The history of preaching begins with the first sermon ever delivered, the first and the best, that of our blessed Lord on the mount in Galilee.
The declamations of the ancient prophets differ widely in character from the sermons of Christian orators, and in briefly tracing the history of sacred elocution, we shall put them on one side.
For the true principles of preaching are enshrined in that glorious mountain sermon. From it we learn what a Christian oration ought to be. We see that it should contain instruction in Gospel truths, illustrations from natural objects, warnings, and moral exhortations, and that considerable variety of matter may be introduced, so long as the essential unity of the piece be not interfered with.
In this consists the difference between Christ’s model sermon, and the exhortations of those who went before Him.
Jonah preached to the Ninevites, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” and that was his only subject.
John Baptist preached in the wilderness, and on one point only, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
They confined themselves to a single topic, and that purely subjective, whereas a Christian sermon is to be both objective and subjective. It should be like Jacob’s ladder, reaching from God’s throne to man’s earth, with its subject-matter constantly ascending and descending, leading men up to God, and showing God by His Incarnation descending to man.
A Spanish bishop of the seventeenth century thus speaks of the Sermon on the Mount, the model for all sermons, and the pattern upon which many ancient preachers framed their discourses.
He quotes St. John, “I saw in the right hand of Him that sat on the throne a book written within and without, sealed with seven seals;” and this book, he says, is the life of our blessed Lord, written with the characters of all virtues—within, in His most holy soul; without, in His sacred body. It is sealed with seven seals. St. John continues, “I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.”
Who, then, was worthy to open that book? None save Christ Himself. He opened it in the Sermon on the Mount, wherein He taught all men to follow and observe the virtues which He practised Himself.
Hearken and consider as He opens each seal:—
“Blessed are the poor in spirit:” and behold Him at the opening of this first seal, poor and of no reputation.
“Blessed are they that mourn:” and this second seal displays Him offering up prayers for us, “with strong crying and tears.”
“Blessed are the meek:” and we see Him meek and lowly of heart, before the judgment-seat answering not a word.
“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness:” this fourth seal exhibits Him whose meat it was to do the will of Him that sent Him, and who on the cross could still cry, “I thirst,” in the consuming thirst for the salvation of our souls.
“Blessed are the merciful:” and “His mercy is over all His works.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart:” and who was purer than the Virgin Son of the Virgin Mother?
And the seventh seal opens with: “Blessed are the peacemakers;” showing us Christ who made “peace by the blood of His cross” between Jew and Gentile, between God and man.
Every sermon preached since that mighty discourse, which opened the life of Christ to man, what has it been, but a turning over of leaf after leaf in that most mysterious book?
There is something very striking in the accidents of that first sermon, that fountain whence every rill of sacred eloquence has flowed to water the whole earth; delivered, not in the gloom of the temple, in the shadow of the ponderous roof, like, the burden of the law to weigh it down, but in the open air, free and elastic like the Gospel, on a mountain-top, in the soft breeze beneath an unclouded sun; the Preacher standing among mountain flowers, meet emblems of the graces which should spring up from His word, sown broadcast over the world. We can picture the scene: the twelve around Him, bowed in wonder, like the sheaves of the brethren bending before the sheaf of Joseph; and beyond, a great multitude with eager uplifted faces, a multitude hungering and thirsting after righteousness, drawing in the gracious words which proceeded from Christ’s lips; whilst far below, gently ripples and brightly twinkles the blue Galilean lake, over the waters of which that Preacher walked, and the waves of which by one word He stilled. We may say with the angel, “The waters which thou sawest are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (Rev. xvii. 15), and see in them a type of the world once tossing in the darkness and terror of a night of ignorance without God, but now to be calmed in the daylight of His presence, and lulled at the sound of His voice.
The following analysis of the Sermon on the Mount, taken chiefly from Dr. J. Forbes, will give some idea of its arrangement:—
A. The character of the true members of Christ’s kingdom diametrically opposed to the expectations and character of the world.
- The Beatitudes, or progressive stages of Christian life (verses 3—10).
- The reward of those who keep the beatitudesin this world (11) and in the next (12).
B. The duty of Christ’s servants towards the world (13—16).
(Ver. 17.) “Think not that I am come to destroy the law and the prophets.”
- A. (Negative proposition) I am not come to destroy,
- B. (Positive proposition) but to fulfil.
Negative proposition explained (18, 19).
Positive proposition explained (20).
Christ then shows how that the law is made of none effect by the Scribes and Pharisees, and not by Himself.
- A. The Teaching of Christ contrasted with that of the Scribes. Perfect form of the Second Table of the Law.
1. Law of Individual Life (VI Commandment, V Beatitude) (21—26).
2. Law of Family Life (VII Commandment, VI Beatitude) (27—32).
3. Central Law of Truth (IX Commandment) (33—37).
4. Law of National Life (VIII Commandment):
- On its Negative or Passive Side (III Beatitude) (38—42).
- On its Positive or Active Side (VII Beatitude) (43—48).
The Practice required by Christ of His Disciples contrasted with the Practice of the Scribes and Pharisees.
First Defect of Pharisaical Righteousness, Ostentation, or Hypocrisy. God must be regarded in all our Acts (chap. vi. 1).
- α. In the Duties owed to our Neighbours (2—4).
- β. In the Duties owed to God (5—15).
- γ. In the Duties owed to Ourselves (10—18).
Second Defect of Pharisaical Righteousness, Worldliness. God must be regarded in all our Affections (19—34).
Third Defect of Pharisaical Righteousness, Spiritual Pride. God must be regarded in all our Judgments (chap. vii. 1, 2).
We must acquire Discernment to judge,
- a. How to give (3—5).
- b. To whom to give (6).
- c. What to give (7—12).
The conclusion sums up, in three practical exhortations, the whole sermon. Such being the spirit of the Law and the Prophets, and the strictness of the righteousness required,
|I.||Beware of Supineness (13,14).|
|II.||Beware of false Teachers (15—20).|
|III.||Beware of empty Professions (21—27).|
The other sermons given in Holy Scripture are those of St. Peter, St. Stephen, and St. Paul; in all of which arrangement is discernible.
But passing from the apostolic age to those succeeding it, we find that preaching consisted chiefly in scriptural exposition, the only order observed being that of the sacred text. Such was the nature of the sermons of Pantaenus (A.D. 180), the Sicilian Bee, so named from the way in which he gathered honey from the flowers of prophetic and apostolic fields. He is said to have travelled preaching the Gospel as far as India, whence he brought back a Hebrew copy of St. Matthew’s Gospel, left by St. Bartholomew. St. Clement of Alexandria and Origen succeeded him; adding polish and refinement to the matter. These great men, so well versed in the history of the Old and New Testaments, were also probably masters of the art of preaching, though but few of their genuine homilies are extant by which we might judge.
In Africa, St. Cyprian preached with eloquence and vigour. A few sermons and homilies of St. Athanasius remain; and fifty sermons preached by the Macarii to the monks in the Thebaid. St. Ephraem Syrus, Deacon of Edessa, was a voluminous writer, and an eloquent preacher. Sozomen observes of him, that, though he had never studied, yet he had so many beauties in his style, and so many sublime thoughts, that the traces of his eloquence are discernible through a translation. St. Gregory Nyssen says that he had read and meditated more than any one else on the Bible; that he had written expositions upon all Holy Scripture; and that he had, besides, composed many fervid and touching exhortations. “All his discourses,” says he, “are filled with weeping and compassionate expressions, which are calculated to move even the hardest hearts. For who that is proud would not become the humblest of men, on reading his sermon on Humility? Who would not be inflamed with Divine fire, by reading his treatise on Charity? Who would not wish to be pure in heart, when reading the praises he has lavished on virginity? Who would not be alarmed on hearing his discourse on the Last Judgment; wherein he has described it so vividly, that not a touch can be added by way of improvement? God gave him so profound a wisdom, that, though he had a wonderful facility of speaking, yet he could not always find words to express the crowd of ideas which flowed into his mind.”
Every one knows what was the success of the homilies of St. Augustine, of the two Gregories, of St. Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Ambrose. “There were giants in those days.” We will not speak of them now, as their lives and their works are well known. Suffice it to say, that they spoke so as to suit the capacities of their hearers. Sometimes they preached without preparation, and in a homely manner; seeking rather to instruct than to please.
St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, and St. Leo, among the Latins, pass with justice for the most eloquent orators of their time. St. Augustine is more simple than they; but he preached in the small town of Hippo, to shop-keepers and labourers.
In the age after Augustine, perhaps the most famous preacher was Salvian (390—484), surnamed the Master of Bishops, not that he ever was a Bishop himself, but because so many of his pupils at Lerins became eventually prelates in Gaul. Among the most eminent of these was St. Cæsarius of Aries (470—542), son of the Count of Chalons. lie passed his youth in the shadow of the cloister of Lerins, and left it only to succeed the first fathers of that peaceful isle, Honoratus and Hilary, upon the archiepiscopal throne of Arles. He was for half a century the most illustrious and most influential of the Bishops of Southern Gaul. He presided over four Councils, and directed the great controversies of his time. He was passionately beloved by his flock, whose hearts he swayed with his fervid eloquence, of which 130 still extant sermons bear the indelible stamp. Another of the early preachers of Gaul was St. Eucher (434), whom Bossuet calls “the Great;” and he, too, issued from that great nursery of saints, the Isle of Lerins.
