Richard Sibbes was a 17th-century English Puritan who never married, nurtured close male friendships, wore extravagantly lacy clothing and preached a rather queer theology.
Puritans have a reputation for being puritanical, but Sibbes was not like that. He developed a theology that resonates with LGBTQ Christians today, especially as the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday approaches.
Sibbes (1577-1635) never left England, but he was a popular preacher when the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in November 1621 in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and during the great migration of Puritans that followed. Sibbes’ works were widely read in colonial America as well as in England. They are still considered the best introduction to Puritan theology. The many men whom he mentored included John Cotton, one of the most prominent Anglican ministers in colonial New England.
For Sibbes, the purpose of ministry was to “woo for Christ.” He enticed people to become godly by loving Christ — to desire not simply salvation, “but to desire the Lord of salvation himself,” as scholar Michael Reeves states in the foreword to one of the many collections of Sibbes sermons.
Sibbes extolled the value of friendship with statement such as, “There is a sweet sight of God in the face of a friend” and “Godly friends are walking sermons.” Many of his reflections on friendship can easily be applied to same-sex love, such as these lines from “Light from Heaven/The Fountain Opened”:
As we see creatures of the same kind,
they love and company one with another,
doves with doves, and lambs with lambs;
so it must be with the children of God,
or else we do not know what the Communion of Saints means,
which indeed is a thing little understood in the world.
Sibbes charmed listeners by expanding on the traditional bridal theology of mystical marriage, which compares the love between the believer and Christ to erotic love and marriage. He connected mystical marriage with a theology of friendship when he called ministers “friends of the Bridegroom.”
Listeners adored his “sweet soul-melting gospel sermons” and gave Sibbes nicknames such as the “Sweet Dropper.”
How I discovered the queer side of Richard Sibbes
As far as I know, nobody else has identified Sibbes as queer before. But after a decade of blogging about LGBTQ saints, I was struck by how well he fits the pattern.
My spouse Audrey first alerted me to Sibbes. One day she came home from her commute excited by what she had just heard on right-wing Christian radio: a lecture and interview about Sibbes.
“I was driving on the freeways of LA and suddenly my ‘gaydar’ went off,” she said. “The radio show host was interviewing the scholar and he said Sibbes wore elaborate ruffled outfits that were eccentric for Puritan preachers of that era. They couldn’t understand why he wore ruffled clothes. They seemed to be mystified as to why he never married and had intense friendships with other men. There was loads of gay-alert stuff on the radio, but they had no idea. Those two straight men were totally and utterly out of it.”
The Sibbes scholar seemed blissfully unaware that he was listing characteristics common among gay men today and throughout history. I started researching Sibbes, and the more I looked, the queerer he seemed. As with most historical figures, it is impossible to know whether Sibbes’ close same-sex friendships included sexual activity. I decided to share my findings here on Qspirit.net.
Life of Richard Sibbes
Sibbes was born in 1577 during the Reformation in a small village in Suffolk, England. His father was a wheelwright who built and repaired wooden wheels. While Sibbes was growing up, other boys teased him for his poverty and he retreated into books and study, where he excelled.
He studied at the University of Cambridge and there he was converted to the Church of England around 1602-03. He was ordained a priest on Feb. 21, 1608. Sibbes rose through a variety of teaching and preaching positions at Cambridge and elsewhere.
His sermons were so popular at Cambridge that a gallery had to be built for the crowds he attracted. In 1627 he received his doctor of divinity degree from Cambridge, leading others to start calling him “the Heavenly Doctor.” He continued to minister at Cambridge and at the prestigious Gray’s Inn in London until he died on July 6, 1635 at age 58.
Richard Sibbes’ “astonishing network” of male friends
The unmarried Sibbes developed what historians called “an astonishing network” of male friends, including ministers, lawyers, businessmen and government leaders. As the biography by historian Mark Dever points, “Sibbes was not only a bachelor, but lived in communities of bachelors.”
Much beloved by his friends, Sibbes helped Puritan preachers get ministry jobs across England. He was a mentor to many young men who went on to become influential ministers, such as Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, John Preston and Jeremiah Burroughs. His social circle also included a few female friends, such as Lady Elizabeth Brooke.
