“Caprichio’s and Whimseys”: Hugh Peter in the Pulpit

As part of the IJBS Blog Series, Professor Alan Marshall (@johnalan57) examines the dramatic pulpit techniques deployed by the influential Parliamentarian preacher and polemicist, Hugh Peter.

Hugh Peter was a key Parliamentary figure of the 1640s and 1650s, and someone who was often dismissed as: “the grande Canale or common shore of all Phanatical principles.”1 Yet while his career was full of publicity and noise (not always, it must be said, to his actual regret), in the pulpit Peter had an impressive verbal and visual technique, as well as a singular ability to hold an audience.2 This fact raises two questions: what was Peter’s style of pulpit delivery and why did he use humour to make his points?

Peter’s use of his pulpit techniques began with an already well-developed neo-apocalyptic style at St Sepulchre in Holborn in the 1620s. Whatever his other character faults he proved a capable, successful, energetic and popular preacher thereafter. Of course, his expressed opinions on many contemporary political and religious matters also drew upon him the wrong sort of attention.

Peter’s skills as a preacher were learned at Cambridge University, with training in the scholastic and Ramist methodology in logic that was mostly commonly to be found in his sermons, in his analysis of scripture, and in his published works. He further developed these skills whilst living in the Low Countries and New England. His Royalist critics would later deride Peter as intellectually limited, and subject to base emotional urges, yet he was far from being the ignorant buffoon they sought to portray.3

Scurrilous portrait of Hugh Peter from the broadside, Don Pedro de Quixot, or in English the right reverend Hugh Peters (London, 1660). Held at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

One of the main themes of Peter’s preaching was his ideal of the Christian life, which linked the advancement of morality, good learning, economic well-being and justice.4 Actually, Peter’s personal views of the political order of his day remained idealistic. He argued that order was something that could be achieved in the state and this order lay in the idea of religious essences. For Peter the church in England had always had its “essentials” on which it should stand firm. As he noted: “The Church is one and the same in essence from the beginning of the world to the end thereof.”5 Yet it also possessed “superficials” that could be changed, enabling the church to move ever closer to a true church.6 Moreover, and without any irony for such an apparently disruptive figure, Peter professed himself “Orthodox in all points of religion”, or at least, “according to the assemblies Confession, explained by others at the Savoy.”7

Nonetheless, he was liberal over the routes that could be taken to reach God: “God may have a people under all forms”, he remarked.8 His ideal church was: “A Company of People combined together by holy Covenant with God and one with another.”9 This idea of the covenant was fundamental to his thought and provided Peter with his social viewpoint of Christianity – linking “individual, word and purse”, with “active godliness.”10  For him true liberty was a voluntary subordination to a covenanted system.11 At its core lay the restraint of the self to duty and the self to God. He advocated liberty but it was not a lack of restraint, as some of his critics maintained, but the product of the will and desire of what man ought to do for God, given a genuine harmony of body and mind. This enabled him to be true to his nature.

But even his enemies allowed for Peter’s rhetorical talents in the pulpit.12 “Nectar hangs upon thy lippes”, noted one contemporary.13 While another ironically claimed: “Whosoever loves to laugh at a Sermon (which is Satan’s Musick), let him go heare Master Peters preach.”14 And here is the other issue, for Peter used wit and humour in his preaching. A use of humour, wit and jest in the pulpit had both its advocates and its detractors.15 Those who “play the fooles in the pulpit”, according to Richard Baxter, engaged in “proud foolery which savoreth of levity”, they distracted worshippers, and they allowed ‘weighty truth’ to “evaporate.”16 Peter’s choice, however, was the play on words, verbal dexterity, colloquial language and humorous tales to ram home his points.

There were many reports of the actual manner of Peter’s delivery and through them we can perceive that humour was central to his purpose of holding an audience and it became a draw to audiences “Who laugh and jeere as if they were at a Play.”17 Peter’s many demonstrations of his performance arts in the pulpit were especially noted.18 Hostile witnesses built upon this image, so that he became a veritable English “Tartuffe” in their eyes, but what do these stories actually tell us of Peter at work?

Another satirical portrayal of Hugh Peter in the pulpit. This time he displays the ‘bodkins and thimbles given by the wives of Wappin’ for the Parliamentary cause. From Edmund Goldsmid, eds, Explanatory Notes of a Pack of Cavalier Playing Cards, temp. Charles II (Edinburgh, 1886), 21.

