A Note on James Blair and the Southern Plain Style

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Discussions of the plain style of preaching and writing in colonial America usually center upon the authors of New England and the Middle Colonies. Perry Miller and others have demonstrated that concepts of a plain style are rooted in the English Puritan heritage transplanted to Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. (1) It is equally true, however, that in the early decades of the eighteenth century, Commissary James Blair of Virginia, representative of the Bishop of London and the Anglican Church, and other writers associated with the South were advocating a plain, unadorned way of writing.

The influence of the Royal Society and of such divines as Archbishop John Tillotson (1630-1694) accounts for some of the emphasis upon the plain way of preaching and writing, (2) both in England and in the Colonies. Equally significant is what Blair himself called the "plain Country Auditory" to which Virginia ministers addressed their sermons. Howard Mumford Jones, in his study of American prose style between 1700 and 1770, notes that the "movement for simplicity in the British pulpit is paralleled in America" and that this "movement was not confined to non-Anglican faiths." Jones' sources, however, are drawn largely from the writings of New Englanders, though he cites Anglican William Smith of Philadelphia as an advocate of "plainness and lucidity" as early as 1762. Jones mentions only two writers of the South--Virginia historians Hugh Jones and William Stith, whose books were published in 1724 and 1747, respectively. (3)

But the Prefaces to Blair's sermons, published in London in 1722, and to Robert Beverley's The History and Present State of Virginia (London, 1705) amply illustrate that concepts of the plain style were fully articulated and current among Virginia writers very early in the century. These statements on the plain style parallel those of Cotton Mather in such works as Parentator (Boston, 1724) and Manuductio ad Ministerium (Boston, 1726).

Blair (1655-1743), a resident of Virginia from 1685 until his death, is largely remembered for his role in the founding of the College of William and Mary, for his membership on the Virginia Council and his ability as a tough political infighter, for his long tenure (1689-1743) as Commissary to the Bishop of London, and for his authorship, along with Henry Hartwell and Edward Chilton, of The Present State of Virginia, and the College (London, 1727). (4) But he also wrote five volumes of sermons entitled Our Saviour's Divine Sermon on the Mount, Contain'd in the Vth, VIth, and VIIth Chapters of St. Matthew's Gospel, Explained: And the Practice of It Recommended in Divers Sermons and Discourses (London, 1722-23). This ambitious work opens with "A Paraphrase of Our Saviour's Sermon on the Mount" and includes 117 sermons that Blair preached to his Virginia congregations. These sermons were popular enough to warrant the preparation of a second edition in 1732. Blair corrected the errata of the press, added indexes, and wrote a new dedication for this proposed edition. For some unknown reason, this revised edition was not published until 1740 when Daniel Waterland, an Anglican minister and author, supervised publication of and wrote a Preface for the new edition issued in four volumes in London. Waterland's 1740 edition includes Blair's important 1722 Preface. (5) These sermons were translated into Danish and published in Copenhagen in 1761. (6)

Waterland's 1740 Preface lauds Blair for his original treatment of the Sermon on the Mount and recommends the work as a model for other sermon writers. Waterland credits Blair with hitting upon a "new Key ... for the fuller opening the Occasion, the Views, and the retired Meaning and Connexion of our Lord's Divine Sermon." As for Blair's style, Waterland praises the author for writing "in a clear and easy, but yet masculine Style, equally fitted to the Capacities of common Christians, and to the improved Understanding of the knowing and judicious," and for his happy talent of "deciding Points of great Moment, in a very Jew and plain words. …