Richard Hooker Critical Essays

Introduction

Richard Hooker 1554?-1600

English essayist and theologian.

One of the most widely-read and studied theologians of his time, Hooker is chiefly remembered for his eight-volume religious treatise, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593-1648). Central to medieval Christian humanism, the work was conceived both as an illustration of Hooker's philosophical theology and as a defense of the Church of England against Presbyterian and Roman Catholic opponents. Often cited by scholars for its influence in shaping the principles that have dominated Anglican thought, Hooker's ecclesiastical commentary is viewed by religious scholars as essential to the understanding of the history of the Anglican church. Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity also interests critics because of its mixture of ethical, political, legal, and religious philosophies, as well as for Hooker's depiction of the political complexities of his age. Furthermore, his intricate literary style, heavily reliant on the use of epigrams and rhetorical questions, is often compared with those of notable figures such as William Shakespeare and John Milton, while his philosophy is compared to that of John Locke.

Biographical Information

Much of what we know of Hooker comes from The Life of Mr. Richard Hooker (1665) by Izaak Walton. Hooker was born in 1553 or 1554 near the city of Exeter in Devonshire. His family did not have the financial means to send him to a university, but Hooker was able to enter Corpus Christi College at Oxford with the help of the Bishop of Salisbury, John Jewel. He received a B.A. in 1574 and his M.A. in 1577. He was ordained a deacon in 1579 and made a full fellow of his college. In 1580, Hooker and four of his friends were briefly expelled from Oxford for supporting a candidate known to have strong Calvinist-Presbyterian leanings for the office of president of Christ College. All were restored the following month after the candidate had assumed the presidency. During his tenure at Oxford, Hooker conducted annual Hebrew lectures and became the tutor of George Cranmer, the greatnephew of the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, and of Edwin Sandys, whose father was the Archbishop of York. Hooker was ordained in the priesthood in 1581. Upon leaving Oxford, he moved into the household of John Churchman, a distinguished London merchant. In 1588, Hooker married John Churchman's daughter, Joan, receiving a dowry of seven hundred pounds.

In 1585, Queen Elizabeth I appointed Hooker master of the Temple in London, though the most widely favored candidate was Walter Travers, a Presbyterian reformer. Hooker and Travers regularly used their sermons to argue theological matters and entered into a public rivalry which eventually prompted the Archbishop of Canterbury to intervene, preventing Travers from further preaching. Hooker's sermons from this period laid the groundwork for Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

In 1591, Hooker left his position as master of the Temple. In order to allow Hooker to complete a written defense of the Church of England, the Archbishop presented him with a rectory at Boscombe in Wiltshire, though Hooker continued to live with the Churchman family. He also made Hooker subdean of Salisbury Cathedral, where he spent time each year working at the cathedral library. The preface and first four books of Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity were published in 1593, financed by his former student, Edwin Sandys. In 1595, the Queen presented Hooker with an estate at Bishopsbourne in Kent, where he moved from London with his family. While there, he completed and published the fifth book of the Laws in 1597. This was the last volume of the work to be published during Hooker's lifetime. Hooker died on November 2, 1600, while preparing a rebuttal to a Puritan treatise that had attacked him and the first five books of the Laws. The final three books of were published posthumously, as were several of his sermons.

Major Works

Hooker's magnum opus, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was written primarily to defend the Elizabethan church against the attacks of English Presbyterians, but with attention also given to the refutation of what he and his Anglican contemporaries called the errors of the Church of Rome. The preface to the Laws is a historical account of the Genevan and English Reformed Movement, which lays the groundwork for Hooker's rejection of the arguments of sixteenth-century Presbyterianism. In book one Hooker explores the concept of law in general and deals in particular with laws guiding individual and social behavior. Books two through four reject the major affirmative principles of the Reform movement. Book five is a defense against Puritan attacks upon the legally prescribed forms of public worship as set forth in the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer. Books six through eight detail the structure of the Anglican Church and uphold the sovereignty of the monarch as the head of the Church of England. These last three books remained unfinished at the time of Hooker's death, but were distributed among his friends to be edited for later publication.

Critical Reception

There was great critical interest in Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity during the seventeenth century and his works were reprinted several times between 1611 and 1639. Supporters of the Restoration extolled Hooker as the great defender of the established church against all of the charges aimed at it by Roman Catholics and Protestant Nonconformists. Critic John E. Booty argues that Hooker provided “a philosophical foundation for the sixteenth-century Church of England, a foundation dealing with profound issues in a large and ecumenical spirit.” Subsequent critics have asserted that Hooker's work set the tone for Anglican thought throughout history. John Locke cited Hooker as an authority in his Two Treatises on Government (1689) and critics have also pointed to Hooker's influence on the American political philosophy of the late 1700s. Hooker's ideas regarding the law and his emphasis on reason have remained a focus for critics into the twentieth century, with some commentators asserting that Hooker's arguments are flawed because he was unable to reconcile his theories of church and state with the realities of the Tudor political situation. Recent critics have emphasized the study of Hooker's writing style, analyzing his long, complex sentences and asserting that they are uniquely designed to deliver his message. According to critic Georges Edelen, what distinguishes Hooker's style is “the superb sense of decorum with which he uses the contrast of syntactical form, not simply for emphasis, but with acute sensitivity to the expressive values implicit in the form itself.”