Who Was George Herbert?


Audio Transcript

Pastor John, I know you are gearing up for the Desiring God Conference for Pastors here in a few weeks in Minneapolis. And you are planning to deliver a biographical sketch this year of poet, George Herbert. Is there anything from Herbert’s life that you can share with us; any teasers from your research?

I am very excited about Herbert. I do not know exactly what I am going to say yet, but I am immersed in him these days as I move toward the Pastor’s Conference. Herbert was born in 1593, and he did not live to be 40 years old. He died just short of his 40th year. So he is another one of those saints who did not live long but had a huge effect. He was born of a wealthy family and went to Cambridge. He became the orator at Cambridge and thus wrote and spoke before King James, who is responsible for the King James Bible.

Worldly Ambition or Devotion to Jesus?

Herbert battled all of his young life with whether he should yield to the ministry — the call of a pastorate — or whether he should aim at a role in the royal court. So a lot of his poems come from this soul conflict between honor and pleasure and power on the one hand, and a life utterly devoted to Jesus on the other hand. And I think that is why many of his poems are so effective.

Who was George Herbert and what can we learn from his poetry?

He wrote about 184 poems, and what is remarkable is that when he was seventeen, he wrote two sonnets for his mother, whom he loved very much. And in those sonnets he pledged himself to write only for the glory of God. So, in spite of all this battling with his public life in the years just after Cambridge, he held to that promise.

We know of no poems from the pen of George Herbert that do not deal with God or with the soul in relation to God. He is not like John Donne, who spent half his life, or more, writing poems of a more secular, natural kind. All of Herbert’s poems were devoted to God. Eventually, he assembled them in a book that he never published during his lifetime. But it was given away to Nicolas Ferrar right after Herbert died, and then published within seven months after he died and went through a lot of editions.

Herbert Was Not a Professional

What I am going to try to do is show how God won that victory. Herbert gave himself over to God and the ministry and was a little country pastor in a tiny church called Bemerton for the last three years of his life, and then he died of tuberculosis just short of his 40th birthday. And I want to show how Herbert's poetry captures that conflict and how poetry figures into this whole issue of "Brothers, We Are Still Not Professionals".

Piper: “George Herbert is another one of those saints who did not live long but had a huge impact.”

This is what I am constantly looking at when I am reading his poetry: how does Herbert — in his conflicts, in his soul, in his finally yielding to God in his final years of pastoral ministry — represent for us what I am trying to say in "Brothers, We are Still Not Professionals"? So I am really eager to take his poetry, his life, and his ministry and weave them together into a kind of challenge to the pastors, along with others, to not be the kind of professionals we are warning against.


Pastor John delivered his biography on George Herbert at Desiring God's 2013 Conference for Pastors.