The Architect of Pastoral Piety

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For much of the seventeenth century, Richard Greenham (1540/45–1594) was reckoned among the three or four most important figures of the late sixteenth-century elizabethan church, being especially renowned for his skill as a spiritual guide. In fact, T.D. Bozeman has said Greenham should be regarded as “the foremost architect of the first great awakening of [English] Protestant piety.” Yet as his recent biographer Eric Josef Carlson notes, “for centuries [Greenham] has almost vanished from the historical record, thanks to his decision to labor” in Dry Drayton, a “relatively obscure rural Cambridgeshire parish” a few miles north of Cambridge.

In a letter to the bishop of Ely, Greenham took Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 2:2 to describe his ministry as “preaching Christ crucified unto myself and country people.” Greenham later summed up his pastoral ministry as “none other thing, but to preach the word of God sincerely, and purely with a care of the glory of God and a desire of the salvation of our brethren.” Here we see the heart of an early Puritan pastor, one who played a key role in forming the Puritan pastoral template and one that is a great model for all who desire to be a true pastor today: a passionate desire to preach the Word of God with sincerity (a reflection surely of Paul’s concern in 1 Thess. 2:4–5), for the greater glory of God and for the salvation of his hearers (1 Tim. 4:13–16).

Out of deep concern to educate his hearers, Greenham would rise at four every day to study and prepare his sermons. During the week he preached a sermon on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday just after dawn so that his parishioners might attend before they went to work. After preaching, he went back to study in the morning, and then in the afternoon he visited the sick or went out into the fields to speak with his parishioners who were working there. He also preached twice on Sundays, and on Thursday morning he catechized the children of the parish, which he also did each Sunday evening. While the contemporary pastor’s round of ministry would not look like that of Greenham, surely the assiduity and zeal with which Greenham exercised his calling needs to be emulated.

According to Henry Holland (d. 1603), a London pastor who prepared a posthumous edition of Greenham’s works and wrote a short memoir of the Puritan pastor to accompany this edition, Greenham preached with such energy that “his shirt would usually be as wet with sweating as if it had been drenched in water.” Before he went into the pulpit, though, he often experienced what he came to believe were satanic attacks, being assailed by “very sharp and trembling fears in the flesh” (1 Cor. 2:3). Many a pastor down through the years, and even today, could echo Greenham’s experience in this regard.

Though well known and appreciated as a gospel preacher, Greenham really excelled as a pastoral counselor. According to Holland, the fame of Greenham’s skill as a spiritual counselor spread far and wide so that many who “groaned under spiritual afflictions and temptations” came to see him, and “by his knowledge and experience many were restored to joy and comfort.” Greenham’s friends regarded him as “the paradigmatic godly pastor” and hoped he would write a book on the art of spiritual nurture, but he never did. If he had written such a book, it might have been Greenham, and not the later Puritan Richard Baxter, who was remembered as the quintessential Puritan counselor.

Yet, for all his godliness, insight, evangelical message, and hard work, Greenham’s ministry initially appeared to be virtually fruitless. Some outside his parish were apparently blessed through it, but not, it seems, his own people. As he himself said to Richard Warfield, who succeeded him as parish minister: “I perceive no good wrought by my ministry on any but one family.” But like many other ministers of the gospel then and now, Greenham was not a good judge of the impact of his ministry.

In the rural England of Greenham’s day, there was much fallow ground to be broken up. It was a time for sowing; the time for reaping still lay in the future. And through Greenham’s influence on a number of key Puritan ministers of the next generation, men such as Arthur Hildersham, Henry Smith, and Richard Rogers whom he personally mentored, it came to pass that thousands of English men and women were, by the 1620s, in some sense the spiritual flock of Richard Greenham.

The great and godly stream of Puritan pastors that have been so beneficial to many today arises in many respects from the relatively unknown Richard Greenham — and it is right and biblical to remember him with thanksgiving (Heb. 13:7). 

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.