Peter’s use of “show and tell”, was one his most frequent techniques.  In one sermon he used his pulpit cushion (a regular prop apparently) and his fingers to trace the long journeys of the children of Israel in the wilderness:  

With his fingers on the Cushion he measured the right way from the Red-Sea through the wilderness to Canaan; told us it was not forty days march, but God led Israel forty years though the wilderness, before they came thither, yet this was the Lord’s right way, who led his people.19

Amongst his other methods Peter asked for shows of hands by his congregations on his questions.20 He also used basic colloquial language and familiar analogies to captivate his audience:

Mr Peters having on a fast day preached two long hours, and espying his glasse to be out after the second turning up; takes it in his hand, and having againe turned it, saith, Come my Beloved, we will have the other glasse, and so wee’le part.21

Hugh Peter gesticulating with an hour glass whilst preaching. From the frontispiece to, The History of the Life and Death of Hugh Peters that Arch Traytor, from his Cradell to the Gallows &c (London, 1661).

He could use special effects to emphasise his points:

Preaching once in Ireland, and discoursing on the times, it came into his head, with his Knuckle to hit against the Pulpit, intimating to his Auditory, he had been in Heaven, and answering the sound, quoth he, who is there, a Cavalier, Oh a Cavalier! You must not come here, you must to hell, for you fight against the Parliament. The he knocks again, and cries who is there, a Roundhead, oh a Roundhead! you must come hither neither, you are factious and disorderly in opinions: so he knocks the third time, and cries who is there, a Committee man, oh a Committee man! He must come, and shall, laying his hands on the Pulpit dore, as if he would let him in.22

Or in another case:

Mr Peters in the midst of one of his Sermons, dives down, and rising up again, saith, My Beloved, Where think you I have been now? I’ll tell you, I have been in Heaven, and there’s my Lord Bradshaw, and many other worthy persons of Note; then diving again, Now saith he, I have been in Hell, and there were a Number of factious Parliament men; and that they might be live it to be true as that Gospel, shewing a Paper Book with Notes, bound up like a testament.23

Given all of these techniques, the idea of Peter as the “Stage-Player…from hence after venting his frothy inventions, he had a greater call…namely to be the Jester”, soon emerged.24 False rumours even circulated that he had acted on the stage.25 In some quarters Peter was portrayed as a scurrilous, blasphemous wordsmith, and most worryingly of all, as someone more than capable of being able to turn the heads of his audiences. Consequently for the returning Royalists of 1660 the real danger of this “phrophane phrophet”, with his “Caprichio’s and Whimseys in the Pulpit where he plaid presto with the Bible”, lay not only in the fact that he could actually tune the pulpit, but that he had already all too successfully turned both church and state into a “Stage play.”26 As it happened Peter’s audiences were clearly entertained by him and they were also happy to be educated by “the fairest tongue of most men” as one commentator put it.27

Another imagistic critique of Hugh Peter who, this time, has an aggrieved congregant point (and seemingly fire) a gun at him as he preaches. From the ballad, Come buy a Mouse-Trap, or, a New Way to Catch an Old Rat (London: 1647?).

Yet his ideas on such education were important, for his pulpit style was created to enable understanding in congregations of all sorts of folk; especially the use of “simple homely phrases.” He proved direct and playful in his language. He lavished his lessons with humour and audience participation and he had a range of theatrical skills to hand in order to illustrate his critical points.28 It is also important to realise that Peter’s printed sermons only really give a partial flavour of his delivery in the pulpit.29 For these Peter used his “particular… antick gesture[s].”30 For some he was a mix of “imprudent and temeraious … [and] malpert rashness.” And because of this his critics claimed that he ultimately ruined the educative possibilities of the sermon for any congregation.31

But to Peter, such preaching tools were practical elements that could be used to educate the generality against general ignorance. The wise use of God’s “Word” in an amusing manner, he thought, could ultimately conquer the barbarism of the day and it could also guide the listener to the true godly state. His carefully constructed pulpit tools were meant to bring illumination. Although he was later to recant such methods in 1660, noting for instance that he was heartily sorry to have been over “popular”, they had in fact proved all too successful in some quarters.32


1 Anon, Don Pedro de Quixot, or in English the right reverend Hugh Peters (London, 1660), 1.

2 R. P. Stearns, The Strenuous Puritan: Hugh Peter 1598-1660 (Urbana, 1954) remains the standard biography. See also Carla Gardina Pestana, “Peter, Hugh (bap. 1598, d. 1660),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Hugh used “Peter” as his surname; “Peters”, a variation, appears as the version used by satirists. See Anon, The Right Reverend Hugh Peters, passim; E. B. Peters, Hugh Peter, Preacher, Patriot, Philanthropist, Fourth Pastor of the First Church in Salem, Massachusetts: A Mosaic (New York, 1902).  

