Learning to Demonstrate the Spirit in English Practical Divinity

In 1646, the English polymath John Wilkins (1614–1672) published his popular guidebook for preaching, Ecclesiastes, but it was not the first “Discourse Concerning the Art of Preaching” with that name. Over a century earlier, in 1535, the renowned humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) wrote a treatise with the same title in hopes of reforming a clergy whose faults he had spent his career caricaturing and condemning. Erasmus’s own title referred further back still, evoking the book of the Bible in which a “preacher” (rendered from the Latin ecclesiastes) offers advice for good living in a fallen world.


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Like Erasmus, Wilkins claimed the authority of the preacher to advise fellow members of the clergy. Unlike Erasmus, Wilkens wrote a text that could be consulted by men of the cloth as a manual, complete with schematic tables and bibliographic aids to assist in sermon composition. His book thus advanced the goals of the “Practical Divinity” advertised on the first page.[1]

In the first half of the seventeenth century, English Protestants like Wilkins were beginning to conceive of the knowledge necessary for preaching in new ways. They articulated their rules and methods as answers to theological questions about clerical discipline and church structure in the midst of an uneasy peace among competing visions of a reformed church. Preachers and theologians imagined a clergy with enough learning to interpret scripture and enough experience to teach their own congregations. They sought to shape this ministry through the kind of sermon manuals that Wilkins understood in connection with “practical divinity.”

Proliferating over the same period that didactic literature for subjects such as navigation and surveying were, these manuals likewise elevated both learning and experience as the conditions of “practical” expertise. These literatures shared epistemological commitments to both formal education and personal experience. Whereas the writers of navigation manuals distinguished themselves from speculative philosophers and mere practitioners, Protestant preachers contrasted themselves against the university pedant and the “mechanic[al] preacher” in a moment of divisive debate over the purpose of the Church.[2]

The churchmen celebrated soon after as the pioneers of this practical divinity wrote and preached as the ongoing Protestant Reformation was beginning to tear at the seams of Queen Elizabeth’s church settlement. In 1570, a controversy between a reformist theologian and a conformist archbishop set the terms of a debate that would pit competing visions of a Protestant church against one another for nearly a century. One particularly controversial point split opinion on the necessity of a “Preaching Clergy” and the preparation it required. The reformist Thomas Cartwright (1535–1603) interpreted Paul’s injunction in Romans 10:17 that “Faith Cometh by Hearing” quite literally. He argued that it committed the Church to ensuring all its ministers preached regularly to their congregations and had the education to do so.[3]

Cartwright’s argument largely failed to sway either the established Church or the civil state that governed it, but his vision attracted adherents, while hopeful ministers-in-training across the country sought more and more formal education on their own. The last two decades of the sixteenth century saw a steady increase in the proportion of ministers who held university degrees, as students clamored for credentials that would guarantee prestigious preferments.[4] Those clerics who heeded Cartwright’s call for a preaching clergy began to reimagine what kind of education was needed.

In his 1582 dialogue, The Country Divinity, George Gifford (1547/8–1600) depicted the dangers that followed when an over-educated minister fresh from the universities left his rustic parishioners dumbfounded by unintelligible rhetorical analysis and Aristotelian syllogism. His contemporary Richard Greenham (d. 1594) responded to the same problem by starting a “household seminary” in his small parish on the outskirts of Cambridge, where he trained recent graduates in effective preaching. For Greenham and other followers of Cartwright, the education of a preaching clergy required “experience,” not just a degree.[5]

Other writers skeptical of the sufficiency of university education went even further. The most radical reformers condemned the very idea of university education in theology as not just inadequate but outright repellent to true preaching. In a pamphlet later published as The Pollution of University-Learning, Henry Barrow condemned formal divinity education as “science (falsely so called)” that rendered students “either unprofitable or hurtful members of the Common-wealth,” in the title. He and like-minded sectarians rejected formal divinity as one more example of mankind’s arrogant belief in their capacity to study their way to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.[6]

Title page of Wilkin’s Ecclesiastes (1646). Copy from University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign Campus) and hosted at Early English Books Online.

The call for a preaching ministry pitted the most strident critics of humane learning against those who sought to temper its excesses with “experience” while preserving the formal education that exegesis demanded. In the midst of this debate, William Perkins (1558–1602) published an English version of his Art of Prophesying_. The most innovative and influential English preaching manual of the early seventeenth century, it exemplified a distinctly practical English divinity for later theologians like Wilkins.[7]

In his manual Perkins offered an account of the relationship among learning, experience, and preaching that preserved the necessity of formal education while demanding intelligibility before the congregation. He argued that education, if properly used behind the pulpit, enabled the preacher to achieve the “Demonstration of the Spirit.” He recognized, however, that the prolix digressions that university graduates peppered throughout their sermons only blocked the laity from perceiving the “Spirit of God.” A minister needed to use his formal education to understand the meanings of biblical passages, but he had to hide any traces of that learning when expounding on scripture to the parish. He cautioned against the use of Latin and Greek in sermons. The preacher could “privately use at his liberty the arts, philosophy, and variety of reading” but “he ought in public to conceal all these from the people, and not to make the least ostentation.”[8]