Valerian of Cemele (450), has left behind him sermons plain and sound, but devoid of eloquence. Basil of Seleucia was a preacher of fame in the East. Photius says, that “his discourse is figurative and lofty. He observes, as much as any man, an even tone. He has united clearness with agreeableness, but his tropes and figures are very troublesome. By these he wearies his hearer always, and creates in him a bad opinion of himself, as an ignorant person, incapable of blending art with nature, and powerless to keep from excess.” Photius is rather too hard on Basil, whose sermons are really stirring and good. The discourses of Andrew of Crete (740) are also excellent; those of John Damascene are poor.
Turning to England, we shall find Bede instructing our Anglo-Saxon forefathers in the faith of Christ and in the mysteries of the Gospel; and Alfric, in 990, compiling homilies in the vulgar tongue, to the number of eighty, and, among others, that famous one on the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, which Matthew Parker could flourish in the face of his Romish opponents, saying, “What now is become of your boasted argument of apostolic tradition? see here that the novelties with which you charge us are older than the doctrines which you oppose to them!”
Wulfstan, Archbishop of York (1003), is known through one remarkable sermon, “Sermo Lupi ad Anglos quando Dani maxime persecuti sunt eos.”
We have now arrived at the true middle ages, and I will say but little of the history of preaching in that period, as it has already boon treated of by that distinguished ecclesiastical scholar, Dr. Neale, in his volume “Mediæval Sermons.” And, indeed, but for his labours, the bulk of this introduction would necessarily have been extended beyond its due limits, for the middle ages teemed with preachers, and preachers very striking for their originality and depth. The monasteries were great nurseries of preachers, sending forth continually multitudes of carefully trained and orthodox teachers. These preaching monks and friars exercised an immense influence over the uneducated laity, and for long they worked in harmony with the secular clergy. Let me give one instance from a chronicler of the thirteenth century, Jacques de Vitry, who has left us some interesting details concerning a very celebrated preacher of his time, Foulque de Neuilly. “He excited to such an extent all people, not only of the lower orders, but kings and princes as well, by his few and simple words, that none dare oppose him. People rushed in crowds from distant countries to hear him, and to see the miracles wrought by God through him. . . . Those who were able to tear and preserve the smallest fragment of his dress, esteemed themselves happy. Besides, as his clothes were in great request, and as the multitude were constantly tearing them off him, he was obliged to have a new cassock nearly every day. And as the mob commonly pressed upon him in an intolerable manner, he struck the most troublesome with a stick he held, and drove them back, or he would have been suffocated by the throng eager to touch him. And, although he sometimes wounded those whom he struck, yet they were by no means offended, and did not murmur, but, in the excess of their devotion, and the strength of their faith, kissed their own blood, as though it had been sanctified by the man of God.
“One day, as a man was engaged in ripping his cassock with considerable violence, he spoke to the crowd thus, ‘Do not rend my garments, which have never been blessed: see! I will give my benediction to the clothes of this man.’ Then he made the sign of the cross, and at once the people tore to rags the man’s dress, so that each obtained a shred.”
Pass we now to the wane of sacred eloquence at the close of the fourteenth century. By this time pulpit oratory had become sadly debased, though still a few noble orators, as Savonarola at Florence, Louis of Granada in Spain, and Philip of Narni at Home, shone as lights.
In the place of earnestness came affectation: the natural movement of the body, when the feelings of the preacher are roused, was replaced by studied gestures; the object of the orator was rather the exhibition of his own learning than the edification of his hearers, and the lack of matter in sermons was supplied by profanity and buffoonery. Preachers became the slaves of rule, their sermons were stretched on the same Procrustean bed, and were clipped or distorted to fit the required shape. By this means all natural eloquence was stifled; every action of the body, every modulation of the voice, was according to canon; and to such an extent did this run, that some preachers made it a matter of rule to cough at fixed intervals, believing that they were thereby adding grace to their declamation. In some old MS. sermons, marginal notes to the following effect maybe found: “Sit down—stand up—mop yourself—ahem! ahem!—now shriek like a devil.”
Such is a sermon preached by Oliver Maillard, and printed with these marginal notes at Bruges in 1500, black letter, quarto. Balzac describes a lesson given by an aged doctor to a young bachelor on the art of preaching, and it consisted of this—“Bang the pulpit; look at the crucifix with rolling eyes; say nothing to the purpose,—and you will be a great preacher.”
Throughout the fourteenth century sermons were for the most part hammered out on the same miserable block. The same text perhaps served for an Advent or a Lenten series. Maillard in the next century preached sixty-eight sermons on the text, “Come up . . . unto the mount” (Exod. xxxiv. 2); and he took for his text throughout Advent, Christmas, and the festivals immediately following—in all forty-four sermons—the words of St. James i. 21, “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.”
The preacher having given out his text, pronounced a long exordium, in no way to the purpose, containing some scriptural allegory, some supposed fact from natural history, or a story extracted from a classic historian. He then returned to his text and began to discuss two questions, one in theology, the other in civil or canon law, remotely connected with it. On the theological question he quoted the sentiments of the schoolmen, on the other he cited legal authorities.
He then proceeded to divide his subject under heads, each of which was again subdivided, and each subdivision was supported by the authority of a classic philosopher, and illustrated by an anecdote often pointless, sometimes indecent. Indeed, to such an extent were classic allusions and quotations in vogue, that the story is told of a peasant who had “sat under” his priest for long, and had heard much of Apollo in the Sunday discourses, bequeathing his old cart-horse “to M. Pollo, of whom the curé had said such fine things.”
This absurd affectation continued long the bane of the pulpit. In the sixteenth century a monk preaching on the feast of St. Peter, saw no impropriety in mingling mythology with Gospel history, and in quoting the fable of Daphne to illustrate the denial of the Apostle. “The nymph of the wood,” said he, “being pursued by the shepherd Apollo, fled over hill and dale, till she reached the foot of a rock up which she could not climb, and, seeing herself at the mercy of her pursuer, she began to weep,—in like manner, St. Peter seeing himself arrested by the roc: of his denial, ‘wept bitterly.’” And Camus, Bishop of Belley, who flourished in the beginning of the seventeenth century, could use such words as these on Christmas Day:—“We now, skimming over the sea in our boat, come to behold the Infant born into the world to conquer it. He is our Bellerophon, who, mounted on the Pegasus of His humanity, winged by union with the Deity, has overcome the world, ‘confidite, ego vici mundum;’ the world, a true and strange Chimera! lion as to its front by its pride, dragon behind in its avarice, goat in the midst by its pollution! He is our youthful Iloratius overcoming the three Curiatii of ambition, avarice, and sensuality! He is our Hercules, who has beaten down the triple-throated Cerberus, and who has in His cradle strangled serpents. The one crushed only two, but ours has destroyed three, the vanity of the world by His subjection, the avarice of the world by His poverty, the delights of the world by His mortification.”
Sometimes preachers, carried away by their feelings, gave vent to the most violent and indecorous expressions. As, for instance, the Père Guerin preaching on the danger of reading improper literature, could not refrain from using the following language with reference to Theophilus Viaud, who had written a very immoral poem, “La Parnasse des Poètes,” 1025, for which he and his book were condemned to be burned. “Cursed be the spirit which dictated such thoughts,” howled the preacher. “Cursed be the hand which wrote them! Woe to tho publisher who had them printed! Woe to those who have read them! Woe to those who have ever made the author’s acquaintance! But blessed be Monsieur le premier President, blessed be M. le Procureur Général, who have purged our Paris of this plague! You are the originator of the plague in this city; I would say, after the Rev. Father Garasse, that you are a scoundrel, a great calf! but no! shall I call you a calf? Veal is good when boiled, veal is good when roast, calfskin is good for binding books; but yours, miscreant! is only fit to be well grilled, and that it will be, to-morrow. You have raised the laugh at monks, and now the monks will laugh at you.”
Preachers have been quite unable at times to resist the chance of saying a bon mot. Father André, being required to give out before his sermon that a collection would be made for the dower of a young lady who wished to take the veil, said—“Gentlemen, your alms are solicited in behalf of a young lady who is not rich enough to take the vow of poverty.” I believe it is of the same man that the story is told, that he halted suddenly in the midst of a sermon to rebuke the congregation for indulging in conversation whilst he was speaking. One good woman took this in dudgeon, and standing up, assured the preacher that the buzz of voices came from the men’s side of the church, and not from that reserved for the females. “I am delighted to hear it,” replied the preacher, “the talking will then be sooner over.” This reminds me of Gabriel Barlette’s dictum, “Pone quatuor mulieres ab unâ parte, dccem viros ab aliâ, plus garrulabunt mulieres.”
