John Donne (1572-1631) was a remarkable preacher who is not given enough credit for his theological insights. The poet-preacher who was made dean (1621) of Saint Paul’s often is shunned by students because of the complex “conceits.”1 Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote of this when he said:

“Metaphysical poets…shew their learning… [by the development of] elaborate conceits (extended metaphors) in which the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”2


Who is to argue with Dr. Johnson? Yet, we must recall the English language was at its zenith in Donne’s time. No less than G.M. Trevelyan, in his England Under the Stuarts, reminds us of this fact. He wrote:

“Since thought among common people had now reached a momentary perfection for the purposes of religious and imaginative literature, the England language was for those purposes perfect. Whether in the Bible, the play-book, the street ballad, the broad-sheet or report of the commonest dialogue of daily life, it was always the same language, ignorant of scientific terms and instinct with poetical feeling about life that was mature to the whole generation of those who used it.” (Trevelyan, 51)

The effort made to follow Donne’s logic through these conceits will supply rich rewards for the reader. Donne’s famous biographer, Izaak Walton, who was present to hear Donne’s sermons, said that John Donne “did weep, and preach” his messages from the pulpit.3

This capacity to present biblical truth through the poetry of the spoken word not only captured the minds of his hearers, but their hearts, as well. Donne was a poet who became a preacher, but remained a poet in the pulpit. As Joseph Sittler wrote:

“The poet is immediacy’s child; his stuff is made of the palpable intersection and shocks and plain felt facts of experience. And a mind shaped and a sensibility matured in such a practice will become a certain and specifiable kind of a theologians. His theological manner will be concrete not abstract; his delineations of the bearing of grace upon nature will be dramatic, not conceptual; his proclamations about God will deal with God’s Revelation, not God’s essence; his theological connective tissue will be organic-living, not propositional-static. There is, I think, a clear theological continuity from poet to preacher. Donne the preacher declared the imperial salvatory power of a holy conquest because he knew with existential accuracy that nothing else would do.”4

John Donne was a Thirty-Nine Article man, caught in the early-forming gale of doctrinal conflict, with theological sympathies with the Reformers5 and the most orthodox of church doctors. He lived in an age of great disagreements that would eventually spill over into a war between parties—the English Civil War. Donne was establishmentarian, yet obviously desired to do theology via media. Some will desire a more theological acute sermon and will find Donne wanting. Others will sense the tension and struggle of life beneath the sermons and find Donne appealing. He seemed to aim at preaching without giving offense beyond the offense of the gospel—no small thing. Arguably, I believe he succeeds. Donne’s writings on death, in particular, have been of great comfort to me in my own spiritual formation.6 Indeed, I have found that after reading Donne I tend to all the more pray, “Lord let me die well.”

This morning I read from Donne’s sermon on Psalm 63:7: “Because Thou has been my help, therefore in the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice.”

My soul was nourished by Donne’s careful and obviously well-informed, almost intuitive, treatment of the text and his pastoral concern for his people. Indeed, after breaking the text in twain, with imaginative and theological skill, to allow the congregation to feed from its nutrient-rich core all the more, Donne diagnosed the broken places that the psalmist sought to heal, and then distinguished between intricate implications of the psalm while conducting the soul-surgery. I particularly was moved by Donne’s statement on rejoicing in the shadow of the wings of the Lord. He applied the meaning of the text to the transmigration of the soul in death in such a way as gave (and gives) security to the believer. Weaving together biblical and systematic theology, pastoral theology, with extraordinary clarity and focus of mind, Donne leads us to the safe transmigration of the soul from the present state to the intermediary state—the soul’s presence with God (until the final state when Jesus Christ returns to claim His own body and soul). Imagine that you, in a time of plague in early 17th century London, with its accompanying cries of anguish all about you, that you receive this Word from the Lord as Donne preached it:

“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 [*Donne means a ‘looking glass,’ i.e., a 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.”7

Surely this is a sermon that must be distinguished from other contemporaries, like Lancelot Andrewes, by its accent on practical divinity rather than ineffectual rhetoric.

I would be less a preacher of the gospel if I did not add that this preaching of the safe transmigration of the soul is as pertinent in our day as it was in Donne’s. For we are rushing headlong into the day when our souls shall, also, transmigrate, to use Donne’s word, from our bodies here to an eternal state there. To die well is, first, to die with surety of heaven. Eternal life in heaven is only afforded to us through repentance of faith in self—or in any other means of ultimate hope—and faith in the life and death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Trusting in Him involves a necessary first step of renouncing all others except Jesus as Lord. Trusting Him requires that you receive Him as your Lord and Savior, perhaps, even with the child-like prayer of a father who once cried for the total healing of his little one: “Lord, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Thus, as you and I confess our sin, our inability to come without His power and Spirit’s help, we, also, confess the sole object of our hope: Jesus. In saying He is our hope, we are saying Jesus Christ is our righteousness through His perfect life lived, and He is our atonement for sin through His sacrificial death on Calvary’s cross. All we need for life and eternal life is in Him. The assurance of heaven is not necessary for salvation, but is necessary for a fuller life, which God has prepared for us. Such wonderful life comes through dining on Christ in His Word, the Bible. To have another, a skilled workman who has known the pain of unbelief and the joy of salvation, to preach that Word to our souls is a divine blessing. This is why I read Donne.

