On the Discipline of “Sermon Studies”
by Robert H. Ellison, Marshall University
Multidisciplinary endeavors with “Studies” in the name have become a staple of the modern academic landscape. British and American studies are among the more common terms; students at my university can earn degrees in religious studies, and pursue minors in African and African American, Asian, Latin American, sexuality, and women’s studies. A program in film studies is in the works as well.
Recently, an online book review introduced me to another example, the field of “Illustration Studies.” According to that review, one of the main premises of Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875: Spoils of the Lumber Room is that the time has come for Illustration Studies “to be recognized within the scholarly community and beyond.” I wish now to make the same claim for “Sermon Studies.” This field is not entirely in its infancy; by some estimates, it has been emerging for about twenty years (see the Preface to The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689-1901 , for which I was a “consultant editor”), and now boasts some 200 active scholars, according to a count conducted by Bob Tennant. It still, however, lacks the name recognition enjoyed by the areas I mentioned in the first paragraph.
Momentum has been building, through an annual symposium of sermons-oriented scholars of Early Modern English literature held in Reading and Manchester Universities, the publication of an Oxford handbook on Early Modern sermons (2011), Brill’s New History of the Sermon series (I was the editor for Volume 5), and other recent works, but much more remains to be done.
Bill Gibson’s introductory essay in the Oxford Handbook offers a thorough discussion of the task. Some of the work is very elementary, so much so that it might remind us of Vince Lombardi’s famous statement to the Green Bay Packers: “Gentlemen, this is a football.” What, for example, do we mean by the word “sermon”? While the boundaries of most literary genres are fairly clearly defined—we have good ideas about what constitutes a novel, a poem, a short story, or a play—we still lack a definitive answer to this question.
Must a sermon, for example, have an oral component? The fact that George MacDonald published three volumes of what he called Unspoken Sermons suggests that the answer may be “No.” If a speech is delivered before a religious audience or on a religious topic, is that sufficient? The answer, again, is likely “No,” because ministers through the ages have described such works not only as “sermons,” but as “lectures” and “charges” as well. To complicate matters further, some texts were published—in virtually identical forms—under more than one of these names!
Once the term “sermon” has been more or less adequately defined, the next challenge is identifying the texts relevant to a given research project. The quantity of works is not the problem: thousands are available in manuscript, print, microform, and electronic texts online. The issue, rather, is narrowing down the choices. Scholars at other institutions and one of my own graduate students, for example, have recently asked for help in locating sermons preached on specific scripture texts. As it stands now, no resource–WorldCat, the Internet Archive, or a particular university’s online catalog—contains the metadata or search capabilities necessary to provide this information, or to identify sermons by other important criteria such as the dates on which they were preached or the occasions for which they were written (e.g., Christmas, Easter, or 5th November [Guy Fawkes’ Day]). Instead, researchers have to comb through scores of individual sermons and volumes upon volumes of collected works in the hope of finding what they’re looking for. Indexes such as a chronological listing of Newman’s sermons and J. Gordon Spaulding’s 6-volume Pulpit Publications 1660-1782 can aid the process in some cases, but there remains a pressing need for a comprehensive catalog, designed from the ground up for the digital age and reflecting the “best practices” of librarianship and cataloging.
The texts indexed in such a catalog can be used in a host of important research projects. Studies published in the early to middle years of the 20th century—such as those by Edwin Dargan, F. R Webber, and (perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent) Eric Mackerness—are primarily biographical, applying Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory to the history of preaching. More recently, the focus has shifted to analyses of the texts themselves, a change I have advocated in my Brill volume and elsewhere. Such studies could of course be theological, focusing on interpretations of the creation story in Genesis 1 or examining the sacramental implications of “this is my body” in Luke 22:19, but they need not be restricted to that discipline. They could, for example, be historical (surveying sermons preached in St. Mary’s Church in Oxford), political (examining sermons on the Glorious Revolution or questions of church and state), or linguistic (conducting sophisticated textual analyses using web-based programs such as Voyeur Tools).
Finally, even the best projects are of little use to the scholarly community if they never appear in print.
Work on sermons is currently being published in journals in a variety of fields: recent examples include religion (Anglican and Episcopal History), rhetoric (Rhetoric Society Quarterly), and American studies (American Quarterly). The broad readership of even church history journals, however, prevents them from giving any kind of extensive attention to the genre. It would likely be unrealistic, for example, to expect an article on preaching to be published in every issue (or even every year), to say nothing of having a special issue entirely devoted to the topic. A journal called Sermon Studies, published in association with a respected academic press and perhaps under the sponsorship of a scholarly society, would recognize the emergence of sermon studies as a subfield give it momentum that could be very beneficial to its continued growth.
The final chapter in the Oxford Handbook, written by ASCH Executive Secretary Keith Francis, lays out a rather ambitious agenda for students of the sermon; it, along with Bill Gibson’s introduction, is a kind of manifesto on the current state and future direction of the field. Realizing this agenda—or even just the portions of it I have mentioned here– will be a rather daunting task. Scholarly publishing, like every other aspect of higher education, is facing economic challenges that make the launch of a new journal a risky proposition at best. Building a useful sermon database will be extremely labor-intensive as well, requiring faculty, graduate students, and others to devote hundreds of hours to reading and classifying thousands of sermons.
Readers of this blog are in a good position to help meet these needs and keep Sermon Studies moving forward. The American Society of Church History is already making important contributions, including panels on sermons in its conferences and publishing articles in its journal Church History on topics ranging from Billy Graham’s preaching to French sermons at the end of the nineteenth century. ASCH members who would be interested in contributing to a database, helping to launch and maintain a journal, or collaborate on other projects are warmly invited to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.