Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. A Critical Edition with Modern Spelling
by Richard Hooker,
edited by Arthur Stephen McGrade.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Three volumes. Hardcover, 1100 pages, $420.

If asked “Which thinker exerted the greatest influence on the American founders?” most Americans educated enough to know an answer would likely reply with little hesitation, “John Locke.” If asked “Which theologian exerted the greatest influence on the development of English Protestantism,” many might hesitate a bit more, but would probably answer, “John Calvin.” But there is a strong case to be made that the answer for both questions should be the same, although it is a name probably unknown even to the vast majority of well-educated Americans—Richard Hooker, himself profoundly influenced by Calvin and a profound influence on Locke.

Russell Kirk wrote in Enemies of the Permanent Things that “probably Richard Hooker, directly or indirectly, had more to do with the fundamental opinions of the founding Fathers than did Locke,” and indeed, given Locke’s pervasive reliance on Hooker, for the more conservative aspects of his thought at any rate, it is perhaps a moot point. Moreover, through the legacy of the great English statesman Edmund Burke, who, among all his admirers perhaps most closely matched his vision and temperament, Hooker’s thought exerted a profound influence on conservative political thought on both sides of the Atlantic through the last two centuries. Burke held Hooker in the highest esteem, and was fond of quoting the line from Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, “The reason first why we do admire those things which are greatest, and second those things which are ancientest, is because the one are the least distant from the infinite substance, the other from the infinite continuance, of God.” This remark, says Kirk, “holds the kernel of his [Burke’s] philosophy of prescription.”

This philosophy of “prescription” holds that if something has been practiced long and widely by a society there is probably a very good reason for it; Hooker will go so far as to say, “The general and perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God himself.” And even if, on closer inspection, there turns out not to be a good reason for it, the mere fact of its long continuance argues against hasty change, since change, even for the good, is inherently disruptive and can have unexpected harmful consequences. However, such prescription is anything but absolute, but must be wed to prudence, which discerns the need of the times and knows how to respond creatively to it.

It is this esteem for prudence that Hooker bequeathed to the conservative tradition of Burke and Kirk, and that separates him from the mere reactionary or Constitution-thumper, such as one finds in much contemporary conservatism. “We cannot be ignorant,” says Hooker, “how sometimes that hath done great good, which afterwards, when time hath changed the ancient course of things, doth grow to be either very hurtful or not so greatly profitable and necessary.” Moreover, Hooker’s “prescription” is anchored in the conviction of a divine order underlying human affairs, an order that may be appealed to in critique even of deeply rooted and long-lasting unjust orders. Contemporary conservatism, then, would do well to attend anew to the thought of Richard Hooker, so extraordinarily forgotten in recent decades.

A. S. McGrade’s effort to make Hooker (1554–1600) once again accessible to modern audiences in this new modern-spelling edition of his magnum opus, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is thus an extraordinarily welcome development, to be hailed by historians, theologians, political philosophers, and the educated public in general. A critical edition of this kind, on this scale, demands a truly herculean labor and usually involves a whole team of editors; that McGrade has done this largely on his own is a remarkable labor of love that deserves our lasting gratitude. Before discussing the merits of this new edition, however, it might be helpful (given Hooker’s long neglect just mentioned) to introduce readers to this extraordinary text.

“Hooker,” one commentator famously remarked “is the name of a book, not of a man.” Hooker’s life was fairly unremarkable in itself, and his other scattered writings and sermons, though brilliant, are few and short enough that he would likely be lost almost altogether to history were it not for the eight books (published in three volumes, the last three posthumously) of the Laws. Here Hooker undertakes a systematic defense of the established polity of the English church against its Puritan-Presbyterian critics, laying broad and deep foundations in philosophy, theology, and political theory before meeting head-on the leading principles of the puritan platform and then refuting, point-by-point, their objections against each aspect of the English church’s worship and organization.

