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Moderation and Deprivation: A Reappraisal of Richard Sibbes

  • Mark E. Dever (a1)

Among the Puritan ‘martyrs’ celebrated by Samuel Clarke and Daniel Neal, few have been more frequently mentioned and less carefully considered than Richard Sibbes (1577–1635). Sibbes, primarily remembered as Preacher of Gray's Inn and author of The Bruised Reede, has been presented as one of a number of early Stuart preachers who neither approved nor practised bending the knee in communion, nor wearing the surplice, nor signing the cross in baptism, and yet who somehow remained within the Established Church. He was, it is reported, constantly troubled by Laud. Doubly deprived, censured and silenced, Sibbes became a model for his numerous disciples – among them Thomas Goodwin, John Davenport, John Cotton – who would later find their way into dissent. It is supposed that only the power of his lawyer-friends and noble patrons allowed him to retain his ministry at Gray's Inn for almost two decades. After his death, his writings became almost entirely the possession of Nonconformists and Sibbes came to be read through separatist spectacles. And yet, although remembered as espousing a robustly reformed theology, his moderation was particularly admired by those who followed him. Sibbes seemed to stand above the tumult of the times, ‘to preserve the vitals and essentials of religion, that the souls of his hearers, being captivated with the inward beauty and glory of Christ, and being led into an experimental knowledge of heavenly truths, theirspirits might not evaporate and discharge themselves in endless, gainless, soul-unedifying, and conscience-perplexing questions’.

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1 Simeon, Ash, James, Nalton and Joseph, Church, ‘To the reader’, in Richard Sibbes, A Heavenly Conference Between Christ and Mary after His Resurrection, London 1654, n.p.(Works of Richard Sibbes, Edinburgh 1862, vi. 415). Hereinafter all references to the works of Sibbes will be given in the seventeenth-century edition, with the reference in the nineteenth- century collected works following in brackets.

2 Arthur, Jackson, James, Nalton and William, Taylor, ‘To the reader’, in The Glorious Feast of the Gospel, London 1650, n.p.

3 William, Prynne, Canterburies Doome, London 1646, 362.

4 Samuel, Clarke, ‘The life of Doctor Preston’, in A martyrologie, 3rd ed., London 1677, 108.

5 Idem. ‘The life of Doctor Sibs’, in A martyrologie, 144 mentions having spoken with Doctor Gouge about Sibbes.

6 Daniel, Neal, History of the Puritans, 1732, repr. London 1837, i. 582.

7 Benjamin, Brook, The Lives of the Puritans, London 1813, ii. 417.

8 Grosart, A. B., ‘Memoir of Richard Sibbes, D. D.’, in Works, 1. p. 39.

9 Ibid.. p. xxxix.

10 Ibid.. p. xl.

ll Ibid.. p. xxxix.

12 Alexander, Beith, ‘Introductory essay’, to The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax, Edinburgh 1878, p. ii.

13 Barton, J., ‘Notes on the past history of Holy Trinity, Cambridge’, Cambridge Antiquarian Society Communications 4 (1879), 319–20.

14 Reginald J. Fletcher (ed.), The Pension Book of Gray's Inn, London 1901, 224 n. 1.

15 John, and Venn, J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge, 1922, i/iv. 73.

16 A[lexander], G[ordon], s.v. ‘Sibbes, Richard’, Dictionary of National Biography, London 1922, xviii. 182.

17 Jordan, W. K., The Development of Religious Toleration in England… 1603–1640, London 1936, 358.

18 William, Haller, The Rise of Puritanism, New York 1938, 66.

19 Farrell, Frank E., ‘Richard Sibbes: a study in early seventeenth century English Puritanism’, unpubl. PhD. diss., Edinburgh 1955, 26.

20 Irvonwy, Morgan, Prince Charles's Puritan Chaplain, London 1957, 118.

21 Christopher, Hill, Puritanism and Revolution, London 1958, 238.

22 H. C., Porter, Reformation and Reaction in Tudor Cambridge, Cambridge 1958, 263.

23 Cam, Helen C., ‘The city of Cambridge’, in Victoria County History Cambridgeshire, iii, London 1959, 16.

24 Christopher, Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England, London 1964, 82–3.

25 Rooy, Sidney H., The Theology of Missions in the Puritan Tradition, Grand Rapids, Mich. 1965, 15.

26 Norman, Pettit, The Heart Prepared: grace and conversion in the Puritan spiritual life, New Haven 1966, 66.

27 Harold Patton, Shelly, ‘Richard Sibbes: early Stuart preacher of piety’, unpubl. PhD diss., Temple University 1972, 3.

