Like essays, sermons vary a great deal in kind, but are generally prose pieces of moderate length. Both forms consider a variety of topics, with an attempt at explanation or definition, and are frequently anecdotal, with occasional personal elements, and significant deployment of narrative. A key distinction is that sermons are initially speeches—albeit fully crafted and often published—usually delivered from a pulpit as part of a religious service or sometimes in a civic context. While essays are occasionally moralizing, the sermon always is. Moreover, the sermon characteristically employs formal rhetorical devices to secure an immediate response from an audience. Writing out and memorizing were a common preparation, but the words of skillful preachers could be ex tempore dicendi, where reporters recorded and then submitted the text for the preacher’s correction before publication in circulating collections. Printed publication, by the author or by others, was determined to preserve the texts. The sermon can be regarded, then, as a precursor of the essay, derived from a secular classic tradition and establishing a European style of explanation, subsequently developed by the essay.
Elements of form and style come from the Greek tradition of rhetoric, most notably the Rhetoric of Aristotle (384–22 BCE) and also Isocrates (436–338 BCE), largely through the great Latin writings. St. Augustine (354–430 CE) had identified, in De doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine), respectable authorities, those not tainted by pagan Rome’s immorality. This followed centuries of conflict, epitomized by St. Jerome’s dream of God’s declaration, “Thou art not a Christian, but a Ciceronian.” Augustine admired Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE), who followed Isocrates and was most influential in Western traditions; De inventione, along with the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad herennium, and parts of the De oratore, were the basis of rhetorical theory during the Middle Ages, known through commentaries as well as the texts. Since Jesus urged a Christian duty to “Preach to all nations,” homilists needed guidelines for organizing subject matter and devices for eloquent persuasion. There is no medieval parallel for secular speaking, because the Church assumed the role of popular oratory that was part of classical experience. Techniques in the early centuries of Christianity are suggestive of those of informal essayists, with an almost conversational style and directness analogous to St. Paul’s Epistles. In the 13th century emerges the ars praedicandi rules for a “university style” of sermon; many specialized manuals explained how to construct a sermon, beginning with a theme (quotation from Scripture) and a statement of purpose, then dividing and amplifying to explain and introduce authorities.
This description suggests dialectical argument, but an awareness of the audience kept the sermon from rigid scholastic design. Robert of Basevorn’s Forma praedicandi (wr. 1322; The Form of Preaching) illustrates such concern with oral discourse, both in its theory and as an easy personal style that later informs the essay. Masters of rhetoric distinguished two media (oral and written), but as Brunetto Latini observed in Tresor (wr. 1266), “the precepts are common to both.” Renaissance emphasis upon antiquity reaffirmed classical traditions of rhetoric, which remain crucial to many modern sermons, while other popular styles developed.
St. Augustine, Gregory the Great, and the Venerable Bede were significant writers of Latin sermons, widely available in the popular homiliary of Paul the Deacon (c. 720–c. 799). The customary transcription of sermons into Latin obscures their delivery in the vernacular. Among Anglo-Saxons is Ælfric (c. 955–c. 1012), prose stylist and scholar, whose reputation rests on two volumes of Catholic Homilies and the Lives of the Saints, each containing about 40 sermons. Exegetical explanations of typology, allegory, symbols, and full development of illustrative narratives combine with a memorable style, whose balance and alliteration are models of elegance. Ælfric’s contemporary Wulfstan (d. 1023) also selected Latin passages about his topic, translated them, and then developed his comments on ethical and religious ideas, often, as in the “Sermon of Wolf to the English,” about evil days, the lack of loyalty, and sins that caused the Danish persecution. Questions, exclamations, repetition, and other rhetorical devices achieve a high emotional pitch and show dependence on Cicero, with little realistic detail.
Preaching in English continued after the Norman Conquest, but the sermon became especially important with the guidelines for instruction of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Many manuals explained logical ways to treat themes, with subdivisions and proper citations, and the use of authorities. Preaching was basic for the two mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, who brought religion directly to the people, giving more time to the sermon than to other parts of services. A number of collections survive, like the Northern Homily Cycle (c. 1300), along with manuals and handbooks of exempla. Among 34 collections made from 1250 to 1350 is the Franciscan Gesta Romanorum, which contains edifying and amusing stories, alphabetically arranged by themes and cross-referenced, derived from many sources. Sermons by John Wycliffe (c. 1324–84) and his followers seek a more direct return to biblical text, an emphasis upon the literal sense. The Lollard sermon has a greater simplicity of style and concentration upon argument, often becoming polemical in addressing church abuses and thus more resembling a satiric essay. Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale (wr. c. 1387–1390s) explicitly presented as an example of preaching, explores this popular medieval art, combining the importance of oral delivery and audience, arguments about sin—well illustrated with examples and buttressed by authorities—and illustration of a text (greed is the root of evil) with the exciting story of the three rioters. Similarly, John Mirk’s Festial (early 15th century), a collection of homilies assigned to Sundays and feasts, combines explanation of Scripture and feast with lively stories to illustrate the theme.