3 Earlier works by Peter included, Milk for Babes and Meat for Men (London, 1630). He was, in general, well read with his gentleman’s Grammar school and University education. For the general use of Ramus’ logic see Perry Miller, The New England Mind, from Colony to Province (Boston, 1953), 493-501.

4 TNA, SP16/252, fol. 61; Hugh Peter, God’s Doings and Man’s Duty Opened in Sermon &c (London, 1646); Hugh Peter, Church Government and Church Covenant Discussed (London, 1643); Hugh Peter, The Case of Mr. Hugh Peters (London, 1660), I, 60-61.

5 Peter, Church Government, II, 13.

6 One of Peter’s primary influences was William Ames. See Keith L. Sprunger, “Ames, William (1576–1633),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Another was Thomas Hooker. See Sargent Bush, jun., “Hooker, Thomas (1586?–1647),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

7 Hugh Peter, Dying Father’s Last Legacy (London, 1660), 3-4; A. G. Matthews, The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order 1658 (London, 1959), 10, 25.

8 Peter, Dying Father’s Last Legacy, 107.

9 Ibid., 13-14.

10 See also Peter, Church Government, II, 7, 13, 60-61.

11 See ibid., parts I-II.

12 Clement Walker, Anarchia Anglicana: Or the History of Independency The Second Part &c. (London, 1649), 35, 133, 182; Peters, Hugh Peter, 15; Hugh Trevor Roper, “The Fast Sermons of the Long Parliament”, in Hugh Trevor Roper, eds, Religion, The Reformation and Social Change (Indianapolis, 1999), 273-310.

13 Anon, The famous tragedie of King Charles I (London, 1649), 1.

14 John. Vicars, The Schismatick Sifted, Or The Picture of Independents &c (London, 1646), 9; Thomas Edwards, The Third Part of Gangraena, (London, 1646), 120.

15 For the background see Daniel Derrin, “Self-Referring Deformities: Humour in Early Modern Sermon Literature”, Literature & Theology, 32 (2018), 255-69.

16 Richard Baxter, A Treatise of Conversion (London, 1657), 23.

17 Mercurius Academicus, 23 February 1646, 97-98.

18 Max Patrick, Hugh Peters, A Study in Puritanism; The Life and Opinions of a Major Propagandist, Popular Preacher, and Social Reformer of the Cromwellian Period (Buffalo, 1946), 173-4.

19 His text was Psalm 107:7, “He led them forth by the right way, that they might go to the city where they dwelt”. This action is recounted in several texts. See S. D., Tales and Jests of Hugh Peters (London, 1660), 16; White Kennet, A Register and Chronicle Ecclesiastical and Civil (London, 1728), 36; The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politicks and Literature for the Year 1769 (London, 1770), 55; Patrick, Hugh Peter, 173, 174.

20 Stearns, Strenuous Puritan, 215-216; Kennet, Register, 278; 283.

21 S. D., Tales and Jests of Hugh Peters, 27. The hour glass was used for timing the sermon.

22 Ibid., 13.

23 Ibid., 25.

24 William Yonge, England’s Shame (London, 1663), 7, 42, 44.

25 Ibid., 15-17.

26 Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials, ed. T. B. Howell (London, 34 vols., 1810), V, 80; Don Pedro de Quixot, passim.

27 Anon, The History of the Life and Death of Hugh Peters that Arch Traytor, from his Cradell to the Gallows &c (London, 1661), 2.

28 Stearns, Strenuous Puritan, 215-216; Kennet, Register, 36, 278, 283; S. D., Tales and Jests of Hugh Peters, 16; The Annual Register, 55.

29 For the preacher’s self-fashioning in printed sermons see Derrin, “Self-Referring Deformities’, 256.

30 Nanthaniel Ward, A Word to Mr. Peters (London, 1647), 11.

31 Robert Ballie, Letters and Journal of Robert Ballie (Edinburgh, 3 vols. 1895), II, 165. Arise Evans disagreed and he praised Peter’s skills as a preacher in his, An Echo to the Voice from Heaven (London, 1653), 83-4, 87-88.

32 Peter’s social pamphlet of 1651, Good work for a Good Magistrate (1651), is the most obvious example here.