"The Pulpit Leads the World": Preachers and Preaching in Nineteenth-Century America

By Howden, William D. | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), September 2000 | Go to article overview

"The Pulpit Leads the World": Preachers and Preaching in Nineteenth-Century America


Howden, William D., ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


Introduction

Nor was the pulpit itself without a trace of the same sea-taste [...]. Its panelled front was the likeness of a ship's bluffbows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship's fiddle-headed beak.

What could be more full of meaning?--for the pulpit is ever this earth's foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world.

(Melville 69)

Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, speaks for the people of his time. Writing at the middle of the nineteenth century, Melville would have expected little argument regarding this claim about the prominence of the pulpit in American public life. A few years later, an unnamed writer in Atlantic Monthly wrote of America's preachers, "No class has such opportunities for influence, such means of power; even now the press ranks second to the pulpit" ("Henry Ward Beecher" 862). A book published in London in 1863 spoke of American clergy as the world's most distinguished pastors, "not only at the head of their churches, but at the head of the nation as well" (qtd. in Smith 38). Award-winning historian Timothy L. Smith speaks of "the immense power" of nineteenth-century American preachers (36). One can argue that preaching was, quite simply, the most influential form of rhetoric in nineteenth-century America.

It is thus fitting that ATQ, a journal whose field is "19th-century American literature and culture," dedicate a special issue to the topic of preaching. In fact, we received so many submissions for this special issue that it has become a double issue: both the September and December issues will be devoted to nineteenth-century preaching.

From our vantage point at the turn of the twenty-first century, it is hard to imagine the central role of preaching in American society 150 or 200 years earlier. To set the scene, go back to the eighteenth century. Itinerant preacher George Whitefield (1714-1770) has been called "the first `American' public figure to be known from New Hampshire to Georgia." Literally hundreds of thousands of people in the American colonies heard Whitefield preach, frequently at open-air mass gatherings (Ahlstrom 348-49).(1)

Throngs of people continued to listen to preaching throughout the nineteenth century. A week-long camp meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801, brought at least ten thousand people--some say as many as twenty-five thousand--to religious services featuring a large assembly of frontier preachers. This was at a time when Kentucky's largest city, Lexington, had a population of just over two thousand (Ahlstrom 432-35). Decades later, in a far different social setting, the sermons of Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) became a tourist attraction. The ferries across the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn were filled to capacity on Sunday mornings; visitors asking directions to Beecher's church were told simply, "Take the ferry to Brooklyn and follow the crowd" (Burrows and Wallace 729; Rugoff 369).

The influence of the pulpit in the nineteenth century was not limited, however, to those who actually heard the sermons. "In a day when the sermon had a prominent place, the effect of its message was multiplied by printing" (Turnbull 102). Many sermons delivered on special occasions were soon in print as pamphlets, and books of sermons were common in the lists of nineteenth-century publishers. A search of the online library catalog of Harvard University found 5,039 titles under the subject heading "Sermons, American," which were published between 1801 and 1900 (HOLLIS). A similar search at Emory University found 2,824 titles (EUCLID); one would assume that not all of these were duplicates of the Harvard holdings.(2)

Sermons also reached the public through periodicals, and not just the religious press, either. To take only one example, consider the series of Sunday sermons on "Science and Religion" preached in the spring of 1875 by the Rev. …

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