Quite some time ago I came across a great line in a sermon of Ussher’s from 1650 on the subject of death. He covers the usual themes – the inevitability of death, the way in which Christ’s work subverts its power, etc. Then he says:

‘Death is, as the Red Sea was to the Israelites, to destroy his Enemies, And to give him passage to the land of Promise’.

What a wonderful image, capturing the aspects of salvation and judgement. Succinct. Powerful. So there I was thinking what a good turn of phrase came from Ussher’s pulpit. Some time later I was reading Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety (circa 1611) and found these words:

‘And as the Red Sea was a gulf to drown the Egyptians to destruction, but as a passage to the Israelites to convey them to Canaan’s possession, so death to the wicked is a sink to hell and condemnation, but to the godly the gate to everlasting life and salvation…’

Preachers have always stolen one another’s best illustrations. This is one of the factors shaping the discourse of puritanism – one finds more than a shared outlook but a shared discourse. The same analogies and illustrations come up again and again, the same way of making a point. And the traditionary lines are there to trace back into the medieval and patristic periods.

My question now is…where did Bayly get it from??

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The End of Sin

December 31, 2008

Struck by a recurring theme in the Protestant Ars Moriendi. One of the many advantages brought by death, at least, by death as subverted by the work of Christ, is the end of sin. No one puts this more succinctly than Otto Werdmueller, who, in his First Book of Death (Eng. trans. Miles Coverdale) writes, ‘sin ceaseth not, till we come to be blessed with a shovel’.

Happy New Year.

Sixteenth-Century Advertising

December 22, 2008

I have been reading The Sick Man’s Salve by Thomas Becon. Composed in the reign of Edward VI and going through eleven editions by the turn of the century, it was one of the most important Protestant Ars Moriendi in English. Poor Epaphroditus lies dying and is comforted and encouraged by a number of friends. The book is a rather prolix account of their conversation. One of the characters is a minister called Philemon. Twice he asks for one of the others to hand him a copy of a book called The Flower of Godly Prayers so that he can read out one of the prayers. By coincidence The Flower of Godly Prayers is an earlier work by…Thomas Becon.

White is the New Black

December 21, 2008

I have  spent a bit of time over the last week or two reading early Protestant Ars Moriendi. This is fascinating material. One patristic reference which crops up now and again is a line from Cyprian of Carthage who, in the midst of the plague, urges his readers against inappropriate displays of grief over those who have fallen asleep in Christ:

that they should be desired, but not bewailed; that the black garments should not be taken upon us here, when they have already taken upon them white raiment there. [Cyprian, De Mortal., 20]

To do so destroys our profession of faith by our deeds before the eyes of the pagans. Cyprian’s words remind us that we are not to grieve like those without hope, even if there is a righteous anger at death, our enemy, albeit a defeated one. Interestingly, it seems that Puritans went out of their way not to wear black at funerals [according to David E. Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture and Social Change (New York: OUP, 1977), 103].