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“Sinne Unfoulded”: Time, Election, and Disbelief among the Godly in Late Sixteenth- and Early Seventeenth-Century England1

  • Karen Bruhn


Richard Greenham, rector from 1570 to 1591 at Dry Dayton Church outside of Cambridge, England, once preached a sermon based on I Thessalonians 5:19 (“Quench not the spirit”). Not one to let the brevity of a biblical text limit his own exegesis, Greenham offered up a sermon of nearly seven thousand words that likely took the better part of an hour to deliver. At the heart of Greenham's message was the proposition, “Whether that man which hath once tasted of the spirite may loose it, and have it quenched in him.” Greenham was a leading light among “the godly,” a group of mostly Cambridge- and Oxford-educated Protestant clergy who, working within the boundaries of the institutional Church, sustained a significant evangelical effort in England during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. These reformers embraced with some fervor a theology grounded in the veracity of election and reprobation, and worked to instill a like enthusiasm in the general population. In particular, the godly's message focused on how an individual might identify the marks of divine election and gain assurance of salvation.



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2 The Workes of the Reverend and Faithfull Servant of Jesus Christ M. Richard Greenham, Minister and Preacher of the Word of God (London: Felix Kingston, 1599), 92. I estimated the sermon's hour length using a formula provided by Primus, John in Richard Greenham: Portrait of an Elizabethan Preacher (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998), 35.

3 For a comprehensive statement of the godly's focus on assurance, see Wallace, Dewey, Puritans and Predestination: Grace in English Protestant Theology, 1525–1695 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982) in which Wallace places assurance within the wider context of a reformed “theology of grace” and argues that the godly focus on predestination was in the service of religious experience, “a theology related to the everyday religious experience of a growing lay clientele who were continually instructed in it by zealous Protestant preachers,” 43.

4 Puritans and Predestination, xi. For a wide-reaching definition of the term “puritanism,” see Collinson's, PatrickThe Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London, 1967), in which he offers and builds on an understanding of “puritan” as referring to anyone who desired further reform of the church after the Elizabethan Settlement (within such a model, estrangement or separation from the larger religious community need not occur). Lake, Peter concurs that many puritans operated well within the boundaries of the established church in Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1983), and joins Wallace in understanding puritanism as a style of piety, “a distinctively zealous or intense subset of a larger body of reformed or Protestant doctrines and positions”: see “Defining Puritanism—Again?” Puritanism: Transatlantic Perspectives on a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Faith, ed. Francis J. Bremer (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1993), 4. Collinson also espouses this aspect of puritanism in his later works. In particular, see The Birthpangs of Protestant England, in which he refers to puritanism as “the full internalization of Protestantism” (London: MacMillan, 1988), 95. Many scholars who concentrate on the experiential aspect of puritanism eschew the term altogether. Tom Webster prefers the term “experimental Calvinist” to describe “those who made more than intellectual assent to the dogmas of Calvinist soteriology, predestination, election, and assurance, who made the search for the marks of election central to a practical divinity” (36), in “Writing to Redundancy: Approaches to Spiritual Journals and Early Modern Spirituality,” The Historical Journal 39:1 (1996): 33–56. Likewise, R. T. Kendall regards the term “puritanism” as “generally not very useful” and settles on “experimental predestinarians” in Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 6, 9. For a comprehensive history (and historiography) of the debates over the meanings of “puritanism,” see Durston's, Christopher and Eales's, Jacqueline introduction to their edited volume, The Culture of English Puritanism (New York: Saint Martin's, 1996), 131.

5 Workes, 92–93.

6 The Repentance of Peter and Judas (London: William Stansby, 1611), 53–54.

7 Perkins, William, A Treatise Tending Unto a Declaration Whether a Man Be in the Estate of Damnation or in the Estate of Grace (London: R. Robinson, 1590), Letter to Reader. For a summary of Perkins's publishing career, see Patterson, W. B., “William Perkins as Apologist for the Church of England,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 57:2 (April 2006), 252269.