The Preface, in addition to expressing the purpose for the work, provides a keen analysis of the social circumstances that called it forth. Book I provides a theological and philosophical account of the different forms of law that govern human affairs. Book II critically examines the biblicist foundation of puritan epistemology, Book III the puritan assumption of a divine-law constitution for the church, and Book IV their first principle of liturgics: to depart as far as possible from Roman Catholicism. With these foundations laid, Hooker uses Book V to defend the disputed parts of the Book of Common Prayer, Book VI (unfinished) to critique the Presbyterian doctrine of lay-elders, Book VII to defend episcopal jurisdiction, and the unfinished Book VIII to defend (and just as importantly, to define and delimit) the royal supremacy in the English church.

This approach, developing a systematic theology and political theory in the course of polemic disputation on very practical questions, represented what C. S. Lewis called “a revolution in the art of controversy.” The resulting text is thus of enduring interest not only to historians, but to theologians, philosophers, and political theorists. Indeed, it is considerably more than that, as McGrade reveals in his introduction. In the Preface, and elsewhere in the Laws, Hooker manifests a remarkably keen sense of social psychology that continues to be instructive to anyone seeking to understand mass movements of political discontent. His extraordinary prose style, “for its purpose, perhaps the most perfect in English,” in Lewis’s estimation, places Hooker high in the canon of English literature alongside the great Elizabethan poets such as Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare, and warrants continuing study not merely as a literary artifact, but as a powerful model of controversial rhetoric.

Hooker’s remarkable and idiosyncratic prose style, however, characterized by long sentences that unfold a proposition deliberately, clause by clause, renders him difficult for the modern reader, and accounts perhaps for his recent neglect. So how well does McGrade’s edition succeed as an attempt to bridge this 420-year gap? In some ways, excellently. McGrade’s ninety-page introduction is immensely valuable in setting the context and history of the Laws, its value for the modern reader, and in outlining at length the structure of its argument and the insights to be found in each of its chapters. This introduction provides a detailed roadmap so that different audiences, coming to Hooker each for different reasons, may know where best to focus their attention. The glossary of unfamiliar vocabulary, glossary of names and sources, bibliography, Scripture index, and topical index that occupy the last 110 pages of volume three are of immense value to the casual reader and the scholar alike. And to be sure, the modernization of spelling, announced on the volume cover, removes the first and most obvious obstacle to an easy appreciation of Hooker by the modern reader.

However, I am not sure that McGrade has done enough to achieve all of his goals for this edition; or rather, I do not think it is really possible for one edition to do all that McGrade hopes. McGrade is eager for this edition to be able to function as a full critical edition for scholarly use, in most respects replacing the Folger Library edition (1972–1997), though the Folger remains valuable for a few very specialized scholarly needs. This means that he is unwilling to really alter anything other than spelling. Thus Hooker’s irregular punctuation, capitalization, use ofitalics, and so on, are retained along with such archaic usages as “to us-ward” or “to God-ward,” all of which can make his already complex sentences a bit more difficult to process. And of course McGrade makes no attempt to break up these sentences, which though beloved by Hooker devotees, often frighten away new readers. To do all this, of course, one would have to abandon the attempt to provide an edition fit for scholars and offer a separate, somewhat paraphrased (and hopefully inexpensive), popular edition.

One can see why McGrade did not want to intervene in such a way. There is yet one editorial alteration that would have been minor to implement but would have made the book much more readable than it is currently. Not only are Hooker’s sentences sprawling, but so are his paragraphs, sometimes running for pages without break. Keble undertook to break them up, but the Folger Edition did not, and neither does McGrade. Given that both the font and the margins of this edition are noticeably smaller than in the Folger, the eye is confronted with formidable uninterrupted blocks of text. The result, when combined with Hooker’s sprawling sentences, is great difficulty for the reader in sustaining attention to the train of thought (even I, who would rather read Hooker than almost any other book, found my attention constantly wandering). Hopefully other readers will not be so vulnerable to this visual defect as myself, but it is certainly an oversight in an otherwise wonderful and much-welcome edition of one of the English language’s greatest books. 

W. Bradford Littlejohn just completed his PhD on Richard Hooker and is the managing editor of Political Theology Today.