(1583? - Buried 26 November 1652)
Moira P. Baker
(Reproduced from Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Prose Writers of the Early Seventeenth Century. Vol. 151. Edited by Clayton D. Lein. Detroit: Gail Publishers, 1995. 3-10.)
Vilified in a 1647 Puritan tract as "a known profane pot-companion, ... and otherwise a loose liver, a temporizing Ceremony monger, and malignant against the parliament," Thomas Adams was acclaimed in the Nineteenth Century as, the "prose Shakespeare of Puritan theologians." His condemnation for presumed anti-Puritan leanings and his rehabilitation as an eminent Puritan divine suggest the ironies of politics and literary history. Like his illustrious contemporary, Bishop Joseph Hall, Adams, though Calvinist in his theology, cannot be called Puritan in any strict use of that vexed term. He maintained a moderate position within the Church of England, suffering persecution for this stance amid the political and ecclesiastical controversies that racked England during the first half of the Seventeenth Century. And like Hall--whose works he knew, admired, and imitated--Adams could appease neither High Church Laudians nor Puritans during those crucial years that hurtled England toward civil war. One of the most popular preachers in London during the first quarter of the Seventeenth Century, Adams fell into disrepute during the sequestrations of the 1640s. Yet the eclipse of his reputation belies the achievement of his earlier career and his enduring stature as a gifted preacher. In his study of Puritan preaching, John Brown ranks Adams above the "silver-tongued" Henry Smith. Morris W. Croll finds Adams an important transitional figure in the development of English prose style. W. Fraser Mitchell calls Adams the "greatest of all early Puritan divines," and Douglas Bush singles out Adams, Andrewes, Donne, and Taylor, as exemplars of seventeenth-century religious prose at its finest.
Born between 1582 and 1583, Adams was educated at Cambridge, where he took the A. B. in 1601 and M. A. in 1606. Following his ordination in 1604, Adams served at a number of scantily paid rural posts before moving to London. In 1605, Adams was licensed to the curacy of Northill in Bedfordshire, but was dismissed from this post when Northill College Manor was sold. His dismissal marked the beginning of a life-long struggle to maintain himself and his family on the incomes he earned. His own experiences of financial difficulty must have made him keenly aware of the exploitation of the poor that attended the social and economic changes of his own time, for he preached a Gospel of social justice. Resounding with the voice of prophetic utterance, his sermons excoriated particular social abuses that wrung profit from the weak during the profound dislocations that shaped early modern England.
By 1611, Adams assumed the vicariate of Willington, where he remained until 1614, pursuing his dual ministry of preaching and preparing his sermons for publication. While at Willington, Adams began to distinguish himself as an occasional preacher, appearing twice before the public audience at Paul's Cross, London, and once before the clergy at Bedford for the visitation of the Archdeacon. His first Paul's Cross Sermon, The Gallants Burden (1612) fared respectably in print, passing through three printings by 1616. Preached at Paul's Cross in 1613, The White Devil, his most popular sermon, reached five editions by 1621. Adams also completed his first of several sermon suites, The Devills Banket (1614), which saw two editions. The sermons Adams published during the earlier years of his ministry sound the theme that was to run throughout his career, reveal the rich literary traditions that informed his prose, and demonstrate his consummate skill in accommodating literary forms to his homiletic purposes. In the preface, "Ad Vel in Lectorem," of The Devills Banket, Adams announces his central concern: "The main intents of all preachers and the contents of all sermons aim to beat down sin and convert sinners." Conventional as this concern seems, Adams, like the other great preachers of his day, drew upon a wealth of rhetorical, devotional and literary traditions to forge a distinctive idiom and individualized style. In his preface, "To the Reader," of the 1615 edition of The White Devill, he discloses the literary tradition that exerted the greatest influence on his idiom and style: "It is excepted that I am too merry in describing some vice. Indeed, such is their ridiculous nature, that their best conviction is derision; ... Others say, I am otherwhere too satirically bitter. It is partly confessed." Through his conscious manipulation of satiric conventions, Adams urges his auditors to recognize the absurdity of vice, repudiate their own sin, and seek forgiveness and comfort in the Grace of God.
