THE purpose of my lectures hitherto has been in the first instance to make you familiarly acquainted with the principles, transmitted in the writings of the ancient rhetorical masters; and in the next to discriminate those parts of their precepts, which were inseparably connected with the social institutions and manners of the ages and nations, for which they wrote, from those, which, being founded upon the broad and permanent basis of human nature, are still applicable, and will ever retain their force, while gratitude and admiration shall swell the voice of praise; while freedom shall prompt to deliberation, and while justice shall hold her balance upon earth. For the doctrines of demonstrative and deliberative oratory we have little else to do, but to receive and register in our memory the instructions of our ancient guides. But we have been compelled to depart widely from them in tracing the proper course of judicial eloquence; and we are now to enter upon an element, where their guidance entirely fails us. The eloquence of the pulpit is to the science of rhetoric what this western hemisphere is to that of geography. Aristotle and Quinctilian are as incompetent to mark its boundaries, as Pausanias or Strabo to tell us the latitude of Davis’ Straights or Cape Horn. In exploring this new region, like Columbus on his first voyage to this continent, we find our magnet has deserted us. Our needle points no longer to the pole.
Pulpit oratory may be considered, as coeval with the first introduction of christianity [sic]. And it has undoubtedly been one of the most effectual means, by which that religion with all its blessings has been so extensively propagated throughout the earth. It has been practised [sic] at every period and in every region, favored with the christian [sic] dispensation; and during several centuries preserved the only glimmering of literature and eloquence, which remained in the world.
The opinions respecting the substance and the manner, most proper for the addresses of the christian [sic] orator, have fluctuated with the revolutions of doctrines and of taste. At one time the pulpit has been made the vehicle of unintelligible mysticism; at another of unfathomable metaphysics; at a third of fanatical inflamation [sic]. It has been the instrument of the worst abuses of the Romish [sic] church, and the most effectual weapon of the reformation. Athanasius, Peter the Hermit, Wicliff, Huss, Luther, and Calvin, successively and successfully employed this mighty engine for the propagation of error and of truth. During the space of four hundred years it poured the myriads of Europe upon the shores of Palestine, to recover from infidels the sepulchre [sic] of Christ. For three succeeding centuries it armed nation against nation upon questions of speculative doctrine and ecclesiastical discipline. Since the invention of printing its powers have indeed been more circumscribed, both by the participation and by the control of that art. Yet to this day it remains among the most energetic instruments of power, exercised upon mankind.
Many modern writers of learning and genius have written upon the theory of pulpit oratory; but they have treated it in a manner so different from that, which was pursued by the ancient rhetoricians, that it will not be easy to assimilate this to the other parts of these lectures. To give the whole that unity and consistency of plan, which is best adapted to your information, it will be most advisable to apply the principles and the method of Aristotle, so far as they can be applied, to this more recent species of public speaking.
What then is the end of pulpit oratory? What is that common central point, round which the eloquence of the sacred orator should revolve; bearing the same relation to his discourse, which we have seen praise and censure bear to demonstrative, utility or deliberative, and law to judicial orations?
The functions of the christian [sic] divine in the pulpit are of two kinds; in one of which he addresses his hearers, and in the other the supreme Creator. In one he speaks to his fellow mortals, in the other, to their Maker. In one he is the monitor of their duties, in the other, the organ of their wants. The ultimate object in both cases is the same, to improve the condition of the auditory. But the means are different, being in the one case by obtaining the favor of providence, in the other by their own advancement in virtue. Life and immortality, the happiness of this world and of the next, these are the objects, which should inspire every word, uttered by the divine from the sacred desk. But the form and the substance of the discourse must be diversified according to the office, in which he is engaged. Neither the matter nor the style of address can be the same in expostulating to mortals upon their own obligations, and in supplicating the Father of the universe for his favor and forgiveness.
