Posted on: February 28th, 2008 George Herbert, John Cotton, & the Public, Visible Character of the Church

For one of my classes at ETSS, I am reading John Wall’s edition of The Classics of Western Spirituality volume devoted to 17th Century “country parson” and mystical poet George Hebert.

One of the most noteworthy marks of Herbert’s spirituality, and indeed his ministry as a parish priest in Bemerton, is its public nature. As A.M. Allchin points out in his introduction to the volume, “The Country Parson is a man of the Church, the public and visible sign of God’s presence in the world.” (6)

Allchin and other Herbert scholars apply this principle to the way Herbert conceived of and practiced the discipline of daily devotion. For Herbert, the backbone and center of daily discipline is the use of the Daily Office from the Anglican prayer book. This, though, is not merely private, since it often takes place within a small gathered community (perhaps a family or a couple of friends) and also since the Daily Office is woven together in all kinds of ways with the other public services of the church’s gathered worship, including Holy Eucharist.

Allchin rightly points out that the public character of Herbert’s conception of daily devotion (which he faithfully modeled to his parish community in Bemerton) stands in stark contrast to the prevailing religious ethos which was beginning to dominate 17th century Stuart England.

Puritan Calvinists, stressing the importance of divine election as the true test of Church membership, encouraged individuals to evaluate their lives for signs of divine favor. The fragmenting results of such an emphasis are visible throughout England in the seventeenth century. For instance, John Cotton, the Puritan rector of Saint Botolph’s Church in Boston, England, for twenty years before he emigrated to America to become the minister at the First Church of Boston, Massachusetts, overtly rejected the claims of the visible congregation to be the true Church; instead, he stressed the authenticity of the invisible company of the elect and formed a separate “church” within his parish, made up of those who could meet his standards for inclusion.” (8)

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