Home  »  Volume VII: English CAVALIER AND PURITAN  »  § 11. Biblical culture

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XIII. Scholars and Scholarship, 1600–60

§ 11. Biblical culture

Large portions of the Scriptures were known by heart, not only by ministers, but, also, by the laity, and even by children, who were also well drilled in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and other histories of persecutions. Whilst French Huguenot children were trained, Spartanlike, to look forward to dying for the faith, English children, from the earliest age, were disciplined in prayer, in reading books of devotion and in the close knowledge of Bible histories and Bible doctrine. Preachers, like Joshua Hoyle, sometimes were occupied for fifteen years in expounding straight through the whole of the Bible, taking a verse at a time. Hoyle, indeed, started again, and went on for another ten years in the same course. Again, Arthur Hildesham, in 1635, in the puritan concentrative manner, gave 152 lectures on Psalm li. Anthony Burgess, in 1656, delivered 145 expository sermons on the seventeenth chapter of St. John, and wrote an expository commentary on the first chapter of 2 Corinthians, filling a folio of 657 pages. Gataker’s Annotations on the Bible (1659) occupied a folio volume; but that is small in bulk in comparison with some other performances. Jeremiah Burroughs filled four volumes in a commentary which failed to finish 13 chapters of Hosea. William Greenhill required nearly 3000 quarto pages for Ezekiel, whilst, for Job, Caryl was not content with less than 4690 folio pages. Theodore Haak, in 1657, published, in two folio volumes, a translation of the Dutch Annotations on the Bible, an outcome of the synod of Dort, in 1618, but this large work includes a translation of the Bible. The English Annotations, in two folio volumes, represents the best English exegetical work of the period, including amongst its writers Ley, William Gouge, Meric Casaubon, Francis Taylor and, once more, the encyclopaedic scholar, Thomas Gataker. As a work of systematic compilation, English effort in this direction was crowned by Matthew Poole’s Synopsis Criticorum Bibliorum (in Latin), in five folio volumes, taking in its survey all available criticisms and annotations hitherto produced. Poole was at work on this gigantic task 1660–76. By means of compendia, abridgments, epitomes of all kinds, Scripture histories, geographies, concordances, expository lectures and sermons, the vast accretion of Scripture learning was disseminated throughout the land by the 10,000 clergy, not to count leaders of sectaries and voluntary preachers.

Collections of systematic divinity in “marrows,” “bodies” and “sums” were extremely numerous and supplemented Scripture knowledge in all directions. On the subject of church government, innumerable treatises were written, but none approached in solid intellectual power Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity, of the Elizabethan period, or Richard Field’s Of the Church (finished 1610). In doctrinal exposition, bishop Pearson’s Exposition of the Creed (1659) must be regarded as a masterpiece of the period.

Some of the characteristics of the time, emerging from the whole of these manifestations of learning in patristic, classical, oriental and Biblical culture must be briefly noted. The medieval conception of the authority of Aristotle and scholasticism was shattered. It was transferred in all its ingrained strength and with infinitely increased brooding awe to the Bible. Science, even, could not yet make effective claim to detachment and self-contained aims. But Bacon’s view of antiquitas saeculi juventus mundi was elaborated in a learned work (1627) by George Hakewill, a vindication of the superior culture and progress of the modern, as against the ancient, world. A spirit of optimism favoured both literary and scientific research, for the age realised its control over the methods and instruments of enquiry. The Greeks and Romans could not retain the absolute allegiance even of scholars, for, after all, they were heathens, and the new light shed on the Bible, and the grand vision of a theocracy on earth, made attractive to the whole nation, learned and unlearned, a willingness to pay the price of knowledge, within the restricted sphere of Biblical studies. Hence, we notice psychologically, there were developed enormous industry in learning, endurance in listening to preachers and teachers, tenacious memory and the power of visualising and concentrating the thoughts on Bible heroes, Bible stories, Bible language and Bible aspirations. Scripture students were indefatigable workers. Bishop Morton was at his studies before four o’clock in the morning, even after he was 80 years of age. Matthew Poole rose at three or four o’clock, ate a raw egg at eight or nine, another at twelve and continued his studies till late in the afternoon. Sir Matthew Hale, for many years, studied sixteen hours a day. For several years John Owen did not allow himself more than four hours’ sleep. Feats of memory are as remarkable for their frequency as for their comprehensiveness, and were practised from early childhood in the repeating of sermons, in the learning of Latin grammar and in almost every academic discipline. Moreover, the number of references to memory testifies to the conscious cultivation of the art. The exercise of visualisation of the Old Testament histories was heightened by stories of martyrs; and the family tradition and household culture that made these events “real as life” in puritan homes supplied the mental basis for justifying doctrine and precept. In short, the scholarship and learning of this period, by their direct bearing upon the Bible, permeated and transfigured the national life in a rare degree, giving it, in spite of all its excesses and deficiencies, a strenuousness, sobriety, and, on the whole, a sincerity, probably never so largely sustained, by book learning, in any age, and rarely in any country. And yet, of the highest and purest scholarship, it is true, as Mark Pattison says, in reference to Casaubon:

  • To search antiquity with a polemical object is destructive of that equilibrium of the reason, the imagination and the taste, that even temper of philosophical calm, that singleness of purpose, which are required in order that a past time may mirror itself on the mind in true outline and proportions.