There are several sects of christians [sic], who have judged it proper not to leave the subject nor the language of social prayer discretionary with individual divines; but have regulated the intercessions in public worship by the establishment of settled forms of prayer, diversified and adapted to the conditions and situations of men. Among those classes of christians [sic] this part of the minister’s duty requires only the talent of reading well; the proper observations upon which will arise in another part of the course. But when the divine is expected to compose, as well as to pronounce these addresses to the Father of spirits, the execution of the task becomes one of the most important parts of his duty.
The purposes of social worship are specifically and accurately enumerated in a passage of the episcopal [sic] liturgy. They are there declared to be first, confession of sins; secondly, the return of thanks for benefits received; thirdly, the praise of the Creator’s transcendent perfections; and fourthly, petition, founded on the wants of the congregation, whether spiritual or corporeal. Of these four distinct purposes there are two, derived from the attributes of the Creator, and two from the necessities of the creature. Confession and petition are founded upon the consciousness of our own infirmities, manifested in the former case by our transgressions in time past; in the latter, by that incessant recurrence of wants, which from the cradle to the grave beset our animal and corporeal nature; and by those necessities equally urgent,which assail the imbecility of our minds. Confession therefore has always reference to past and supplication to future time. Another distinction to be drawn is, that confession is always general. Supplication is principally special. The minister makes a general acknowledgment for himself and his congregation of those sins, errors, and imperfections, which are incident to all mankind; but he is neither required nor authorized to make confession of any individual or particular sin. But besides the general petitions, alike applicable to all men and at all times, there are special occasions, which give rise to particular supplications in behalf of individual persons or families. Thanksgiving and praise are acts of immediate homage to the Sovereign of the universe. The first resulting from a grateful sense of those innumerable blessings, received at his hands, by which we live, and move, and have our being. The last, from that wonder and veneration, mingled with love, which the displays of infinite benevolence and unbounded power necessarily enkindle in the human heart. In these constituent parts of prayer there is also a difference corresponding with that, noticed in the two preceding. Thanksgiving is offered for benefits, specially conferred upon ourselves; praise, for the general attributes of excellence, belonging exclusively to the Deity. Thanksgiving is the return of grateful hearts for their own enjoyments; praise is the general tribute of benediction for those energies and bounties, which created and preserve the universe. From the analysis of the several principles, upon which associated prayer is composed, will result the proper materials to be used in each of its departments; and the minister will readily perceive the manner, best suited to each part of the service, by reflecting on the special characters, by which it is distinguished.
Some of the ancient rhetoricians divided all eloquence into reasoning and feeling; addressed the one to the understanding, and the other to the passions; under which are included all the accesses to the will of man. The orators of ancient times employed both of these powers in every kind of public speaking, to which they were accustomed. The judicial eloquence of modern times, as I have explained to you, is almost exclusively confined to the avenue of the understanding. The eloquence of the pulpit in prayer is still more rigorously limited to that of feeling. It neither requires nor admits of argument. The object of the speaker is neither persuasion nor conviction. It is the prostration of the creature before his Maker. It is the effusion of sentiment and of duty. Its essential characters are ardor and simplicity. Coldness and prayer carry an inconsistency in the very terms. All the objects of prayer are calculated to excite the most active and vivid sentiments, which can arise in the heart of man. “Words that burn” are the native language of deep feeling. They can never be translated into the dialect of a temperate, much less of a frozen region. Affectation is yet more irreconcileable [sic] to the spirit of prayer, than coldness. All affectation is a species of hypocrisy. Affectation in prayer is hypocrisy of the darkest hue, the hypocrisy of religion.