8 From 1560–1570, 9 sermons were published in London; from 1570–1580, the number increased to 69. One hundred thirteen sermons were published between 1580 and 1590, and 140 sermons were published in the final decade of the sixteenth century: see Herr, Alan Fager, The Elizabethan Sermon: A Survey and Bibliography (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylania, 1940), 27. I. M. Green's statistics on the publication of “catechisms or catechetical works, or new translations of the same” shows a total of 217 works published between 1560 and 1609. The 1580s proved the most prolific decade, with 68 new publications appearing. But business remained brisk; in the 1590s, 40 new works were published, and 49 new works saw the light of day between 1600 and 1609. These statistics do not reflect reprints, which were frequent. Watt's, TessaCheap Print and Popular Piety (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) remains a valuable resource for understanding the relationship between print and religious culture.

9 Of course, one might wonder why these godly Protestants felt the need to evangelize at all; England officially had been Protestant from the time of the Elizabethan Settlement. Despite legislated reform, however, the godly never were convinced that the English people had embraced Protestantism with sufficient commitment. “Poperie denied with the mouth abides still in the heart,” lamented Perkins, in A Reformed Catholike (Cambridge: John Legat, 1598), 151. Many of the godly's evangelical efforts sought to dislodge lingering Roman Catholic religiosity from the hearts and minds of their audiences. For more on the Elizabethan Settlement—the name commonly given to a set of 1559 statutes nullifying Mary Tudor's efforts to reunite England with Rome, and establishing Elizabeth as the “Supreme Governour” of the English church, see Graves, Michael, Elizabethan Parliaments 1559–1601 (London: Longman, 1996), 2427, and Jones, Norman, Faith by Statute: Parliament and the Settlement of Religion, 1559 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1992). See also Jones's, article on the Elizabeth Settlement in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, ed. Hillerbrand, Hans J., 4 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 2:3638. Duffy's, EamonThe Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400–c. 1580 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992) is perhaps the best-known work to argue that the Protestant Reformation was an unwanted imposition on the English people. See also Scarisbrick, J. J., The Reformation and the English People (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), and Haigh, Christopher, ed., The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Duffy's, article “The English Reformation After Revisionism” offers an astute analysis of the various current opinions on how, when, and why England did turn to Protestantism (Renaissance Quarterly 59:3 [Fall 2006]: 720731).

10 Institutes, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970) 3.2.10. For a thorough treatment of temporary faith in Calvin's writings, see Foxgrover, David, “‘Temporary Faith’ and the Certainty of Salvation,” Calvin Theological Journal 15:2 (November 1980), 220x2013;232.

11 R. T. Kendall maintains that Perkins and others derived their ideas about temporary faith from Theodore Beza, not John Calvin. According to Kendall, Calvin held that while Christ died for all, all do not receive him. Consequently, Christ does not advocate for all; those for whom he does not advocate are (preordained) reprobate. Beza modified this to argue that Christ died only for the elect. Consequently, under Calvin's system, faith in the efficacy of Christ's death and resurrection was tantamount to assurance of salvation; not so with Beza. This separation of faith from assurance results in an articulated doctrine of temporary faith, which stands, in Kendall's view, as “the embarrassment, if not the scandal, of English Calvinism”: Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, 7, and passim. Richard Mueller offers a slightly different viewpoint, arguing that Calvin did embrace a doctrine of limited atonement, and that Perkins put Christology, rather than predestinarian doctrine, at the center of his theology in Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1988).

12 Wallace, Puritans and Predestination, 50. For a discussion of the variations among the godly ministers, see Webster, Tom, Godly Clergy in Stuart England, Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 111112. Pettit, Norman offers an analysis of the role of preparation in godly soteriology in The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966). For a full treatment of the godly ordo salutis, see Cohen, Charles, God's Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), especially chapter 3, “The Way of Salvation, the Power of Faith,” 75–110. Cohen discusses regeneration in covenantal terms; a covenant of grace that God initiates and extends (only) to the elect facilitates salvation and ushers in a second covenant, the covenant of works (or sanctification). For more on the covenantal aspects of godly piety, see Ruhr, John von, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought, American Academy of Religion Studies in Religion 45 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986). Also, Peter Lake offers astute analysis of the godly's stages of faith in Moderate Puritans, especially 156–162.

13 Winship, Michael, “Weak Christians, Backsliders, and Carnal Gospelers: Assurance of Salvation and the Pastoral Origins of Puritan Practical Divinity in the 1580s,” Church History 70:3 (September 2001): 462481. Winship argues that although earlier godly divines began to posit non-experiential evidence for faith, it was Perkins who bestowed a “precise ontological reality” (474) onto faith and allowed the individual to focus on sanctification. This was part of a larger strategy for dealing with “weak Christians,” whom the godly saw as impediments to their evangelical agenda.

