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Confession and Absolution in Caroline Cambridge: the 1637 Crisis in Context

  • Eric Josef Carlson (a1)


In June 1637, Anthony Sparrow and Sylvester Adams, two Cambridge scholars, preached in Great St. Mary’s Church on the subject of confessing sins. Their sermons caused such a scandal that a deeply divided vice-chancellor’s court had to act. These sermons have not gone unnoticed by historians, but they have not been contextualized in a way that makes complete sense both of the sermons and of their reception. Sparrow’s sermon, published shortly after it was delivered, is the better-known of the two, but not the more radical. Although no complete text of Adams’s sermon survives, there are manuscript sources that make it possible to reconstruct the gist of it and to prove that it made novel claims concerning the necessity of confession for salvation. Moreover, in defending Adams his supporters challenged the sources of doctrinal authority in the English Church in unprecedented ways.



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1 See, for example, McCullough, Peter, ‘Making Dead Men Speak: Laudianism, Print, and the Works of Lancelot Andrewes, 1626–1642,’ Hist] 41 (1998), 40124, 41718 , and Milton, Anthony, Catholic and Reformed: the Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600–1640 (Cambridge, 1995), 725 .

2 William Prynne reported reading Adams’s sermon in Archbishop Laud’s papers, but its fate is unknown: Canterburies Doome: or, the first part of a compleat history of the commitment, charge, tryall, condemnation, execution of William Laud (London, 1646), 192–3; Anthony Sparrow, A Sermon Concerning Confession of Sinnes, And The Power of Absolution (London, 1637).

3 London, Public Record Office, State Papers [hereafter SP] 16/385, fol. 1371.

4 London, British Library, MS Harley 7019, p. 57.

5 SP 16/385, fol. 137r.

6 On college heads, see David Michael Hoyle, ‘“Near Popery yet no Popery”: Theological Debate in Cambridge 1590–1644’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1991, 182–8. The vice-chancellor’s court, made up of the heads of the colleges, and presided over by the vice-chancellor (himself one of the college heads), was responsible for disciplining Cambridge scholars and fellows.

7 Cambridge University Library [hereafter CUL], Vice-Chancellor’s Court Book [hereafter: VC CB] I.57, fols 64r, 74V.

8 CUL, MS Mm.2.23, pp. 209–10.

9 SP 16/385, fol. 138r.

10 MS Harley 7019, p. 58. See also VC CB 1.57, fol. 104B1:; SP 16/385, fol. 1381-.

11 Ibid.

12 SP 16/385, fol. 138r; see also VC CB I.57, fol. 91r.

13 SP 16/385, fol. 138r-v.

14 Ibid., fol. 138V.

15 Ibid.

16 Milton, Catholic and Reformed, 74.

17 Hoyle, ‘Near Popery’, 180–1.

18 SP 16/385, fols 138v-139r.

19 Ibid., fol. 13 or. Sterne was later remembered for giving ‘greate offence’ in a sermon on absolution, ‘w[bi]ch he made to ajudiciary formall act of remission’: MS Harley 7019, p. 63.

20 SP 16/385, fol. 139r.

21 Ibid., fol. 139V.

22 Cosin, who was outraged by Brownrigg’s political shenanigans, surely would have complained if the text of the recantation had been altered since the December meeting: SP 16/385, fol. 140r; see also VC CB 1.57, fol. 104Br.

23 SP 16/385, fol. nor.

24 Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Cherry 23, p. 181. I am grateful to Greg Cowley for transcribing this letter.

25 Ibid., p. 183.

26 MS Harley 7019, pp. 58–9; VC CB I.57, fol. 104BV.

27 SP 16/385, fol. 141t. Adams was vicar of Rudgwick, Sussex.

28 Hakewill, George, An Answere to a Treatise Written by D’. Carier (London, 1616), 138 .

29 SP 16/385, fol. 137r.

30 Tyacke, Nicholas, Anti-Calvinists: the Rise of English Arminianism c.1590–1640 (Oxford, 1987), 116, 2067 . For the articles, see Visitation Articles and Injunctions of the Early Stuart Church, ed. Kenneth Fincham, Church of England Record Society 1 & 5, 2 vols (Woodbridge, 1994–8), I: 86–9, 164,169–73; It 28, 136–7, 145,150.

31 For the substantial evidence for this, see Eric Josef Carlson, ‘Confession and Absolution in the English Church from the Reformation to the 1630s’ (in progress).

32 Hakewill, Answere to Carier, 266.

33 Ussher, James, An Answer to a Challenge Made by a Jesuit in Ireland (London, 1625), 812 .

34 Williams, Griffith, The Best Religion (London, 1636), 191 .

35 MS Cherry 23, p. 183.

36 Andrewes, Lancelot, ‘A Sermon Preached at Whitehall’, in The Work of Lancelot Andrewes, ed. Wilson, J. P. and Bliss, J., 11 vols (Oxford, 1841–54), 5: 8894, 1023 .

37 McCullough, ‘Making Dead Men Speak’, 417–18.

38 Nehemiah Rogers, The Indulgent Father’, in The true conuert, or, An exposition vpon the XV. chapter of St Lukes Gospell (London, 1632), 261.

39 Arthur Hildersham, CLII Lectures Upon Psalme LI (1635), 152, 165–8.

40 Willet, Andrew, Synopsis Papismi (5th edn, London, 1634), 288 .

41 Bentham, Joseph, The Saints Societie (London, 1636), 38 .

42 Andrewes, ‘A Sermon Preached at Whitehall’, 103.

43 Montagu, Richard, A gagg for the new Gospell? No: a new gagg for an old goose (London, 1624), 78, 83 ; see also Appello Casarem (London, 1625), 310, 314–15.

44 McCullough, ‘Making Dead Men Speak’, 417.

45 SP 16/385, fol. 14OV.

46 On this distinction and its importance in Cambridge, see Hoyle, ‘“Near Popery”’, passim.

47 Willet, Synopsis Papismi, 734.

48 Ussher, Answer to a Challenge, 82.

49 Dow, Christopher, Innovations Unjustly charged upon the Present Church and State (London, 1637), 556 .

50 SP 16/385, fol. 137V.

51 Ibid. Although Cosin was not uncritical of Adams, he did want to cast him (and, by extension, his own support of Adams) in the best light. Since Cosin makes no mention of him denying the necessity of private confession when doing so would exonerate him, it seems unlikely that he did.

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Confession and Absolution in Caroline Cambridge: the 1637 Crisis in Context

  • Eric Josef Carlson (a1)


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