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Moderation and Deprivation: A Reappraisal of Richard Sibbes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 February 2009

Mark E. Dever
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge CB2 IRH


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’.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

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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.Google Scholar

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.Google Scholar

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.Google Scholar

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

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

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).

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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.Google Scholar

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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).Google Scholar

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).Google Scholar

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.Google Scholar Cf. Benjamin, Brook, Lives of the Puritans, London 1813, ii. 419, where the vacancy is mistakenly reported as having occurred in ‘Magdalen College’.Google Scholar

66 Calamy, , An Account, ii. 606.Google Scholar

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)Google Scholar

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

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