Kings even have been publicly rebuked for something of the same kind. Every one knows that Mademoiselle d’Entragues, Marchioness of Verneuil, was mistress of Henry IV. One day that the Jesuit father, Gonthier, was preaching at St. Gervais, the king attended with Mademoiselle d’Entragues, and a suite of court ladies. During the sermon the marchioness whispered and made signs to the king, trying to make him laugh. The preacher, indignant at this conduct, turned to Henry and said, “Sire, never again permit yourself to come to hear the word of God surrounded by a seraglio, and thus to offer so great a scandal in a holy place.” Tho marchioness was furious, and endeavoured to obtain the punishment of the preacher, but Henry, instead of consenting, had the good sense to show that he was not offended, by returning to hear Father Gonthier preach on the following day. He took him aside however, and said, “My father, fear nothing. I thank you for your reproof; only, for Heaven’s sake, don’t give it in public again.”
I have said that the preachers of the fifteenth century often degenerated into the burlesque, in order to attract the attention they failed to rivet by the excellence of their matter. Unfortunately this fault was not confined to the fifteenth century, but we find it again and again appearing among inferior preachers of the next two centuries. It must be remembered that the monasteries had then fallen from their high estate through the intolerable oppression of the “in commendam,” and that learning was far less cultivated than in an earlier ago. The popular friar-preachers, the hedge-priests, who took with the vulgar, were much of the stamp of modern dissenting ministers, men of little education but considerable assurance; they spoke in the dialect of the people, they understood their troubles, they knew their tastes; and, at the same time, like all people who have got a smattering of knowledge, they loved to display it, and in displaying it consisted much of their grotesqueness. The following sketch of one of these discourses is given by Father Labat, in his “Voyages en Espagne et en Italic, Amst., 1731, 8 vols. in 12mo.” He says that he was present on the 15th September, 1709, at a sermon preached in the open air under a clump of olives near Tivoli.
The day was the Feast of the Name of Mary. “Those who did the honours of the feast placed me, politely, right in front of the preacher. He appeared, after having kept us waiting sufficiently long, mounted the pulpit, sat down without ceremony, examined his audience in a grave and perhaps slightly contemptuous manner; and then, after a few moments’ silence, he rose, took off his cap, made the sign of the cross on his brow, then on his mouth, and then on his heart, which after the old system he supposed to be on his loft side; lastly, he made a fourth sign, which covered up all the others, since it extended from his head to the pit of his stomach. This operation complete, he sat down, put on his cap, and began his discourse with these words, ‘I beheld a great book written within and without,’ which he explained thus: Ecco il verissimo ritrato di Maria sempre Virgine; that is to say, Behold the veritable portrait of the ever Virgin Mary. This application was followed by a long digression upon all books ever known in MS. or in print. Those which compose the Holy Scriptures passed first in review; he named their authors, he fixed their date, and gave the reasons for their composition. He passed next to those of the ancient philosophers, of the Egyptians and of the Greeks; those of the Sibyls appeared next on the scene, and the praise of the Tiburtine Sibyl was neatly interwoven into the discourse. Homer’s Iliad was not forgotten, any more than the Æneid; not a book escaped him; and then he declared that none were equal to the great book written within and without; a book, said he, imprinted with the characters of divine virtues, bound in Heaven, dedicated to wisdom uncreate, approved by the doctors of the nine angelic hierarchies, published by the twelve Apostles in the four quarters of the globe; a book occupying the first place in the celestial library, in which angels and saints study ever, which is the terror of demons, the joy of heaven, the delights of saints, the recompense of the triumphant Church, the hope of the suffering, the support, the strength, the buckler of the militant. He never left this great book, the leaves of which he kept turning, so to speak, for three good quarters of an hour, and then finding that it was time to rest, he quitted us suddenly without a ‘good-bye.’ I mean without the blessing, and without having spoken of the Blessed Virgin in any other light than that which served him in the explanation of his text.
“I confess I never heard a sermon which pleased me better, for I was not a bit wearied during it; and, in his style, I suspect he was unequalled. The Passion of Father Imbert, Superior of our mission at Guadaloupe, his sermon on St. Jean de Dieu, that of Father Ange de Rouen, a Capuchin, on a certain indulgence, had hitherto appeared to me inimitable masterpieces; but I must award the palm to that which I have just reported, and to do the preacher justice, he surpassed the others mentioned as the empyrean sky surpasses the lunar sky in grandeur and elevation.”
I must speak here of a famous preacher of the fifteenth century, to whom I cannot afford a separate notice, and who is more offensively ridiculous than the man spoken of by Labat; I mean Gabriel Barlette. I do not give him other notice than this for two reasons; the first, because there is reason to believe that the sermons which pass under his name are spurious compositions, as indeed is asserted by a cotemporary, Leander Alberti, who says that they were the composition of a pretender who took the name of the great preacher.
It is therefore not fair to judge of a really famous man from works which may not be his. Another reason why I have limited to a few lines my notice of sermons which were undoubtedly popular, if we may judge of the number of impressions they went through, is that there is positively no good to be got from them; they are full of the grossest absurdities and the most profane buffoonery. I have given an account of some three or four of this class of sermon, and I can afford no more room to similar profanities.
Gabriel Barlette was a Dominican, and was born at Barletta in the kingdom of Naples. He lived beyond 1481, for he speaks of the siege and capture of Otranto by Mahomet II. as a thing of the past. In one of the sermons attributed to him is the following passage on the close of the temptations:—“After His victory over Satan, the Blessed Virgin sends Him the dinner she had prepared for herself, cabbage, soup, spinach, and perhaps even sardines.”
In a sermon for Whitsun-Tuesday, he rebukes distractions in prayer, and he illustrates them in this unseemly way. He represents a priest engaged at his morning devotions, saying, “Pater noster qui es in cœlis—I say, lad, saddle the horse, I’m going to town to-day!—sanctificatur nomcn tuum,—Cath’rine, put the pot on the fire!—fiat voluntas tua—Take care! the cat’s at the cheese!—panem nostrum quotidianum—Mind the white horse has his feed of oats..... Is this praying?” No, Gabriel, nor is this preaching!
Another preacher of the same stamp was Menot. Michael Menot was born in Paris; he was a Franciscan, and died at an advanced age in 1518.
Take this specimen of his reasoning—
”The dance is a circular way;
And he proves his minor by the Scriptural passages “circuivi terrain,” “circuit quærens quern devoret,” “in circuitu impii ambulant.” In his sermon for Friday after Ash-Wednesday he thus expresses his sense of the value of magistrates: “Justices are like the cat which is put in charge of a cheese lest the mice should eat it. But if the cat lay tooth to it, by one bite he does more mischief than the mice could do in twenty. Just in the same manner,” &c. The following is a specimen of his style, a sad jumble of Latin and French. He is giving a graphic description of the prodigal son wasting his goods. “Mittit ad quærendum les drapiers, les grossiers, les marchands de soye, et se fait accoutrer de pied en cap; il n’y avait rien à redire. Quando vidit sibi pulchras caligas d’écarlate, bien tirées, la belle chemise froncée sur le collet, le pourpoint fringant de velours, la toque de Florence, les cheveux peignés, et qu’il se sentit le damas voler sur le dos, hæc secum dixit: Oportetne mihi aliquid? Or me faut-il rien? Non, tu as toutes tes plumes; il est temps de voler plus loin. Tu es nimis prope domum patris tui, pro benè faciendo casum tuum. Pueri qui semper dormierunt in atrio vel gremio matris suæ, nunquam sciverunt aliquid, et nunquam erunt nisi asini et insulsi, et ne seront jamais quenices et béjaunes. Bref qui ne fréquente pays nihil videt.”
Of course this sermon was not thus preached, but it gives us an idea of Menot’s acquaintance with Latin, and of his utter inability to render the slang which had disfigured his vernacular by classic phrases.
But it must not be supposed that all preachers of the fifteenth century were like these clerical jesters.
Gabriel Biel was grave and dignified, his sermons remarkably simple in construction, and full of wisdom and fervour. The same may be said of Thomas à Kempis, John Turricremata, and Henry Harphius.
With the sixteenth century a new phase of pulpit oratory was about to dawn. Men wearied of conventional restraints, and spoke from the heart, knowledge was profounder, less superficial, the conceits of schoolmen were kept in the background, and scriptural illustrations brought into greater prominence. Anecdote was still used as a powerful engine for good, but it was anecdote such as would edify. Similes were introduced of the most striking and charming character; and the preachers sought evidently rather to instruct their hearers, and to render doctrine intelligible, than to surround themselves with a cloud of abstruse doubts and solutions, to the bewilderment of their hearers, and to their own possible glorification. It is impossible not to see in this a fruit of the Reformation. To people famishing for the bread of life, the preachers of the fifteenth century had given a stone, and now their successors were alive to the fact, and strove earnestly to remedy it. They threw themselves forward like Phineas, and stood in the gap, so that it is to them, perhaps, more than to great theologians like Bellarmin, that the Catholic Church must look with thanks for having stayed the advancing tide of reform.