Sibbes made a big impression then and now with his elaborate clothing. Most Puritan men wore flat, square collars, but not Sibbes. Church canons specified plain caps for clergy outerwear during Sibbes’ time, but he apparently flouted this rule.
His enormous frilly ruff and lacy cap stand out even to contemporary viewers in the portrait at the top of this post. The portrait is also notable for its lack of traditional male accessories. Linda M. Johnson describes it well in “Spiritual Autobiography in Puritan Portraiture,” her Ph.D. dissertation at Michigan State University:
Dress consumes the canvas in Sibbes’ portrait as he draws attention to himself in the translucent brilliance, as well as the abundance of the linen and lace that embellishes his cap and slightly parted multi-layered ruff.… Sibbes makes the decision to go without a wig and instead allows wispy curls of his golden hair to peek out from a snug black cap which is brightly trimmed with pointed lace…. Sibbes’ depiction is unique in that all other male conventional accoutrements such as leggings, wigs, books, or gloves are forfeited.
The queer theology of Richard Sibbes
Sibbes was a moderate Calvinist Anglican with Puritan sympathies in a church that grew increasingly antagonistic to such views. The Puritans, also known as “non-separating Episcopalians,” were non-conformist Protestants who wanted to “purify” the Church of England from Catholic influences — or else leave for places such as America. Pilgrims, an extreme branch of the Puritans, left for America on the Mayflower in 1620.
Scholars who write about Sibbes today tend to be conservatives who downplay his theology of friendship. But the definitive biography of Sibbes makes clear that friendship was a primary theme for him. “One of the most striking aspects of Richard Sibbes’ sermons is his frequent and powerful reference to friendship,” author Mark Dever writes in “Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England.”
Sibbes urged friendship with the Holy Spirit, saying: “There is no one in the world so great and sweet a friend who will do us so much good as the Spirit, if we give him entertainment.”
He described friendship as a spiritual path, saying in a sermon titled “The Soul’s Conflict with Itself and Victory over Itself by Faith”:
There is a sweet sight of God in the face of a friend; for though the comfort given by God’s messengers be ordinarily most effectual, as the blessing of parents, who are in God’s room, is more effectual than the blessing of others upon their children; yet God hath promised a blessing to the offices of communion of saints performed by one private man to another.
He also called God “the great Friend” and explored mystical marriage with Christ his 20-part sermon series on the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs). He gave it the not-so-catchy title “Bowels Opened,” referring to the gut-level desires that he explores or “opens.” The sermon series is still available as a book that was rechristened with a more modern title, “The Love of Christ.”
Sibbes connects friendship with Christ to mystical marriage in sermons such as “Light from Heaven/The Fountain Opened,” which includes this passage that seems to invite queer interpretations:
The preachers are paranymphi, the friends of the Bridegroom, that are to procure the marriage between Christ and his Church: therefore, they are not only to lay open the riches of the Husband, Christ; but likewise to entreat for a marriage, and to use all the gifts and parts that God has given them, to bring Christ and his church together.
Sibbes joins a group of historic theologians revered by the LGBTQ community for writing a theology of friendship. Others include 12th-century English saint Aelred of Rievaulx, one of the main theologians of same-sex friendship in the West, and 20th-century Russian priest Pavel Florensky, who wrote in the Orthodox tradition.
His contemporaries called Sibbes “honey-tongued.” The same phrase was used to describe Bernard of Clairvaux, a queer medieval French clergyman who also did a sermon series on the Song of Songs and promoted mystical marriage with Christ.
His most widely available book in modern times is his more sober sermon series on salvation titled “The Bruised Reed.”
Literature and movies have made it easy to think of Puritan immigrants to colonial America as cold, narrow-minded prudes who listened to guilt-inducing sermons on sin. But Sibbes proves that they also read and heard seductive sermons that may fit with today’s queer theology.
A line that Sibbes often repeated in his sermons was, “There is more grace in Christ than there is sin in us.” Happy Thanksgiving!
Books by and about Richard Sibbes
“The Love of Christ” (previously titled “Bowels Opened”) by Richard Sibbes
Complete works of Richard Sibbes (7 Volume Set)
Top image credit:
Oil painting of Richard Sibbes, circa 1630 (Wikipedia)
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBT and queer martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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