28 Hugh Evan, Hopkins, Holy Trinity Church Cambridge, n.d., 5.

29 Kendall, R. T., Calvin and English Calvinism to i649, Oxford 1979, 103.

30 Knott, John R., Jr, The Sword of the Spirit: Puritan responses to the Bible, Chicago 1980, 42.

31 Harry Lee, Poe, ‘Evangelistic Fervency Among the Puritans in Stuart England, 1603–1688’, unpubl. PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1982, 56.

32 Prest, Wilfrid R., in The Rise of the Barristers, Oxford 1986, 219.

33 Greaves, R. L., s.v. ‘Sibbes, Richard’, Biographical Dictionary of British Radicals in the Seventeenth Century, Brighton 1984, iii. 169.

34 St John's College Archives SB4. 4 fo. 163.

35 Cambridge Shire Hall, Parish Records, P22/6. 2.

36 PRO, SP Domestic, SP14/89, fos 113–14.

37 See CUA Mm. 1. 38, p. 137 for a reference in a letter from Viscount Dorchester to Vice-Chancellor Butts dated 11 May 1630 about the lectureship at Holy Trinity. In the letter, Dorchester mentions that the lecture had ‘ for many yeares past… been held at one of the clocke in the afternoon…’, the same time as the University Lecture was held in Great St Mary's. This letter has been reprinted in C. H. Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, Cambridge 1842–1908, iii. 229–30.

38 CUA Vice-Chancellor's Court I. 42. fo. 202.

39 CUA Lett. n. A. A. 8. d.

40 It was exactly this fear that led Anthony Rudd, bishop of St David's, at the Convocation in May 1604 to oppose making the use of the sign binding in the laws of the Church, though he himself thought it appropriate to use. As Rudd said, ‘very many learned preachers (whose consciences are not in our custodie, nor to be disposed of at our devotion) will not be easily drawn thereunto [the use of the sign of the cross in baptism]’; cited in Babbage, S. B., Puritanism and Richard Bancroft, London 1962, 81. It is interesting to note that upon Hills's death in 1626, Richard Sibbes was called to replace him as Master of St Catharine's.

41 ‘in this work [The Bruised Reed] as in others he [Sibbes] stressed the need for moderation in doctrinal disputes in order to preserve the unity of the Church’: Slack, P. A., ‘Introductory note’, to The Bruised Reede, London 1630, repr. 1973, n.p.

42 In understanding Sibbes's conforming and reforming tendencies it is helpful to consider them in the larger context which Peter Lake has explored. Throughout this article, the reader will notice how well Sibbes matches Lake's description of’ moderate Puritans’. According to Lake the essence of the moderate position was the balancing of a common front against Rome (which made them conformists in the Church of England) against their zeal for further reformation within the English Church (which saved them from being simple conformists). See Peter, Lake, Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church, Cambridge 1982, 69; cf. 11–15, 282.

43 ‘Noe preacher, of what tytle soever, under the degree of a bishop, or a deane, at the least, doe, from henceforth, presume to preach in any popular audience the deepe points of predestination, election, reprobation, or of the universality, efficacity, resistability or irresistability of God's grace, but leave those thames to be handled by the learned men, and that moderately and modestly by way of use and application, rather than by way of positive doctrine, as being [more] fitted for the schooles and universities then for simply auditors’; cited by Babbage, , in Puritanism and Richard Bancroft, 94. Cf. James's proclamation of 16 07 1604, reprinted in Edward, Cardwell, Documentary Annals of the Reformed Church of England, Oxford 1844, ii. 80–4.

44 Sibbes, ‘To the reader’, in Paul, Baynes, A Commentary Upon the First Chapter of the Epistle…to the Ephesians, London 1618, n.p. {Works, i. pp. 8586).

45 Cf. John, Platt, ‘Eirenical Anglicans at the Synod of Dort’, in Derek Baker (ed.), Reform and Reformation: England and the continent C1500–C1750, Oxford 1979, 221–43.

46 Bodleian, Library, MS Tanner 73. fo. 29. Jenison's book in question is The Height of Israel's Heathenish Idolatrie, London 1621.

47 Sibbes, ‘To the Christian reader’, in Robert, Jenison, The Christians Apparelling by Christ, London 1625, n.p. (not in Works).