If, in that age of religious upheaval, the pulpit had remained as unedifying as heretofore, there can be no manner of doubt that the eruption in Germany would have devastated Italy, France, and Spain. Indeed the Huguenot party in France was very powerful, and extended so widely that it must be a matter of surprise to many to find its tenets now represented by a few miserable, quivering fragments. In fact the Roman Church, after the first shock, recovered ground on all sides, for her clergy rose to meet the emergency, and turned to the people as the true source of strength to the Church, and leaned on them, instead of putting her trust in Princes. I cannot believe that the massacres of the Huguenots had any thing to do with the extirpation of Protestantism in France, for persecution strengthens but never destroys. I am rather inclined to attribute it to the vigour with which the clergy of the time set themselves to work remedying the abuses which had degraded pulpit oratory. Sacred eloquence is the most powerful engine known for influencing multitudes, and the Catholic clergy resolutely cultivated it, and used it with as much success as Chrysostom, Gregory, or Augustine. They had a vast storehouse of learning and piety from which to draw, the writings of the saints and doctors of the Church in all ages, and they drew from it unostentatiously but effectively. Their sermons were telling in a way no Protestant sermons could equal, for the Calvinist or Lutheran had cast in his lot apart from the great men of antiquity, whilst the Catholic could focus their teaching upon his flock. The former had but their own brains from which to draw, whilst the latter had the great minds of Catholic antiquity to rest upon. There are vast encyclopedias and dictionaries of theology, moral and dogmatic, filled with matter any Catholic preacher of the meanest abilities could work up into profitable and even striking discourses, great collections of anecdote and simile, which he might turn to for illustrations, and, above all, exhaustive commentaries on every line, aye, and every word of Scripture.
From all these great helps to the preacher, the Protestant minister conscientiously, and through prejudice, kept aloof.
This may account for the undoubted fact that after the first flush of triumph, sacred oratory in the reformed communities sank to as dead and dreary a level as it had attained in the fifteenth century.
The Protestant preachers were not always as grotesque, but they became as dull and unspiritual, whilst the Roman Church having once napped, never let herself fall asleep again, but with that tact which once characterized her, but which is fast leaving her, she stirred up and kept alive ever after the fire of sacred eloquence.
And here I must make an extraordinary statement, yet one indisputably true, however paradoxical it may appear.
The main contrast between Roman Catholic sermons and those of Protestant divines in the age of which I am speaking, consists in the wondrous familiarity with Scripture exhibited by the former, beside a scanty use of it made by the latter. It is not that these Roman preachers affect quoting texts, but they seem to think and speak in the words of Scripture, without an effort; Scriptural illustrations are at their fingers’ ends, and these are not taken from one or two pet books, but selected evenly from the whole Bible.
Let me take as an instance a passage selected at hap-hazard from Konigstein, an unknown German preacher. He is preaching on the Gospel during the Mass at dawn on Christmas Day. I choose him, for he is as homely a preacher as there was in the sixteenth century, and as he may be taken as a fair representative of a class somewhat dull.
“‘And the Shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass’ (Luke ii. 15). The Saviour being desirous of weaning altogether the hearts of His own people from worldly glory, not only chose to be born in poverty, but to be announced to poor folk, and to be proclaimed by them. And this He chose lest the beginning of our faith should stand in human glory or wisdom, which is foolishness with God, whereas He desired that it should be ascribed to Divine grace only; therefore the Apostle says, ‘After the kindness and love of God our Saviour towards man appeared,’ &c. Kindness and love in His conversation, and His nativity into this world, by taking our flesh; of God our Saviour, by His own vast clemency; not by works of righteousness which we have done, for we were by nature children of wrath, so that our works were not done in justice, nor could we gain safety by them; but according to His mercy He saved us by present grace and by future glory, as we are saved by Hope; and it is He who hath called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Ghost, that is, by the washing of Baptism, which is a spiritual regeneration, for, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. Water cleanses the body without, and the Spirit purges the soul within. In Baptism man ends the old life which was under the law, that he may begin the new life which is under grace; so that he who believes is daily renewed more and more by the Spirit, which is given us in Baptism; as says the Apostle, Be renewed in the spirit of your mind,” &c.
Of a similar character are the sermons of Hehnesius, and the simple, earnest, and thoughtful postils of Polygranus.
There is another observation which I must make upon these venerable preachers. It is impossible to read them attentively without observing how different in tone they are to modern ultramontane theologians, and how sadly modern Romanism has drifted from primitive traditions, and how rapid has been its descent, when this is noticeable by ascending the stream of time but a few centuries.
I am not prepared to say that there is nothing false and unprimitive in the doctrine of these great preachers, but that doctrinal corruption was not then fully developed. I suppose that an English priest would find it hard to select a sermon of the new Roman school, which he could reproduce in his own pulpit; but if he were to turn to these great men of a past age, he would meet with few passages which he should feel himself constrained to omit. The germ of evil had been slowly expanding through the middle ages; it flowered at the close, and now it has seeded, and become loathsome in its corruption.
Let me take the worship of the Blessed Virgin, which has of late assumed such terrible dimensions. A modern Roman preacher rarely misses an opportunity of inculcating devotion to Mary. But it was not so with the old preachers. They do use language which cannot always be justified, but, more often, language which ought to be frankly accepted by us, considering that the tone of English reverence is unwarrantably low with regard to the blessed ever-virgin Mother. Often when there is a natural opening for some words of deification of Mary, the preachers of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries turn from it to make a moral application to their hearers. I will only instance De Barzia, a bishop of Cadiz. He gives three sermons for the Purification.
The first is on the care which a Christian man should take not to scandalize his neighbours by any act which though innocent might give offence, or by the neglect of any duty.
The second is on the great danger of setting an evil example.
The third is on the funeral taper, by the light of which those truths, which man saw not in the day of his life, are then most evidently discerned.
For the Annunciation he gives three sermons. The first on the modesty of Mary, which all should imitate. The second is on the general confession of sin made in Lent. The third is on the promptitude with which man should act on Divine impulses.
It is true that De Barzia uses strong language from which we should dissent, on the feasts of the Assumption and the Nativity of Mary; but the fact of letting two of her festivals pass without pointing her out as a prominent object of worship is what, I should suppose, no modern Ultramontane would do.
I must now turn to a bright and pleasant feature in these preachers—their keen appreciation of the beauty of nature. This indeed had been a distinguishing characteristic of the Middle Ages. In architecture, in painting, and in poetry, even in preaching, the great book of nature had been studied, and its details reproduced. As the sculptor delighted to represent in stone beast, and bird, and plant; as the painter rejoiced to transfer to canvas, with laborious minuteness, the tender meadow flowers; so did the preacher pluck illustration from the book of nature, or refer his hearers to it, for examples of life.
With the Renaissance, the artist turned from the contemplation of God’s handiwork, but not so the sacred orator. In him the same love for the works of God is manifest, his mind returns to them again and again, he gathers simile and illustration from them with readiness and freedom, he seems to stand before his congregation with the written word in his right hand, and the unwritten word in his left, and to read from the written, and then turn to the unwritten as the exponent of the other. Nature was not then supposed to be antagonistic to Revelation, but to be its Apocrypha, hidden writings full of the wisdom of God, and meet “for examples of life and instruction of manners.”
The great Bernard used the heart-language of every mediæval theologian when he said, “Believe me who have tried it; you will find more in the woods than in books: the birds will teach you that which you can learn from no master.”
In like temper did Philip von Hartung preach to a courtly audience on the text, “Consider the fowls of the air,” and drawing them away from the glitter of the palace, and the din of the city, set them down in a meadow to hear the lessons taught them by the lark.
“Consider the fowls of the air, and look first to the lark (alauda), drawing its very name, a laude, out of praise; see how with quivering wing it mounts aloft, and with what clear note it praises God! Aldrovandus says that he had been taught from childhood, that the lark mounted seven times a day to sing hymns to its Creator, so that it sings ascending, and singing soars.
“St. Francis was wont to call the larks his sisters, rejoicing in their songs, which excited him to the praise of his Creator. Seven times a day might we too chant our praise to God: first for our creation, which was completed in seven days; then for our Redemption, which was perfected by the seventh effusion of blood; thirdly, for the seven sacraments instituted by Christ; fourthly, for the seven words uttered from the Cross; fifthly, for the seven gifts of the Spirit shed on us from on high; sixthly, for our preservation from the seven deadly sins, even though the just man falleth seven times a day (Prov. xxiv.); and lastly, for the seven sad and seven glorious mysteries of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“A heavenly lark was royal David, going up to Thee, O God, ‘seven times a day’ to praise Thee! David from the softness of a palace; David from the cares of a kingdom; David from the tumult of battle; David engaged in so great correspondence with many and mighty kings, seven times a day, rose to the praise of God; and shall not you, my brethren, mount from your ease seven times a day to give thanks unto God? Threefold, aye! and fourfold, were our blessedness, if from this vale of tears our hearts would but wing their way on high to seek true and never-fleeting joys. Notice the lark! it is not content, like the swallow, to skim the surface of earth, but it must struggle up higher and higher. ‘The higher the soul goes’ says Hugo, ‘the more it rejoices in the Lord.’ And just as the lark when on earth is hushed, but mounting breaks into joy and song; so does the soul raised to Heaven rapturously and sweetly warble. It sings not upon the topmost boughs of trees, as though spurning all that is rooted in earth. And so do you cast away all cares, all intercourse, all affairs of life, all that is evil, all, in short, that is earthy. Socrates was wont to say that the wings of a lark failed us when we came down from Heaven, drawn by the host of earthly objects. But we can spread them again to flee away and be at rest, if we will, by earnest endeavour, dispose our hearts to mount, and so go on from grace to grace.”
