HUGH LATIMER, (c. 1485-1555)
A History of Preaching
F. R. Webber

Hugh Latimer was born at Thurcaston, Leicester. Authorities differ as to the date of his birth, placing it as early as 1480 and as late as 1490. Since his secretary declares that Latimer was 67 years of age not long before his death, he must have been born about the year 1485 or 1486. He took the degree at Clare College, Cambridge, in 1510, and was made fellow during the same year.

Latimer was ordained in 1512 and in 1522 he was one of twelve men licensed to preach in any part of England. He was an ardent Roman Catholic in his earlier years, and when he took his B.D. degree in 1524, his dissertation was in the form of a polemic against the teachings of Melanchthon. Among those present on this occasion was Thomas Bilney, a Roman Catholic priest, whose study of the New Testament of Erasmus had led him to accept justification by faith. Bilney called upon Latimer and encouraged him to study the Scriptures.

Hugh Latimer's preaching began to attract attention. On one occasion his bishop attended a service, arriving while Latimer was preaching. The latter quickly changed his text, and preached on the duties of bishops. The bishop invited him to preach before him again, but insisted that his sermon must be an answer to the heresies of Luther. With characteristic shrewdness Latimer replied that the writings of Luther had long since been forbidden in Cambridge, so how was he to answer him?

Latimer preached for two years in Cambridge, setting forth the doctrines of man's complete sinfulness, and salvation solely through the merits of Jesus Christ. He preached against indulgences, and against the traditions of the Church, urging his hearers to heed the teachings of the Scriptures. This led his bishop to inhibit him from preaching in Cambridge, or in any church in the diocese of Ely. However, his friend Prior Barnes placed the pulpit of the Austin Priory of Cambridge at his disposal, since the bishop had no jurisdiction there. Later Latimer was examined by Cardinal Wolsey, but acquitted, and given permission to preach wherever he pleased. . . .

Hugh Latimer was not a stern-faced man, but a jovial person, who was noted for his constant wit, his shrewd retorts and his friendly attitude. He was not without faults, and he seems to have been somewhat of a politician, for he supported Henry VIII's divorce of the Queen; he made no protest when Henry exterminated the Pole family . . . Although Latimer had rejected many teachings of the Mediaeval Church, yet he still believed that heresy was a sin that could be punished only by death. Friendly of disposition and urbane as he was, yet he had no sympathy for an obstinate heretic.

If Ridley was the best theologian of Tudor days, Latimer was the best preacher in England during the same period. He did not write out his sermons, but he had a servant, Augustine Bernher, who took down Latimer's public discourses, and thus many of them have been preserved. So popular was Latimer as a preacher that the church-warden's accounts at St. Margaret's, Westminster, mention the repair of benches that had been broken by the crowds who sought to hear the noted preacher. When the Chapel Royal proved hopelessly small, a special pulpit was set up for him in the royal gardens at Westminster. Even St. Paul's churchyard proved too small, when Latimer preached at St. Paul's Cross, which stood northeast of the cathedral.

A number of his sermons have survived, and they show him to be a man who spoke in a vivid, racy manner, with an occasional flash of wit, but always clear, direct and strong in his convictions. His homiletical style is not always beyond reproach, and there are times when his illustrations are crude, but it cannot be denied that his great theme was salvation through Christ alone, and without human merit. To Latimer, man is hopelessly sinful by nature, and the only cure is the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Latimer was fearless. When asked to preach before Henry VIII, he did not hesitate to condemn the sin of infidelity. When preaching to Edward VI and his court, Latimer spoke sharply to the grasping courtiers who took advantage of the boy-King for their own selfish purposes. When appointed by Cranmer to preach the convocation sermon, he attacked the evils in the Church, and even suggested that the bishops had made little effort to correct them. In 1548, at the Shrouds in London, he was unsparing in his attack on the slothful clergy, calling them "unpreaching prelates, lording loiterers and idle ministers." At Marshfield he condemned the clergy who entered not by the door, but climbed in some other way, hence were thieves and robbers. . . .

Hugh Latimer has been called the father of English preaching. He was not an eminent theologian, but his persuasiveness in the pulpit led many a lax clergyman to cultivate the neglected art of preaching. Latimer created a desire among the English people for frequent preaching. His lengthy Sermon of the Plow is a compelling appeal for better and more frequent preaching. The same subject is stressed frequently by Latimer. His Sixth Sermon before King Edward VI is another case in point. . . .

In speaking of Latimer one authority says, "Other preachers have excelled him in passion, stirring rhetoric, refinement and accuracy; but few have proved his equals in broad, forceful influence over all classes of people, and his sermons remain the prose classics to this day." Fresh, vigorous, often giving evidence of a pawky humor, unsparing in his condemnation of the things he considered wrong, Latimer's place in history is secure.

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