Lecture IThe Sermon: Its Generic Idea

Homiletics is the science which treats of the nature the classification, the analysis, the construction, and the composition of a sermon. More concisely it is the science of that of which preaching is the art, and a sermon is the product. What, then, is the relation of homiletics to rhetoric? Homiletics is rhetoric, as illustrated in the theory of preaching. Rhetoric is the genus: homiletics is the species.

I. What is the generic idea of a sermon? It may be expressed in cumulative form in the following theses.

1st, A sermon is an oral address. It is something distinct from an essay or a book. If well constructed, it has peculiarities of structure adapting it to oral delivery, and in some respects unfitting it for private reading. In this respect a sermon illustrates the radical idea of all true eloquence. It must be conceded to the advocates of exclusively extemporaneous preaching, that the extemporaneous ideal is the true one of perfect public speech. A perfect orator would never write: he would always speak. The mutual magnetism between speaker and hearer would bear him on, without the aid of manuscript or memory. The custom of preaching written discourses grows out of mental infirmities. In any form of speech, be it written or oral, we make but an approximation to perfect oratory; and the true policy of the pulpit is to combine the weight of material which the pen commands with the ease, the versatility, the flexible expression, and the quickness of transition which belong to good extemporaneous speech. The ideal sermon aims to blend the qualities of the essay with those of the speech. That is like mingling the properties of a solid and a fluid: but in the paradoxical union, the fluid has always the ascendency. The sermon is a speech before it is any thing else. Nothing else should deprive it of the qualities of speech. The oral elements of a sermon usually grow, in a preacher's estimate, with the growth of his experience. Dr. Archibald Alexander of Princeton abandoned the pen entirely in his later years, when time had given him command of accumulated materials, so that he could always extemporize from a full mind. He once said, that if he were on trial for his life, and his acquittal depended on a single effort of his own, he would trust to his lips rather than to his pen.

2d, A sermon is an oral address to the popular mind. It is distinct from a scientific lecture, from a judicial oration, from a harangue to a rabble, from a talk to children. The best test of a good sermon is the instinct of a heterogeneous audience. That is not good preaching which is limited in its range of adaptation to select audiences: be it select intelligence, or select ignorance, it matters not. The pulpit permits no selection. It exists not for the few, not for the many as distinct from the few, but for all. No other variety of public speech is so cosmopolitan in its freedom from provincial limitations as that of the pulpit. To a good preacher his field is literally the world: it is the world of real life, not the world of books alone, not the world of the streets alone, but the world as it is in its completeness and range of character and station. He finds his audience wherever he finds men and women and children. No order of mind is above him, none beneath him. This popular element in the ideal of a sermon is so fundamental, that it should be incorporated into every definition of the thing.

But is not this a degrading idea of a sermon? Do we not let down the intellectual level of the pulpit by insisting upon its cosmopolitan mission? Is it not, at the best, a condescension of intellect to usefulness, when a preacher addresses his whole life's work to the necessities of promiscuous assemblies? Is it not a nobler thing to do to preach to select hearers, whose culture shall give scope to a preacher's loftiest intellectual aspirations? These queries are fundamental to the usefulness of the pulpit. A false theory respecting it is secretly embarrassing and depressing many a preacher in his life's work. It is a sad thing for a man to labor all his life long under the weight of a conflict between professional usefulness and personal culture. Yet such, if I mistake not, is the secret consciousness of many pastors. In some it amounts to a sense of intellectual degradation. Daniel Webster, in the closing years of his life, expressed a profound sense of personal humiliation in having been, through his whole career, so largely engaged in the delivery of electioneering speeches. If he had followed the bent of his tastes, he would never have spoken in public outside of the United States Senate or the Supreme Court Room. Something akin to this feeling weighs upon the spirits, and depresses the self-respect, of not a few most useful pastors.

Let us see, then, how this matter stands. Is the popular character of the pulpit, in the Christian ideal of it, degrading to it as a representative of intellect and as a stimulus to intellectual culture?