It might be supposed superfluous to deliver any precepts for the composition of prayer, other than those contained in the scriptures. The Founder of christianity [sic] himself taught his disciples how to pray, both by precept and example. He warned them against the ostentatious hypocrisy of the pharisees, who displayed themselves in the synagogues and corners of the streets “to be seen of men,” and against the affected elegance of the heathens, who used vain repetitions, and thought to be heard for their much speaking. These instructions, with a proper attention to the comprehensive and perfect simplicity of that form of prayer, which he gave as a model to his disciples, will render every critical injunction unnecessary, and would seem to render it impossible, that a christian [sic] pulpit should ever resound with pompous inanity, to be heard of men, or with vain repetitions, having no claim to be heard, but that of much speaking.
The other department of pulpit oratory, the only one, which the modern writers upon eloquence have considered as reducible to the theories of human discourse, is that, which consists of addresses from the pastor to his flock; discourses on topics of religion and morality, which in all christian [sic] countries are delivered at periodical intervals, and constitute so important a part of the duties of a divine. The end of these discourses or sermons, as I have before intimated, is the improvement of the auditory in knowledge and virtue. It combines the purposes of the ancient deliberative oratory with those of the drama. Its means are persuasion; its object, to operate upon the will of the hearer; its result, to produce action; not joint and corporate, nor immediate, like that of deliberative assemblies by the taking of a vote, but individual, progressive, and sometimes remote action by a change of life and reformation, or amelioration of temper and conduct in the auditors. The speaker may take advantage of every possible argument resting on the basis of utility. The attainment of good and the avoidance of evil is the aim of his discourse. His powers of exhortation are multiplied and enhanced by the magnitude of the interests, which they embrace. The objects of his advice and admonition are not merely temporal and momentary, good and evil, but immortal happiness and misery. He pleads the cause not only of time, but of eternity.
In common deliberative assemblies, however successful the eloquence of the speaker may be to persuade many of his hearers, yet, if a majority of the assembly remain unconvinced, his argument has no more efficacy, than if it had been impotent upon every mind. But it is high encouragement to the zeal of the pulpit orator, that not a particle of his persuasion can be lost. It operates separately upon every individual. However numerous his assembly, however hardened the multitude of his hearers may be against his exhortations, if the seed he scatters strike root but in a single heart, his labors are not lost. His audience may consist of thousands, but he speaks to them all as to one. To each individual in the language of Solomon he may say, “if thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself; but if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it.”
The sources of his arguments may be derived from his subject or his audience; and the divine, duly qualified to treat the great variety of subjects, which fall within the compass of his duties, will often find the exercise of his judgment necessary to adapt the choice of his subject to the character of his audience. It has long been remarked, that there is a striking difference between the eloquence of the pulpit, as it has appeared in the compositions of the French and of the English divines. A French sermon is a popular discourse, addressed almost exclusively to the feelings of the auditory; clothed in the most gorgeous attire of rhetoric, and calculated only to make an impression upon the heart. An English sermon is, or rather was until of late years, a cold, unimpassioned application to the understanding; abounding with solid reason and logical argument, but seldom attempting to warm or interest the passions of the hearers. The practice appears in both instances to have preceded the theory; but the French system first found an able advocate in the celebrated Fenelon, archbishop of Cambray; and the modern English writers upon rhetoric, without duly considering the principal cause of the difference, have adopted his ideas, and yielded perhaps too readily the palm of victory to the French doctrine.
The cause to which I allude, and which I apprehend contributed much more to influence the character and composition of English sermons, and to mark their difference from those of the French, than the mere diversity of national character, to which it has generally been ascribed, is no other than the protestant [sic] reformation. In France and in other Roman catholic [sic] countries, where every point of doctrine was an article of faith, the exclusion of reasoning from the desk is just and consistent. The christian [sic] is not allowed to be a reasoner [sic]; he is only a believer. His religious opinions are given him not for examination and scrutiny, but for implicit and unhesitating assent. The sacred scriptures themselves are held to be mysteries above his understanding, and his creed is never submitted to the decision of his judgment. The French doctrine of pulpit oratory is a natural consequence from the doctrine of an infallible church, and inseparably connected with it. Under such a church there can be no occasion for argumentative sermons, and reasoning is very naturally expelled from their pulpits. But the protestant [sic] churches profess to make the reason of every individual the umpire of his faith. They admit no infallible rule of faith, other than the scriptures. The assiduous perusal of these they not only permit, but enjoin upon all their followers; and abandon their constriction and exposition to his own judgment. The explanation and elucidation of the scriptures thus become one of the most arduous and important duties of the protestant [sic] preacher; a duty, which he can discharge only by enlightening the understandings of his people.
