George Herbert’s challenge to evangelicals
George Herbert, admired by such men as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and T. S. Eliot, is praised in twentieth-century universities as the greatest poet of seventeenth-century England apart from John Milton and John Donne. Yet in recent decades, as many evangelicals have lost contact with their rich cultural heritage, Herbert’s poetry has fallen into unwarranted neglect in the very circles where it was formerly most cherished.
Praised and quoted by Richard Baxter in The Saint’s Everlasting Rest (1650); respected by other Puritan leaders like Thomas Hall and Peter Sterrey; quoted affectionately by Nonconformist preachers like Philip Henry and his son Matthew Henry; beloved by John Wesley, who adapted no fewer than forty-nine hymns and sacred poems from Herbert’s The Temple (see Elsie A. Leach, “John Wesley’s Use of George Herbert,” Huntington Library Quarterly, Feb., 1953)—in spite of all this, “holy Mr. Herbert” is rarely quoted, rarely read, and rarely reprinted in evangelical pulpits, homes, and publications. And few evangelical pastors have availed themselves of A Priest to the Temple, Herbert’s excellent treatise on the characteristics of the ideal minister. In this day when evangelical leaders are once again emphasizing the relevance of Christianity to every aspect of human endeavor, the time has arrived for a renewed awareness of George Herbert’s mind and art.
Herbert had a lifelong love affair with God. When he was only seventeen, he sent his mother two sonnets that expressed his passionate desire to write love poetry for God rather than for Venus:
Sure, Lord, there is enough in thee to dry
Oceans of Ink …
Each Cloud distills thy praise, and doth forbid
Poets to turn it to another use.1
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