Persuading the Persuaded

With the publication of a volume of sermons ranging over three and a half centuries, the Library of America enters new territory. None of the previous 107 volumes in the series, which “is dedicated to preserving America’s best and most significant writing,” has included anything religious or theological. Until now the authors have been selected for their literary distinction or, in a few cases, for their political significance (writings of Washington and Jefferson, the debates on the Constitution). The format of the series has required that there be no introduction explaining or justifying the selections and none has been needed. There would be no point in cluttering the texts of William Faulkner or Nathaniel Hawthorne with yet another analysis of what they really said or meant or why they are worthy of the imprimatur of the series. The same might have been true of a volume allotted to, say, Jonathan Edwards or Reinhold Niebuhr. The sermons in this new volume are similarly presented as though their intrinsic merit were obvious. It is not. The publication itself is a kind of statement that sermons played an important role in American life, but why or how is not self-evident and does not become so in reading this collection of them. Edwards and Niebuhr are both here, but in strange company.

The editor, Michael Warner (his name, as in other volumes, is excluded from the title page), had a more formidable task of selection than any previous editor in the series. Before the present century sermons accounted for a large percentage of all published writing in America. They were certainly the largest single category in the 39,000 known titles printed by 1800, from which Warner has selected twenty-six. He must have had to choose the others of his total of fifty-eight from an even larger mass. So the volume has to be his work; no other editor in this series has had to pick so few from so many. We are left to guess how he did it.

What did not dictate his selection is more apparent than what did. The table of contents includes many famous names, along with some unknown ones, but very few famous sermons. I count only three that may have been included simply because modern readers are likely to have heard of them: John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” of 1630, preached while en route to New England, Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” a century later, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon in Memphis on the day before he was killed. Not present are any sermons in which a religious leader signaled a new direction in theology or in church organization. Solomon Stoddard and Increase Mather led opposing religious movements at the end of the seventeenth century, but each is represented here by a sermon that either of them could have written and that has nothing to do with their arguments over church membership, which divided New Englanders for a century after…

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