Vol I No. 7
English Reformation

On the Homilies: The Misery of Mankind

by The Editors


The Second Homily, titled “A Sermon of the Misery of All Mankind, and of His Condemnation to Death Everlasting by His Own Sin,” offers commentary on our fallen state as human beings. This homily is generally ascribed to the Archdeacon John Harpsfield of London, a controversial convert from Roman Catholicism who was involved in the interrogation of Archbishop Cranmer under the Marian reign. In this homily, which represents a later shift in his thought, Archdeacon Harpsfield responds to some common misperceptions of the doctrine of good works by articulating a classically Augustinian view of humanity’s fallen and sinful condition.

The homily begins by reminding us that we are but dust, earth, and ashes: “The Holy Ghost, in writing the Holy Scripture, is in nothing more diligent than to pull down man’s vain-glory and pride; which of all vices is most universally grafted in all mankind, even from the first infection of our first father Adam.” As we read in the last homily, our need to learn the virtue of humility becomes apparent when we diligently read the Scriptures. The Archdeacon reminds us that knowledge of the Scriptures teaches us “how to know ourselves, and to remember what we be of ourselves.”

To exemplify the humble and lowly estimation we should have of ourselves, the Archdeacon tells of “Judith, Esther, Job, Jeremiah, and other holy men and women in the Old Testament” who called and cried to God for help and mercy in sackcloth and ashes because of their sinful living. He portrays sinfulness in strong terms, referring to our “vile corrupt frail nature”, and he suggests that we “pull down our proud stomachs” by reading Scripture. The Archdeacon portrays our fallen state so severely that the homily draws us to Genesis 6:5-7, noting that we are so vile that “God repented that ever he made man.”

According to the Archdeacon, this utterly fallen state afflicts every person; the “wise man” of Ecclesiastes reminds us: “There is not one just man upon the earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Eccles. 7:20). Rather than attempting to do good works to remedy our sinful state, we must cry for mercy by looking to the example of Christ, who “came not to save but the sheep that were utterly lost and cast away” (Matt. 15:24). As the first part of this homily ends, we learn that we must avoid the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who attempted to justify their sinfulness. Instead, we must recognize our faults.

Lest we end on a futile and dour note, the second part of the homily offers hope. This hope comes not from “our merits or works.” For, if we were justified through “our merits and works,” we would be hopelessly lost in this world. Instead, we must humble ourselves and confess our sins. The homily states:

Let us acknowledge ourselves before God (as we be indeed) miserable and wretched sinners. And let us earnestly repent, and humble ourselves heartily, and cry to God for mercy. Let us all confess with our mouth and heart, that we be full of imperfections.

By confessing our sins and repenting, “the Father of mercies and God of all consolation” offers us “plenteous redemption.” As we repeat every week in the Book of Common Prayer: “Thou art the same Lord whose property is to always have mercy.” This mercy, which is extended through Jesus, is our salvation.

Archdeacon Harpsfield closes with an exhortation to acknowledge our sins and glorify God. For, “If we […] humbly submit ourselves in the sight of God, we may be sure that in the time of his visitation, he will lift us up unto the kingdom of his dearly beloved Son Christ Jesus our Lord: to whom, with the Father, and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory forever.”

This homily teaches us that only Christ can save us because we are very fallen people. By this, the homilist does not suggest that our reason is completely dimmed as a means of knowing God. God illumines every person who comes into the world with the light of Reason, which enables us to know truth from falsehood and good from evil. Rather, Archdeacon Harpsfield suggests that we are great sinners through the erring of our wills and as such, we are in need of salvation. To quote the Morning Office, “We have erred and strayed from thy way like lost sheep. We have followed too much the desires of our own hearts.” Thankfully, in the Third Homily, we will learn that our salvation is freely given by God through Jesus Christ.

The Ninth Article of Religion:

Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, an dis of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.

The Tenth Article of Religion:

The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.