The Sermon as an American Institution

THE PRACTICAL TEMPER, strengthened by New England orthodoxy and the opportunities of the New World, was not evidenced merely in the absence of theoretical treatises and abstract disputation. The New England sermon gave it vivid expression. During the first decades of settlement, the New England mind found its perfect medium and achieved its spectacular success in the sermon. This success would have been impossible without a firm orthodoxy and a practical emphasis. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay thus foreshadowed the circumstances which, throughout American history, were to give peculiar prominence to the spoken, as contrasted with the printed, word.

The scarcity of monumental volumes on theoretical questions and the flood of spoken words have been complementary facts about American culture from the very beginning. The public speech, whether sermon, commencement address, or whistle-stop campaign talk is a public affirmation that the listeners share a common discourse and a common body of values. The spoken word is inevitably more topical than the printed word: it attempts to explain the connection between the shared community values and the predicament of man at a particular time and place. It is directed to people whom the speaker confronts, and to their current problems.

In the doctrine of all protestantism there were, of course, special reasons for the importance of preaching. If priestly intermediaries between each soul and God were to be dispensed with, the message of the Gospel had to be brought home to each man. And what better means than the spoken word, in which an eloquent and learned man established the relation of the Word of God to the condition of those before him? Moreover, the 17th century was the great age of English sermons—and not only among Puritans. It was the age of John Donne and Jeremy Taylor, high Anglicans whose preachments were classics of the sermon form. By the mid-17th century, English Puritans had developed so distinctive a style of prose for their sermons that an attentive listener could discover the theology of a minister from the form of his preaching.

In contrast to the involved “metaphysical” style of Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne, the Puritans developed a manner which came to be known, in their own words, as the “plain” style. The rules of this style were codified into preachers’ manuals like William Perkins’ Art of Prophecying, an English handbook found on nearly every book-list in early New England. The mark of the plain style was, of course, plainness. But it was also marked by greater attention to persuasion and the practical consequences of a doctrine than to the elaboration of the theory itself. The Puritan sermon, as Perry Miller explains, was “more like a lawyer’s brief than a work of art.” Its characteristic plan had three parts: “doctrines,” “reasons,” and “uses.” The “doctrine” was what the preacher discovered by “opening” a Biblical text, which was always the starting point; the “reasons” supported the doctrine; and the “uses” were the application of the doctrine to the lives of the listeners—the “instruction” which came out of the sermon.

Sermons in the plain style were in every way the opposite of high-falutin. “Swelling words of humane wisedome,” John Cotton said in 1642, “make mens preaching seeme to Christ (as it were) a blubber-lipt Ministry.” That was not the way of Christ, who, rather than give men “a kind of intimation, afar off,” had actually spoken “their own in English as we say…. He lets fly poynt blanck.” The Puritan minister should not quote in foreign languages: “So much Latine is so much flesh in a Sermon.”

While the metaphysical preacher depended for effect on intricate literary conceits, the Puritan minister used homely examples. “Gods Altar needs not our pollishings,” declared the preface to the Bay Psalm Book (1640), the first book printed in the American colonies. Thus, Thomas Hooker compared the resurrected body to “a great Onyon.” Like an onion hung up on the wall, the resurrected body grows “not because any thing is added, but because it spreads itself further; so then there shall be no new body, but the same substance enlarged and increased.”

These qualities of the plain style were, as we know, general characteristics of Puritan writing and thinking on both sides of the Atlantic. The Americans had learned their rules from such English textbooks as Perkins, but there were additional reasons for such a style in the New World. As Hooker explained at the beginning of his Survey of the Summe of Church-Discipline (1648):

That the discourse comes forth in such a homely dresse and course habit, the Reader must be desired to consider, It comes out of the wildernesse, where curiosity is not studied. Planters if they can provide cloth to go warm, they leave the cutts and lace to those that study to go fine…. plainesse and perspicuity, both for matter and manner of expression, are the things, that I have conscientiously indeavoured in the whole debate: for I have ever thought writings that come abroad, they are not to dazle, but direct the apprehension of the meanest, and I have accounted it the chiefest part of Iudicious learning, to make a hard point easy and familiar in explication.

The simplicity of life in the wilderness, the homogeneity and smallness of the community, and the strength of orthodoxy in the early years, all made the plain style still more plain and virile in America.

In New England, the sermon was far more than a literary form. It was an institution, perhaps the characteristic institution of Puritanism here. It was the ritual application of theology to community-building and to the tasks and trials of everyday life. It was not, as it was inevitably in England, a mere sectarian utterance of a part of the community. It was actually the orthodox manifesto and self-criticism of the community as a whole, a kind of reiterated declaration of independence, a continual rediscovery of purposes.

The pulpit, and not the altar, held the place of honor in the New England meeting-house. So too the sermon itself, the specific application of the Word of God, was the focus of the best minds of New England. What most encouraged Higginson to believe his colony might become an example of the true religion was not the simple rectitude of Puritan doctrine, but “that we have here the true Religion and holy Ordinances of Almightie God taught amongst us: Thankes be to God, we have plentie of Preaching, and diligent Cathechizing.”

In England, after the collapse of the Puritan political program in 1660, individual Puritans were thrown back upon themselves. They became introspective: each Puritan sought, as in Grace Abounding, to perfect himself, with scant regard to the community. In America, where the Puritans were remote from English domestic politics, they remained free to continue their social enterprise. The history of the New England pulpit is thus an unbroken chronicle of the attempt of leaders in the New World to bring their community steadily closer to the Christian model.

The New England meeting-house, like the synagogue on which it was consciously modeled, was primarily a place of instruction. Here the community learned its duties. Here men found their separate paths to conversion, so they could better build their Zion in the wilderness, a City upon a Hill to which other men might in their turn look for instruction. As the meeting-house was the geographical and social center of the New England town, so the sermon was the central event in the meeting-house.

