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Figure 1: Paul’s Cross, from 50 feet. From the Visual Model, constructed by Joshua Stephens, rendered by Jordan Gray. 


The sound of Donne’s voice is of course lost to us. The greatest challenge of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project has been to decide how to represent that style, in the absence of hard evidence as to how Donne sounded. Nevertheless, as in other aspects of this project, the fact that we do not have a live recording of Donne preaching does not mean that we know nothing about how Donne sounded when he preached.

There is the matter of audibility and clarity of expression, especially important when preaching in an outdoor space where members of one’s congregation could stand up to 150 feet from the Paul’s Cross Preaching Station. When Ben Crystal took on the task of recording Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon for 1622, he was told that audibility and clarity of expression were major concerns of the Project. As a result, he spoke loudly, strongly, and with a very deliberate pace.

People who hear Ben’s recording of Donne’s sermon for the first time say that the pace seems slow, even ponderous, a response, I am told by Ben Markham and Matt Azevedo, our acoustic engineers, that is a result of our being accustomed to the artificial naturalness of amplified speech. In fact, Ben’s pace and volume are perfect for the site, working with the reverberations provided by the surrounding buildings to extend the theoretical range of audibility from about 90 feet to over 140 feet.

 Donne was a frequent and experienced preacher at Paul’s Cross, so one would expect that he, too, found a pace and volume like that used by Ben Crystal to be appropriate for the space. That is, of course, if the sizes of crowd that came to hear him preach filled the space of Paul’s Churchyard; if his congregations were smaller, he might have gotten by with a softer voice and quicker pace of speaking.

Moving away from what we can learn from the environment for preaching at Paul’s Cross to what we do know about Donne’s personal preaching style, we can learn from the small number of descriptions of Donne’s preaching that do survive.

The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project reminds us that Donne’s preaching was not the univocal delivery of a lecture to a passive quiet, cognitively attentive audience but an interactive performance delivered on a specific occasions for specific congregations, in a format that was shaped by performer’s and hearers’ expectations about the event, and by their interactive participation in the event.

Donne preached for an audience well-experienced in sermon-going, with a high regard for the quality of performance, for the techniques of delivery, the techniques of text-handling, of division and application. Holding their attention must have been a major concern, both through cleverness of content and through skillful delivery, skillful performance of the roles of priest, prophet, spiritual guide, interpreter, model and enabler of transformation.

The occasion of the early modern sermon had the potential to change its participants, to – from a pragmatic perspective – provide an entertaining way to spend time on a Sunday morning, create an occasion for a large social gathering with one’s neighbors, or advance a clerical career.  This occasion could also provide – from a theological perspective – an occasion that could change lives, advance the general welfare, promote social cohesion (especially promote support for the monarchy), and open the way to eternal life.

So Donne’s preaching was but one part of a collaborative experience, an experience that results from the encounter of occasion, preacher, and audience, a negotiated experience through which tradition, expectation, intention, and response merge into a one- or two-hours traffic upon the pulpit. In this case, Donne’s role would be the role of priest, prophet, spiritual guide, interpreter of the biblical text, enabler of the behavior or life that leads one to eternal joy.

Contemporary accounts of Donne’s preaching often use impressionistic language that is not very helpful; Walton’s description of Donne’s sounding like “an angel from a cloud,” for example, does not give me much to go on.

Other accounts are more helpful, however. Donne sought to engage his hearers, to change his hearers, to bring them – through both cognitive and emotional means – to amend their lives in directions set out by Donne in the sermon.  Donne once described the performance of an effective preacher in terms of a coordinated effort of body, feeling, and ideas, uniting “matter and manner,” the quality of the voice (“pleasant”) and personal manner (“acceptably, seasonably, with a spiritual delight”), with “a holy delight,” toward the goal of “profit” for his congregation.

