Gateway to Early Modern Manuscript Sermons

March 11, 2023
By Anne James

Although by 1681 Edmund Hickeringill could complain ‘that every Book-sellers Stall groans under the burthen of Sermons, Sermons’ (The Horrid Sin of Man-Catching, 1681 ‘Epistle to the Reader’), many more early modern sermons were preached than printed. Consequently, the print record tells an incomplete story of preaching in early modern Britain, one that generally favours well-known preachers in prominent pulpits. As sermons have become recognized as important sources for research ranging from theological and literary studies to church history and genealogy, the ability to move beyond printed sermons, many of which are now available in digital form, has become critical. Nevertheless, the labour-intensive process of searching for manuscript sermons in libraries and archives, where they frequently remain uncatalogued or minimally described, means these resources are underused.

GEMMS (Gateway to Early Modern Manuscript Sermons) seeks to make such sermons more accessible by creating a group-sourced bibliographic database containing records of manuscript sermons (1530-1715) in their various forms, ranging from brief notes or outlines to complete sermons, produced by preachers, auditors, or readers. While some are hastily (sometimes almost illegibly) scrawled notes, others are complete, and sometimes beautiful, manuscript productions. The database currently contains approximately 25,000 sermons and reports of sermons from 1500 manuscripts in 80 repositories, all of which are searchable by biblical text, preacher, location, date, occasion, and even physical characteristics of the manuscript. While images and transcriptions are not currently available on the project’s website, links are provided to any digitized copies that we have identified as available for remote access. Primarily, however, the GEMMS database enables more efficient and effective planning of research trips by allowing researchers to identify sermons of interest before visiting repositories.

The example of Church of England clergyman Thomas Bedford (d. 1653) illustrates how the manuscript sources described in GEMMS can help us better understand individual preachers’ careers, their preparation of sermons for both pulpit and print, and their participation in early modern religious culture. Educated at Cambridge under John Davenant and Samuel Ward (BA 1609; MA 1616; BD 1633), Bedford generally embraced his mentors’ theology. As Joel R. Beeke has noted, however, ‘the Calvinist theology of Bedford’s sermons was … accompanied by a more complex churchmanship’ (ODNB). Despite his efforts at moderation, he was accused of Arminianism for his views on the sacraments, chastised by Richard Baxter for his stance on baptism, and imprisoned for initially refusing to take the Oath of the Solemn League and Covenant. Three of Bedford’s sermons were printed during his lifetime. Two had been preached at Paul’s Cross: one on the unpardonable sin (The Sinne Unto Death, 1621); and one on baptism (The Ready Way to True Freedom, 1638). While these topics were current, the third printed sermon verged on sensationalism, having been preached at the burial of a ‘monstrous birth’ and accompanied in print by a description of the child (A True and Certaine Relation Of a Strange-Birth, 1635).

A notebook held by the British Library (Add MS 47618), however, contains forty-one autograph sermons in various degrees of completeness, offering a clearer sense of how Bedford prepared for his sermons and how he may have adapted those procedures for different auditories. The ten sermons that provide a context such as date, location, or occasion show Bedford between 1618 and 1628 preaching to congregations that range from Great St. Mary’s Cambridge to Tamworth and Coventry. Four are in Latin, possibly dating to his years at Cambridge and almost certainly preached to clerical audiences. The 1619 sermon at Great St. Mary’s has clearly been prepared carefully for a learned congregation, and possibly with an eye to future publication, while several of the sermons intended for preaching in the provinces consist of much briefer pulpit notes or schematic outlines. A larger script has typically been used for division headings, presumably so that a quick glance during preaching could recall Bedford to his next topic.

The manuscript of the 1621 Paul’s Cross sermon provides an example of how sermons might be prepared for different types of audiences. Bedford described writing this sermon in his printed introduction: called to the outdoor pulpit, he assembled materials from several earlier sermons on the same text, making corrections and enlargements. Finding his labours had resulted in a sermon that was too long, he then abridged it for delivery, afterwards again expanding it for publication. Arnold Hunt notes only one substantive variation between print and manuscript, but the two versions offer a sense of how preachers thought about the distinctions between pulpit and print audiences, learning where to prune for the former and enlarge for the latter (Art of Hearing 149-50).

This awareness may be particularly relevant in Bedford’s case, as he claimed his 1638 Paul’s Cross sermon had been tampered with at the press. As a result of this sermon, unfortunately not present in the manuscript, Bedford was drawn into a conflict with Richard Baxter during the contentious debates on baptism a decade later. Seeking to create a united front against anti-paedobaptists, Baxter disputed Bedford’s stance on the regeneration of baptized infants in ‘Some Brief Animadversions on a Treatise of Baptismal Regeneration’, which he printed as an appendix to his Plain Scripture Proof of Infants Church Membership and Baptism (1651). Bedford’s role in the 1650s baptism controversy, admittedly a minor one, has been largely neglected by scholars; however, another sermon on baptism contained in the notebook offers an opportunity for further exploration of his position and its development. Bedford is only one of the many preachers identified in GEMMS whose sermons and careers can be understood more fully by examining their manuscripts.

To date, most of the GEMMS data has been collected and made available by the primary researchers and Research Assistants to the project, but in order to become as comprehensive as possible, we encourage contributions of data by users. As much as this project is about collecting, organizing, and making data available, it is about creating a community that includes both those who study sermons intensively and those who use sermons as evidence more occasionally. By sharing data from your archival explorations, you help more researchers to increase our knowledge of early modern sermon culture.



Dr. Anne James is a Lecturer in English at the University of Regina. She researches in the areas of early modern sermons, particularly on political occasions, and the work of John Donne. She is the author of Poets, Players, and Preachers: Remembering the Gunpowder Plot in Seventeenth-Century England (University of Toronto Press, 2016).


Feature image: detail from Ms. commonplace book of Roger Ley curate of St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch. The Clark Library, UCLA, MS.1952.003

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