. If the modern reader is inclined to resent the occasional homeliness of the vocabulary as beneath the dignity of the pulpit — as when it is said that the covetous man’s mind is “on his half-penny”; or when the preacher quotes a proverb “of my country: They say when they call the hogs to the swine-trough, ‘Come to thy mingle-mangle, come pur, come pur’”; or when he paraphrases Num et vos seducti estis? by “What, ye brain-sick fools, ye hoddy-pecks, ye doddy-pouls, ye huddes, Are you seduced also?” — it is well to remember that the final cause of the pulpit is not the dignity of the preacher, but the instruction of the hearer, and that before a man can hear he must be drawn to listen. Moreover, in these days of universal education we cannot appreciate the ignorance of the simple people in Latimer’s day. It may be brought home to us by the concluding passage of the sermon at Stamford in which Latimer tells us that he made a habit of reciting the Lord’s prayer before and after every sermon, as he found so many poor people did not know it.

Henry Charles Beeching


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