March 31: John Donne, Priest, 1631

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: It tolls for thee.”

These words are familiar to many; their author, John Donne, though less well known, is one of the greatest of English poets. In his own time, he was the best-known preacher in the Church of England. He came to that eminence by a tortuous path. Born into a wealthy and pious Roman Catholic family in 1573, he was educated at both Oxford and Cambridge, and studied law at Lincoln’s Inn. Some time later he conformed to the Established Church and embarked upon a promising political career of service to the State. The revelation of his secret marriage in 1601 to the niece of his employer, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, brought his public career to an end. In 1615, he was persuaded by King James I and others to receive ordination.

Following several brief cures, Donne rose rapidly in popularity as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, from 1622 until his death. He drew great throngs to the Cathedral and to Paul’s Cross, a nearby open-air pulpit. His sermons reflect the wide learning of the scholar, the passionate intensity of the poet, and the profound devotion of one struggling in his own life to relate the freedom and demands of the Gospel to the concerns of a common humanity, on every level, and in all its complexities.

In one of his poems, he wrote:

We thinke that Paradise and Calvarie,

Christs Crosse, and Adams tree, stood in one place;

Looke, Lord, and finde both Adams met in me;

As the first Adams sweat surrounds my face

May the last Adams blood my soule embrace.


So, in his purple wrapp’d receive mee Lord,

By these his thornes give me his other Crowne;

And as to others soules I preach’d thy word,

Be this my Text, my Sermon to my owne.

Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.


I     Almighty God, the root and fountain of all being: Open our eyes to see, with thy servant John Donne, that whatsoever hath any being is a mirror in which we may behold thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II     Almighty God, the root and fountain of all being: Open our eyes to see, with your servant John Donne, that whatever has any being is a mirror in which we may behold you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Wisdom 7:24-8:1

1 Corinthians 15:20-28

John 5:19-24

Psalm 27:5-11

Preface of the Epiphany


From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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23 thoughts on “March 31: John Donne, Priest, 1631

  1. This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The New Testament reading is new.

    New New Testament reading: This seems to fit the commemoration well.
    Bio: He needs a ‘who he is’ and ‘why he is important’ statement; and he needs a ‘He died in 1631.’statement.

    • “is one of the greatest of English poets. In his own time, he was the best-known preacher in the Church of England.”

      If this isn’t a ‘who he is and why he is important’ I don’t know what is.

  2. It might be useful to note that when Donne studied at Oxford and Cambridge, he could not earn a degree because he was a Roman Catholic. A date for his coming to the Church of England would also be useful. The scholar in me wants the source of the opening quoatation cited. Many people think it’s from a poem, and it isn’t. The opening sentence is awkwardly structured.

  3. Donne was a great English poet, and is a personal favorite, but to describe him as “one of the greatest” may be a bit over the top.

  4. I quite like the collect & the commemoration generally, but might it be more stylistic to replace “fountain” by “font” in the Rite I collect. It’s the term Donne & Cranmer would have used and it makes everything more baptismal, which always seems to go over well in TEC and with the SCLM.

    I’m not sure that “root and font” works, but I think there’s probably a way to get the cadence back. Maybe, change “root” to “ground,” another choice that’s more consonant with Donne’s metaphysics, but that’s not quite right either. I’m sure someone with more stylistic chops than I will be able to tweak it.

  5. “Following several brief cures, Donne rose rapidly in popularity as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, from 1622 until his death.”
    He became popular because he cured people, but only briefly? or he was sick (of what?), was cured briefly, and became popular?
    What am I missing here? As it is now, this sentence is a big non sequitur.

    • A curate is a person who is invested with the care or cure (cura) of souls of a parish. In this sense “curate” it correctly means a parish priest but the term is often commonly used for an assistant cleric. The duties or office of a curate are called a curacy (as the office of a president is a presidency).

      – from Wikipedia

      • Thanks for the clarification, Michael. Though I still think the language could be more clear. I’m more over-educated than the average parishioner and though I’m familiar with “curate” I have never in 50 years heard or read the word “cures” used in this way . . . just sayin’ . . .

    • Lucinda, thank you for your wit! I laughed out loud while reading your note. “Following several brief cures” is funny.

      I am glad to read that Donne has already made the cut and is included in the calendar. I love this website because the thumbnail portraits of the Anglican (and other) worthies make such nice additions to our Parish facebook page, which I help with.

      Thanks to the SLCM for all its endeavors, in connection with HWHM.


  6. Cynthia Gilliat commended a couple of days ago that a biography would be strengthened with a statement about “the most significant thing about him that commends him to us.” This statement could well be applied to the biography of John Donne as well. If the biography is to begin with a quote then the source should be given as Cynthia Gilliat also suggested. (Meditation XVII in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Several Steps in my Sickness.(1624)).

    The book can be found online at:

    Unfortunately when the “for whom the bell tolls” quote is given, it seems that the last part of the last sentence of the Meditation is never included: “if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.”

    Also, in the fragment of the poem which concludes the biography, it should be noted that the poem is usually entited “Hymn to God, My God, in my sickness” and was among the post-humously published (1635) works.

    The bio. leaves out all mention of “The Hymn to God the Father” (Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun) Hymnal #140 which seems particularly relavent since in many years, the commemoration of John Donne will fall during Lent.

    It seems as though the exact date when John Donne embraced the Church of England is not known exactly. He entered Parliament in 1601 and he could not have done that as a Roman Catholic. Donne’s satire on Ignatius of Loyola was published in 1611, before his ordination in 1615. Apparently only the date of his ordination is known with any certainty. [For a longer bio. of Donne see:

  7. Re curates: The prayer “For Clergy and People” on page 817 of the 1979 BCP that prays for “bishops, and other clergy” is rendered in the 1662 BCP and “bishops and curates.”