(1) It must be conceded that the affirmative is sustained by the notions current among many literary men. Multitudes of literary men deny to the pulpit the dignity of literature. In their view, it stands below the level of literary criticism. Nothing else fares so severely at the hands of popular critics, nothing else is criticised so flippantly, nothing else is doomed so often by foregone conclusions, or so surely "damned with faint praise," as a volume of sermons from a living and useful pulpit. We are all infected with this disease of critical judgment in the conceptions which we often mean to express by the phrase "popular preaching." "He is a popular preacher," we say, with an inflection which means that this is the least respectable thing about him. "Is he a man of talents?"—"Oh, yes! of popular talents. He takes well with the multitude; he draws an audience; women weep, and children listen, when he speaks; he can always be sure of a hearing; but"—and so on. A reverent reader of the Scriptures, it is true, will be reminded of Him whom the common people heard gladly; yet the tone of literary disparagement will linger a long time in our ears, notwithstanding. A positive stiffening of self-respect is often needful, that a pastor may hold his head erect against the flings of criticism. Such criticism is literary cant.

(2) This leads me to observe, that the great excellence of a sermon, considered as a specimen of literature alone, is that it sways mind without distinction of class. So far as this aim is reached, it is, in kind, the grandest thing in literature. To make the deep thoughts of theology intelligible to all orders of mind, and impressive to them all, so that the same truth which instructs the ignorant, and quickens the torpid, shall also move the wisest, and command the most alert, is a masterly work of mind. Not a tithe of the standard literature of the world achieves any thing so profound or so brilliant. Plato could not have done it, but St. Paul did it. The profoundest discoveries of ethical science were made intelligible, and, what is vastly more important, were made regenerating forces of thought in the minds of fishermen, by the Sermon on the Mount. Yet all the philosophy which the world reveres bows before the originality of that sermon today. Was there intellectual degradation in that? As much as in the humblest labor of a successful pulpit.

Much to the purpose here is an opinion which Guizot has recorded of the nature of genius. In his criticism of the English drama, he expresses his idea of genius in words which are true, without abatement, of the Christian pulpit. He says, "Genius is bound to follow human nature in all its developments. Its strength consists in finding within itself the means of satisfying the whole of the public. [It] should exist for all, and should suffice at once for the wants of the masses and for the requirements of the most exalted minds." What is this, but preaching the gospel to every creature, becoming all things to all men, doing in the simplicity of faith that which every successful preacher does in the result of his life's work? This, then, we pronounce the intellectual dignity of the pulpit. Why not, as well as of the drama? Considered as the subject of philosophical criticism, the genius of the pulpit corresponds to the genius of that poetry which is world-wide and immortal. A good sermon is a popular production in the same sense in which a good drama is a popular production. A good preacher is a man of the people in the same sense in which Racine and Shakespeare were men of the people. Any thing which grows out of scholastic culture alone, valuable as it may be, is still below the genius which sways the people from the pulpit, in the same sense in which Aristotle was below Homer, and Locke below Milton.

(3) From this view it follows that the sense of self-denial which preachers sometimes express in adapting their sermons to all classes, instead of ministering to a select intelligence, has no virtue in it. Says one of twenty pastors of like mind, in a private letter, "I am throwing myself away in this shoe-town." Very well. he probably could not make a better throw. If he saves a "shoe-town" morally, he lifts it up intellectually to an immense altitude. In the process of doing that, he lifts his own mind to a level of culture and of power which no conservatism of refinement ever rises high enough to overlook. Do not the first ten inches of an oak from the ground measure as much in height as the last ten of its topmost branch? When will the ministry learn that the place where has very little concern with the intellectual worth of the work done? The uplifting anywhere is essentially the same, but with the chances of success all in favor of lifting low down. To the mind of Christ the whole world is a "shoe-town" intellectually. To give it a lift everywhere is the intellectual glory of the pulpit. Deliverance from the pettiness of a select ambition is essential to the power to lift it anywhere. If a man is swaying a promiscuous assembly every week, albeit they have waxed and grimy hands; if he is really moving them, educating them, raising them by the eternal thoughts of God up to the level of those thoughts, he is doing a grander literary work, with more power at both ends of it, than if he were penned in and held down by the élite of a city, or the clique of a university. He is plowing a deeper furrow, and subsoiling the field of all culture. The reflex influence of his work upon his own development is more masculine. He is a nobler man for it in intellectual being. There is more of him in the end. He has more to show for his life's work, and more of himself to carry into eternity.

Doddridge speaks with dolorous magnanimity of the effort which it cost him to discard from his style certain words, metaphors, constructions, which his literary taste tempted him to use, but which his conscience rejected as unsuited to the capacities of his hearers. This was mourning the loss of useless tools. Such condescension is in the direct line of scholarly elevation. A man grows in literary dignity with every conquest of that kind which he achieves over himself. It ought not to be suffered to put on the dignity of a self-conquest: it should be the intuition and the joy of a cultivated taste.