Beside this let me place a lesson from the flowers, culled from Matthias Faber. “They teach us to trust in God. I pray you look at Divine Providence exerted in behalf of the smallest floweret. God has given it perfect parts, and members proportioned to its trunk; He has provided it with organs for the performance of all those functions which are necessary to it, as the drawing up of juice, and its dispersion through the various parts; a root branching into tiny fibres riveting it to the soil; a stalk erect, lest it should be stained and corrupted through contact with the earth, strong also, lest it should be broken by the storm, a rind thick or furred to protect it from cold, or heat, or accident; twigs and leaves for adornment and shelter; a most beauteous array of flower above the array of Solomon in all his glory. He has given it, besides, a scent pleasant to beasts or men; He has endued it with healing properties, and, above all, with the faculty of generating in its own likeness. How many benefits conferred on one flower! one flower, I say, which to-morrow is cut down and cast into the oven! What, then, will He not give to man, whom He has made in His own image, an heir of Heaven! . . . ‘Consider the lilies of the field how they grow,’ aye! how they grow, how is it? They grow steadily night and day, stretching themselves out and expanding, so that no man may discern the process going on. So, too, let us grow, daily extirpating vices, daily implanting virtues, thus sensibly increasing, so that, after the lapse of years, we may be found to have advanced in spiritual growth, though we ourselves may not have known it. As said the Apostle, ‘Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark’ (Phil. iii. 13).
“They teach us, also, to sigh for heavenly beatitude, and the society of the blessed. If even in this world such variety of flowers is seen, such beauty, such fragrance, and these in flowers which to-day are and to-morrow are cast into the oven, what will be the beauty, what the variety, what the glory of the elect in the kingdom of God! Those who go to distant lands are ever discovering fresh and fresh flowers; and so in Heaven is there unmeasured variety among the angels and the elect.
“Yet in all this variety there is perfect unity. For as in the same garden, or meadow, the flowers are content with their several beauties, and no one impedes the growth of another, or thrusts it out of its place, but all look up to the one sun, and bask and grow and gather strength in his brightness; so also in Heaven. There each of the Blessed will be content with his portion of glory, none interfering with another, none envying another. For all will see God face to face, and live and move and have their being in His presence, and therewith be satisfied through eternity.”
Simile has been used extensively in all ages of the Church, but in the fifteenth century it had become very mean and coarse. Meffreth could talk of the world as being untranquil, like a globule of quicksilver, never to be brought to rest till fused to a black residuum in the sulphurous blast of Hell; and could illustrate the text, “Here we have no continuing city,” by comparing this poor world of ours to the weed-covered back of a large whale, which an eminent and veracious navigator—of course he means Sinbad—mistook for a verdant isle, only to discover his mistake when he began to drive into it the stakes of his habitation.
Far nobler was the use of simile in the great revival of the sixteenth century.
Pre-eminent among those who made it a vehicle for conveying truths, are the names of De Barzia and Osorius; both men of great refinement of taste and richness of imagination.
What, for example, could be more graceful than the following, given by the Bishop of Cadiz, when speaking of the impossibility of man comprehending the reason of God’s dealings, when He touches with the finger of death at one time a child, at another an aged man, then a youth, and next, perhaps, one in full vigour of manhood? To us, this selection seems to be a matter of chance, but there is no chance in it. The Bishop then uses this illustration. The deaf man watches the harpist, and sees his fingers dance over the strings in a strange and unaccountable way. Now a strong silver cord is touched, then a slender catgut string. At one time a long string is set vibrating, at another a very short string; now several are thrummed together, and then one alone is set quivering. Just so is it with us; we hear not the perfect harmony, nor follow the wondrous melody of God’s operations, for the faculty of comprehending them is deficient in us, and to us in our faithlessness there seems chance and hazard, where really there exists harmony and order.
Osorius uses a different simile in illustrating an idea somewhat similar.
He is speaking to those who murmur at God’s dealings in this world, and who would fain have His disposition of things altered in various particulars. He then says, that those who look on an unfinished piece of tapestry see a foot here, a hand there, a patch of red in one spot, of green in another, and all seems to be confusion. Let us wait till the work is complete, and we shall see that not a hand or foot, not a thread even is out of place. Such is the history of the world. We see blood and war where there should be peace; we see men exalted to be kings who should have been slaves, and men condemned to be slaves who would have ruled nations in wisdom and equity, and we think that there is imperfection in the work. Wait we awhile, till at the Last Day the great tapestry of this world’s history is unrolled before us, and then we shall see that all has been ordered by God’s good providence for the very best.
But Scripture supplied most of the illustrations needed by these preachers. It was to them an inexhaustible storehouse, from which they could bring forth things new and old. Holy Scripture seems to have supplied them with every thing that they required; it gave them a text, it afforded confirmation to their subject; from it they drew mystical illustrations for its corroboration, and examples wherewith to enforce precept.
To some, the sacred page may be crystalline and colourless as a rain-drop, but to these men who knew from what point to view it, it radiated any colour they desired to catch.
They did not always make long extracts, in the fashion of certain modern sermon-composers, who form a sermon out of lengthy Scriptural passages clumsily pegged together, always with wood; but with one light sweep, the old preachers brush up a whole bright string of sparkling Scriptural instances, in a manner indicating their own intimate acquaintance with Scripture, and implying a corresponding knowledge among their hearers. Take the following sentence of an old Flemish preacher as an instance: he is speaking of the unity prevailing in heaven:—
“There all strife will have ceased, there all contradiction will have ended, there all emulation will be unknown.
“In that blessed country there will be no Cain to slay his brother Abel; in that family, no Esau to hate Jacob; in that house, no Ishmael to strive with Isaac; in that kingdom, no Saul to persecute David; in that college, no Judas to betray his master.”
Let me take another example from a sermon on the small number of the elect.
“‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’
“Noah preached to the old world for a hundred years the coming in of the flood, and how many were saved when the world was destroyed? Eight souls, and among them was the reprobate Ham. Many were called, but only eight were chosen.
“When God would rain fire and brimstone on the cities of the plain, were ten saved? No! only four, and of these four, one looked back. Many were called, but three were chosen.
“Six hundred thousand men, besides women and children, went through the Red Sea, the like figure whereunto Baptism doth even now save us. The host of Pharaoh and the Egyptians went in after them, and of them not one reached the further shore. And of these Israelites who passed through the sea out of Egypt, how many entered the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey? Two only—Caleb and Joshua. Many—six hundred thousand—were called, few, even two, were chosen. All the host of Pharaoh, a shadow of those who despise and set at nought the Red Sea of Christ’s blood, perish without exception; of God’s chosen people, image of His Church, only few indeed are saved.
“How many multitudes teemed in Jericho, and of them how many escaped when Joshua encamped against the city? The walls fell, men and women perished. One house alone escaped, known by the scarlet thread, type of the blood of Jesus, and that was the house of a harlot.
“Gideon went against the Midianites with thirty-two thousand men. The host of Midian was without number, as the sand of the sea-side for multitude. How many of these thirty-two thousand men did God suffer Gideon to lead into victory? Three hundred only. Many, even thirty-two thousand men, were called; three hundred chosen.
“Type and figure this of the many enrolled into the Church’s army, of whom so few go on to ‘fight the good fight of faith!’
“Of the tribes of Israel twelve men only were chosen to be Apostles; and of those twelve, one was a traitor, one doubtful, one denied his Master, all forsook Him.
“How many rulers were there among the Jews when Christ came; but one only went to Him, and he by night!
“How many rich men were there when our blessed Lord walked this earth; but one only ministered unto Him, and he only in His burial!
“How many peasants were there in the country when Christ went to die; but one only was deemed worthy to bear His cross, and he bore it by constraint!
“How many thieves were there in Judaea when Christ was there; but one only entered Paradise, and he was converted in his last hour!
“How many centurions were there scattered over the province; and one only saw and believed, and he by cruelly piercing the Saviour’s side!