One of the most striking literary features of Adams' sermons is his ubiquitous use of the satiric prose character, a form introduced into English prose by Joseph Hall's Characters upon Vertues and Vices in 1608. Hall's collection ushered in a vogue that extended through the enormously popular "Characters" that Thomas Overbury appended to his poem, A Wife (1614)--a collection marked by its extravagant fancy, pungent wit, and flippant mockery of social folly--and John Earle's Microcosmography (1628). Drawing upon both Hall and the Overburians, Adams shapes characters appropriate to his preaching of conversion. In The Gallants Burden, for example, Adams includes generalized sketches, in the tradition of the medieval descriptio, of four "scorners" that destroy the commonwealth: atheists, epicures, libertines, and "common profane" clergy. The White Devil presents a series of twelve characters modeled after Hall's, whom he calls "our worthy Divine and best Characterer." Unjust magistrates, deceitful lawyers, bribe-takers, greedy merchants, impropriators, unjust landlords, grain engrossers, enclosers of common lands, debauched taverners, flattering counselors, extortionary brokers, and usurers appear as they truly are--thieves who prey upon the poor. The Flatterer, for example, "eate[s] like a Moth into liberall mens coates. . . . Doth his Lord want money? he puts into his head such fines to be levied, such grounds inclosed, such rentes improved: . . . Sinne hath not a more impudent bawd, nor his master a more impious theefe, nor the common-wealthe a more sucking horse-leech." The four sermons of The Devils Banket, a tour de force in which Adams integrates into the older "figure" sermon form a series of satiric characters, uses the metaphorical framework of a feast complete with a host, inviters, food, guests, a banquet house, and the inevitable "shot," or check, in order to analyze specific sins and their consequences.
In 1614, Adams accepted an appointment as Vicar of Wingrave, remaining in residence there until 1618. While at Wingrave, Adams undertook a lectureship at St. Gregory's in the Shadow of St. Paul's Cathedral, London. During the years at Wingrave, Adams published several collections of sermons and was even more in demand as a popular city preacher. Not limiting himself to the publication of sermons, Adams completed a treatise, Diseases of the Soule (1616), in which he uses his most complex metaphorical schema for organizing a collection of characters. Examining the nature, cause, symptoms and cure of nineteen bodily diseases, Adams scrutinizes allegorically the vices that plague the soul. Following the publication of the Overburian collection, which reached its fifth impression and grew to eighty-two characters by 1615, Adams charged his characters with flippant wit and edged them with caustic irony. In The Mysticall Bedlam (1615), one of his most imaginative figure sermons, Adams uses the frame of a morris dance of Bedlamites to expose the sins of his world in a series of twenty characters. Introducing dramatic dialogue into the form, Adams shapes highly theatrical characters like that of the Epicure: "Can you tend it, Belly-God? The first question of my Catechisme shall be, What is your name? Epicure. Epicure? What's that? . . . One that would make my belly my executour. . . . Rehearse the Articles of your beleefe. . . . I beleeve that midnight revels, perfumed chambers, soft beds, close curtains, and a Dalilah in mine arms, are very comfortable." Using the figure of the hunt in Politicke Hunting (1629) to structure his characters of the powerful who prey upon the weak, Adams presents the depopulator as a wild bore, the cheater as a crafty fox, the usurer as a wolf, and the grain engrosser as a badger. In A Generation of Serpents (1629), he uses the figure of a vipers' tangle to frame his exploration of various social evils of his day. Adams couches his characters of common social abuses in the metaphor of thorns, briars and brambles that rend the flesh of the commonwealth in A Forrest of Thornes, first published with A Divine Herball in 1616.
