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ELOQUENCE OF THE PULPIT,
JIY DEAR JOHN, .
IN this country there is only one department of eloquence which admits of a precomposed discourse, and that is the eloquence of the pulpit. I have formerly remarked that we have reason to believe the ancients frequently, if not generally, composed their public orations before-hand, and recited them either from memory or froin notes; and all those orations which were pronounced in the rhetorical schools, either as exercises, or displays of talent, were composed with great study and care. I have observed that the French advocates, before the Revolution, were also in the habit of committing all their pleadings to writing. But in our senate, and at our bar, where skilful debaters are of more value and weight than mere declaimers, where argument has more force than ornament, such a practice would be ridiculed as formal and pedantic.
The practice therefore of precomposing a popular address, is with us confined almost exclusively to the pulpit. The principles which have been already advanced on the subject of didactic composition, and also relative to the parts of a discourse, will almost all apply to what is called a Sermon, which you see literally means a discourse, from the Latin Sermo.
Whatever there is peculiar to this form of composition will appear further, if we take a short view of the origin and progress of pulpit eloquence.
In the primitive church, from the earliest period, a custom prevailed, which may indeed be ultimately tra-ced to the Jewish, though the time of its introduction into the latter is not clearly ascertained. One of the
most distinguished members of the congregation (usually the bishop or presbyter) read a portion of scripture, selected for the service of the day, and proceeded with a general explanation or exposition of what had been read, concluding with a practical exhortation., These exhortations were brief and unadorned, and were sometimes followed by further expositions of Scripture from others of the society, who professed to speak under the influence of the Holy Spirit.*
It is probable that what at first consisted of a few short, and perhaps unconnected sentences, would gradually, and by those who possessed fluency of thought, and facility of expression, be made to assume a more regular form. Origen (who lived in the beginning of the third century,) was the first who introduced long explanatory discourses into Christian assemblies; and preaching began in his time to be formed upon the nice model of Grecian eloquence. Sometimes two or three sermons were preached in the same congregation by the presbyters and bishops in succession. Many of these discourses were extempore, but many were also precomposed. The sermons on these occasions were necessarily short, as the time allotted for public worship was only two hours. It was probably upon some of these occasions that the short sermons of St. Augustin were composed, many of which may be pronounced distinctly in eight minutes, and some in less. Those of Chrysostom are however much longer, and some of them are evidently laboured compositions. As the institution of preaching commenced in the explication of Scripture, it still retained, through many reyolutions of the public taste, some respect to its origin; and, with a few exceptions, a portion of the sacred writings always constituted the basis of the discourse, though latterly it was reduced almost to the form of a motto, which had frequently little connexion with the principal subject; and hence have originated our modern Essay Sermons.
* Gregory's History of the Christian Church, Cent. 1.
· During the dark ages, from the ignorance of the clergy, preaching was almost laid aside. After the Reformation it was chiefly extempore; but in England many complaints were made of those who were licensed to preach, I presume on account of the doctrines they advanced; and to enable them to justify themselves, many of the clergy began to write and read their sermons. The ease which this practice afforded, and the correctness it induced, has continued it in the -church of England ever since.
- This short view of the origin and progress of this species of eloquence will easily furnish us with the precise rules which are exclusively applicable to it.
That sermon is most useful and most agreeable to the nature of the institution which serves to elucidate the Holy Scriptures, and to clear away the difficulties which may occur to common readers. A sermon however ought always to have a practical tendency; and though explanatory of Scripture, the minuteness of philological or metaphysical speculations ought to be carefully avoided. Discourses which enter deeply into difficult doctrinal points are seldom of much use, and are fitter for the closet than for a public assembly. Sermons ought to be calculated to interest and engage as well as to instruct. « Propose one point in a discourse (says Mr. Paley) and stick to it; a hearer never carries away more than one impression.” Let one virtue be recommended, or one doctrinal point be explained; it is impossible to condense the whole duties of a man, or the whole system of Christian doctrine into a single sermon.
A sermon should never wander from the text; and those are the best which follow exactly the natural division of the text ; but this cannot always be done, particularly when the text is short, or contains one single proposition. A few easy and natural divisions will assist the memory, but many subdivisions perplex and confuse it ; the exordium should be always natural and easy, not affected, nor yet trite, and directly leading to the object of the discourse. The conclusion should be
animated, and skilfully adapted to interest and awaken the feelings of the audience. It should therefore be always practical, and consist of an exhortation to make a right use of the doctrine which has been detailed, or to profit by the example which has been exhibited.
The style of sermons should be clear and plain. It should neither admit of low cant, nor vulgar phraseology; nor yet of difficult or foreign words, such as Latinisms, or technical phrases of any kind, not even those appropriate to divinity as a science. Rhetorical flourishes, or metaphysical expressions, are of little use. As Mr. Paley remarks, “ they cost the writer much trouble, and produce small advantage to the hearer." Above all faults of style the exclamation ought to be avoided : it is always frigid, and can scarcely fail to of· fend a sensible ear. ,
The delivery of a sermon should correspond with what I have just uttered with respect to the style. It should correspond with the gravity and the dignity of the character which is assumed by the preacher. Those who attempt to act their sermons, as Dr. Warburton expresses it, degrade themselves into buffoons. That violence and inequality of enunciation, which sometimes becomes a player, as expressive of the stronger passions he represents, is offensive and improper in a teacher. Nor less disgusting is the attempt to speak in a kind of recitative, begging, pathetic tone, without at all adapting the voice to the nature of the subject. Whoever employs these poor devices, will indeed excite the pity of the well-informed part of his audience....but it will be for the preacher himself.
An easy, temperate, and harmonious elocution (with some regard to emphasis, particularly where a peculiar phrase requires that it should be impressed upon the mind) will always be more generally pleasing, than any kind of affectation. Few can excel in the higher requisites of oratory ; few can become orators; but all may be correct and agreeable speakers (at least with few exceptions,) if they will not be too ambitious for distinction.
It has been debated, whether sermons may be most advantageously delivered from written notes, memory, or perfectly extempore. Dr. Beattie decides in favour of written sermons. Indeed there is scarcely any extempore discourse which is not too diffuse for the time usually allotted for the pulpit, that might not in fact be comprised in much fewer words, and which does not abound in impertinencies, tautologies, or solecisms. Yet a good extempore discourse has more effect in a common audience than a written one. A practice which has been much exclaimed against, but I think without reason, is that of preaching from printed sermons. If it does not beget habits of indolence in young clergymen, and is only the effect of modesty at their first entrance into public life, it is rather commendable than otherwise ; but they should be cautioned when they do pilfer, rather to take from approved writers, than from obscure, or old authors, as is frequently done to escape detection ; and it may be observed, that he who is unqualified to compose is commonly unfitted to select.
The style of the French writers I do not, in general, admire; they are, it is true, animated, while the English are rational and full of argument; but both these should be united to form a perfect preacher. 'The French have but few thoughts, and these placed in a variety of lights, which renders them sometimes feeble, but they are, perhaps, more warm and persuasive. There are some protestant preachers of the French, and particularly Saurin, who may be read with advantage. Amongst their popish divines, Bourdaloue is the most admired in France, but he is sometimes dull and verbose. Flechier is more ornamental; but the most distinguished is Masillon, Bishop of Clermont, who is really an elegant and nervous writer, and one who well understood the human heart.
In England, before the Restoration, the preachers were much addicted to scholastic and casuistical theology, and abounded in divisions. After the Restoration they became more correct and rational; but the puritans still retained something of the old style, united with a