“How many harlots were there in that wicked and adulterous generation; but one only washed His feet with tears and wiped them with the hair of her head! Truly, ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’”
We hear but little in modern sermons of the mystical interpretation of Scripture, which was so common in all earlier ages of the Church. The Epistles of St. Paul show us that the primitive Church was accustomed to read Scripture in a mystical way. What, for instance, can be more “fanciful,” as we moderns should say, than his allegorizing of the history of Isaac (Gal. iv. 22—31), and of Moses (1 Cor. x. 1), or his argument from the law that the laity should pay for the support of their pastors: “For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn” (1 Cor. ix. 9, 10), and “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour (i.e. honorarium, contribution in money) . . . for the Scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn?” (1 Tim. v. 17, 18.) Bacon said that we should accept as conclusive the meaning of Scripture which is most plainly on the surface, just as the first crush of the grape is the purest wine, forgetting, as Dr. Neale aptly remarks, that the first crush of the grape is not wine at all, but a crude and unwholesome liquor. Certainly modern preachers are ready enough to give us the most superficial interpretation of Scrip- ture, and rarely trouble themselves with probing the depths of Holy Writ for fresh lessons and new beauties. In the same way it was quietly assumed till of late that the ocean below that depth which is storm-tossed was quite azoic. We know now that that untroubled profound teems with varied forms of life, and is glorious with hitherto undreamt-of beauties. Our modern divines are content with the troubled sea of criticism, and pay no heed, and give no thought, to the manifold beauties and wonders of the tranquil deeps of God’s mind, above which they are content to toss. The analogy between God’s word written and God’s unwritten word is striking. Yet we are satisfied to know that the further the great volume of Nature is explored, the closer it is studied, the greater are the wonders which it will display. Why, then, do we doubt that the same holds good with the written word? Deep answers to deep, the deep of Nature to the deep of Revelation. The Same Who is the Author of Nature is the Author of Revelation; and we may therefore expect to find in one as in the other that “His thoughts are very deep,” “His ways past finding out;” that in one as in the other there is a similarity, a mighty variety yet an essential unity, a vast diversity yet a perfect harmony; that there are mysteries in both, through which, as through a glass darkly, shines the wisdom of the Creator.
Commentators on Scripture, such as Scott and Henry, really fill pages and volumes with the most deplorable twaddle, and exhibit conclusively their utter incapacity for commentating on any single passage of Scripture. Not only are their comprehensions too dull to grasp the moral lessons in the least below the surface, but they entirely ignore the mystical signification of the events recorded in the Sacred Writings. To the Mediæval divines and those who followed their steps, every word of Scripture had its value; indeed, the very number, singular or plural, of a substantive was with them fraught with significance. Take one instance; Stella the Franciscan remarks, on St. John xiv. 23:—“‘Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love Me, he will keep My word (τὸν λόγον μου τηρήσει): he that loveth Me not, keepeth not My words (τὸὺς λόγους μου οὐ τηρεῖ).’ Love of God makes one command out of many, for to him who loves, the many precepts are but as one. So here Christ says, ‘If any man love Me, he will keep My word;’ but of him who loves not, He says, ‘He keepeth not My words.’ Of him who loves, it is spoken in the singular; of him who loves not, in the plural. Eve said, ‘Of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die’ (Gen. iii. 3); whereas God forbade only the eating, not the touching. But a chilled heart made one command into two; whilst a heart full of love, like that of David, could sum up the six hundred and thirteen precepts of the old law into one, when he exclaimed, ‘Thy commandment is exceeding broad,’ and ‘Lord, what love have I unto Thy law, all the day long is my study in it.’”
Compare with this suggestive passage the only remark made on the text in D’Oyly and Mant: “The manifestation I mean is, that of inward light and grace, which shall never depart from those who are careful to live as I have commanded them.” The observation of Stella is suggestive, that in D’Oyly and Mant is decidedly the reverse.
But I would speak now of the mystical interpretations of Scripture. I have only room for a very few. The following are from Marchant. “Unless Christ had been sent, none of us would have been released from our iniquities. Wherefore the Apostle often exhorts the Jews not to glory in the law, for the law did not suffice to justify and to make alive. Do you desire a figure of this mystery? Listen to that of Elisha. He was asked to come and call to life a child which was dead: he sent his servant first with a staff, which he was to lay upon the dead child; but neither servant nor staff were of avail. Then went he himself, and see what he did: ‘He went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands:’ contracting himself to the form of the child; ‘and the flesh of the child waxed warm … and the child opened his eyes.’ You see the figure, attend to the verity. God sent Moses His servant, and the Prophets, with the staff of the law; but neither they nor the law could avail to restore man to life from the death of sin. It was necessary, therefore, that He Himself should go to man, and bow Himself to man by the assumption of man’s nature, and contract Himself to the form of a child by the Incarnation, not only casting Himself on this our dead nature, but taking our nature, hands, arms, mouth, and soul to Himself. .... This circumstance of the closing of the door that none might see, when Elisha stretched himself upon the child, is not without significance. For as none discerned how Elisha, that great man, was able to contract himself to the form of a little boy; so no one can comprehend how the Son of God, so high and so mighty, could unite, and apply, and abase, His nature to ours; so that He became mortal Who was immortal, passible Who was impassible, infant Who was God. In all these the mystery is great, the door is shut; it is not necessary for us to see, but it is necessary for us to believe. We have another figure in the sign given to Hezekiah. When he was sick unto death, the sun going back ten degrees was the sign of his restoration to health. ‘And the sun went back ten degrees on the dial of Ahaz.’ In like manner, that man might rise from the sickness unto death of sin, it was necessary that ‘the Sun of Righteousness’ should descend through the nine angelic choirs, ‘being made a little lower than the angels,’ as though going down nine degrees till He reached man the tenth.”
“The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Moses My servant is dead: now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give them’ (Joshua i. 2). Joshua is by interpretation a Saviour, and is the same as Jesus. As he, after conquering Amalek, brought the people into the land of promise, and divided the land between them; so has Christ come to overcome the devil, and to introduce Christians daily into His Church through the Baptismal stream, and finally to lead them into glory. Moses could not bring them in, for the Father saith unto the Son, ‘Moses My servant is dead.’ The ceremonies of the law are made of none effect, ‘now, therefore, arise’ from the bosom of the Father, enter the earth in human form, expel the devils: ‘go over this Jordan,’ drink of the brook of Thy Passion in the way, ‘Thou, and all this people,’ for by the way by which goes the head, by that must the members go, and where leads the general, there must follow the soldiers, ‘and go unto the land which I do give them’—the land of the living, to which Christ ascends and we follow; to which neither law nor prophets, no nor Moses, could introduce us, but only our Joshua, our Jesus, the Son of God.”
I have not yet spoken of the text, except to mention Maillard as having preached on the same throughout a season of Lent. Some of the earlier mediæval preachers delighted in selecting strange texts, and even went so far as to take them from other books than Holy Scripture. Indeed Stephen Langton composed a sermon, still preserved in the British Museum, and published in Biographia Britannica Literaria, on the text:
“Bele Aliz matin leva
which was a dancing-song. Maillard also did the same thing when he preached in Thoulouse, singing at the top of his voice as a text the ballad “Bergeronnette Savoisienne.”
Peter of Celles took a stanza from a hymn, and his example has been followed by others. Hartung preached from the words, “It fell, it fell, it fell,” occurring in the parable of the sower.
Texts have sometimes been selected with remarkable felicity. I have room for two instances only.
In the reign of King James I., a clergyman was to preach before the Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge, who was a very drowsy person. He took his text from the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Matthew, “What, can ye not watch one hour?” and in the course of his sermon very often repeated these words, which as often roused the vice-chancellor from his nap, and so irritated him, that he complained to the bishop. The bishop sent for the young man, that he might hear what he had to say for himself in extenuation of the offence; and so well pleased was he with the preacher’s defence, that he recommended him to be one of the select preachers before the King. On the occasion of his occupying the pulpit before James (First of England and Sixth of Scotland), he took for his text James i. 6, “Waver not,” from the translation then in use. This somewhat startled the King, for it touched him on a weak point; but he loved a joke, and was so well pleased with the preacher’s wit, that he appointed him one of his own chaplains. After this the bishop ordered the young man to preach again before his university, and make his peace with the vice-chancellor. He did so, and took for his text, “Whereas I said before, ‘What, can ye not watch one hour?’ and it gave offence; I say now unto you, ‘Sleep on, and take your rest.’” And so left the university. The other story is less known. A Capuchin having to preach one day in a church at—I believe—Lyons, slipped on the steps into the pulpit, and fell on his head. The Franciscan garb is scanty, and the congregation were startled by the apparition of a couple of bare and brawny legs protruded through the banisters. The unlucky preacher however picked himself up with great rapidity, and stationing himself in the pulpit, before the general titter had subsided, gave out his text, selected with great readiness from the gospel for the day—“Tell the vision to no man.”
Next to the text in a sermon comes the exordium.