As the many provocative titles of Adams' sermons suggest, he appealed to the popular taste for the sensational evident in the drama of his time. In The Mysticall Bedlam, Adams marshals grotesque images of death and bodily decay with as chilling an effect as the bitter musings of Cyril Tourneur's Vindice upon his dead mistress's beauty in The Revenger's Tragedy (1608). Drawing also upon the memento mori tradition that informs the play, Adams warns: "Know that the earth shall one day set her foot on your neckes, and the slime of it shall defile your sulphered beauties: . . . be not proud, be not madde: you must die." The macabre array of dancing madmen in the same sermon evokes not only the social practice of exhibiting inmates of Bethlehem Hospital, but also the morris dance of Bedlamites cavorting in the lurid half-light of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1623) performed sometime before December 1614. In The Devills Banket, Adams exploits the affective force of lurid images to initiate a process of meditation in his auditors. Likening Hell to a fetid charnel house, he asks his auditors to imagine a "deepe Lake, full of pestilent dampes and rotten vapours; . . . some corpses standing upright in their knotted winding-sheetes; others rotted in their Coffins: . . . The sight is afflicted with darknes and ugly devils; . . . the smelling with noysome stenches: . . . the feeling with intolerable, yet unquenchable fire." Obviously aware of the market in which his sermons competed for a readership, Adams skillfully integrated popular satiric forms or theatrical conventions and devotional practices, such as the meditation recommended by Bishop Hall in The Arte of Divine Meditation (1606), in order to preach conversion effectively both in the pulpit and in print.
Culminating the first part of his career as a publishing preacher, Adams prepared The Happiness of the Church (1618), a collection of twenty-seven sermons gathered for the press during a period of illness. Adams retained his lectureship at St. Gregory's at least until 1623, but King James' discouragement of lectureships in his "Instructions Regarding Preaching" (1622) curtailed Adams' activity as a lecturer. In 1619, Adams was appointed Rector of St. Bennet's Near to Paul's Wharf, London, residing there until the end of his life and earning an unpredictable living largely dependent upon funds available to St. Paul's Cathedral. In December of that year, his wife died, leaving in Adams' care their two daughters and one son. During another period of illness, Adams published Eirenopolis, an eloquent treatise in which he allegorizes the four gates of London in an appeal for peace amid the growing factionalism of James' reign. Still much in demand in other pulpits, Adams preached The Barren Tree at Paul's Cross in 1623, dedicating it to his friend and patron, John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's. Returning to the Cross in 1624 for his final appearance, Adams preached The Temple in commemoration of King James' deliverance from the Gun Powder Plot. Adams concludes his sermon by calling James "The Defender of the Faith," who has insured "that our Temples be not profaned with Idols, nor the Service of God blended with superstitious devices." The appearance of Three Sermons (1625) suggests Adams' continuing prominence since it includes sermons preached for important civil, ecclesiastical, and court occasions: one for the Lord Mayor's election, one for the triennial visitation of the Bishop of London, and one for the bereaved audience at Whitehall two days after James' death. 1629 saw the folio publication of The Workes of Tho. Adams, a worthy testimony to his tireless ministry, containing sixty-three sermons and three treatises.
Adams published no other sermons after the appearance of his folio Workes until the appearance of Gods Anger and Mans Comfort (1652), his final two sermons. The only intervening work is his Commentary on Second Peter, a massive folio edition of 1634 pages on which Adams worked between 1620 and 1633. A learned and elegant capstone of his career, the Commentary reaches a more sophisticated level of scriptural exegesis and theological analysis than possible in the sermon form. In it, as in his sermons, he uses both the older Euphuistic style, with its sound devices or schemata, and the newer Senecan style, with its emphasis on brevity and point. It is difficult to explain Adams' abrupt disappearance from public view. Much about his ministry would have been distasteful to William Laud, Bishop of London in 1628 and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, whose increasingly repressive episcopacy silenced many suspected of Puritan leanings. Adams' staunch defense of the monarchy and ecclesiastical hierarchy notwithstanding, much about his career could have raised suspicions about his conformity. His strongly Calvinist doctrines, his bitter anti-papal sentiments, his wish that matters of ceremony be left "indifferent" rather than enforced, his criticism of the popish "idolatry" that threatened to creep into the Church, and his popularity as a lecturer: any one of these characteristics could have laid him open to attack by Laud and his followers.
