George Herbert on married and unmarried ministers

In today’s extract from his book on pastoral ministry, George Herbert considers the both the single pastor and the married pastor.

Taking his cue no doubt from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, he considers virginity a “higher state” of unhindered devotion for a pastor than marriage. This may well be counter-cultural in many places today, where churches often specifically advertise for “a family man” or “a husband and wife team” to lead them.

He discusses various issues of propriety, such as how a single pastor ought not to have women servants to do his cooking and cleaning in the home, and how he ought not to speak with a women on her own. He has various suggestions for how to keep one’s soul “lusty as an eagle”, through fasting, prayer, and reading biographies of early monks. Spiritual pride and impurity of heart are the two main enemies of the single pastor. But ambition is also a killer, especially for the unmarried, as is speculative curiosity for theological scholars.

Herbert himself had married just before taking up his pastorate near Salisbury, and gave a home to three of his orphaned nieces (and several servants). So he is also not unaware of the temptations facing married pastors too (e.g. covetousness, love of pleasure, or comfort). He must choose a wife by his ear not by his eye alone, listening for a humble and generous disposition rather than being led by beauty, wealth, or status.

There are also some fascinating 17th century details in how he thinks home-life should work…

The Parson’s State of Life

The country parson considering that virginity is a higher state then matrimony, and that the ministry requires the best and highest things, is rather unmarried, then married.

But yet as the temper of his body may be, or as the temper of his parish may be, where he may have occasion to converse with women, and that among suspicious men, and other like circumstances considered, he is rather married then unmarried. Let him communicate the thing often by prayer unto God, and as his grace shall direct him, so let him proceed.

If he be unmarried, and keep house, he has not a woman in his house, but finds opportunities of having his meat dressed and other services done by men-servants at home, and his linen washed abroad [i.e. outside the home]. If he be unmarried, and sojourn, he never talks with any woman alone, but in the audience of others, and that seldom, and then also in a serious manner, never jestingly or sportfully. He is very circumspect in all companies, both of his behaviour, speech, and very looks, knowing himself to be both suspected, and envied.

If he stand steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own will, and has so decreed in his heart, that he will keep himself a virgin, he spends his days in fasting and prayer, and blesses God for the gift of continence, knowing that it can no way be preserved, but only by those means, by which at first it was obtained. He therefore thinks it not enough for him to observe the fasting days of the Church, and the daily prayers enjoined him by authority, which he observes out of humble conformity, and obedience, but adds to them, out of choice and devotion, some other days for fasting, and hours for prayers; and by these he keeps his body tame, serviceable, and health-full; and his soul fervent, active, young, and lusty as an eagle.

He often reads the lives of the primitive monks, hermits, and virgins, and wonders not so much at their patient suffering, and cheerful dying under persecuting Emperors (though that indeed be very admirable), as at their daily temperance, abstinence, watchings, and constant prayers, and mortifications in the times of peace and prosperity. To put on the profound humility, and the exact temperance of our Lord Jesus, with other exemplary virtues of that sort, and to keep them on in the sunshine, and noon of prosperity, he finds to be as necessary, and as difficult at least, as to be clothed with perfect patience, and Christian fortitude in the cold midnight storms of persecution and adversity.

He keeps his watch and ward, night and day against the proper and peculiar temptations of his state of life, which are principally these two spiritual pride, and impurity of heart: against these ghostly enemies he girds up his loins, keeps the imagination from roving, puts on the whole armour of God, and by the virtue of the shield of faith, he is not afraid of the pestilence that walks in darkness (carnal impurity) nor of the sickness that destroys at noon day (ghostly pride and self-conceit).

Other temptations he has, which, like mortal enemies, may sometimes disquiet him likewise; for the humane soul being bounded, and kept in, in her sensitive faculty, will run out more or less in her intellectual. Original concupiscence is such an active thing, by reason of continual inward, or outward temptations, that it is ever attempting, or doing one mischief or other.

Ambition, or untimely desire of promotion to an higher state, or place, under colour of accommodation, or necessary provision, is a common temptation to men of any eminency, especially being single men. Curiosity in prying into high speculative and unprofitable questions, is another great stumbling block to the holiness of scholars.

These and many other spiritual wickednesses in high places does the parson fear, or experience, or both; and that much more being single, then if he were married; for then commonly the stream of temptations is turned another way, into covetousness, love of pleasure, or ease, or the like.

If the parson be unmarried, and means to continue so, he does at least as much as has been said. If he be married, the choice of his wife was made rather by his ear, then by his eye; his judgement, not his affection found out a fit wife for him, whose humble and liberal disposition he preferred before beauty, riches, or honour. He knew that a wise and loving husband (the good instrument of God to bring women to heaven) could out of humility produce any special grace of faith, patience, meekness, love, obedience etc and out of liberality, make her fruitful in all good works. As he is just in all things, so is he to his wife also, counting nothing so much his own, as that he may be unjust unto it. Therefore he gives her respect both afore her servants, and others, and half at least of the government of the house, reserving so much of the affairs, as serve for a diversion for him; yet never so giving over the reins, but that he sometimes looks how things go, demanding an account, but not by the way of an account. And this must be done more or less often according as he is satisfied of his wife’s discretion.


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