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John Donne is numbered among the great poets of the English Renaissance, but we remember him today chiefly as someone who learned the deeper poetry of God’s grace and gave it voice both in his verse and through his ministry as priest and preacher.

Born into a prominent Roman Catholic family in 1573, he passed through a dark period of riotous living and scepticism about all religion before he conformed to the Church of England. Gifted with high spirits and a brilliant mind, he looked forward to a great career in service to the Crown. But his secret marriage to the niece of a powerful politician caused scandal, and for several years he struggled to support his wife and growing family. In the year 1615, as the best hope in a bad situation, he accepted ordination as a priest of the Church of England.

Seven years later Donne became Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he remained until his death in the year 1631. He slowly learned that the priesthood was indeed his true vocation, and his original half-hearted resignation to the office was changed into a wholehearted embrace of the crucified Christ who had embraced him. This self-discovery showed in his preaching, which drew great throngs to St. Paul’s, and even after three centuries his sermons still have power to move the heart. They reflect his wide learning as a scholar, his passionate intensity as a poet — and above all, the profound devotion of someone who struggled to relate the word of God’s grace to all the sorrows and joys of human life.


Christ set us free, so that we should remain free. Stand firm,
then, and do not let yourselves be fastened again to the yoke
of slavery. Galatians 5.1 (NJB)


Merciful God,
you pierced the heart of your servant John Donne
with the mercy of your crucified Son
and gave him power in sermon and song
to tell of the beauty in redemption.
Purge our wills of false ambition
and reform our tangled desires,
that we may speak the truth in love
and apply the healing of your gospel;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Here is a section from the sermon preached by Donne taking Psalm 63:7: “Because Thou has been my help, therefore in the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice,” for his text. This sermon is from the period of 1620-22 during the Great Plague.

“Howling is the noise of hell; singing the voice of heaven. Sadness the damp of hell; rejoicing the serenity of heaven. And he that hath not this joy here lacks one of the best pieces of his evidence for the joys of heaven, and hath neglected or refused that earnest by which God uses to bind his bargain, that true joy in this world shall flow into the joy of heaven as a river flows into the sea. This joy shall not be put out in death and a new joy kindled in me in heaven. But as my soul, as soon as it is out of my body, is in heaven, and does not stay for the possession of heaven nor for the fruition of the sight of God till it be ascended through air, and fire, and moon, and sun, and planets, and firmament to that place which we conceive to be heaven, but without the thousandth part of a minute’s stop, as soon as it issues, is in a glorious light, which is heaven…The true joy of a good soul in this world is the very joy of heaven. And we go thither, not that being without joy we might have joy infused into us, but that, as Christ says, ‘our joy might be full’ (John 16:24), perfected, sealed with an everlastingness. For as he promises that ‘no man shall take our joy from us’ (v. 22), so neither shall Death itself take it away, nor so much as interrupt it or discontinue it. But as in the face of Death, when he lays hold upon me, and in the face of the devil, when he attempts me, I shall see the face of God (for everything shall be a glass {mirror}, to reflect God upon me), so in the agonies of death, in the anguish of that dissolution, in the sorrows of that valediction, in the irreversibleness of that transmigration, I shall have a joy which shall no more evaporate than my soul shall evaporate—a joy that shall pass up and put on a more glorious garment above and be joy super-invested in glory. Amen.”