THOUGH OFTEN OVERLOOKED by many historians, sermons are important historical documents.1 They are reflections of current thought, emotions, problems, issues, values, practices, prejudices, and beliefs. The more popular a preacher, the more likely it is that he or she mirrors the hopes and fears of a significant number of people. Paxton Hibben has written that Henry Ward Beecher, the most popular preacher in mid-nineteenth-centuryAmerica, was "a barometer and record" of his times. "He was not in advance of his day," wrote Hibben, "but precisely abreast of his day." Indeed, one can trace the development of Northern thought on slavery by observing the evolution of Beecher's sermons on the same subject. In an 1845 sermon, Theodore Parker, one of the early and most vigorous antislavery clergy voices in the North, complained that his fellow ministers were not leading in the fight against slavery, that they were reflectors rather than shapers of public opinion.
I am not inclined to attribute so much original power to the churches as some men do. I look upon them as indicators of public opinion, and not sources thereof -- not the wind, but only the vane which shows which way it blows. Once the clergy were masters of the people, and the authors of public opinion to a great degree; now they are chiefly the servants of the people, and follow public opinion, and but seldom aspire to lead it, except in matters of their own craft, such as the technicalities of a sect, or the form of a ritual.2
Much has been written about the role of Southern preachers in legitimizing the institution of slavery and their promotion of secession and war. Though that role was considerable, it must be kept