In his effort to make preachers and the Spirit that inspired them intelligible to a congregation, he advocated appealing to the parish’s hearing through the sermon and their sight through the minister’s own lived example. The minister had to manifest the doctrines he preached because “words make not such an impression in the soul as works do.”[9]

Perkins’ Art of Prophesying did not just exhort readers to live up to its author’s standard of pastoral care but included passages of scripture and interpretative examples so they could perform practical pastoral work. The manual provided what its author called “examples” to illustrate how a minister might reconcile two seemingly incongruous passages of scripture or clarify some ambiguous verses. Perkins described the book as a collection of “rules” gathered from his own wide reading in books of divinity, but it was far from a sufficient guide to learn the demonstration of the spirit. The preacher required formal learning in rhetoric and grammar, he had to learn the proper gestures by personally witnessing the “example of the gravest ministers,” and, of course, he needed to be graced by the Holy Spirit.[10] Perkins provided examples rather than exhaustive lists because the work of the minister lay in his reliance on formal learning to extract doctrines for plain application to a congregation that only he could know.

By balancing commitments to both formal learning and practical experience to exclude the uninitiated and edify the laity, the Art of Prophesying advanced a vision of pastoral care structurally congruent to other forms of expertise projected in this period. Pamela Smith has taught us to see in the Scientific Revolution a tradition of artisanal knowledge-making that asserted its legitimacy against merely speculative philosophy and was in turn coopted by those who claimed to understand artisanal work better than the artisans themselves.[11] Eric Ash has traced these contests over epistemic authority through the projecting schemes and didactic manuals of Tudor and Stuart England, in which writers presented themselves as experts with learning in mathematics that no artisan could achieve, avowedly able to explain as much about navigation or surveying as any non-expert needed to know.[12] Paola Bertucci has recently extended this history into the French Enlightenment, identifying a “political epistemology” whose advocates claimed that only their knowledge as artistes, educated artisans with open minds who stood above both thoughtless craftsmen and speculative philosophers could enrich the nation’s coffers.[13]

This historiography incorporates a rich literature of manuals and projects into a history of knowledge in the seventeenth century that ends with experts in the practical arts and sciences offering their unique authority to the interests of the early modern state and its commerce. Perkins’ Art of Prophesying, and its vision of a practical divinity that would preserve the epistemic authority of the learned preacher while assuring his intelligibility before a laity that could apply his doctrines suggests that this story should include the practicing clergy.

Simon Brown is a PhD candidate in early modern European intellectual history at University of California Berkeley.


  1. John Wilkins, Ecclesiastes, or a Discourse Concerning the Gift of Preaching (London: 1646) at Early English Books Online, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88–2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:12241717.  ↩
  2. Eric H. Ash, Power, Knowledge and Expertise in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004). For related dichotomies in two different medieval contexts, see Marcel Bubert, “Hunters, Inquisitors, and Scholars: The Construction and Demarcation of Expertise in the Manuals of Frederick II and Bernard Gui,” History of Knowledge, May 15, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/15/hunters-inquisitors-and-scholars-the-construction-and-demarcation-of-expertise-in-the-manuals-of-frederick-ii-and-bernard-gui/.  ↩
  3. Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and their Audiences, 1590–1640 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 31–42.  ↩
  4. Rosemary O’Day, “Universities and Professions in the Early Modern Period,” in Beyond the Lecture Hall: Universities and Community Engagement from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, ed. Peter Cunningham, Susan Oosthuizen, and Richard Taylor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 21.  ↩
  5. Kenneth Parker and Eric Carlson, “Practical Divinity”: The Works and Life of Reverend Richard Greenham (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 1998), 21.  ↩
  6. Henry Barrow, The pollution of universite-learning or sciences (falsly so called) (London, 1642), at Early English Books Online, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88–2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:11744275.  ↩
  7. William Perkins, The arte of prophecying, or, A treatise concerning the sacred and onely true manner and methode of preaching (London, 1607), at Early English Books Online, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88–2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:24364969.  ↩
  8. Ibid., 133.  ↩
  9. Ibid., 138.  ↩
  10. Ibid., 144.  ↩
  11. Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).  ↩
  12. Eric H. Ash, The Draining of the Fens: Projectors, Popular Politics and State Building in Early Modern England (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); Ash, Power, Knowledge and Expertise.  ↩
  13. Paola Bertucci, The Artisanal Enlightenment: Science and the Mechanical Arts in Old Regime France (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).  ↩
Suggested citation: Simon Brown, “Learning to Demonstrate the Spirit in English Practical Divinity,” History of Knowledge, May 28, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/28/english-practical-divinity/.