If a royal personage were present, some compliment was expected to be paid by the preacher to his august hearer, at the opening of the sermon. Some of the greatest preachers have injured their reputation by indulging in unmerited flatteries. Chaussemer, a Jacobite, preaching after the famous passage of the Rhine, before Louis XIV. in Holy Week, when according to custom, the king washed the feet of some poor folk, used these words, “The haughty waves of the Rhine, which you, Sire, have passed as rapidly as they themselves are rapid, shall one day be dried up; but these drops of water, which your royal hands have sprinkled over the feet of the poor, shall ever be treasured before the throne of God.” Noble was the commencement of a sermon of Father Seraphim, when preaching before the same monarch. “Sire!” he began, “I am not ignorant of the fact that custom requires me to address to you a compliment; I pray your Majesty to excuse me; I have searched my Bible for a compliment,—I have found none.” I cannot omit here the really magnificent exordium of a preacher, who, in his matter and style, belonged to the seventeenth century, but who flourished in the eighteenth—I allude to Jacques Brydaine, born in 1701. He had been a mission-preacher in the country, when he was suddenly called to preach at St. Sulpice, before the aristocracy of Paris. The humble country parson, on mounting the pulpit, saw that the church was filled with courtiers, nobles, bishops, and persons of the highest rank. He had been instructed in the necessity of acknowledging their presence by a compliment. But listen to the man of God.
“At the sight of an audience so strange to me, my brethren, it seems that I ought to open my mouth to ask your favour in behalf of a poor missionary, deficient in all the talents you require, when he comes before you to speak of your welfare. But far from it, to-day I feel a different sentiment; and though I may be humbled, do not think for one moment that I am troubled by the miserable anxieties of vanity;—as though, forsooth, I were preaching myself. God forbid that a minister of Heaven should ever think it necessary to excuse himself before such as you! Be you who you may, you are but like me, sinners before the judgment-seat of God. It is then only because I stand before your God and my God, that I am constrained now to beat my breast. Hitherto I have published the righteous dealings of the Most High in thatched temples. I have preached the rigours of penitence to unhappy ones, the majority of whom were destitute of bread. I have announced to the good inhabitants of the fields, the most awful truths of religion. Wretched one that I am, what have I done! I have saddened the poor, the best friends of my God; I have carried terror and pain into the simple and faithful souls which I should have sympathized with and consoled.
“But here, here, where my eyes rest only on the great, the rich, the oppressors of suffering humanity, the bold and hardened in sin; ah! here only is it, here in the midst of these many scandals, that the word of God should be uttered with the voice of thunder; here is it that I must hold up before you, on one hand the death which threatens you, on the other, my great God who will judge you all. I hold at this moment your sentence in my hand. Tremble then before me, you proud and scornful men who listen to me. Listen when I speak of your ungrateful abuse of every means of grace, the necessity of salvation, the certainty of death, the uncertainty of that hour so terrible to you, final impenitence, the last judgment, the small number of the elect, hell, and above all eternity! Eternity! behold the subjects on which I shall speak, subjects which I should have reserved for you alone. Ah! what need I your suffrages, which may, perchance, damn me without saving you? God Himself will move you, whilst I, His unworthy minister, speak; for I have acquired a long experience of His mercies. It is He, and He alone, who in a few moments will stir the depths of your consciences.”
Passing from the exordium to the subject: that which is so tedious in modern sermons is the want of variety in the matter. There arc a stock of subjects of very limited range upon which changes are rung, but these subjects are so few that the changes are small in number. Many years ago I was staying with a relation in holy orders, after a tour through different watering-places, and I mentioned to him the curious fact, that on three consecutive Sundays, in different churches, I had heard sermons on Felix waiting for a more convenient season. Having mentioned this, I forgot the circumstance. Five years after I was in a cathedral town, and went to one of the churches there, on a Sunday morning. To my surprise I saw my relation sail up the nave in rustling silk, preceded by the verger, escorting him to the pulpit. As he passed my pew, our eyes met. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him, as he was only a visitor like myself. I noticed signs of agitation in his countenance, and that he was some time before he delivered his text, which was upon Zaccheus in the sycamore-tree.
After service I waited for him, and on our meeting, his first words were, “You wretched fellow! You put me terribly out; I had Felix trembling in my pocket ready for delivery; but when I saw you, our conversation five years ago flashed across me, and I had to change the sermon in the pulpit.” But this was not all. Next Saturday I was at the other end of England, staying with a country parson, and I related this incident. My host pulled a long face, broke out into a profuse perspiration, and said,—“I am really very sorry, but I had prepared Felix for to-morrow, and what is more, I do not see my way towards changing the subject.”
The remarkable part of this anecdote is, that the moral application was similar in all these discourses. Now, the sermons of the divines of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries seldom offended in this manner. Matthias Faber published three enormous volumes of sermons for every Sunday in the year, containing some fifteen discourses for each, and they are perfectly varied in matter and in application.
The following is a list of the subjects for one Sunday—the second in Lent:—
St. Matt. xvii. “He was transfigured before them.”
Sermon I.—The means whereby a hardened sinner may be transformed into a new man, and his heart be softened.
- By constantly hearing God’s Word.
- By assiduous prayer.
- By earnest endeavour.
- By diligent practice of virtues.
Sermon II.—The incidents which took place on Mount Tabor, and the lessons they give us.
- By labour must we pass to glory, for it was “after six days” and a laborious ascent that the mountain-top was reached.
- Beatitude is to be sought above, not on earth, for the disciples were rebuked for desiring to make tabernacles on earth, the true tabernacle being in heaven.
- In every act we should consider the end: thus Christ in the glory spoke of His approaching decease.
- Those who would see the glory of God must watch.
- Christ is to be heard by all, for He is glorified of His Father.
- Christ’s passion to be constantly before the minds of His servants.
Sermon III.—What might be seen on Mount Tabor.
- The glory of Christ.
- Our own future glory, the reflex of His.
- The vanity of worldly glory.
- The certainty of future judgment.
Sermon IV.—Why Christ in His passion made His decease (excessum). The point of this sermon depends on the various significations of the Vulgate expression, excessus.
- He deceased (excessit) to show us how great an evil is sin.
- To show us His fervent love.
- To compensate for our evil deaths by His most perfect and holy death.
- To compensate for our defects by His super-abundant merits.
Sermon V.—Pious exercises for the season of Lent.
- The exercise of fasting; set before us by the example of Moses and Elias, each of whom fasted during forty days.
- The exercise of prayer; set before us by the example of Christ, who was transfigured “as He prayed.” (Luke ix. 29.)
- The exercise of conversion; set before us by Christ’s raiment becoming white and glistering; teaching us that we must wash our robes, and make them white in the blood of the Lamb.
- The exercise of making devout use of God’s Word; “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him.”
- The exercise of the memory of Christ’s passion; by the example of Moses and Elias talking with Him of “His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem.”
- The exercise of present opportunities of grace, before the cloud obscures Christ, and ye desire “to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and shall not see it.”
Sermon VI.—The transfiguration of Satan into an angel of light, and how he deceives men.
- He leads them into the high mountain of pride, that thence he may cast them down.
- He dazzles by the splendour of his countenance.
- He puts on a show of virtue, like glistering raiment.
- He brings upon men a cloud of doubts and difficulties and worldly delights.
- From that cloud he utters a loud voice, filling men with fear at the difficulties besetting them if they would begin the service of God.
- He chooses his apostles.
- He produces Elias; example of indiscreet zeal.
- He brings forward Moses; example of exaggerated meekness.
Sermon VII.—Eternal good things offered us by God: what they are and what their nature.
- They are solid and true. For the transfiguration was not a mere dreaming vision, but
seen when the three “were awake.”
- They are pure and sincere; unmixed with care, or pain, or toil.
- They are secure and stable.
- They are perfect and complete.
- They are realities, not promises.
- They are bought at a low price.
Sermon VIII.—Wherefore Christ was transfigured.
- To establish our faith in the resurrection.
- To excite our hope.
- To kindle our love.
- To console the Church.
- To show who He was.
- To teach us to despise the world.
- To give a moment’s joy to His body, wearied with fasting, watching, and toil.
Sermon IX.—The great Parliament held on Tabor, and what was treated of there.
- The death of Christ was discussed.
- The glory of Christ the Mediator and Legislator.
- The imperial laws were drawn up; that
- α. The cross should precede the crown;
- β. The end should be held ever in view;
- γ. Beatitude should be sought above;
- δ. The passion should ever be had in remembrance.
Sermon X.—On the meaning of excessus.
Sermon XI.—Man’s fourfold transfiguration.
- From a state of grace into one of sin.
- From a state of sin into a state of grace.
- From the state of delight in this world into the misery of hell.
- From the state of pain here to the glory of Heaven.
Sermon XII.—The five sources of joy to the redeemed.
- The place Heaven.
- The society of the blessed.
- The delights of the senses, especially of the eyes and ears.
- The dowers of the risen body; glory, agility, subtlety, and impassibility.
- The beatific vision of God.
Sermon XIII.—The estimation in which indulgences are to be held.
Sermon XIV.—Lessons drawn from the Gospel.
- The power of prayer.
- The duty of watching.
- The image of worldliness in Peter, to be avoided.
- The lightest sins to be shunned.
- The difference in the falls of good and bad.
- The fleeting nature of joy here on earth.
- The signs of Christ’s coming in judgment.
Sermon XV.—Mysteries contained in the Gospel.
- Why Christ elected only three of His disciples.
- Why He led them into a mountain apart.
- Of the nature of the Transfiguration.
- Why Moses and Elias appeared.
- Why they spoke of the passion.
- Why the cloud overshadowed the vision.
- Why the disciples were bidden to be silent respecting the vision.