Donne’s contemporaries described his preaching style in terms of its wit, its eloquence, its capacity to express and arouse feeling, to elevate, to captivate, to motivate.  His words, Walton says,  “did so work upon the affections of his hearers, as melted and moulded them into a companionable sadness.” One Mr. Mayne says that Donne, with his words, “could charm thy audience,/ That at thy sermons ear was all our sense,” that he could “stir up their emotions and place them at the discretion/Of the familiar voice,” and with his ”look and hand” and “speaking action” could give them “More sermon that some teachers used to say.” A Mr. Chidley wrote that Donne “did not banish” his wit when he took orders, “but transplanted it;/Taught it both time and place, and brought it home/To piety which it doth best become.”

Still others make clear that while Donne was emotionally open in his preaching, and able to move his congregations emotionally as well as cognitively, he always displayed restraint and decorum appropriate to his place as a preacher and his office as the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.   

Accounts of Donne’s style of delivery support a characterization of Donne’s preaching style as multivocal, varying in mode of delivery from section to section of the sermon, if not moment to moment of his delivery, depending on the content of each passage and its relationship to the overall structure and argument of the sermon as a whole.

Donne could, I think, be analytic, discursive, informal, witty, joking, engaging, declamatory, and affective, depending on what part of the sermon he happened to be in at any moment of delivery, using a style of verbal delivery appropriate for the kind of material he was covering at that moment in the section of the sermon he happened to be in and appropriate for the kind of effect he hoped to have on the audience at that particular point in the sermon.

Donne’s manner of delivery at any moment would also be appropriate within an overall strategy of performance, keeping the momentum of the sermon moving forward, keeping in mind a larger arc of feeling, aware of the need to make the key points the most engaging, the most emphatic, the most

Donne’s sermons were delivered in an energetic, engaged, empathetic, emotionally expressive, responsive, evocative speaking style, or, better, range of styles, always aspiring to intimacy, to engagement, sometimes confrontational, sometimes laudatory, always lively, engaging, personable, and connecting with his congregation.  He did not read his sermons as one would a formal lecture, but performed them as one would a public oration, or, perhaps better, performed them as one would perform a character or a role in a play, in the play of social role and participant in society.

As we have commented before, his sermons were performed from notes that guided his delivery, so, while the structure of the sermon was worked out in advance, the actual words were improvised in process, responsive to external elements like the regular sounding of the clock bell or the irregular responses of the congregation to this or that point, or gesture, or distinctive passage.

Jeannie Shami reminds us that early modern sermons met many needs among their listeners, not limited to the need for theological instruction and spiritual uplift. They also provided a form of entertainment and an occasion for gathering in a particular place and at a particular time, and “satisfied many appetites – for news, for entertainment, for social interaction, for politics and, of course, for religious edification. They were the mass media of their day. They fulfilled the role that newspapers, and more recently television, now occupy as           places where breaking news was reported, and where issues of politics, religion and cultural values were debated.  . . . . . Sermons satisfied a high cultural appetite as well, such as that provided by the theatre. Descended from traditions of classical oratory, they were ‘highly wrought pieces of literary persuasion that, like Spenserian epic or Shakespearean drama, invite[d] emotional and intellectual engagement between author-performer and audience’  (McCullough 168).  Donne’s sermons are not merely informative; they are principled, artistic models of how to guide individual consciences even as they tried to manage public controversy productively.”

Donne preached with special regard and concern for engaging the audience, addressing both their minds and their emotions, connecting with them at multiple levels, aware both of the need to inform them but also to delight them so as to move them toward changes in belief and behavior.  The course of a Paul’s Cross sermon – about 2 hours – requires commitment to keeping the congregation awake, alert, engaged, responsive, and focused on the words of the preacher. This surely required a variety of tones of voice, styles of delivery, modes of address, and a range of emotional energy and cognitive development.

This much we know. What we don’t know, of course, except in the most general terms, is how Donne’s congregations responded to his preaching. If Donne’s comments are any indication, they responded actively, vocally, engagingly, accepting responsibility for their side of a cooperative, interactive, corporate performance.

