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 them. Cotton Mather, Increase’s son and the most influential minister of his time, is represented not by anything characteristic of his special pietistic and chiliastic doctrines, but by two sermons, one affirming in platitudes that Christianity is reasonable, and the other an untimely warning against the presence of witchcraft, the worst thing he ever wrote, published just when the rest of New England was trying to forget the delusions that produced the Salem trials.
Other religious leaders suffer similar offbeat treatment. The selection from Charles Chauncy, who led a fierce opposition to the Great Awakening, is a funeral sermon reflecting on the shortness and fragility of human life. It could have been preached by any minister of any denomination at any time. William Ellery Channing, whose “Baltimore sermon” in 1819 became a manifesto of Unitarianism, is represented not by that sermon but by an ordination sermon in 1828. Ralph Waldo Emerson announced his desertion of Unitarianism in his famous Divinity School Address of 1838, which became one of the landmarks of Transcendentalism, but he is represented by an 1832 sermon in which he resigned his ministry at his Boston church before his views had matured. His contemporary Horace Bushnell, America’s most original and most eloquent theological thinker after Edwards, is not represented at all. With so many great sermons to choose from, why would an obscure, anonymous tract against swearing, almost certainly never preached anywhere, be included? Why a sermon refuting Hosea Ballou, the founder of Universalism, but none by Ballou or any other Universalist? Historical or theological significance has obviously not been Warner’s criterion.
The success of any minister’s sermons in moving large numbers of people has also had no apparent influence on the selection. The sermon was the engine of the periodic revivals that have characterized American religion since the early eighteenth century. Warner has chosen examples from the popular evangelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, and Aimee Semple McPherson, but nothing from the great Methodist preachers of the early nineteenth century, whose sermons brought more Americans to their churches than those of any other denomination. George Whitefield, the itinerant preacher who sparked the Great Awakening of the 1740s, may have been omitted be-cause he was English, though a pallid depiction of him in the pulpit oddly graces the dust jacket. But if Whitefield is excluded because he was English, though his best-known sermons were preached in America, why does the volume open with a sermon by an Englishman, Robert Cushman, delivered in Plymouth Plantation in 1621 during a visit that lasted just over a month? And why is John Cotton represented by a sermon preached in England before he left? Most unaccountable is the absence of Charles Grandison Finney, unquestionably American and arguably the most popular and most powerful preacher in all of our history. His sermons in the 1820s and 1830s, in a new vernacular style, inspired the abolition movement, filled churches of all denominations, and served as a model for later American revivalists. Only Whitefield before him had so wide an influence.
What we have is a seemingly arbitrary selection. Political correctness may have had something to do with it: there are sermons by three rabbis, two women, and two former slaves. Famous names may have had something to do with it. The editor’s literary taste doubtless had something to do with it. A few sermons reflect historical events: one by Samuel Cooke in 1770 can be seen as foreshadowing the American Revolution; Theodore Parker denounces the Mexican War and all wars in 1846; Henry Ward Beecher denounces slavery and defends the Union in 1861. But otherwise there are no sermons addressing the great public issues that agitated the churches and caused deep schisms within some of them, no abolitionist sermons, none on missions, imperialism, labor, evolution. There is simply no apparent rationale for assembling these sermons and no intrinsic theological, historical, or literary significance in most of them.
It does not follow that the sermon has not occupied a major place in American culture. For much of American history, delivering sermons, listening to them, and discussing them were the principal intellectual activities for most people. Publication of the volume is a recognition of that fact; and the miscellaneous character of the selections, whether by accident or by design, raises the question of what gave the sermon such vitality through the changing circumstances of American society over so long a time.
We can speak of the sermon in the singular, because these sermons, along with the thousands of others from which they have been drawn, are all recognizable as exemplars of a single genre. They all have, in one way or another, the same subject: the goodness of God and his unfulfilled expectations of human beings. They all approach the subject in a hortatory mode, trying to persuade people what to believe and how to behave. They almost all derive their arguments, sometimes by rather circuitous routes, from a verse or set of verses in the Bible. What is most important is that they were all prepared for oral delivery to an assembly of people gathered for the purpose of listening to them. Many, including some in this volume, were written down only by an auditor during their delivery. Some ministers made a point of not knowing what they would say in a sermon before entering the pulpit, and many more spoke only from brief notes. Sermons were more persuasive when they were spontaneous, and persuasion was always their purpose.