14 Como's, David section on “Faith and Works” in Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004), 123127, offers a useful overview for how sanctification worked in the godly's soteriology. For a variety of commentary, see Cohen, God's Caress, 115–117, Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, 64–65, 209–213, and Lake, Moderate Puritans, 160–165. Cohen sees sanctification as the subject of the second covenant between God and the elect, “the covenant of works,” and argues that good works did not play a major role in ascertaining election, overshadowed as they were by the growing inner consciousness of God's mercy. Lake makes the case that good works, while essential to the godly discernment process, nonetheless could not be imbued with any absolute value, and could sharpen as well as allay anxiety. Kendall argues that godly emphasis on sanctification essentially re-introduced human will into the salvation equation, undermining the covenant of grace.

15 Kaufman, Peter Iver, Thinking Of the Laity in Late Tudor England (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 17. Scholars disagree on whether the godly's strategies actually offered pastoral comfort. Kendall deems the whole approach “pastorally insensitive” (7) and blames the theory of limited atonement that crept (but not from Calvin) into English Calvinism for emptying the godly message of any real solace. Theodore Dwight Bozeman attributes “an elaborate preoccupation with the self and its conflicted passage through a lifelong, often anxious venture of transformation, self-reproach, and -control” to the godly penitential program in The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion & Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 72. In contrast, in “The Logic of Assurance in English Puritan Theology” (The Westminster Theological Journal 52 [1990], 247–261), R. M. Hawkes argues that “the continuing application of the work of Christ in the life of the believer” was a process of self-discovery, understood by its practitioners as a “developing communication with God” (251–252). Likewise, Cohen maintains that divine love, not divine wrath, fueled godly piety: God's Caress, 21–22. The seventh chapter in Lake's Moderate Puritans, “Puritan Practical Divinity,” 116–168, gives a comprehensive and nuanced analysis of how the bond between God and humans “provided a major element in the subjective experience of the godly,” 123. Lake reminds us that Christ, not the divine decree of election, was what the godly yearned to know, and what provided mediation between the “objective realm of right doctrine and the subjective realm of true belief”: 168.

16 Gifford, George, A Countrie Divinitie (London: Richard Field, 1598), 56. Alliston, Joseph, The Exercise of True Spirituall Devotion (London: Felix Kingston, 1610), 116.

17 “Secret sinnes” is from Greenham's Workes, 126. Countrie Divinitie, 104. “Hidden corruption” is from Greenham's, Two Treatises for the Comforting of an Afflicted Conscience (London: Bradocke, 1598), 95.

18 Workes, 90.

19 Countrie Divinitie, 57.

20 Two Treatises for the Comforting, 284.

21 Burton, William, Conclusions of Peace, Betweene God and Man (London: John Hardie, 1594), ii. For a thorough analysis of how sorrow figured in godly piety, see Kaufman, Peter I., Prayer, Despair, and Drama (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

22 Workes, 96.

23 Perkins, William, Two Treatises I. Of the Nature and Practise of Repentance. II. Of the Combat of the Flesh and Spirit (Cambridge: John Legate, 1593), 4.

24 Dent, Arthur, The Plaine Man's Path-Way to Heaven (London: Robert Dexter, 1601), 123.

25 Burton, William, Certaine Questions and Answeres, Concerning the Knowledge of God (London: John Windet, 1591), 68.

26 Some historians argue that the distinction between godly sorrow and reprobate despair was lost on most people, which plunged well-meaning Christians into paroxysms of hopelessness. See Stachniewski, John, The Persecutory Imagination: English Puritanism and the Literature of Religious Despair (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991). Peter Kaufman argues to the contrary, maintaining that godly sorrow was not a self-annihilating experience but a performative and purgative episode, a mechanism by which the penitent might “reach the other side” and reside in God's grace: Prayer, Despair, and Drama, 41–92. See also Foster, Stephen, The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570–1700 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 12.

27 Workes, 173.

28 Burton, William, Ten Sermons Upon the First, Second, Third and Fourth Verses of the Sixt of Mathew (London: Thomas Man, 1602), 1213.

29 Cole, Nathaniel, The Godly Man's Assurance (London: Richard Woodruffe, 1615), 149.

30 Perkins, William, “A Graine of Mustard Seed,” in The Works of That Famous and Worthie Minister of Christ (Cambridge: John Legat, 1603), 782. Burton, Certain Questions, 68.

