Thursday, December 29, 2016

Life sketch: George Herbert versus the prosperity gospel

© 2016 Christy K Robinson
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From time to time, I post a life sketch of people who were important members of 17th-century England and New England culture. 

George Herbert, 1593-1633, was an English Parliamentarian, an orator (a spokesman for a college of Cambridge University), an author, a poet who was well connected with notables like Rev. John Dunne and scientist Francis Bacon, and the minister of a tiny chapel of ease just outside Salisbury, Wiltshire. He was one of ten children raised by a widowed mother, and homeschooled by her before he entered the prestigious schools at Westminster and Cambridge. He was married for only a few years before his death, and had no children.
Rev. George Herbert

He was the creator of phrases and proverbs we still recognize today:
  • "His bark is worse than his bite."
  • "Living well is the best revenge."
  • "Whose house is of glass must not throw stones at another."
  • "The eye is bigger than the belly."
  • "Half the world knows not how the other half lives."
I used a poem by Herbert in my biographical novel of Mary and William Dyer, when Mary was walking from Providence, Rhode Island, to her arrest and certain death at Boston in 1660. On page 292 of Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This, I created a dialogue between Mary Dyer and Patience Scott, regarding George Herbert and his care for the poor, and for widows and orphans.

The Anglican pastor died of consumption (tuberculosis) at age 39, and was buried in front of the altar of the medieval chapel of St. Andrews, of which he was the rector, and that he rebuilt from his own funds. There is no effigy to mark his resting place or distract from the simplicity of the chapel’s purpose: to worship God and serve people.

A carved plaque is set into a wall of the rectory in Bemerton, Salisbury, where Herbert served in ministry to the poor for the last four years of his life. It’s a poem Herbert left for his successor in the ministry. Herbert’s legacy was no monumental work of art or vanity, it was his message and his poetry.

To my Successor.
If thou chance for to find
A new House to thy mind,
And built without thy Cost:
Be good to the Poor,
As God gives thee store,
And then, my Labour’s not lost.

George Herbert came from a wealthy and connected family. His friends and colleagues expected that with his elite education and his network in King James I's government, he'd rise high in politics and power. But he took holy orders with the Church of England in a time when the Puritan movement was rising. True, tens of thousands of Puritans would move to America in the last few years of his life, feeling persecuted by the Anglican bishops and King James' successor, Charles I. The Puritans, though, believed that being wealthy meant that God had predestined them for salvation, because he had rewarded their piety with favor in their commerce and trades. Herbert used his own wealth to rebuild his crumbling medieval church, and took clothing and blankets to the poor of his parish. In response to the Puritan prosperity mentality, Herbert wrote books on being a good pastor, religious poetry, and proverbs, which are still published today.

He would have had much to say about the income inequality of the twenty-first century, and the hijacking of the earnings, retirement, and healthcare of the poor and middle class by the politicians, oligarchs, and billionaire class. He would have spoken sharply against the so-called prosperity gospel advocates, who teach that those who contribute to their media ministries and morality police are financially blessed by God; that God makes people wealthy to show his blessing and favor.

But wait! Rev. Herbert did have an answer for that!
“But perhaps being above the common people, our credit and estimation calls on us to live in a more splendid fashion; but O God! how easily is that answered, when we consider that the blessings in the holy Scripture are never given to the rich, but to the poor. I never find Blessed be the Rich, or Blessed be the Noble; but Blessed be the Meek, and Blessed be the Poor, and Blessed be the Mourners, for they shall be comforted.”

Mic drop.

To read more about George Herbert, click his hotlinked name at the top of this article, or Google "Rev. George Herbert."

Christy K Robinson is the author of five books and two history sites, three of the books revolving around the titans of New England. Click their titles to read the five-star reviews and purchase the paperback or Kindle editions.