The sermon was as important a ritual as the occasions on which ancient Mesopotamians learned from their priests the dooms passed in the legislature of their Gods. In New England the ministers were, in their own words, “opening” the texts of the Bible by which they had to live and build their society. The sermons were thoroughly theological and yet thoroughly practical: based on common acceptance of a theology, which left to the minister only the discovery of its “uses” for converting saints and building Zion.

The occasions of the sermon, most of which have been too easily forgotten, bear witness to its central place in the life of early New England. There were two sermons on the Sabbath, and usually a lecture-sermon on Thursday. Attendance was required by law; absence was punishable by fine (an Act of 1646 fixed five shillings for each offense). The laws described the Sabbath-ritual as “the publick ministry of the Word.” There was hardly a public event of which the most memorable feature was not the sermon. Most distinctive, perhaps, were the election-day sermons, by which the clergy affected the course of political events and which remained a New England institution through the American Revolution. These explained the meaning of the orthodox theology for the choices before the voters, described the character of a good ruler and the mutual duties of the people and their governors. The artillery sermons, which were delivered on the occasion of the muster of the militia and their election of officers, began in about 1659. In addition, the numerous (19 in Massachusetts Bay in 1639; 50 in 1675-76) Fast and Thanksgiving Days were focused on the sermon, which explained to the people why God was humbling or rewarding them.

Even when the occasion for a sermon was an English tradition, it acquired new significance as a community ritual in New England. The practice of preaching to a condemned man before the gallows, an old English custom, took on new meaning in New England, because of the smallness of the community and the strength of orthodoxy. Even the condemned man himself participated actively.

We have an eye-witness account of what happened before the execution of the murderer James Morgan at Boston in 1686. “Morgan, whose Execution being appointed on the 11th of March, there was that Care taken for his Soul that three Excellent Sermons were preached before him, before his Execution; Two on the Lord’s Day, and one just before his Execution.” The two Sabbath sermons, each a full hour in length, were by Cotton Mather and Joshua Moody; the sermon at the gallows by Increase Mather. So large an audience gathered to hear Joshua Moody that when they assembled in the New Church of Boston the gallery cracked, and the people were obliged to move to another hall. All the sermons were passionate and eloquent, calling on the criminal to repent while there was yet time and begging the congregation (that is, the whole community) to profit by this example. In the final conversation between Morgan and the minister who walked beside him to the gallows, Morgan answered, “I hope I am sorry for all my sins, but I must especially bewail my neglect of the means of grace. On Sabbath days I us’d to lie at home, or be ill employed elsewhere, when I should have been at church. This has undone me!”

Standing before the ladder of the gallows, and looking at the coffin which he was soon to fill, Morgan sought to play his part in the ritual. He seized his last opportunity to give the sermon which only he could give. It was taken down by one of the listeners:

I pray God that I may be a warning to you all, and that I may be the last that ever shall suffer after this manner…. I beg of God, as I am a dying man, and to appear before the Lord within a few minutes, that you take notice of what I say to you. Have a care of drunkenness, and ill company, and mind all good instruction; and don’t turn your back upon the word of God, as I have done. When I have been at meeting, I have gone out of the meeting-house to commit sin, and to please the lusts of my flesh…. O, that I may make improvement of this little, little time, before I go hence and be no more! O, let all mind what I am saying, now I am going out of this world! O, take warning by me, and beg of God to keep you from this sin, which has been my mine!

Such a sermon by a condemned man was by no means unique. Cotton Mather filled twenty closely-printed pages of his Magnalia with “An History of some Criminals Executed in New-England for Capital Crimes; with some of their dying speeches.”

For New England Puritans, the sermon had, of course, additional drawing-power because of the scarcity of other amusements. It offered an occasion to meet distant neighbors, to exchange news and gossip. Without the sermon, the early New Englander would have had few occasions of public drama. He had no newspapers, no theater, no movies, no radio, no television. The lack of these gave the minister a special opportunity to make his preaching fill the attention of his listeners. But the hardships were many. For some years the New England meeting-house had no artificial light and no heat. In the cold autumns and winters, the walls were icy, winds howled, and drafts blew through cracks in the loose clapboard walls. The hands of the earnest listeners were sometimes so numb with cold that they could not take notes. It took decades for the warm but dangerous foot-stove to appear and until the early 19th century there were no open fireplaces. The benches were hard. When pews were finally built (at the private expense of the occupants) they enabled younger listeners to conceal their inattention, or to whisper through the ornamented panels which separated them from neighbors, their frosty breath giving an incriminating clue. To reach these inhospitable meeting-houses, the early New Englander often had to pick his way, sometimes for miles, across landscape without anything that could be dignified as a road. In winter he went plunging through drifts; in the spring and fall he was deep in mud. And for several decades the perils of Indians were added to all the others. All this only underlines the importance of the sermon and the meeting-house in the life of the New England Puritan.

If attendance at the sermon was compulsory, it was expected to be anything but perfunctory. The scarcity of books and the significance of the subject induced many listeners to bring notebooks. A minister, commonly settled in a parish for his lifetime, did not look for a larger or more wealthy congregation. Moreover, his audience was, for that age, remarkably literate and attentive, and he could not hope to amuse or divert them by “book reviews,” by concert artists, or outside speakers. All these circumstances served to hold the early New England preacher to a high intellectual standard and encouraged him to make his performances merit their central place.

The New England sermon, then, was the communal ceremony which brought a strong orthodoxy to bear on the minutiae of life—the drowning of a boy while skating on the Charles, an earthquake, a plague of locusts, the arrival of a ship, the election of a magistrate, or the mustering of militia. Theology was an instrument for building Zion in America.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!