(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

George Herbert, who had served Cambridge University in positions of increasing importance, culminating in his appointment as university orator, left Cambridge in 1627, thereby forsaking a future career in diplomacy. Instead, he pursued a life devoted to religion. In 1630, at Archbishop William Laud’s urging, he took the position of rector at a small church at Bemerton, near Salisbury. There he wrote A Priest to the Temple: Or, The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life in 1632. The work was written in conjunction with The Temple, 1633, an organized collection of holy poems. In his preface, Herbert describes his book as an attempt to set high standards for the priesthood, while acknowledging his own shortcomings and allowing for other pastors to add information and observations to produce a true “pastoral,” a word suggestive not only of the curing of souls but also of the image of the pastor as a shepherd with his flock or congregation. Because his was a country congregation, shepherding and agricultural metaphors permeate the book.

Herbert begins by defining the pastor as the “deputy of Christ,” whose role is to bring his flock to a closer relationship with God. Quoting extensively from the Bible, he discusses how different clergy have varied gifts and how, regardless of the nature of their assignment, they are to serve God first. Acknowledging that nobles may have undue influence, Herbert nevertheless states that clergy should not kowtow to the wealthy but should walk a tightrope between correction and civility. The ideal way to bring people to God is to serve as a model by using self-control, avoiding covetousness, keeping one’s word, and exercising moderation in food and drink. Appearances are important, both in church and in person, because there can be no instruction without respect for the teacher. Aware of the importance of maintaining a good reputation, he cautions against involvement with women; and while he subscribes to the notion that unmarried clergy are superior to married ones, he admits that a good wife (he himself married Jane Danvers in 1629) may be a helpmate. However, he advocates marrying women whose behavior, not appearance, is excellent (he...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bloch, Chana. Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Bloch discusses the figurative language in the Bible and relates it to the kinds of metaphors that Herbert used in his poetry and in The Country Parson.

Guibbory, Achsah. Ceremony and Community from Herbert to Milton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Depicts Herbert as taking a conformist, anti-Laudian attitude toward religious ceremony and clerical attire but exhibiting an open attitude toward receiving Communion.

Malcolson, Cristina. Heart-Work: George Herbert and the Protestant Ethic. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. Chapter 6, which is devoted to The Country Parson, contrasts Herbert as country priest with his life as a chaplain at court.

Singleton, Marion White. God’s Courier: Configuring a Different Grace in George Herbert’s “Temple.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Discusses The Country Parson in light of how it relates to Herbert’s focus on his calling, or choice of a vocation, and the necessity of serving humankind.

Stewart, Stanley. George Herbert. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Uses The Country Parson as a gloss with which to discuss Herbert’s attitudes toward Catholicism and Presbyterianism. Provides a time line and a bibliography.