Different ministers had different techniques of persuasion. We know that Jonathan Edwards delivered his sermons, whether of God’s anger or of God’s love, in a toneless manner, the more effective perhaps because of his matter-of-fact presentation. Other revivalists of his time and later needed a multitude of histrionic gestures to give a sense of urgency to their words. Perhaps because they lose so much in print, few of the sermons here are revival sermons. Most are formal discourses addressed to reasonable men and women seated quietly at the feet of a minister in church. But they were not presented simply as instruction. Even the most didactic are instruments of persuasion. They aim to persuade people who wish to be persuaded, people who, it is safe to assume, enjoyed persuasion, and found in it a fulfillment different from what they could get in church ceremonies alone.
The kind of fulfillment that came from sermons, though it may have had different meanings for different people at different times, has been what Americans have sought in religion from the beginning. While sermons are certainly not unique to American churches, no other people in the Western world has shown so long or so strong an attachment to them. It began with the Puritans, whose sermons occupy nearly a quarter of this volume. Before leaving England they had made a nuisance of themselves by demanding more sermons than the Church was willing to offer. They wanted the Church of England to give up most of the ceremonies prescribed in its Book of Common Prayer and to give up all church officers—bishops, archbishops, and a host of lesser functionaries—except for the parish ministers who preached sermons. When they organized churches of their own in New England, they held all rituals to a minimum in favor of lengthy, cerebral sermons, both morning and afternoon every Sunday.
Sermons, they believed, were the instrument of God in conferring the Holy Spirit, and anyone interested in eternal life had better seek maximum exposure to them. The conferring of the spirit was a decisive, once-in-a-lifetime experience, a new birth, a “conversion,” which ceremonies might celebrate but only sermons could bring about and future sermons make intelligible. Later evangelicals attributed the same power to sermons that the Puritans did and made it visible in the way their preaching shook people into strange trances and tremblings at revival meetings. But even among those who believed that God operated on men more quietly, the sermon remained the mode of explaining who He was, what He did, and what people ought to do about it.
The variety of the explanations, as exhibited in this volume, as in the thousands of sermons on which it rests, suggests that the act of listening, of being persuaded, may somehow have mattered as much as the substance. A sermon expounding free will could have much the same effect on listeners as one expounding predestination. The sermons that produced the Great Awakening of the 1740s were Calvinist expositions of predestination. The sermons of the great revivals of the next century were “Arminian” expositions of human ability to win salvation by wanting it and working for it. In both cases, sermons coming from the lips of a charismatic minister could overwhelm a congregation with a sense of divine presence, sending the most susceptible into something resembling a coma, a phenomenon that often proved contagious. There is no record of anyone being so physically struck by reading. The distinctive and crucial experience came from hearing and from hearing in the presence of others. Listening to sermons in a Unitarian church or a Universalist one was doubtless something different from listening to an evangelical one, but it was still a collective experience. And that experience, of whatever kind in whatever church, carried an invitation to return for a repetition of it, for more sermons, more persuasion, not just in a pastoral visit but from the pulpit in the company of the whole congregation.
In America the invitation was not encumbered by the compulsions or the limitations that surrounded sermons in the European world from which most Americans or their ancestors arrived. In that world, membership in the church was a corollary of citizenship in the state, and membership in a variety of other institutions was also determined more by birth than by choice. The absence of such established institutions has often been noted as a distinctive feature of American life, especially in the first two or three centuries after English settlement. While Americans were engaged in occupying the continent and ousting the native inhabitants, institutions could not keep up with the exponential growth of the population. Not only was there no established church, but there was no hereditary aristocracy, no standing army, no business monopolies, fewer of any of the institutions that elsewhere posed limits on what an individual could do, fewer even of the social customs and taboos that so often dictate human behavior, and necessarily fewer of the rites and ceremonies through which institutions identify themselves and their members. In this environment the persuasive power of sermons took the place of institutional compulsions and reduced the significance of ceremony, of feasts and fastings, sacraments and prayers, and every other liturgical rite.