Renaissance sermons were highly intellectual and valued entertainment; with pamphlets and treatises, they were read like essays. Among distinguished preachers were Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and John Donne, famous for their delivery and art. Taylor’s rich style and melody combined with violent imagery and learning, and The Eniautos (1653–55) is an illustrious collection. Andrewes’ Sermons, designed for the court and a theologically sophisticated audience, were published shortly after his death in 1626 by the king’s command. Andrewes’ style is difficult; sentences are long but logically constructed, laced with Latin, and more concerned with exegesis than personal comment and exhortation. Such severity and intellectualism are also characteristic of Donne, but the Dean of St. Paul’s is also powerfully emotional, revealing, as in his poetry, many unresolved conflicts. Over 160 of Donne’s sermons have been preserved, many published in his lifetime. Donne’s “baroque” manner includes extraordinary metaphors—from science and new exploration—questioning, wordplay, repetition, puns, and a rootedness in the physical world that appeals instantly to both sensibilities and mind.
Coexistence of worldliness with Anglican preaching continued in the 18th century, as the essay became an established genre. Laurence Sterne published seven small volumes, albeit at a time when religious oratory lacked literary distinction. Another clergyman, Jonathan Swift, published tracts and satires to urge the moral reform that in earlier centuries would have been communicated through sermons. A lay writer like Samuel
Johnson wrote in the style and manner of sermons in many essays in the Rambler (1750–52) which are infused with high moral purpose and urge physical and spiritual health. The alternative popular evangelical sermons of John Wesley indicate further a drawing away from formalism.
In the 19th century preaching, especially “university sermons” at Oxford, enjoyed another glorious age as Victorian audiences responded to the eloquence of John Keble, Edward Pusey, and most notably John Henry Newman. Their theological arguments and compelling presentation sparked religious reform, as secular essays urged a change in attitude. Newman’s clear and logical analyses, knowledge of history, and mastery of scripture, all presented with elegance and warmth, have survived as the preaching of Charles Kingsley, chaplain to Queen Victoria, and Matthew Arnold have not. In an age of emerging skepticism, Newman’s extraordinary skill in making Christianity concretely realized without resorting to emotional rhetoric was to be as inspiring in his several published volumes of sermons as when first heard in his silvery voice. Their literary skill and persuasion show again an affinity with the essay.
Notable authors of sermons in the 20th century include Swiss theologian Karl Barth and American popular broadcaster Fulton Sheen. Ronald Knox sustained the English sermon of clarity and elegance. Part of the Oxford tradition, Knox moved from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, as had Newman. His two volumes, Pastoral Sermons (1960) and Occasional Sermons (1960), show the same knowledge of scripture, theology, history, and literature, and the careful organization around text and theme that go back to classical traditions of rhetoric. Knox follows the teaching method of expounding parables and miracles, typically finishing with a precise definition. His sense of audience leads to a conversational style, enriched with contemporary allusions and often humorous. Like many other distinguished sermons, these show the agility of mind, the searching self-analysis, and seriousness of purpose that characterize essays seeking to elucidate a topic of great importance to the author.
VELMA BOURGEOIS RICHMOND
See also Religious Essay
Lollard Sermons, edited by Gloria Cigman, n.p.: Early English Text Society, 1989
The Puritan Sermon in America, 1630–1750, edited by Ronald A. Bosco, Delmar, New York: Scholars’ Facsimilies and Reprints, 4 vols., 1978
Coleman, Janet, “Memory, Preaching and the Literature of a Society in Transition,” in English Literature in History, 1350–1400: Medieval Readers and Writers, London: Hutchinson, 1981
Davidson, Edward H., “‘God’s well-trodden foot-paths’: Puritan Preaching and Sermon Form,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 25, no. 4 (1983): 503–27
Fedderson, Kim Murray, The Rhetoric of the Elizabethan Sermon (dissertation), York, Ontario: York University, 1985
Heffernon, Thomas J., “Sermon Literature,” in Middle English Prose: A Critical Guide to Major Authors and Genres, edited by A.S.G.Edwards, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1984
Hudson, Anne, The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988
Jacoebee, W.Pierre, “The Classical Sermon and the French Literary Tradition,” Australian Journal of French Studies 19, no. 3 (1982):227–42.
Miller, Joseph M., Michael H. Prosser, and Thomas W.Benton, editors, Readings in Medieval Rhetoric, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973
Murphy, James J., editor, Three Medieval Rhetorical Arts, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971
Murphy, James J., Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981
Owst, G.R., Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, Oxford: Blackwell, 1966 (original edition, 1933)
Reedy, Gerard S., “Essential Studies of the Restoration Anglican Sermon,” Restoration 2., no. 2 (1978): 14–16
Rivers, Cheryl, “The Jeremiad as Political Sermon,” in Amérique révolutionnaire, edited by Jean Beranger and Jean-Claude Barat, Bordeaux-Talence: Maison des Sciences de 1’Homme d’Aquitaine, 1976
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