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Fisher's Psalms for Penitents

Published Apr 28, 2010
Fisher's Psalms for Penitents

There was in the realm "no one man in wisdom, learning, and long approved virtue ... to be matched and compared with him," wrote Thomas More of John Fisher. Like More, John Fisher was beheaded for opposing the King Henry VIII's assumption of authority to head the English church. Fisher met his death with dignity and piety. An old man at the time, he had contributed much to his nation's intellectual and spiritual life.

Although Fisher took his degree late in life, his qualities advanced him rapidly at Cambridge College. The school was at the time in a stupor. He revitalized its curriculum. It was Fisher who brought Erasmus and Greek learning to the University. The two became close friends and Erasmus wrote, "He is the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning, and for greatness of soul." To Fisher also we owe the founding of St. John's College and Christ College, Cambridge.

Like Thomas More, John Fisher resisted the Reformation. Unwaveringly Catholic, he read Luther and praised some of his ideas, but publicly burned the works, calling them heretical overall. He preached a sermon casting off the reformer John Barnes (who was burned at the stake). Yet, as Bishop of Rochester and Chancellor of Cambridge, Fisher sought to revitalize English Christianity. He did this through sermons and writings and by appointing twelve university priests to preach throughout the nation in the English tongue, leading "revival" services. His prayers sometimes show deep Christian piety, as when he wrote: "O my blessed Savior Lord Jesus, thou asketh my love, thou desirest to have my heart ... [and] since it is thy pleasure to have it and thy goodness doth ask it of me saying: Give me thy heart, I freely give it to thee..."

Most of Fisher's writings were in Latin. One which is not is his Seven Penitential Psalms. John was confessor of Henry VII's mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. At her request he prepared this work. It was published on this day, June 12, 1509, the year she died. The sermons went through several editions in his lifetime. These seven psalms had a long tradition in church history. Consisting of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143, they were recited during Lent.

Here is a sample of Fisher's writing. Translation follows:

No man may doubt of this: that by the aspersion of blood of beasts before the Incarnation was signified and represented the blood of Christ for our redemption, which blood of our Savior without doubt is of much more strength incomparable to do away sins than was the blood of beasts.


  1. Castle, Tony. The New Book of Christian Prayers. New York: Crossroad, 1986.
  2. Fisher, John. The English Works of John Fisher Bishop of Rochester. Editor John E. B. Mayor. London: Published for the Early English Text Society by Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1935, 1876.
  3. "Fisher, John." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
  4. "Fisher, John, St." New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Thomson, Gale, 2002-.
  5. "Fisher, St. John" and "Seven Penitential Psalms." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  6. Mangan, John Joseph. Life, Character and Influence of Disiderius Erasmus. New York: Macmillan, 1927.

Last updated April, 2007.


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