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Figure 1: Paul’s Cross, from about 75 feet. From the Visual Model, constructed by Joshua Stephens, rendered by Jordan Gray


Donne’s sermon for Gunpowder Day, November 5th, 1622, has existed in at least 6 discrete versions.

1. The first is the sermon Donne anticipated giving, developed as he studied the text and deposited in memory, if Walton is right that after Donne chose a text for a sermon, “he . . . cast his Sermon into a form, and his Text into divisions; and the next day betook himself to consult the Fathers, and so commit his meditations to his memory.”

2. The second is the set of notes Donne wrote out to take with him into the pulpit to support his memory and guide him in the delivery of the sermon. We may get some idea of what these notes consisted of, and what Donne was able to make of them, if we go to a passage in Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon about 30 minutes or so into the sermon.

Here Donne is reviewing the history of monarchy in Israel. He wants to defend monarchy, but also make something of the fact that the people of Israel demanded that God provide a king for them before God was ready to do that. So he claims that God intended for Israel to have a monarchy all along, so that by demanding a king of God before God was ready, the people of Israel were asking for a good thing but showed lack of trust in God by asking for a king before God was ready. Donne says,

 They would not trust Gods meanes, theire was their first fault; And then though they desird a good thing, and intended to them, yet they fix God his tyme, they would not stay his leasure;and both these,to aske other things then God would giue, or at other tymes then God would giue them is displeasing to him. use his means and stay his leysure. But yet though God were displeasd with them, he executed his owne purpose; he was angry with their manner of asking [for] a King but yet he gaue them a King.

Notice the sentence fragment – “use his means and stay his leisure” – in the middle of this passage, part of which repeats the phrase “stay his leasure” from the previous sentence. Note that this fragment does not add anything to the preceding thought, nor does it provide a transition to the next sentence; in fact, if one reads the passage, leaving this phrase out, the passage makes perfectly good sense. Donne says the people asked too soon for God to name a king, and thus displeased God, but that God did what he wanted anyway, in spite of his displeasure, and gave them a king.

I want to suggest that this phrase “use his means and stay his leisure” is in fact a survival of one of Donne’s notes to himself, and that the surrounding passage represents Donne’s expansion of this note as he performed it in the actual sermon.

Hence, Donne would not actually have said “use his means and stay his leisure” because he has already made of that note what he wanted to on that occasion.  For some reason, this note got repeated in the written copy of the sermon, created some time later, though working from the same set of notes. In the recording in the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, the phrase “use his means and stay his leisure” is part of the sermon as delivered by Ben Crystal, but if I could record it again I would have Ben leave it out.

3. The third version is the actual sermon he delivered, working from notes and memory, yet able to compose the actual text in the process of delivery, shaping his words to fit the time allotted between the cathedral’s bell chiming of the quarter hours.

4. The fourth version is a manuscript version of that sermon which Donne wrote out and then gave to a professional scribe for copying.

5. The fifth version is the scribal copy of Donne’s manuscript, the version that Donne later corrected in his own hand and sent to King James, where, in time, it became MS Royal 17.B.XX in the British Library.

This manuscript version was discovered in the British Library by Professor Jeanne Shami and published by Duquesne University Press as John Donne’s 1622 Gunpowder Plot Sermon: A Parallel-Text Edition in 1996.  It remains, uniquely, the version of a sermon by Donne that is as close to the lost third version, the delivered version, as we are ever likely to get.

Figure 2: John Donne, Sermon for Gunpowder Day, November 5, 1622, Page One. From MS Royal. 17.B. XX. Image courtesy the British Library. 

6. The sixth version is the version printed in Fifty Sermons, an anthology of sermons by Donne printed in London in 1649.  This version is very close in its readings to the 5th version, the manuscript version, with the addition of some expansions of specific points.

Figure 3: John Donne, Sermon for Gunpowder Day, November 5, 1622, Page One. From Fifty Sermons (London 1644).  

Jeanne Shami, who was the first to identify MS Royal. 17.B. XX as Donne’s sermon, argues convincingly that the differences between the printed and the manuscript versions are authorial revisions, changes to the text of this sermon made by Donne at a later date.

Complete facsimiles of both the manuscript version (reproduced by permission of the British Library) and the printed version are linked to this page of the website.

The version of this sermon with which we are most familiar is the edited version of the text included in Fifty Sermons (1649), published as Sermon no. 9 in volume IV of George Potter and Evelyn Simpson’s edition of Donne’s sermons (University of California Press, 1959).


Hence, existing texts of Donne’s sermons represent ex post facto reconstructions by Donne of what he said in performance. Even though MS Royal. 17.B. XX represents Donne’s memorial reconstruction of the sermon he gave on November 5th, 1622, it nevertheless is the product of very different circumstances from those that pertained when Donne preached the sermon on November 5th.

Gone are the constraints of time limits, gone are the more or less precise sounds of the clock bell ringing out the hours and the quarter hours, gone is the congregation for which Donne was performing and whose reactions to the sermon’s delivery surely shaped the sermon as it developed.

We are in fact fortunate that Donne gives us so many traces of that actual performance. Hence this manuscript version of this sermon is the version that serves as the source for our performance script.

That said, the performance script used in this project differs from the manuscript text in some details. These differences are marked in the script either by their being in italics or by their coming between brackets.

The basic differences include the addition of two kinds of material to the manuscript version to fill out our understanding of the Order of Service on this occasion.  Their inclusion is based on my assumption that The Paul’s Cross sermon, as a performance, required a structure of verbal formulae to facilitate its delivery.