    I agree that the source of the “For whom the bells tolls” quotation should be given. Most people probably think of Hemingway, not Donne, when they see these worlds.

  8. My wife wonders,”Given curacy and presidency does that lead to saying that curious George
    is a curiosity ? ” More seriously, there is a wonderful sentence in a Christmas Sermon by Donne
    which has c ommonly come to mind when I hear his name: 1624 “God hath made no decree to
    distinguish the seasons of His mercies; in Paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in
    Heaven it is always Autumn, His mercies are ever in their maturity.” And N T Wright (Surprised
    By Hope , 2008) uses another quote from Donne to make a point about the “last enemy” to be defeated
    [“Death, be not Proud”] & has the conluding lines: .”.. Why swell’st thou then ?/ One short sleep past, we
    wake eternally, / And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die. ” The phrase, in the collect, “… any being is a mirror …” Is that taken from something Donne wrote ? What does it impart to the heared at
    a Eucharist at 7 AM ? It does not mean aught to me, even after 50 yrs of celebrations. RH Lewis

  9. “whatever has any being is a mirror in which we may behold you;”

    I didn’t know mirror imagery was one of the elements of the Sonnets, which explains where it came from and why it might be worked into a collect for Donne’s commemoration IF it makes sense as used in the congregation’s prayerful response. I must admit puzzling over it, myself, when I read it. Here, it feels forced, as a metaphor — since on first thought mirrors usually reflect the one looking into the mirror, and only secondarily do we consider others’ reflections included, or instead. I like the sentiment expressed — that all creation can point us to its originator, the Creator. I wonder, with Fr Lewis, if finding it with a mirror (because Donne used mirror imagery) isn’t like looking for your car keys under the street lamp because the light is better (even though you lost them in the corn field). Does it communicate well in the prayer?

  10. I suggest a subtitle: “poet and Preacher”. He isn’t here just because he was a priest!

    Line 4, second paragraph: add “in London” after “Born”.

    Line 5, second paragraph: substitute “on January 21,” for “in” after “family”.

    After the third paragraph, add an additional paragraph:
    “John Donne died in London on March 31, 1631

  11. Since the mirror imagery in the collect is so striking, wouldn’t it make sense to quote the original in the biography? Clearly, to a thinking person, this striking figure must refer to something Donne wrote, so it would make sense to quote that rather than the wonderful poem that was quoted. Or just expand it and give examples of his poetry, his sermons, and his published meditations. Even some of the passionate love poetry of his well-spent youth would add, shall we say, interest.

  12. To Sandra Sauter: when the bio was written we didn’t yet have the H82. I would certainly have put this reference to what we have in our Hymnal from Donne, but (not to put to fine a point on it) the bio was “Donne” berfore H82 was “Donne”! Again an updating is probably in order.

  13. Neither his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography nor the one in the ODCC support th bio’s description of his popularity as a preacher. He seems to have preached more often than many of the leading churchmen of his day, but doesn’t seem to have been particularly celebrated for it. He’s remembered mainly for his poetry, which is good stuff, but I question his suitability for a commemoration.

  14. John Donne’s statue is in St. Paul’s Cathedral in a prominent place. I hadn’t known he’d been dean of the cathedral until visiting it years ago, and was moved by it Interesting challenge above as to whether his sermons were actually that good. I Can someone find out? –In any case, if we commemorate writers of hymns for their role in deepening peoples’ faith, I would think we could commemorate poets for it. And if we’d like to highlight Anglicans on our calendar, I’d think John Donne would be one we can all be proud of.

    • That wonderful statue of Donne in his shroud in the south quire aisle is the only monument that survived unharmed when Donne’s cathedral, old St. Paul’s, burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1666. I think its lone survival is something which we can reasonably take this as a sign that his inclusion in the liturgical calendar is inspired and appropriate.

      Speaking of the current St. Paul’s, inclusion of Christopher Wren, architect of it and dozens of other English churches, in the calendar would be worth consideration. I can certainly make a stronger case for him than, e.g., the Mayos and Menninger, J.H. Newman, and some others.

  15. Here’s the URL for some praise of Donne’s sermons: The article begins thusly:
    “Though John Donne is known to his twenty-first century reader primarily as a poet, it is as a preacher that he reached his highest fame during his lifetime, and for his sermons that he expected to be remembered. From his first extant sermon in April 1615, delivered before Queen Anne when Donne was a newly-minted clergyman, to his famous last sermon Death’s Duell , Donne’s homiletic work displays a remarkable range of learning and interest. At the heart of Donne’s sermons lies an energy of mind that exhorts its audience to attend, to reflect, and even to wrestle with God after the example of Donne himself. Though Donne’s seventeenth-century biographer, Izaak Walton, viewed the poet-preacher as a contemporary version of Augustine, a sinner who cast aside his rakish youth and submitted his will to God, the sermons suggest that spiritual anxiety and uncertainty continued to be a hallmark of Donne’s religious observance. The sermons sound heights of spiritual rapture as well as plumbing the depths of existential and eschatological doubt. He uses the public pulpit to puzzle over the difficulties of his personal faith….”

  16. There are two errors of fact in this account of John Donne. I’m relying here on the work of Donne’s best biographer R. C. Bald, in his John Donne: A Life (Oxford UP, 1970).

    1. Donne was born in London in 1572 — not 1573, as you give it.

    2. Donne became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1621 (22 November, to be precise) — not 1622, as you give it.

    This is worth fixing, please. JNW

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