31 A Salve for a Sicke Man (Legate: Cambridge, 1595), 58.

32 The Christian's Heavenly Treasure (London: Thomas Man, 1608), 74–75.

33 Perkins, “Mustard Seed,” in Workes, 781. Timme, Thomas, A Silver Watch-Bell (London: William Jaggard, 1608), 100.

34 Alliston, The Exercise of True Spirituall Devotion, 30. Frank Luttmer sees temporary faith in godly literature not just as a rhetorical threat the godly aimed at recalcitrant Christians, but also as a trope designed to offer weak Christians something with which to compare themselves, and thereby relieve their anxiety, in “Persecutors, Tempters, and Vassals of the Devil: The Unregenerate in Puritan Practical Divinity,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 51:1 (January 2000): 37–68. Winship sees the rhetoric of temporary faith rising from practical attempts on the part of the godly, not only to threaten “carnal gospelers,” but to account for them to the rest of the godly community, 468–469. Kendall's section titled “William Perkins's Doctrine of Temporary Faith” in Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 remains one of the most comprehensive reviews of temporary faith's theological underpinnings, 67–78.

35 A Discourse of Conscience (Cambridge: John Legatt, 1596), 112.

36 Certane Questions and Answeres,sig K 4.

37 Countrie Divinitie, 111.

38 Workes, 88.

39 Workes, 95.

40 Perkins, William, A Golden Chaine: Or the Description of Theologie Containing the Order of the Causes of Salvation and Damnation (Cambridge: John Legat, 1600), 572.

41 Playfere, Thomas, The Pathway to Perfection (London: Andrew Wise, 1597), 58.

42 A Golden Chaine, 580.

43 Workes, 82–83.

44 A Golden Chaine, 581.

45 A Treatise Tending …, The Epistle Dedicatorie.

46 Greenham, Workes, 15.

47 Rogers, Richard, Seven Treatises (London: Thomas Man, 1603), 13, 69.

48 For an analysis of godly introspection as a tool for social control and self-regulation, see Bozeman's The Precisianist Strain, in which he highlights the godly's “zest for regulation” in their attempts to curb lingering social expressions from the pre-Reformation era, 5, 41–43. Michael Winship makes a more tempered claim, acknowledging the godly's interest in managing social behavior but allowing that “Puritan practical divinity was an assortment of not-entirely-consistent techniques, doctrinal emphases, and affects intended to meet not-entirely-consistent goals”: 480.

49 Perhaps the best known victim of unrelenting despair in this period was Francesco Spiera (known as “Francis Spira” in English descriptions). Spira died in 1548 in Cittadella, Italy, apparently convinced that he was damned to hell because God had not forgiven him for recanting his Protestant beliefs before the Inquisition some six months before he died. This story caught the imagination of English Protestants who used Spira's story to illustrate, among other things, the horrors of a reprobate death. Primary sources include Bacon, Nathanial, A Relation of the Fearefull Estate of Francis Spira in the Yeare 1548 (London: John Legat, 1638); and Nathaniel Wood's play The Conflict of Conscience (London: Richard Bradocke, 1581). For modern comment on Spira and his place in English Protestant discourse, see Overell, M. A., “Recantation and Retribution: ‘Remembering Francis Spira,’ 1548–1638” in Retribution, Repentance, and Reconciliation: Papers Read at the 2002 Summer Meeting and the 2003 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, eds. Cooper, Kate and Gregory, Jeremy, Studies in Church History 40 (Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, for the Ecclesiastical History Society, 2004), and Overall, M. A., “The Exploitation of Francesco SpieraThe Sixteenth Century Journal 26:3 (Fall 1995) 619637. Also see MacDonald, Michael, “The Fearefull Estate of Francis Spira: Narrative, Identity, and Emotion in Early Modern England,” Journal of British Studies 31:1 (January 1992): 3261.

50 Two Treatises, 11.

51 A Golden Chaine, 184.

52 Perkins, William, The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience Distinguished into Three Bookes (Cambridge: John Legat, 1606), 104.

53 Cowper, William, A Conduit to Comfort (London: W. White, 1606), 171, 174–175.

54 Adams, Thomas, The Blacke Devil or the Apostate Together with the Wolfe Worrying the Lambes (London: William Jaggard, 1615), 28.