The first consists of incorporating into the script the Prayer Before the Sermon from the Fifty Sermons version.  

A prayer before the sermon was a canonically required feature of early modern sermons. The one provided in the printed version seems sufficiently linked to this occasion to have the ring of authenticity to it. This prayer is filled with so many specific references to the occasion, and to the specifics of London, and the congregation gathered for this sermon, that it is difficult to imagine it being composed at all except for this specific occasion:

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:

A second addition consists of material drawn from the texts and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, especially language provided for introducing prayers and scripture reading. These words, or something like them, are necessary to facilitate the convening of the occasion and to announce the text for the sermon.

I have chosen to import the Prayer Book’s version of words for such occasions because the specific wording of these passages (“The Lord be with you/And with thy Spirit” and “The fourth chapter of the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremy, the twentieth verse/Here endeth the reading from the fourth chapter of the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremy”) for moments like this would have been familiar to Donne’s congregation.

Supporting this decision is the fact that, in the Prayer before the Sermon, there are numerous echoes of the Book of Common Prayer, suggesting that the Church of England’s official liturgy was much on Donne’s mind.

Donne says in this prayer, for example, “O Lord open thou our lips, and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise; for thou, O Lord, didst make haste to help us” which echo the Versicles and Responses in Morning Prayer. Donne also says, “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” which echoes the Prayer Book’s translation of the Canticle Te Deum Laudamus, also used at Morning Prayer.

Presumably, Donne had participated in Morning Prayer on this Tuesday morning in November before he preached this sermon, so its texts, and the general language and verbal practices of the Prayer Book, would have been fresh on his mind.

I have also taken the liberty of changing the text in several places, either to adapt it to the specific occasion of this imagined Paul’s Cross sermon, to incorporate readings from the Fifty Sermons version that seem to be omissions from the manuscript version rather than later revisions to the text, or to clarify the grammatical construction of the sentence.

There are five kinds of changes; these changes are found between brackets in the script.

1. Most notably among these is the addition of the phrase “the shadow of” to Donne’s line “in . . . this Mother Church” in the opening prayer. This sermon was delivered in St Paul’s rather than at the Paul’s Cross Preaching Station “because of the weather.”

So, assuming this is the prayer Donne used, he prayed it literally “in” the Cathedral. Had the weather not been inclement, he would have been praying it outside, literally, “in the shadow” of the cathedral. Hence the change in wording. The cathedral would have cast an especially long shadow on the 5th of November in 1622, when the sun, rising on the south east side of the cathedral, never got more than 20 degrees above the horizon. As one can see from the rendered images of the visual model of Paul’s Churchyard, the shadows cover Paul’s Cross itself and most of the area of the Churchyard where Donne’s listeners would have sat or stood had the weather permitted their presence.

2. The second change is the insertion of a few words that seem called for by the sentence construction, even though they are neither in the manuscript version or the Fifty Sermons version.

One example is my insertion of the word “also” in the opening line of the prayer to balance the construction “not only/but also.”  This seemed to fit the rhythm of the line as well.

Thou O Lord, didst looke down, not onely to see what was done upon the Earth, but [also] what was done in the Earth; and when the bowels of the Earth, were, with a key of fire, ready to open and swallow us, the bowels of thy compassion, were, with a key of love, opened to succour us.

A second is the insertion of the word “for” in the following line:

It was a greater fault in them, then it could haue bene in any other people, to aske [for] a king: not that that was not the most desirable forme of gouerment, but that he governd them so immediatly, so presentially himselfe, as that it was an ingratefull intemperance in them to turne vpon any other meanes.

I take full responsibility for having the audacity to rewrite Donne on those occasions.

3. The third change is to import the word “almost” from the Fifty Sermons version, here:

Stilo nouo in the Papists Calender, 1600 year after Christ came in all fullnes, in all clearnes, there were pitts made againe, and the breath of our Nostrills, the Annointed of the lord was [almost] taken in their pitts.

Here Donne is comparing the fate of James I with the fates of Josiah and Zedekiah; all were “taken in their pits,” but James, uniquely, escaped. The word “almost” makes the difference clear; Donne adds it in the Fifty Sermons version either to clear up any confusion in the matter or to correct an omission from the earlier version.

I have chosen to assume the latter situation and include the word in the script.

4. I have also taken the liberty of importing from the Fifty Sermons text translations of Latin words or phrases not translated in the manuscript version. Donne is consistent elsewhere in translating his Latin; omission of the translations in a few places in the manuscript version seems more an oversight than a deliberate stylistic effect.

5. Finally, I have imported words from Fifty Sermons to fill out a grammatical construction here:

In Josiahs case it was a pit, a Graue, in Zedechiahs case, it was a pit, a prison. In our Josiah’s case, it was fully as it is in the Text, not in fouea, but in foueis, plurally in their pits, in their diuers pits; Death in the Myne, [where they beganne,] Death in the Cellar, [where they pursued their mischief.]

I did this originally for clarity in the script; otherwise the phrase “Death in the Myne, Death in the Cellar” seemed to float in isolation in the text, unconnected to the rest of the sermon.

I now think this is one of two places in the sermon where Donne’s notes for the sermon have found their way into the preserved text, a point discussed more fully elsewhere in this website.  My guess is, when Donne came back to the manuscript of this sermon, he realized the grammatical problem and tried to fix it by making the additions as quoted.

Hence, I do not defend their inclusion here. Were I doing this project over, I would leave this entire phrase out of the script. But it is an imperfect world.