1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sermon

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SERMON (Lat. sermo, a discourse), an oration delivered from a pulpit with fullness and rhetorical effect. Pascal, than whom no greater authority can be desired, defines a sermon as a religious address, in which the word of God is stated and explained, and in which an audience is excited to the practice of virtue. This may be so extended as to include a discourse in favour of pure morality, though, even in that case, the morals are founded on Christian doctrine, and even the sermon which the fox preaches in La Fontaine's Fables is a parody of a Christian discourse. The Latin sermons of St Augustine, of which 384 are extant, have been taken as their models by all sensible subsequent divines, for it was he who rejected the formal arrangement of the divisions of his theme, and insisted that simplicity and familiarity of style were not incompatible with dignity and religion. His object was not to dazzle by a conformity with the artificial rules of oratory, but to move the soul of the listener by a direct appeal to his conscience. His adage was Qui sophistice loquitur odibilis est, and his influence has been exercised ever since in warning the Christian orator against artificiality and in urging upon him the necessity of awakening the heart. Nevertheless, on many occasions, fashion has led the preachers of a particular epoch to develop rules for the composition of sermons, the value of which is more than doubtful. Cardinal Siffrein, who is known as the Abbé Maury (1746-1817), resumed all the known artifices of sermon-style in a volume which has a permanent historical value, the well-known Essai sur l'eloquence de la chaire (1810); he was himself rather a fiery politician than a persuasive divine. Maury describes all the divisions of which a good sermon should consist—an exordium, a proposition, a section, a confirmation in two or more points, a peroration; and he holds that a sermon on morals should have but two points, while one on the Passion must have three. These are effects of pedantry, and seem rather to be founded on a cold-blooded analysis of celebrated sermons than on any instinctive sense of the duty of the preacher. We may wish to see in a good sermon, what Bossuet recommended, not the result of slow and tedious study, but the flush of a celestial fervour. Voltaire makes an interesting observation on the technical difference between an English and a French sermon in the 18th century; the former, he says, is a solid and somewhat dry dissertation which the preacher reads to the congregation without a gesture and without any inflection of his voice; the latter is a long declamation, scrupulously divided into three points, and recited by heart with enthusiasm.

Among the earliest examples of pulpit oratory which have been preserved in English literature, the discourses of Wycliffe and his disciples may be passed by, to arrive at the English sermons of John Fisher (1469?-1535), which have a distinct literary value. But Hugh Latimer (1485?-1555) is the first great English preacher, and the wit and power of his sermons (1549) give them prominence in our literature. One of the expository discourses of John Knox (1505-1572), we are told, was of more power to awaken his hearers than a blast from “five hundred trumpets.” When we come to Elizabethan times, we possess a few examples of the sermons of the “judicious” Hooker (1554-1600); Henry Smith (1550-1591) was styled “the prime preacher of the nation”; and Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), whose sermons were posthumously printed at the command of James I. in 1628, dazzled his contemporaries by the brilliancy of his euphemism; Andrewes was called “the star of preachers.” At a slightly later date John Donne (1573-1621) and Joseph Hall (1574-1656) divided the suffrages of the pious. In the middle of the 17th century the sermon became one of the most highly-cultivated forms of intellectual entertainment in Great Britain, and when the theatres were closed at the Commonwealth it grew to be the only public form of eloquence. It is impossible to name all the eminent preachers of this time, but a few must be mentioned. John Hales (1584-1656); Edmund Calamy (1600-1666); the Cambridge Platonist, Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1685); Richard Baxter (1615-1691); the puritan John Owen (1616-1683); the philosophical Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688); Archbishop Leighton (1611-1684)—each of these holds an eminent position in the records of pulpit eloquence, but all were outshone by the gorgeous oratory and art of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), who is the most illustrious writer of sermons whom the British race has produced. His matchless collection of discourses delivered at Golden Grove, The Eniautos, was published in 1653-1655. The fault of the 17th-century sermon was a tendency, less prominent in Jeremy Taylor than in any other writer, to dazzle the audience by a display of false learning and by a violence in imagery; the great merit of its literary form was the fullness of its vocabulary and the richness and melody of style which adorned it at its best. Some of the most remarkable divines of this great period, however, are scarcely to be mentioned as successful writers of sermons. At the Restoration, pulpit oratory in England became drier, less picturesque and more sententious. The great names at this period were those of Isaac Barrow (1630-1677); Robert South (1634-1716), celebrated for his wit in the pulpit; John Tillotson (1630-1694), the copyright of whose sermons fetched the enormous sum of 2500 guineas after his death, and of whom it was said that he was “not only the best preacher of the age, but seemed to have brought preaching to perfection”; and Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699), styled, for his appearance in the pulpit, “the beauty of holiness.” These preachers of the Restoration were controversialists, keen, moderate and unenthusiastic. These qualities were accentuated in the 18th century, when for a while religious oratory ceased to have any literary value. The sermons of Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761) have a place in history, and those of Joseph Butler (1692-1752), the Rolls Sermons of 1726, have great philosophical importance. Thomas Boston's (1676-1732) memory has been revived by the praise of Stevenson, but his zeal was far exceeded by that of John Wesley (1703-1791), who preached 40,000 sermons, and by that of George Whitefield (1714-1770).