1“Conceits” are English literary devices in which poetical comparisons are made between otherwise unrelated things to arrive at a truth. Conceits were not ornamental to Donne, but functional. For Joan Bennett, “The purpose of an image in Donne’s poetry is to diffuse the emotional experience by an intellectual parallel.” T.S. Eliot spoke of a “unification of sensibility” in the writing of John Donne, which allowed Donne to employ disparate ideas in the service of his singular concentration. For more on conceits, see Raymond Macdonald Alden, “The Lyrical Conceits of the Metaphysical PoetsStudies in Philology 17, no. 2 (April 1, 1920), accessed Nov. 26, 2014; and Amritbir Kaur, “Literary Jewels: Use of Conceits in Donne’s Poetry,” accessed Nov. 26, 2014.
2Robert C, Evans and Eric Sterling, The Seventeenth-Century Literature Handbook (London; New York: Continuum, 2010), 80.
 Robert H. Ray, A John Donne Companion (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 2014), 21.
4Joseph Sittler, “Review: All Occasions Invite God’s Mercies,” The Christian Scholar 47, no. 3 (Oct. 1, 1964): 252-257 (257), accessed Dec. 1, 2014.
5In this I recognize I am at odds with others such as Ellen F. Davis and her comment concerning his Calvinistic views in her excellent work Wondrous Depths, f. 73, page 50. I don’t think I am reading the Reformation into Donne when I find him confessing, “For he alone did all, and he had no use at all of me. God infuses his first grace, the first way, merely as a giver, entirely all himself, but his subsequent graces, as a helper” (as quoted in Davis, Wondrous Depths, 50) His Laudian connections notwithstanding, I hold that one may enjoy the reading Donne without having to be tested by the excesses of a prevalent Arminianism.
6Donne preached of death for he knew it. He lost his wife in 1617, and five of 12 children died at birth or in infancy. Donne almost died of a fever, during which time he wrote the magnificent Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. The poet-preacher died of stomach cancer after much suffering. See an anniversary article of his death: Elesha Coffman, “Donne on Death,” Christian History, Aug. 8, 2008, accessed Dec. 1, 2014.
7Ellen F. Davis, Wondrous Depths: Preaching the Old Testament [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005], 60-610; for the complete sermon see John Donne and Janel M. Mueller, Donne’s Prebend Sermons. Edited, with an Introduction and Commentary, by Janel M. Mueller [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

For Further Reading
Alden, Raymond Macdonald. “The Lyrical Conceits of the Metaphysical PoetsStudies in Philology 17, no. 2 (April 1, 1920): 183-98. Accessed Nov. 26, 2014.

Coffman, Elesha. “Donne on Death.” Christian History. Aug. 8, 2008. Accessed Dec. 1, 2014. 
Davis, Ellen F. Wondrous Depths: Preaching the Old Testament. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
Donne, John, and David Colclough. The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.
Donne, John, and Janel M. Mueller. Donne’s Prebend Sermons. Edited, with an Introduction and Commentary, by Janel M. Mueller. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Donne, John, Evelyn Mary Spearing Simpson, and John Donne. John Donne’s Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels: With a Selection of Prayers and Meditations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003 Reprint.
Donne, John, George Reuben Potter, and Evelyn Mary Spearing Simpson. Sermons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953.
Donne, John. The Sermons of John Donne (10 Volumes). Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1953.
Evans, Robert C., and Eric Sterling. The Seventeenth-Century Literature Handbook. London; New York: Continuum, 2010.
Grossman, Marshall. The Seventeenth-Century Literature Handbook. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Johnson, Jeffrey. The Theology of John Donne. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: D.S. Brewer, 1999.
Kaur, Amritbir. “Literary Jewels: Use of Conceits in Donne’s Poetry.” Accessed Nov. 26, 2014. 
Milton, C.H. (Lt. Col.) Michael A. “John Donne in the Trenches: Moral Leadership and the Chaplain as the Living Repository of Western Civilization.” Command and Research Library. July 8, 2014. Accessed Nov. 26, 2014. 
Mueller, William Randolph. John Donne, Preacher. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Ray, Robert H. A John Donne Companion. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 2014.
Sittler, Joseph. “Review: All Occasions Invite God’s Mercies.” The Christian Scholar 47, no. 3 (Oct. 1, 1964): 252-57. Accessed Dec. 1, 2014.
Stubbs, John. John Donne: The Reformed Soul. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2007.
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About The Author

Michael A. Milton is a theologian, pastor, broadcaster, author, professor, U.S. Army Reserves chaplain, and musician. He's founder and president of Faith For Living, Inc. a North Carolina religious non-profit engaged in Christian discipleship, education, and communication. He is also the author of several books.

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