In order to test the correctness of this French system of sermonizing, and to show that it is adapted only to the practice of an infallible church, let us attend only to those classes of subjects for the disquisitions of the pulpit, which are among the most suitable for a protestant divine, but which become useless and improper, where they are prescribed, as undeniable articles of faith.
If the end of the preacher’s discourse is the happiness of his hearers both in this and the future life, by means of their improvement in knowledge and virtue, that portion of the duty, which consists in the communication of knowledge, must of necessity be addressed to the hearers’ reason. The faith of the protestant layman must often depend upon the degree of information, which he may receive from his religious instructer [sic]. The existence and attributes of the Deity, the nature and immortality of the soul, the doctrine of future rewards and punishments, the evidences of revealed religion, the peculiar character of its precepts, a comparison of its system of morals with those of the Chinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek, and Arabian legislators and philosophers, an internal comparison between the Mosaic and Christian dispensations, or in other words between the principles of the law and those of the gospel, these are all themes, upon which the protestant [sic] teacher may and ought freely to expatiate for the improvement of his hearers in knowledge. But they admit of no discussion, where the preacher himself and all his flock are compelled to believe whatever has been prescribed to them on these all important questions, and have no further to look for their creed, than to the decisions of the church. A Roman catholic [sic] believes in the existence of a God, in the immortality of his own soul, and in a future state of retribution, because the holy church has told him they are articles of faith. But he is not allowed to ask the reason why. A protestant [sic] is told to believe these fundamental points of religion, because upon examination he will find them as satisfactorily proved to his reason, as he will discover them to be important to his happiness. Now the evidences of these primary principles are not obvious to every mind. They are liable to numerous and plausible objections. Not only the thoughtless and the profligate, but shallow reasoners [sic] and philosophical dogmatists dispute and deny them. The wolves of infidelity are prowling around every fold. Surely under such a state of things it is the duty of the pastor to guard his flock by every kind of security. It is as much his duty to detect the sophisticated semblance of reason, as to repel the impetuous onset of the passions.
These three articles form the basis of what is called natural religion; and the belief in them does not always imply that of christianity [sic]. This is barely a question of evidence, which in this, as in all other objects of controversy, is partly external and partly internal. When the truth of the christian [sic] revelation is contested, it becomes the minister of the gospel not only to be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, but to furnish those of his hearers, less qualified to search into the depths of such inquiries, with a reason equally satisfactory to themselves.
When both these difficulties at the threshold of religious persuasion have been removed, when the atheist and the deist have both been silenced, and the firm belief in divine revelation is established, then the volume of sacred inspiration is opened before the preacher, and it is his duty to make it profitable to his hearers for doctrine, for reproof,. for correction, for instruction in righteousness. The field here opened to the protestant [sic] divine is inexhaustible. To the Roman catholic [sic] preacher it is never opened at all. For with what propriety could he reason to his audience from a book, which they are not permitted to read?
In making these observations it is not my design either to pass a censure upon any prevailing system of christianity [sic], or to question the correctness of the French theory of pulpit eloquence, as adapted to the church, where it originated; but to caution those of you, who may hereafter assume the pastoral office, against the implicit adoption of the critical creed of the French school, which the recent English theorists have too much countenanced. A protestant [sic] divine, who·looks upon his pulpit merely as a chair for the delivery of moral lectures, or a stage to work upon the passions of his auditory, as at a theatrical representation, has a very inadequate idea of his duties and of his powers. The earnest and ardent inculcation of moral duties is undoubtedly one of the essential obligations of the preacher; and in discharging it he is bound to lay hold of every hope and every fear, that can influence the heart of man. But to enlighten the mind is one of the most effectual means of amending the heart; and the societies of christians [sic], who place themselves under the ministration of a spiritual monitor, have a right to expect, that he should consider and treat them as rational, no less than as sensitive beings.