Ironically, Adams fared little better at the hands of nonconforming Puritans. His loyalty to the king, his tolerance of ceremony, and his support of an episcopalian form of church government would have made him objectionable to the more radical Puritans then gaining ascendancy in Parliament. Unable to escape the political vicissitudes of his times, Adams was sequestered as were many other clergy unsympathetic to the Parliamentarians' cause. By 1642 Adams was no longer Rector of St. Bennet's although he was allowed to remain in residence in the parish house until his death. Adams' older daughter died in 1642, his younger in 1647. In 1652, seven years after the execution of Archbishop Laud, three years after the execution of Charles I, and one year before the establishment of the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, Adams relied upon the charity of his former parishioners during the final months of his life. In the dedicatory epistle of his last two sermons, Gods Anger and Mans Comfort (1652), Adams thanks them for their support in his "necessitous and decrepit old age." No doubt referring in Gods Anger to the political and religious upheavals of his own day, Adams claims: "David's pestilence of three dayes was a storm soon blown over: . . . Gods displeasure hath dwelt longer upon us." Yet in his final sermon, speaking as one who has experienced the anguish of personal loss and the contradictions of a world "all in pieces," Adams urges his auditors to repent and seek solace in "the God of all comfort."
Recognized today as a noteworthy preacher in an age characterized by its dazzling pulpit oratory, Adams developed a highly flexible and distinctive homiletic style. Throughout his career, Adams skillfully drew upon the full range of prose styles available to him, blending the old and the new, the Euphuistic and the Senecan, the ornate and the emerging essay styles to create subtle rhythmic effects in his preaching of conversion. Responding to changing literary tastes and developments in genre, Adams modified popular satiric and dramatic conventions to shape sermons at times astonishing in their vitality, wit and affective force. A resourceful writer and learned theologian, who fashioned himself simply, "preacher of God's word," Thomas Adams need not be compared to Shakespeare. His prose can stand on its own.
Baker, Moira P. "The Homiletic Satires of Thomas Adams." Diss.: U of Notre Dame, 1982
---. "'The Dichotomiz'd Carriage of All Our Sermons': Satiric Structure in the Sermons of Thomas Adams." English Renaissance Prose 3.1 (1989): 1-17;
Boyce, Benjamin. The Theophrastan Character in England to 1642. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1947.
Brown, John. Puritan Preaching in England (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1900).
Bush, Douglas. English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1962.
Croll, Morris W. "The Sources of the Euphuistic Rhetoric." Eupuhes, the Anatomy of Wit and Euphues, His England. Edited by Morris W. Croll and Harry Clemons. 1916. Rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964. xv-lxiv.
Daniels, Edgar F. "Thomas Adams and 'Darkness Visible' (Paradise Lost, I, 62-3," N&Q 204 (1959): 369-70.
Flanagan, Cabell V. "Robert Southey on Thomas Adams," N&Q, 197.26 (1952): 554-5.
---. "A Survey of the Life and Works of Thomas Adams." Diss: U of Pennsylvania, 1954.
Harralson, David Mills. "The Sermons of Thomas Adams." Diss: Kent State, 1969.
Haller, William. The Rise of Puritanism. New York: Columbia U P, 1928.
Hedges, Laurence. "Thomas Adams and the Ministry of Moderation." Diss: U of California, Riverside, 1974.
Maclure, Millar. The Pauls Cross Sermons: 1543-1642. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1958.
Mitchell, W. Fraser. English Pulpit Oratory from Andrewes to Tillotson: A Study of its Literary Aspects (1932; Rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962);
Mulder, William. "Style and the Man: Thomas Adams, Prose Shakespeare of Puritan Divines," Harvard Theological Review 48.2 (1955): 129-52.
Paylor, W. J. The Overburian Characters . Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1936.