48 Patrick Collinson has convincingly made the point that voluntary religion flourished in the Jacobean period; yet the case of Sibbes is a clear example of at least two forms of voluntary religion which were not tolerated: Religion of Protestants: the Church in English society, 1559–1625, Oxford 1982, 242–83.

49 PRO, SP16/56, items 15 and 16. The extent of Sibbes's concern for the Protestant Churches on the continent in this period: ‘But especially let us consider with what hearts we entertain those doleful and sad reports of foreign churches, and with what consideration and view we look upon the present estate of the church, whether we be glad or no. There are many false spirits that either are not affected at all, or else they are inwardly glad of it… I hope that there are but few such amongst us here, therefore I will not press that. But if we be dead-hearted, and are not affected with the cause of the church, let us suspect ourselves, and think all is not well. The fire from heaven is not kindled in our hearts’: Sibbes, ‘Sword of the wicked’, in Evangelicall Sacrifices, London 1640, pt. ii, 235–6 (Works, i. p. 59).

50 Prynne, in Canterburies Doome, cited by Grosart, ‘Memoir’, Works, i. p. 59.

51 Both Grosart and Trevor-Roper follow the summary in the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic of these two letters, in which it is noted, after a summary of the letter, that Archbishop William Laud ‘ indorsed’ the letter. There is, however, no evidence of any such endorsement in the letters themselves in the State Papers. Cf. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic in the Reign of Charles I, (1627–1628), 77; Grosart, , ‘Memoir’, Works, 1. p. 59; Hugh, Trevor-Roper, Archbishop Laud 1573–1645, 3rd ed., London 1988, 263.

52 Calder, Isabel M., Activities of the Puritan Faction of the Church of England 1625–1633, London 1957, p. 7.

53 William Gouge soon replaced Stock who died in 1626.

54 Calder, , Activities of the Puritan Faction, p. 7.

55 Ibid.. 54–9.

56 William, Laud, History of Troubles, London 1695, 68.

57 Letter to Ussher, dated 26– May 1631: Bodl. Lib., MS Tanner 314. fo. 55. See also Wallace, Dewey D., Jr, Puritans and Predestination: grace in English Protestant theology 1525–1695, Chapel Hill, NC 1982, 96–7.

58 Sibbes, ‘To the Christian reader’, in John, Smith, An Exposition of the Creed, London 1632, n.p. (Works, i. p. ci). It must be noted that the reference to Andrewes was merely incidental - Smith had succeeded Andrewes as lecturer at St Paul's.

59 John, Sedgwick, ‘Dedication’, in Sibbes, Beames of Divine Light, London 1639, n.p. (Works, v. 221).

60 Arthur, Jackson, James, Nalton and William, Taylor, ‘ To the reader’, in Sibbes, The Glorious Feast of the Gospel, London 1650, n.p. (Works, ii. 439). Cf. comments of Ash, Nalton and Church, ‘To the reader’, in Sibbes, A Heavenly Conference, n.p. (Works, vi. 415).

61 It is uncertain when or to whom this letter was originally written. Grosart has suggested that it was written to Thomas Goodwin, on his resignation from the vicarage of Holy Trinity, Cambridge in 1633 (Grosart, ’Memoir’, Works, i. p. cxvi).

62 Sibbes, , A Consolatory Letter To an afflicted Conscience, London 1641, 3 (Works, i. p. cxv).

63 Ibid.. 4 (Works, i. p. cxv).

64 Ibid.. 6 (Works, i. p. cxvi).

65 Edmund, Calamy, An Account of the Ministers, Lecturers, Masters and Fellows of Colleges and Schoolmasters, who were Ejected or Silenced after the Restoration in 1660, 2nd ed., London 1713, ii. 605–6. Cf. Benjamin, Brook, Lives of the Puritans, London 1813, ii. 419, where the vacancy is mistakenly reported as having occurred in ‘Magdalen College’.

66 Calamy, , An Account, ii. 606.

67 Ussher to Abbot, 10 Jan. 1626/7, found in C. R. Elrington (ed.), The Whole Works of the Most Rev. James Ussher, D.D., Dublin 1847–64, xvi. 361.

68 Sibbes, , ‘The Sword of the Wicked’, in Evangelicall Sacrifices, pt. ii, 207 (Works, i. 106)

69 Richard, Baxter, Reliquae Baxterianae, ed. Matthew Sylvester, London 1696, pt. 2, 149.

70 Sibbes, , Consolatory Letter, 6 (Works, i. p. cxvi).

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