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The golden age of the preacher’s art

22 March 2013

Michael Wheeler on the pulpit's saints, stirrers, and stars

The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon 1689-1901
Keith A. Francis and William Gibson, editors
OUP £95
Church Times Bookshop £85.50 (Use code CT132 )

BEFORE the Glorious Revolution, those who could not read listened to sermons in church, and, if they were not Puritans, perhaps heard poetry and prose delivered by actors at the playhouse. After the death of Queen Victoria, the sermon competed with other forms of communication favoured by more literate generations. In between, sermons, heard and read, were important ingredients in most people's spiritual, social, and intellectual formation.

This fact has been largely ignored by all but the specialists. Keith Francis, secretary of the American Society for Church History, and William Gibson, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford Brookes, have recruited a formidable group of 31 colleagues from around the world to help them fill the gap. The result is an outstanding work of accessible scholarship, richly annotated and elegantly printed.

Gibson gets the collection off to a flying start with an overview of the "golden age" of sermon culture in Britain. The 80,000 or so printed sermons of the period represent a tiny and unrepresentative sample of a staggering 250 million "sermon events" from 1689 to 1901, events that were fugitive, lodging only in the memories and now scarce reminiscences of long-dead auditors. Congregations were hungry for sermons, sometimes humming their approval or demanding another half-hour's worth. Even poorly educated congregations, Gibson states, could become discerning.

Although the reading of sermons by preachers was common, opinion on the subject was sharply divided, and, at the Restoration, Charles II tried to suppress the practice, albeit without success. Styles of presentation ranged widely, from the coolly restrained to the tearfully histrionic. Figures such as Whitefield and Spurgeon could command vast crowds. Charities benefited greatly from the sale of tickets for occasional sermons, as those who campaigned for the abolition of slavery discovered.

Francis follows up with a review of themes and developments, beginning with an account of the Victorian publisher Charles E. Verrall of Brighton, who offered preachers a comprehensive reporting, printing, and publishing package, which would see their sermons safely and (fairly) accurately into print. Not only charities benefited from sermon publication: clergy and their supporters were often keen to have sermons printed, thereby enhancing a clerical career, rather like academics today. Spurgeon was the "master publisher"; but his contemporaries Newman, Kingsley, Church, and Liddon were equally well known for their collections of printed sermons.

The second part of the Oxford Handbook focuses on "Communities, cultures and communication", with chapters on parish preaching in the long 18th century, and the Victorian era; preaching from the platform; Quaker, Evangelical, and Catholic sermons; preaching in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales (plus an account of sermons in Welsh); and, finally, sermons preached at the anniversary meetings of the Three Choirs, 1720-1800.

Jeffrey S. Chamberlain records that the only drafts of 18th-century sermons to have survived seem to be those of Bishop Berkeley, examples of whose "skeletons" were published in 1871. Most of the clergy wrote their sermons in the first year of their ministry, and never lifted their pens again. The Revd Francis Stanley, for example, Rector of Eastwick, preached his sermons every few years from 1764 to 1821, and his manuscripts show very little alteration or emendation. Victorian village sermons were often autocratic in tone, and it is striking how seldom the love of God is mentioned.

The colourful Edward Irving was one of several Victorian pin-up preachers. His words speak to our situation today: "The chief obstacle to the progress of divine truth over the minds of men, is the want of its being properly presented to them."

Part III concerns occasional sermons, ranging from preaching at Court and in Parliament to the Victorian funeral sermon, by way of chapters on anti-Jacobite sermons, national-thanksgiving sermons, preaching during the American and French Revolutions, visitation sermons and charges, consecration sermons, and 18th-century Protestant funeral sermons.

Some occasional sermons generated much heat as well as light: the Bangorian Controversy, sparked by Bishop Hoadly, is a famous example. Sermons marking the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, King and Martyr, tended to be preached on 30 January in years when British security was under threat. Visitation sermons by bishops and archdeacons provide useful insights into the principal concerns of the Church at a particular time.

Funeral sermons on figures of national importance, such as Wellington, were preached all over the land, sometimes with surprising frankness, as when Francis Maude of Ipswich discussed at some length the question whether the Duke had been a Christian!

Whereas the fascinating chapters in Part IV, "Controversies, and the development of ideas", naturally concentrate on content rather than form, as do those in Part V, "Missions and ideas of Empire", the literary critics who tackle the relationship between "Sermons and literature" in Part VI bring form and content together, resulting in the best work in the collection. Stephen Prickett is as engaging as ever, and Kirstie Blair and Linda Gill are skilled in their handling of quoted extracts in chapters on the poet-preachers and the Victorian novel.

Francis rounds the book off with an essay on the present state of sermon studies, and possible ways forward. He and Gibson are to be congratulated: present and future students of the subject will turn to their handbook as the first port of call.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton.

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