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date: 14 December 2019

(p. xiii) Preface

(p. xiii) Preface

The emergence of a discrete field of Sermon Studies has occurred over the last two decades. That is not to say that there were not distinguished studies of sermons and preaching before this, but a new interdisciplinary endeavour of historians, literary and linguistic scholars, theologians and rhetoricians has developed in response to recognition of the importance of religion in this period. As the editors of a companion volume to this book have argued, ‘the landscape of sermon studies has been transformed’.* That transformation has renewed the interest in sermons as literary, political, religious and controversial performances. In all cases, sermons were inextricably linked with the public sphere in Britain; they were intended to be heard and read, and were written and performed with the intention of having an effect in the minds and actions of the audience. The element of the sermon as a performance, as well as a text or in other printed forms, is integral to preaching. While there is some comparatively fragmentary evidence of the reception of the sermon, it is tiny and highly individualistic. So like other performances, theatrical, liturgical and political, sermons are fossils: their real substance has gone, they can only partially be recovered in the disturbance of material around them and in the changed forms in which they survive. Nevertheless the palaeontology of sermons shows how pervasive their influence was.

Perhaps the dominant claim that can be made for this volume is that it reveals the degree to which the period 1689–1901 can be regarded as a ‘golden age’ of sermons. It was a period in which the religious culture and polity of Britain was largely defined by the sermon: Britain was a sermonic society in which preaching was one, if not the principal, shared experience of all classes and conditions of people. Anglicans, Catholics and Dissenters of all hues saw themselves reflected in, and defined by, the sermons to which they listened. Methodism without field preaching, Nonconformity without extempore preaching, the Church without the parson in his pulpit would not exist. Consequently this volume seeks to restore the centrality of the sermon in this period. It does so by tracing the key trends in the study of the sermon in this period. These trends include the connections between sermons and politics, sermons and communities of believers, sermons and ideas and literature, and sermons and identities. The period 1689–1901 is often regarded as divisible into the ‘long eighteenth century’ and the Victorian period. However the sermon culture transcends this periodization by historians. The divisions adopted by historians of 1800, 1815 and 1832 do not represent any natural division in the history of the sermon.

(p. xiv) The organisation of the volume reflects the character of the sermon in this period; it played a key role in communities and cultures, in political, state and local occasions, in controversies and the development of ideas, in the spread of empire, and in literature. The essays in Section Two, on ‘Sermons: Communities, Cultures and Communication,’ consider the sermon in its most popular form: the non-elite sermons which most people heard each Sunday—or more often—in the churches, chapels and meeting houses up and down the country. These essays, for the first time, map the terrain of the sermon in its most diverse forms, devised to accommodate congregations in different areas, with differing identities, theologies and even languages. Drawing on printed, manuscript and recalled sermons, they show preaching to be the ‘stem-cell’ of religious performance, able to mould and adapt itself to the circumstances of the men, women and children in the pews and sometimes beyond them. The authors also demonstrate the astonishing volumes of energy and inventiveness that preachers devoted to their sermons: this made sermons easily the most widespread and sustained form of intellectual activity in the country in this period.

Section Three, on ‘occasional sermons,’ shows the sermon in its least representative, but often most influential, form. ‘Occasional sermons’ were frequently elite performances, by and for the leaders of church, state and society. The essays in this section are testimony to the central role preaching played in the rituals and formal social occasions of British society in this period. Political moments, victories on land and sea, ecclesiastical ceremonies and rites of passage were all marked by sermons which emphasised the intensely religious character of British society. Sermons were the occasion of expressions of political and religious identity and coherence. In controversy, victory, defeat, disaster, relief and bereavement people sought leadership and solace from the pulpit.

Section Four considers the ways in which sermons contributed to change in British intellectual and social life in the period. Sermons were always prone to be controversial but in the period 1689–1901 they became the engines of national debate and intellectual innovation. Sermons caused and reflected changes in education, theology, society and science. They were also occasions of furious controversy such as Henry Sacheverell's sermon of 1709 and Hoadly's Bangorian sermon of 1716. If these sermons represented revolutions in thought, they should not detract from the many evolutionary sermons, showing the gradual emergence of trends and movements, and it is on these that the essays in this section principally focus.

The essays in Section Five show the ways in which the sermon both preceded and followed the flag into Britain's colonies and possessions across the world. These essays demonstrate just how adaptable the sermon form was. Not only could missionary-preachers use their sermons to convert, indoctrinate, and teach but also to inculcate, they hoped, a sense of Britishness and belonging to the Empire. Furthermore, and ironically, because the sermon form was so malleable it could be adopted by the colonized and transformed into something indigenous and nationalist: consequently sermons could sometimes be used to challenge the imperial project. The essays in this section consider the ways in which the colonizer and colonized used sermons.

(p. xv) Section Six demonstrates the intimate relationship between the sermon and literature in this period. Sermons were, in many respects, the precursors of the novel and popular literature. As fiction grew as a percentage of the print output, the sales of the sermon contracted. Nevertheless these two literary forms were not necessarily in competition with each other and in some respects they were complementary. Sermons employed the forms of literature being poetic and lyrical as well as imaginative and speculative, and they were, like other aspects of everyday life, frequently featured in novels.

Inevitably, perhaps, for such a volume the goal of comprehensiveness is elusive. Individual sermons, and preachers undoubtedly justify their own studies but they have not formed the principal approach for this collection. Instead these essays seek to focus on the trends represented by sermons and preachers and their goals and objectives. Consequently the approach is not predominantly biographical, though this plays an important part in sermon studies. The aim of this volume is to serve as a research tool for both experts and students of religion, politics and society in this period.

It is important to acknowledge that the genesis of this collection was the idea, possibly the dream, of a ‘British Pulpit Online,’ making all the bibliographical data—and perhaps even page scans—of the published sermons of this period searchable. While one reviewer of the project outline admitted that they found sermons ‘dull’, it is hoped that this volume will have disabused them of this misapprehension. It is also an aspiration of the editors and consultant editors that this volume will make the case even more strongly that much more information is needed for a thorough quantitative analysis of the sermon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

K. A.F.; W. G.

November 2011 (p. xvi)


(*) P. MacCullough, H. Adlington, and E. Rhatighan, The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, xiv.