A History of Homilies: A Selection of American Sermons Down the Years

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 4, 1999 | Go to article overview
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A History of Homilies: A Selection of American Sermons Down the Years


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


On any given Sunday, at least 250,000 sermons are preached in America, a practice that began with the first one given on American shores early in the 1600s. The number of homilies delivered in the intervening three centuries is beyond reckoning. So it was no mean task for Rutgers University English professor Michael Warner to collect 58 rhetorical masterpieces in his "American Sermons" to stand for the nation's theological highlights from, as the subtitle says, "the Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr."

There were no doubt numerous factors to consider in making the selections, but the most obvious criteria were three: the fame of the minister, the historic time of a sermon and the frequency of its citation down through the ages.

All three criteria are illustrated in John Winthrop's sermon "On Boarde the Arrabella," the ship to Plymouth, Mass., in 1630. Titled, "A Modell of Christian Charity," it exhorts the colonists to make America "a Citty upon a Hill" because "the eies of al people are upon us."

One dramatic citation that has been handed down is the sobering "Sermon Occasioned by the Execution of a Man Found Guilty of Murder," preached by Boston divine Increase Mather in 1685. "Let us be thankful to God," he says, that the magistrates are doing justice "according to the Word of God." Sermons tied to executions were not uncommon. But this one rings with drama because the murderer, who killed with an iron rod in a drunken rage, gives his own sermon on the gallows. "I do therefore beseech and warn all persons, young men especially, to take head of these Sins, lest they provoke the Lord to do to them as he has justly done by me," said the man, as quoted by the Rev. Mather.

For this day of Easter, the great Presbyterian Bible scholar J. Gresham Machen has a sermon on an issue that still rankles believers and skeptics today: Was Jesus' Resurrection real or a "hallucination." "It is evident," Mr. Machen preaches, "that in the short interval between the death of Jesus and the first Christian preaching, something had happened. Something must have happened to explain the transformation of those weak, discouraged men into the spiritual conquerors of the world." For this preacher, of course, what happened had been no illusion.

In his brief but insightful notes on the sermon form, and profiles of each preacher, Mr. Warner explains that half the texts included here are Puritan in origin. Sermon transcription took place only in New England up to the American Revolution. Based on Puritan custom, all sermons did four things: cite a Bible text, explain it, derive a few points of doctrine and then apply it to the "life and manners" of the listeners. "These rules were systematically applied by Puritan preachers," Mr. Warner says.

With the close of that era of Puritan influence on letters, sermons became shorter - and less Calvinistic. Indeed, from within the theological atmosphere set by great sermons such as Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," anti-Calvinist dissenters appeared.

Charles Chauncey, the second president of Harvard, began preaching a benign deity, and Lemuel Haynes sermonized on "Universal Salvation, A Very Ancient Doctrine." Ralph Waldo Emerson, a clergyman who left the vocation, preached scandalously on the Lord's Supper. He said that while it was good morale-building for Jesus' followers, it was irrelevant in 1832.

Each of the four centuries covered in this collection is represented by 11 to 16 sermons. While in the 1700s we see preaching on politics, such as election day "jeremiads" or warnings against tyranny by kings, not until the 1800s does the tone diversify.

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