Let not the youthful candidate for the ministry entertain an idea too contracted of the functions to which he aspires. Let him be deeply impressed with the principle, that his task in the pulpit will be to enlighten ignorance and to refute error, as well as to reclaim from vice and exhort to virtue. Let him not consider the celebrated French preachers or their English imitators, as furnishing the only proper models for the composition of a sermon. By enlarging the number and the nature of the topics, upon which he shall discourse, he will find his own duties more easy to discharge, and his people will be more extensively benefited by his labors. In discussing topics of doctrine or of controversy the more ancient writers of English sermons will be more instructive guides, than those or recent date. From the frequency of the occasions he will have to address his people, he cannot too much diversify both the matter and the manner of his discourses.
In adapting the subjects of his sermons to the occasions and the audience the preacher must be governed by circumstances and by his own situation. The same disquisition, which might be seasonable and judicious before one auditory, would be worse than useless before another. Even the discourses of the moral and practical class ought to be diversified according to the time and place of their delivery. There are certain errors and vices more congenial to one state of society than to another. The inhabitants of populous cities are exposed to temptations and allured by opportunities to transgressions different from those most incident to rural and sequestered regions. Different situations in life are prone to different offences [sic]. The rich and the poor, the ignorant and the learned, the ploughman and the mariner, the aged and the young; each is addicted to the sin, which most easily besets him, from which the others are more easily exempt. The divine is in some degree invested with the functions of the censor among the ancient Romans. He has indeed no authority to punish the offender; but it is his right and his duty to reprove the offence [sic].
From the imperfect and transient view of pulpit speaking, which I have here taken, you will perceive, that it includes within itself the principles of all the ancient classes of oratory. For the discussion of doctrines, its process must assume all the characters of judicial investigation. In manifesting the praise of the Supreme Creator, or unfolding the loveliness of that moral virtue, in which he delights, the displays of demonstrative eloquence can be limited only by the finite powers of the human imagination; while those addresses to the heart, which exhort to the practice of virtue, and urge the sinner to repentance, are marked with the features of deliberation.
In point of form it is precisely the same, as the demonstrative oration. The speaker stands alone, subject to no contradiction, and in undisputed possession of the whole field. His discourse may be extemporaneous, or previously written, at his option. The practice varies among different denominations of christians [sic], and among individuals of the same denomination. There are advantages and inconveniences, inherent in each of these modes of address; and the preference of the one to the other ought perhaps to be decided rather by the character of the preacher’s talents, than by any rule of uniformity. There is a force, an interest, an energy, in extemporaneous discourse, “warm from the soul and faithful to its fires,” which no degree of meditation can attain or supply. But the stream, which flows spontaneous, is almost always shallow, and runs forever in the same channel. The talent of speaking well without preparation is rare, and that of uttering fluent nonsense, so often substituted in its stead, though far from being uncommon, is not so well adapted to the oratory of the pulpit, as to that of the forum or of the bar. Amidst the infinite variety of human capacities there are some, whose floods of eloquence are more rich, more copious, more rapid, rushing from the lofty surface of unpremeditated thought, than drawn from the deepest fountains of study. But the productions of ordinary minds are improved by reflection, and brought to maturity by labor. The preacher should endeavour [sic] justly to estimate his own faculties, and according to their dictates prepare his written discourse, or trust to the inspiration of the moment. The talent of extemporal speaking may suffice for the ordinary duties of the preacher, but the sermon, destined to survive its hour of delivery, must always be previously written.