55 Greenham, Workes, 16.

56 Sibbs, Richard, The Soule's Conflict With It Selfe, And Victory Over It Selfe by Faith (London, 1615), 128.

57 Perkins, William, Satan's Sophistrie Answered by Our Saviour Christ (London: Richard Fields, 1604), 59 and passim.

58 Richardson, Charles, The Repentance of Peter and Judas (London: William Stansby, 1611), 33.

59 Countrie Divinitie, 107. Yarrow, Robert, Soveraigne Comforts for a Troubled Conscience (London: Ralph Rounthwaite, 1619), 277.

60 Richardson, 33.

61 Workes, 101.

62 Sibbs, 128.

63 Workes, 187.

64 Smith, Samuel, A Christian Taske: A Sermon Preached at the Funerall of Maister John Lawson (London: Nicholas Okes, 1620), 69.

65 Denison, Stephen, The Monument or Tombstone: or A Sermon Preached at Lawrence Pointes Church in London, November 21, 1619 (London: George Miller, 1631), 48. Denison (and his quarrels with John Etherington) is the subject of Peter Lake's The Boxmaker's Revenge: “Orthodoxy”, “Heterodoxy”, and the Politics of the Parish in Early Stuart London (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001). See 18–19 for Lake's summary of Denison's sermon at Elizabeth Juxon's funeral.

66 Harrison, William, The Christian Life and Death, of Mistris Katherin Brettergh Late Wife of Master William Brettergh, of Bretterghoult, in the Countie of Lancaster (London: Felix Kyngston, 1634), 6.

67 sig B 2.

68 sig C 3.

69 Denison, The Monument or Tombstone, 50–51.

70 While we never can know Brettergh's state of mind, of course, we can be relatively certain that she did give voice to religious doubt during her last days. The occasion of her death prompted a pamphlet exchange in Lancashire between Protestants and the vocal Roman Catholic minority, in which the Catholics pointed to Brettergh's struggles to argue that the Protestant religion offered no comfort in one's final hours (the pamphlets have been lost). Even at her funeral, the preachers were at pains to refute that notion, and reprints of Harrison's account—which emphasized a diabolical onslaught successfully defended—continued into the 1630s. The sermons were originally published in Death's Advantage Little Regarded, and The Soule's Solace Against Sorrow Preached in Two Funerall Sermons at Childwal in Lancashire at the Buriall of Mistris Katherin Brettergh the Third of June, 1601 (London: Felix Kingston, 1602). See also Hindle, Steve, “Brettergh, Katherine (1579–1601),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Matthew, H. C. G. and Harrison, Brian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004),

71 Harrison,sig B3.

72 Cases of Conscience, 105.

73 “Mustard Seed” in Workes, 780.

74 Two Treatises, 63.

75 Treatise Tending Unto A Declaration, 138.

76 Greenham, Richard, A Most Sweete and Assured Comfort for All Those That Are Afflicted in Consciscience [sic] (London: John Danter, 1595). Short Rules Sent by Maister Richard Greenham to a Gentlewoman Troubled in Mind (London: T Snodham, 1612). For a perceptive analysis of the tension between doubt and faith, see Como, David, Blown by the Spirit, 120123.

77 Greenham, Two Treatises, 90.

78 Ibid., 92, 94.

79 Sparke, Thomas, A Short Treatise (London: Ralph Newberry, 1580),sig B6.

80 Denison, The Monument or Tombstone, 48.

81 Hume, Alexander, Ane Treatise of Conscience Quhairin Divers Secreits Concerning That Subject (Edinburgh: Robert Waldegrave, 1594), 23, 32.

82 Playfere, Thomas, Hearts Delight (London: John Leggatt, 1617), 3.

83 Alliston, The Exercise of True Spirituall Devotion, 122.

84 Ibid., 116. The term “practical piety” originated with Wright, Lewis, “The Practical Piety of William Perkins,” Huntington Library Quarterly 3:2 (1940): 171196.

85 “Mustard Seed” in Workes, 781.

86 Burton, Conclusions,sig B 3.

87 sig Aiii.

88 Perkins, Reformed Catholike, 275.

1 This article is based on a paper given in 2005 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The author wishes to thank her fellow panel members for their comments and suggestions.

Karen Bruhn is an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University.

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