Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember the great metaphysical poet and Anglican Henry Vaughan.

It is the 17th of April 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Every show on the Almanac stands alone, but I will note fun parallels as they present themselves. Last week's cast of characters tended to revolve around the natural sciences, chiefly Francis Bacon and his work in the early Enlightenment. Working in England in the natural sciences, today, we remember a man a few years his junior whose temperament and works seem the exact opposite of Bacon's, yet still imbued with a Christian faith that sustained him and his works.

He was the poet Henry Vaughan, born on the 17th of April in 1622. He based his exploration of God through poetry and meditation on things divine through metaphysical poetry.

A quick word about these so-called “Metaphysical’ Poets. This is a proper name for a group of 17th-century poets writing in the style of John Donne and George Herbert. Rather than embracing the rationalism in the nascent Enlightenment or adhering to traditional forms of poetry, these men broke convention. They sought to ponder God and his creation through poetry that could be enigmatic, mysterious, iconoclastic, all the while devout.

This is to say, do not think of these poets, including our Vaughan, as you might imagine a “17th-century British Poet” but rather as a group of holy troublemakers writing verse that was both startling and refreshingly new.

What we know of Henry Vaughan comes from his correspondence, so some of the basic biographical details are absent. We know he was born on this day in 1622 in St. Bridget’s Parish in Wales and that he was the oldest, by minutes, of his identical twin Thomas. They would have a younger brother, William, whose early death seemed to shock both brothers.

We don’t have a record of him entering Jesus College, but we see his brother matriculation in 1638 and assume Henry went with him, although he did not get a degree. Instead, Henry went to London to study law, yet he never practiced. He would move home to the family estate in Wales and spend the rest of his life in his beloved and bucolic Welsh countryside.

His early poems are unremarkable, in the style of Ben Johnson, that is, in the style of the satirists and humorists.

But sometime in the 1640s, everything changed. This was not just for Vaughan; this was the era of the English Civil Wars. The Vaughan brothers were staunch Monarchists and Anglicans, and this eventually put them at odds with the Puritans and the reign of Oliver Cromwell. Henry underwent a personal conversion of sorts after reading the works of George Herbert, who wrote: [he was a] “blessed man ... whose holy life and verse gained many pious Converts (of whom I am the least).”

His major poetic works would be collected in the two-volume Silex Scintillans, published in 1650 and 1655. The title refers to a “flashing flint,” something that could spark a fire, both devotionally but also in the hermetic sense of secret wisdom. Vaughan, unlike many of his contemporaries, saw in the hermetic (secretive) world of Rosicrucianism an embrace of God’s fingerprints in astrology, numerology, and homeopathic medicine. Unlike later practitioners, this wasn’t a mystical turn from the God of the Bible but towards him.

Much of the second volume of the Silex Scintillans would serve the devotional lives of Anglicans, who would be forbidden from practicing their faith. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer was banned, but you could follow its patterns of liturgy in his poems, some of which carried epigrams of the Holy Days banned by Cromwell’s regime. Vaughan and his twin Thomas, a priest who lost his parish after the war and died young on account of an alchemical experiment gone bad, were fairly known in their lifetimes but it was the 19th-century Anglo-Catholic movement- the Tractarians in the Oxford movement that took a renewed interest in Henry whose works would sometimes be published with the Book of Common Prayer. Following a similar path as the reputation of John Donne, new editions of his works and biographies would re-introduce Henry Vaughan to a wider audience. One of his most popular poems, My Soul, the Is A Country, was written in response to the English Civil Wars but would be set to music and become a beloved hymn amidst World War I.

Born in 1622, Henry Vaughan died in 1695 at the age of 73.


The last word for today is from Herbert and “My Soul, There is A Country,” contrasting worldly wars with the host of heaven and its commander, the true King of Kings.

1 My soul, there is a country

far beyond the stars,

where stands a wingèd sentry

all skilful in the wars.


2 There, above noise and danger,

sweet peace sits crowned with smiles,

and One born in a manger

commands the beauteous files.


3 He is thy gracious Friend,

and — O my soul, awake! —

did in pure love descend,

to die here for thy sake.


4 If thou canst get but thither,

there grows the flower of peace,

the rose that cannot wither,

thy fortress and thy ease.


5 Leave then thy foolish ranges,

for none can thee secure

but one who never changes,

thy God, thy life, thy cure.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of April 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who was sure Silex Scintillans was a curse in Harry Potter. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by who will never, ever stop being puzzled when coming across anything written in Welsh- I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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