Prior, Francis Xavier, Rev. "Animal Analogy in the Writings of Thomas
Adams," Diss. St. John's U, 1969;
Vicars, John, A Just Correction and Inlargement of a Scandalous Bill of the Mortality of the Malignant Clergie of London . . . (London: n.p., 1647).
Williamson, George. The Senecan Amble: A Study in Prose Form from Bacon to Collier Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1951.
Wilson, F. P. Seventeenth Century Prose. Berkeley: U of California P, 1960.
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF ADAMS' WORKS
The Gallants Burden (London: Printed by W. White for Clement Knight, 1612);
Heaven and Earth Reconcil'd (London: Printed by W. White for Clement Knight, 1613);
The White Devill: Or, the Hypocrite Uncased (London: Printed by M. Bradwood for Ralph Mab, 1613);
The Devills Banket. Described in Foure Sermons (London: Printed by Thomas Snodham for Ralph Mab, 1614);
The Divells Banket. Described in Sixe Sermons (London: Printed by Thomas Snodham for Ralph Mab and John Budge, 1614);
Englands Sickness, Comparatively Conferred with Israels. Divided into Two Sermons (London: Printed by E. Griffin for John Budge and Ralph Mab, 1614);
The Blacke Devill: Or, the Apostate. With The Wolfe Worrying the Lambes. And The Spirituall Navigator. In Three Sermons (London: Printed by William Jaggard, 1615);
Mysticall Bedlam: Or, the World of Mad-Men (London: Printed by George Purslowe for Clement Knight, 1615);
Diseases of the Soul: A Discourse Divine, Morall, and Physicall (London: Printed by George Purslowe for John Budge, 1616);
A Divine Herball together with A Forrest of Thornes. In Five Sermons (London: Printed by George Purslowe for John Budge, 1616);
The Sacrifice of Thankefulnesse. . . . Whereunto Are Annexed Five other Sermons (London: Printed by Thomas Purfoot for Clement Knight, 1616);
The Souldiers Honor . . . Preached to the Gentlemen that Exercise in the Artillerie Garden (London: Printed by Adam Islip and Edward Blount, 1617);
The Happiness of the Church. . . . Considered in Contemplations upon . . . Hebrewes. . . . Being the Summe of Diverse Sermons Preached in St. Gregorys London . . . (London: Printed by George Purslowe for John Grismand, 1618);
Eirenopolis: The Citie of Peace (London: Printed by Augustine Mathewes for John Grismand, 1622);
The Barren Tree (London: Printed by Augustine Mathewes for John Grismand, 1623);
The Temple. A Sermon Preached at Pauls Cross (London: Printed by Augustine Mathewes for John Grismand, 1624);
Three Sermons. London: Printed by Augustine Mathewes and John Norton, 1625);
Five sermons Preached upon Sundry Especiall Occasions (London: Printed by Augustine Mathewes and John Norton for John Grismand, 1626);
The Workes of Tho: Adams. Being the Summe of his Sermons, Meditations, and Discourses (London: Printed by Thomas Harper and Augustine Mathewes for John Grismand, 1629);
A Commentary or Exposition upon the Divine Second Epistle Generall Written by the Blessed Apostle St. Peter, 2 volumes (London: Printed by R. Badger and F. Kyngston for Jacob Bloome, 1633);
Gods Anger and Mans Comfort. Two Sermons (London: Printed by Thomas Maxey for Samuel Man, 1652);
Editions: An Exposition upon the Second Epistle General of St. Peter, edited by James Sherman (London: Samuel Holdsworth, 1839);
The Sermons of Thomas Adams, The Shakespeare of Puritan Theologians, edited by John Brown (London: Cambridge University Press, 1909).
The Three Divine Sisters, Faith, Hope, and Charity, edited by W. H. Stowell (London: Thomas Nelson, 1847).
The Works of Thomas Adams: Being the Sum of His Sermons, Meditations, and other Divine and Moral Discourses, 3 volumes, edited by Thomas Smith (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1861-62).
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