We do know that certain kinds of audience response were scripted, for example the congregation’s joining in the Lord’s Prayer at the end of Donne’s opening prayer. If I am right that the event drew on models from the Book of Common Prayer for openings and closings, then congregations responses like the phrase “And with thy Spirit” as the reply to “The Lord be With you” were also scripted.

The specifics of the congregation’s performance in response to other parts of the sermon are is of course lost to us; the one way we may glimpse them is through exploring possibilities for Donne’s performance, noting places where he invites, even incites, certain kinds of response. Starting from the accounts of Donne’s preaching style, reviewed above, we can suggest portions of his Gunpowder Day sermon that seek or invite certain kinds of response.

The version of Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon for 1622 at the center of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project performs one set of possible modes of delivery. Ben Crystal’s performance ranges from the witty to the expository to the instructional to the argumentative to the exhortative to the incantatory; the program that enables us to hear his performance of this sermon inside the acoustic model of Paul’s Churchyard also draws on a set of recorded crowd responses, so that as the speaker’s voice becomes more energetic, the congregation responds in kind. This is not offered as “the way it was,” but instead is designed to remind us, always, that the congregation is present, engaged, responsive to the preacher.

Here are some examples of moments in Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon that suggest a style of delivery that invites specific kinds of congregational response.

1. Scripted address and response; here the tone of response tends to echo tone of address.

The Lord be with you./ And with thy Spirit.

2. Repetitive and incantatory passages which invest current moment with meaning, links meaning of the current moment to significance of past events; invites solemnity, awareness of the gravity of the present moment

This is the day, and these are the houres, wherein that should have been acted; In this our Day, and in these houres, We praise thee, O God, we knowledge thee, to bee the Lord; All our Earth doth worship thee; The holy Church throughout all this Land, doth knowledge thee, with commemorations of that great mercy, now in these houres.  Now, in these houres, it is thus  commemorated in the Kings House, where the Head and Members praise thee; Thus, in that place, where it should have been perpetrated, where the Reverend judges of the Land doe now  praise thee; Thus in the Universities, where the tender youth of this Land, is brought up to praise thee, is a detestation of their Doctrines, that plotted this; Thus it is commemorated in many severall Societies, in many severall Parishes, and thus, here, in [the shadow of] this Mother Church, in this great Congregation of thy Children, where, all, of all sorts, from the Lieutenant of thy Lieutenant, to the meanest sonne of thy sonne, in this Assembly, come with hearts, and lippes, full of thankesgiving: Now, in these hours . . .

3. Expository passages that lay out points to be covered, summarizing arguments, providing guidance to the organization of the sermon

 These considerations, will, I thinke, haue the better impression in you, if we proceed in the        handling of them, thus.  First, the maine cause of the lamentation, was the ruine, or the    dangerous declination of the Kingdome, of that great and glorious state, the Kingdome.

4. Witty and playful passages inviting laughter, establishing a sense of being an insider, part of a community with the preacher.

Of the Autor of this booke I thinke there was never doubt made. But yet it is scarse safely donne  by the Councell of Trent, when in that Canon which numbers the books of Canonicall Scriptures they leave out this booke of Lamentations. For, though I make no doubt but that they had a purpose to comprehend and inuolue yt in the name of Jeremy, yet that was not inough; for so they might haue comprehended and inuolud Genesis and Deuteronomie and all between, in one name of Moses: and so they might haue comprehended and inuolud, the Apocalypse and some Epistles in the name of John, and haue left out the booke it selfe in the number.


Euery where the king is Sponsus regni, the husband of the kingdome; and to make loue to the kings wife, and vndervalew him, must needs make any king iealous.


When God sells his people for old shooes, and for nought, and giues his enemyes abundance, when God commaunds Abraham to sacrficie his own and onely sonne, and his enemies haue Children at their pleasure as Dauid speakes, to giue your selfs the libertie of humane affections, you would thinke God an yll God: but yet they are to him a royall Preisthood, and a holy nation for all that, and all their tears are in his bottle, and registered in his booke for all that.


