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Sterry, Peter

Category: Mystic

 

Peter Sterry (1613–1672) is described in many biographies as “an English ‘independent’ theologian”, associated with the Cambridge Platonists prominent during the English Civil War era. But Peter Sterry was a mystic, little understood, greatly ridiculed, but whose writings are key to mystic thought.  He also heard celestial music and spoke of 'hidden music'.

He was chaplain to Parliamentarian general Robert Greville, 2nd Baron Brooke and then Oliver Cromwell.  A number of his sermons were printed "by Order of the House," and enjoyed a wide popularity, though their great length would make them impossible sermons to-day. Cromwell evidently appreciated his preaching very highly and felt no objection to the mystical strain that runs through all his sermons.  Sir Benjamin Rudyard once said that his sermons were "too high for this world and too low for the other", which indicates the level of understanding prevalent at the time, rather than his abilities. 

Sperry was a sympathiser with early Quakerism.  He was also a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and he is commemorated by a stained glass window in the chapel of Emmanuel College, which has an archive of unpublished writings.

The following extracts are quite useful in summarising his life.

 

Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries — Rufus M. Jones

Peter Sterry was born in Surrey, early in the seventeenth century, and entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1629, graduating B.A. in 1633 and M.A. in 1637. Emmanuel College had been founded during Elizabeth's reign (1584) by one of her statesmen, Sir Walter Mildmay, for the especial encouragement of Calvinistic theology, and it was the most important intellectual nursery of the great Puritan movement in England.

Sterry was a thorough-going Platonist in his type of thought and had much in common with Henry More, whose writings were "divinely pleasant" to him and whom he calls "a prophet" of the spiritual unity of the universe, …. Sterry is not usually reckoned among the Cambridge Platonists, but there is no reason why he should not be included in that group. He was trained in the University which was the natural home of the movement, he read the authors most approved by the members of this school, and his own message is penetrated with the spirit and ideals of the seventeenth-century Platonists. His writings abound with references to Plato and Plotinus, with occasional references to Proclus and Dionysius the Areopagite; and the world-conceptions of this composite school of philosophers, as they were revived by the Renaissance, are fundamental to his thought.

Emmanuel college, Cambridge

He was thoroughly acquainted with the writings of Ficino, and quotes him among his approved masters. He had also profoundly studied the great mystics and was admirably equipped intellectually to be the interpreter of a far different type of Christianity from that of the current theologies.

Sperry was devotedly fond of music, art, and poetry, and he held similar views to Milton regarding the Presbyterian system. He naturally fell out of public notice after the Restoration, and quietly occupied himself with literary work, until his death in 1672. The main material for a study of his "message" will be found in his three posthumous Books:

  • A Discourse of the Freedom of the Will (1675);
  • Rise, Race and Royalty of the Kingdom of God in the Soul of Man (1683), and
  • Appearance of God to Man in the Gospel (1710).

 His prose style is lofty and often marked with singular beauty, though he is almost always too prolix for our generation, and too prone to divide his discourse into heads and sub-heads, and sub-divisions of sub-heads.

The library in Emmanuel college

Everything in the universe, he believes, is double. The things that are seen are copies -- often faint and shadowy -- of That which is. Every particular thing "below" corresponds to an eternal reality "above." Even those things which appear shallow possess an infinite depth, or we may just as well say an infinite height.   And the immense congeries of things and events, even "the jarring and tumultuous contrarieties," "through the whole world, through the whole compass of time, through both the bright and the black Regions of Life and Death," consent and melodize in one celestial music and perfect harmony of Divine purpose."The stops and shakes make music as well as the stroaks [sic] and sounds," even Death "is bound by a gold chain with shining links of Love"

He outdoes even the "pillar" Quakers, his contemporaries in later life, in his proclamation of a Divine Root and Seed in the soul of man.

Emmanuel college chapel

The mighty event of re-birth is described by Sterry very much after the manner of Schwenckfeld. The new Seed, the divine Life itself, comes into operation within the man, and the new-made man, raised with ‘Christ’.  The shift of direction, the complete reversal, however, does not mean "parting with delights," or "putting on a sad and sour conversation" -- on the contrary, it means enlargement of soul and "a gainful addition of joy".

He is always gentle in his account of other religions and other stages of faith, and he sees good in all types: 'Let all that differ in Principles, Professions, Opinions and Forms, see the good there is in each other'!

The world, busy with action and choosing for its historical study the men who did things, has allowed Peter Sterry to drop into oblivion and his books to gather dust and cobwebs, but there was, I think, a Seed of God in him, and he had a message for his age. He sincerely endeavoured to hand on the torch which in his youth at Cambridge had been kindled in him by some other flame. "When one candle is lighted," he beautifully says, "we light many by it, and when God hath kindled the Life of His glory in one man's Heart he often enkindles many by the flame of that."

 As should be apparent from the number of links I have provided to the concepts section in the extract above, his writing was full of allegorical and symbolic references, as such, unless one is acquainted with the concepts and symbolism of mystic thought, his sermons will be either impossible to follow, or you will assume a mundane or incorrect interpretation. 

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