Articles

Moderation and Deprivation: A Reappraisal of Richard Sibbes

Mark E. Devera1

a1 Corpus Christi College, Cambridge CB2 IRH

Among the Puritan ‘martyrs’ celebrated by Samuel Clarke and Daniel Neal, few have been more frequently mentioned and less carefully considered than Richard Sibbes (1577–1635). Sibbes, primarily remembered as Preacher of Gray's Inn and author of The Bruised Reede, has been presented as one of a number of early Stuart preachers who neither approved nor practised bending the knee in communion, nor wearing the surplice, nor signing the cross in baptism, and yet who somehow remained within the Established Church. He was, it is reported, constantly troubled by Laud. Doubly deprived, censured and silenced, Sibbes became a model for his numerous disciples – among them Thomas Goodwin, John Davenport, John Cotton – who would later find their way into dissent. It is supposed that only the power of his lawyer-friends and noble patrons allowed him to retain his ministry at Gray's Inn for almost two decades. After his death, his writings became almost entirely the possession of Nonconformists and Sibbes came to be read through separatist spectacles. And yet, although remembered as espousing a robustly reformed theology, his moderation was particularly admired by those who followed him. Sibbes seemed to stand above the tumult of the times, ‘to preserve the vitals and essentials of religion, that the souls of his hearers, being captivated with the inward beauty and glory of Christ, and being led into an experimental knowledge of heavenly truths, theirspirits might not evaporate and discharge themselves in endless, gainless, soul-unedifying, and conscience-perplexing questions’.