If I had the honor to aske this question in his royall presence, I know he would be the first Man, that would say no; No; your Souls are not myne, so. And as he is a most perfit text man in the booke of God (and by the way I should not easily fear his beeing a papist that is a good text man) I know he would cite Daniel,

 5. Energetic, emotionally charged passages, inviting emotional response, here a sense of outrage at what was done, or attempted.

They made that House which is the hyue of this kingdome, from whence all her Hony comes, that House, where Justice herselfe is conceyud, in their preparing of good laws, and inanimated and quickned and borne by the Royall assent there giuen, they made that whole house, one Murdring peece: and hauing put in theyr powder, they chargd that peece with Peers, with people, with Princes, with the King, and ment to discharg it vpward at the face of heauen, to shoote God at the face of God, Him, of whome God had sayd, Dij estis, you are gods, at the face of that God who had said so: as though they would haue reprochd the God of heauen, and not haue been beholden to him for such a king, but shoote him vp to him and bid him take his king againe, for Nolumus hunc regnare, we will not haue this king to reigne ouer vs

 6. Instructive, directive passages, drawing conclusions from the arguments that have implications for the congregation, inviting reflection, agreement, assent to the argument.

That Man must haue a large Comprehension that shall aduenture to say, of any king He is an yll king. He must know his office well and his actions well, and the actions of other princes too, who haue correspondence with him, before he can say so. When Christ says let your Communication be yea yea, and nay, nay, for whatsoeuer is more then these, when it comes to swearinge, that commeth of evill, Saint Augustine does not vnderstand it of the evyll disposition of the Man that swears, but of them who will not beleeue him without swearinge.

Many tymes a prince departs from the exact rule of his duty, not out of his own indisposition to truth and clearnesse, but to countermyne vndermyners. That which Dauid says he speaks of God  himselfe, Cum peruerso peruerteris, with the froward thou wilt shew thy selfe froward: God  who is of no froward nature may be made froward. With craftie neighbours a prince will be craftie, and perchance false with the false.

Alas, to looke into no other profession but our own, how often do we excuse dispensations, and pluralityes, and nonresidencyes, with an Omnes faciunt, I do but as other Men of my profession do: Allow a king but that, he does but as other kings do, or but that, as their doings put him to a necessity to do, and you will not quickly call a king, an yll king.

7. Exortatory passages, inviting agreement, here at the end of the sermon (invites assent, acceptance, agreement.)

But lastly, and espetially let vs preserve him, by preserving God amongst vs in the true and sincere profession of his religion. Let not a mis-grounded and a disloyall imagination, of coolenes  in him, coole you in your own families. Omnis spiritus qui soluit Jesum, says Saint John in the vulgate. Euery spirit that dissolues Iesus, that embraces not Iesus intirely, all Iesus, all his truth, and all his, all that suffer for him, is not of God.

Do not say I will holde as much of Iesus as shall be necessary; as much, as shall distinguish me from a Turke or a Iew; but if I may be the better for parting with some of the rest, why should I  not? Or, I will hold all my selfe, but let my wife, or my Sonne, or one of my sonns go the other  way: as though protestant and papist, were two seuerall callings, and as you would make one  Sonne a lawyer, another a Merchant, you will make one Sonne a papist, another a protestant.

Excuse not your own leuity, with so high a dishonor of the prince: when haue you heard, that euer he thankd any Man for becomming a papist? Leaue his dores to him selfe; the dores into the kingdome and the dores within the kingdome, the ports and the prisons.

Looke thou seriously to thine owne dores, to thyne owne family, and keepe all right there. A  theife that is let out of Newgate, is not therefore let into thy house. A preist that is let out of  prison, is not therefore sent into thy house. Still it may be felony to harbor him, though there were mercy and benignity, to let him out.

Cities are built of families, and so are Churches too; Euery man keepe his own family, and then euery pastor shall keepe his flock; and so the Church shalbe free from Scisme, and the state   from sedition, and our Josiah preserud, prophetically, for euer, as he was historically, this day, from them, in whose pitts, the breath of our Nostrills, the anointed of the lord was taken.   Amen.