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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The sacramental art of John Donne’s sermons on the penitential psalms George, Philip Michael


John Donne was indisputably the foremost English preacher of his day. Many studies have focussed on his instructional methods; fewer have concentrated on how he tries to move his hearers. Donne especially liked preaching on the psalms. Since Christian antiquity, the seven psalms known as the penitential psalms have enjoyed a privileged place in church worship. They are central to the sacrament of penance. By Donne's time, changes in the Church of England's sacramental theology had all but eliminated the practice of penance. Nevertheless, Donne considers penance or, as it had become known, repentance, to be a crucial part of believers' lives. With his sermons on the penitential psalms Donne contributes to the vast body of literature surrounding the sacrament of penance, but his contribution is unique. He thinks that since the second person of the Trinity is identified with the Word of God, the institution of preaching God's Word is incarnational. In the sacraments, the priest ushers in the Body of Christ; in the sermon, Donne believes, the preacher's role is similar. For Donne, sermonizing is sacramental in effect. In his sermons he attempts to bring the real presence of God to his listeners. Moreover, his sermons display a "sacramental mimesis": they enact their subject matter by their very words and try to effect change in the listeners as the words are uttered. Further, Donne thinks that since God established all the ordinances of the church, none of them should be ignored. Therefore, Donne's twenty-one sermons on the penitential psalms reveal a preacher who is on the one hand a conservative churchman and on the other a startlingly innovative preacher.

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