The very absence of ceremony as an emblem of identity emphasized the collective experience of attendance at sermons, an experience we cannot recapture in print. It is fair to see the sermon as a literary genre and to read it as such, but its importance in American history was not literary. Its significance lay both in the inexpressible collective religious experience it provided and also in its capacity to affect the stance people took on public issues, even on issues not specifically mentioned in it. Warner seems to have avoided the many sermons directed explicitly at public issues, perhaps because the format of the series made impossible the introductions needed to explain controversies less well known than the Civil War. But every sermon took its meaning from the people it addressed. It would require an extraordinary immersion in the times that produced a seemingly routine sermon to grasp the many meanings and implications it may have had for the people to whom it was addressed. A couple of examples from the volume may suggest why.
When in 1709 Cotton Mather extols the reasonableness of Christianity and cites how reason requires a church to show “Respect unto the countenance of any Neighbouring Churches,” it seems to us merely an illustration of an obvious proposition, but everyone in the meeting house would have known that he was trying to co-opt them into a plan propounded unsuccessfully by himself and his father to bring the New England churches into a semipresbyterial organization. It was a lost cause, but Mather may have structured the whole sermon in order to get in that plug for it. When Jonathan Mitchell in 1667 urges New Englanders to be faithful to the principles of their forefathers (“Oh seek and keep it, and hold it fast”), we read it as a standard exhortation to stick to the good old ways, but the congregation could hear him coming down hard in favor of the novel and highly controversial “Halfway Covenant” of 1662, extending baptism to children whose parents had never experienced the new birth necessary for full membership in the church. When he says, “Prize and hold fast the Covenant of God to you and yours,” the seemingly innocent “yours” is directed at those who did not accept this innovation. He makes his condemnation of them explicit when he goes on to say, “To leave the Children of non-scandalous Orthodox Christians Unbaptized, will (I doubt not) be one day found a thing displeasing unto Jesus Christ.” This, coming from the man who was probably the most respected Congregational minister of his time, would have been a red flag to opponents of the “Halfway Covenant” and a cause for cheering to its advocates. The sermon was an instrument of persuasion in more ways than one, and its effectiveness cannot be gauged from its appearance in print.
One form of its effectiveness, however, is obvious: the expansion of population and the proliferation of sects opened church membership in America to a competition conducted through sermons. Ultimately the existence of every church came to depend on the persuasiveness of the minister’s performance in the pulpit. After American independence, even the Church of England, cut off from English support and English law, had to rely more on sermons and less on ceremony. As the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, it placed even its bishops in parish pulpits and expected them to preach, and many of its priests and deacons on their own initiative neglected the liturgical ceremonies prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer in favor of unprescribed sermons and exhortations. Without sermons the Episcopal Church might have expired altogether, and its die-hard High Church members might have merged with the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has always gained its membership in America from the immigrants who remained faithful to it, but even they felt the need for more sermons than had been customary in Europe. In many of the large cities where they gathered in the decades before the Civil War, lay trustees of particular churches claimed the power to appoint priests in defiance of their bishops and insisted on more evangelical sermons.
The sermon has retained its preeminence in American churches during most of the present century. But in the last twenty or thirty years, while fundamentalist fanaticism has been on the rise among so many of the world’s religions and while Americans have continued to frequent their churches more regularly than Europeans do, the sermon seems to have been losing its central place in religious experience and activity. Protestant churches in general have been giving more attention to liturgical formalities and to peripheral social activities. Religious energies have been diverted to education, to single-issue politics, to picket lines and protests and soup kitchens. Zeal for salvation has moved to Pentecostal movements, where the sermon has become a spontaneous interactive performance between preacher and congregants. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that the Library of America should issue a volume of sermons at this time. Although it is difficult to see how this particular selection of them can meet the description of “America’s best and most significant writing,” it does meet what is evidently another requirement. As with the other volumes in the series, the authors are all dead. The sermon as a genre may already have passed its best days, and the experiences that gave it meaning cannot be recovered in print. But it still deserves a better epitaph than this strange volume provides.
September 23, 1999