- How the Father is well pleased in the Son.
- The order of events in the Transfiguration.
These sermons of Matthias Faber, and indeed most of the sermons of great preachers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, are very simple in construction: The system of dividing into a great number of heads, and then subdividing, had been cast aside by the Catholic preachers at the Reformation, as unprofitable. But Protestant orators continued the baneful practice. It prevailed till lately in England, and is common still in Scotland. Dr. Neale remarks, “One would think, to read some of the essays written on the subject, that the construction of a sermon was like a law of the Medes and Persians. Look at Mr. Simeon’s one-and-twenty tedious volumes of ‘Horæ Homileticæ.’ The worthy man evidently considered this the greatest system of divinity which English theology had ever produced. And of what does it consist? of several thousand sermons treated exactly in the same ways, in obedience to precisely the same laws, and of much about the same length. Claude’s Essay had laid down certain rules, and Simeon’s Discourses were their exemplification. … The preacher opens with a short view of the circumstances under which the text was spoken. This is a very convenient exordium, because it fills two or three pages with but little trouble. The clergyman has only to put Scripture language into his own, and he is fairly launched in his sermon without any effort. Another almost equally easy method of opening is to be found in drawing a contrast between the person or thing of which the passage in hand speaks, and that to which the writer may wish to allude. And it has this special advantage; that if he is unlucky in finding much like ness between the two, he is sure to discover a good deal of un-likenoss, and either treatment will supply a good number of words. Thus, as every one knows, come the heads,—a most important part in this style of discourse. Taking Mr. Simeon as a pattern, we shall find that they cannot be less than two, nor more than four; though, indeed, there are not wanting those who have greatly extravagated beyond the superior limit, as the Puritan divine’s ‘And now, to be brief, I would observe eighteenthly, that—’ so and so, may suffice to prove. Then come all the minutiæ of subdivisions and underdivisions (little heads, as the charity children call them), all set forth, when the aforesaid discourses came to be printed, in corresponding variations of type.” After a lengthy exordium, one Sunday evening, a preacher divided his subject into twenty heads, each of which he purposed D.V. considering in all its bearings. On hearing this, a man in the congregation started up and proceeded to leave the church, when the preacher called to him, “Wherefore leave, friend?” “I am going for my nightcap,” replied the man; “for I plainly see that we shall have to pass the night in church.”
The conclusion in an old sermon of the three centuries under review, is short, pithy, and to the purpose. It consists in a vehement appeal to the consciences of the hearers, in the application of a parable or a Scriptural illustration, in a rapturous exclamation to God in the form of a brief extempore prayer, or in a string of anecdotes and examples. The following is a conclusion by Guevara, Bishop of Mondoneda:—
“Tell me, good Jesu, tell me, is there any thing in a rotten sepulchre which is not in my sorrowful soul and unhappy life? In me more than in any shall be found hard stones of obstinacy, a painted sepulchre of hypocrisy, dry bones of old sins, unprofitable ashes of works without fruit, gnawing worms of great concupiscence, and an ill odour of an evil conscience. What, then, will become of me, good Jesu! if Thou do not break the stones of my faults, throw down the sepulchre of my hypocrisy, reform the bones of my sins, and sift the ashes of my unruly desires? Raise me up, then, O good Jesu! raise me now up: not from among the dead which sleep, but from among sins which stink, for that the justification of a wicked man is a far greater matter than the raising up of a dead man; because that in the one Thou dost use Thy power, and in the other Thou dost exert Thy clemency.”
Many of Paoletti’s sermons conclude with a string of incidents and stories, from which I presume any preacher using the sermon might select that which seemed to him most appropriate.
The effect produced by the sermons of these ancient preachers was sometimes extraordinary. Jerome de Narni preached one day before the Pope, with such zeal, on the duties of residence, that next day, thirty bishops fled from Rome to their several dioceses. St. John Capistran, a Franciscan, preached in 1452 at Nuremberg, in the great square of the town, and he spoke with such vehemence against gambling, that the inhabitants brought out their dice, cards, and tables, heaped them up and burned them before him. The same thing happened next year at Breslau. Of the marvellous conversions, the result of their powerful preaching, of course we can know but little, though there is evidence that they were neither few nor unenduring. It was not an uncommon thing for people to throw themselves at the foot of the pulpit, and denounce themselves of crimes they had committed, or to throng the preacher after the sermon was over, earnestly desiring him to hear their confessions. But the most original scene, the result of a sermon of great power, exhorting to confession and amendment, took place in a church at Turin, during Lent in 1780. After the most touching appeal of the preacher, a man stood up and began to confess his sins aloud. He said that he was a lawyer, and that his life had been one of extortion. He mentioned the names of several families which he had pillaged, widows’ houses he had devoured, orphans’ substance which he had conveyed into his own pocket. This went on for some little while, when suddenly a gentleman on the other side of the church sprang up, and in a voice choking with rage, exclaimed, “Don’t believe him! it is not true. The good-for-nothing fellow is describing me and my acts; but I never did any thing of the kind!” It was evident to all that the cap fitted.
The story is told of a rich usurer of Vicenza urging the ecclesiastical authorities of the town to send for an eminent preacher to declaim against usury. “He has converted many usurers in various towns of Italy,” said the man, “and I should not in the least scruple to pay some of the expense of his coming here.” “But,” said the clergyman to whom he spoke, “if you are determined on your own conversion, you surely need not the exhortations of a preacher to strengthen your resolutions.” “Oh!” replied the usurer, “it is not for myself. This town is so full of usurers, that there is no room for a poor fellow like me to gain a livelihood. Now if they were all converted, and gave up their evil habits, there would be some chance of my being able to pick up a living.”
There were, indeed, preachers who were sent round the country to declaim against certain special sins. Their forte lay in attacking one species of guilt, but they were ineffective when preaching on another point. There were preachers whose strength lay in panegyrics upon saints; and others who—I pity them—were great in funereal discourses. Of the latter class was Geminiano, a Dominican, whose “sermones funebres” were published at Antwerp in octavo, 1611. They are ninety-eight in number. He preached over the graves of popes, archbishops, bishops, abbots, soldiers, doctors, rich men and beggars, beautiful women, an emperor, a drowned man, a prisoner who died in jail, an executed criminal, and a murdered man or two; he preached at the interment of merchants, fishermen, ploughmen, and huntsmen—in short, it would be hard to find some over whom John Geminiano did not dolorously hold forth. A sad moment for Greminiano when he first let people understand that his strong point lay in a grave.
A really great preacher was never suffered to hide his light under a bushel; according to our parochial system, the most eloquent man of the day may, for aught we know, be perched on the top of a Wiltshire down, or be buried in the clay of a North Devon parsonage, fifteen miles from a railway.
The Roman Church had the regular clergy to draw upon for proachers, and as they had no ties, could send them up and down the country, so that the same course of sermons would serve them again and again. Indeed, otherwise it would have been impossible for some of the favourite preachers to have continued providing fresh matter and committing it to memory, for it must be remembered written sermons are not tolerated in the Roman communion. It might be possible for an eloquent man with a lively imagination to continue for long without exhausting himself, but how could a solid and learned preacher, who relied on quotations, continue extracting and committing to memory long paragraphs from the Fathers, Sunday after Sunday, and year after year? Let us take a sermon of Mangotius the Jesuit, for instance.
Adrian Mangotius was a Dutchman, and consequently eminently practical and unimaginative. His sermons are good in their way; there is not a bit of originality in them, but the fragments of which they are composed are judiciously selected. In his fifty-ninth discourse, he quotes St. Matthew four times, St. Luke thrice, St. John twice, the Epistles five times, Revelation once, the Old Testament ten times, St. Augustine a dozen times, St. Gregory four times, St. Ambrose twice, St. Jerome twice, St. Bernard twice, St. Thomas Aquinas once, Cicero some three or four times, Plutarch, Sallust, and Virgil once.
This style of sermon suits some people, perhaps, but it did not take with the masses, who liked richness of imagery, abundance of simile, and neatness of illustration. So when Father d’Harrone, a man of sound learning, but little brilliancy of genius, preached a course in Rouen, after the great Bourdaloue, to use his own words: “When Bourdaloue preached last year at Rouen, artisans quitted their business, merchants their wares, lawyers the court, doctors their sick; but as for me, when I followed, I set all in order again; no one neglected his occupation.”
In the following pages I have given a sketch of some of the most remarkable preachers of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. The divine and the bibliographer may miss the names of some great and eminent men, as Paolo Segneri, Antonio Vieyra, Latimer, Andrewes, &c. But these men are either well known, or their lives and sermons are within the reach of English readers. Segneri’s Lenten sermons have been translated and somewhat diluted by Prebendary Ford, Vieyra is noticed in “Mediæval Sermons,” and English preachers I have omitted entirely to notice, because they are for the most part hopelessly dull.
- I have been obliged somewhat to modify these expressions here; the originals are too profane for reproduction.
- The manner in which these and other points are deduced from the text cannot be explained here; suffice it to say that it exhibits great ingenuity and subtlety in the preacher.