Of all countries, however, France is the one which has shown most brightly in the cultivation of the sermon. In the 14th century Gerson (1363-1429) seems to have been the earliest divine who composed and preached in French, but his example was not followed by any man of equal genius. It was the popular movement of the Reformation, which made the sermon a piece of literature, on the lips of Jean Calvin (1509-1564), Pierre Viret (1511-1571) and Théodore de Bèze (1519-1605). With these stern Protestant discourses may be contrasted the beautiful, but somewhat euphuistical sermons of St François de Sales (1605-1622), full of mystical imagery. Father Claude de Lingendes (1591-1660) has been looked upon as the father of the classic French sermon, although his own conciones were invariably written in Latin, but his methods were adopted in French, by the school of Bourdaloue and Bossuet. In the great body of noble religious eloquence delivered from French pulpits during the 17th century, the first place is certainly held by the sermons of J. B. Bossuet (1627-1704), who remains perhaps the greatest preacher whom the world has ever seen. His six Oraisons Funèbres, the latest of which was delivered in 1687, form the most majestic existing type of this species of literature. Around that of Bossuet were collected other noble names: Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704), whom his contemporaries preferred to Bossuet himself; Esprit Fléchier (1632-1710), the politest preacher who ever occupied a Parisian pulpit; and Jules Mascaron (1634-1703), in whom all forms of eloquence were united. A generation later appeared Baptiste Massillon (1663-1742), who was to Bossuet as Racine to Corneille; and Jacques Saurin (1677-1730), whose evangelical sermons were delivered at the Hague. These are the great classic preachers whose discourses continue to be read, and to form an inherent part of the body of French literature. There was some revival of the art of the sermon at Versailles a century later, where the Abbé Maury, whose critical work has been mentioned above, preached with vivid eloquence between 1770 and 1785; the Père Elisée (1726-1783), whom Diderot and Mme Roland greatly admired, held a similar place, at the same time, in Paris. Since the end of the 18th century, although a great number of volumes of sermons have been and continue to be published, and although the pulpit holds its own in Protestant and Catholic countries alike, for purposes of exhortation and encouragement, it cannot be said that the sermon has in any way extended its influence as a form of pure literature. It has, in general, been greatly shortened, and the ordinary sermon of to-day is no longer an elaborate piece of carefully balanced and ornamental literary architecture, but a very simple and brief homily, not occupying the listener for more than some ten minutes in the course of an elaborate service.

In Germany, the great preachers of the middle ages were Franciscans, such as Brother Bertold of Regensburg (1220-1272), or Dominicans, such as Johann Tauler (1290-1361), who preached in Latin. The great period of vernacular preaching lasted from the beginning of the 16th to the end of the 17th century. Martin Luther was the most ancient type of early Reformation preacher, and he was succeeded by the mystic Johann Arndt (1555-1621); the Catholic church produced in Vienna the eccentric and almost burlesque oratory of Abraham a Santa Clara (1642-1709). The last of the great German preachers of this school was P. J. Spener, the founder of the Pietists (1635-1705).

Among the best authorities on the history of the sermon are Abbé Maury: Essai sur l'eloquence de la chaire (2 vols., Paris, 1810); Rothe, Geschichte der Predict (Bremen, 1881).  (E. G.)