Friday, May 31st, 2013
I am grateful to Robert H. Ellison for the useful suggestions raised in his post “On the Discipline of ‘Sermon Studies,’” and I endorse his hopes for more systematic attention to the vast and often undervalued resource which sermons provide. Basing his comments in part on Keith A. Francis’ proposals in The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689-1901 (2012), Ellison has specified several areas for potential gleanings. It occurs to me there may be additional benefits we can scarcely envision.
Certainly sermons offer a source for accessing the issues, the questions, the flavor of any given point in Christian history. They not only provide snapshots of the character of popular theological discourse at particular moments in the past; they also encompass the observations of community leaders who were charged with addressing a “word from the Lord” to their contemporaries. Depending on how carefully sermons were recorded and preserved, they can offer the possibility of listening in on long-lost community conversations from a variety of times and places. Add imagination, and exploring past sermons can provide a time-warp way to recover an hour spent in a social setting, as if one were seated in the midst of a worshipping congregation, witnessing a community experience from possibly centuries ago. And read with care, through the various lenses Francis proposes, sermons can offer what he calls “detail — depth and contour” (p. 615) which can greatly help us get inside the thought and word patterns of previous eras.
At its best the approach does need to be interdisciplinary. When it comes to the area with which I am most familiar, namely, American Puritan sermons, much careful work is being done by persons in the fields of literature and rhetoric. I think of Lisa M. Gordis’ Opening Scripture: Bible Reading and Interpretive Authority in Puritan New England (2003), and Patricia Roberts-Miller’s Voices in the Wilderness: Public Discourse and the Paradox of Puritan Rhetoric (1999), as well as Meredith M. Neuman’s forthcoming Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England. Each of these offers insightful observations on the dynamics of communication as they apply to sermons and other forms of public discourse in the Puritan world.
I suspect the treasure trove of sermons is even richer than we are probably aware. Although taking every fragmentary note into consideration would be both impossible and unnecessary (Wilberforce’s single word on the back of an envelope may possibly be an exception!), it seems to me that sermon studies runs the risk of privileging printed materials. Scholarly awareness of the contribution of sermons to the Puritan enterprise has evolved significantly since Perry Miller’s The New England Mind (1939), with its heavy reliance on sermons in print. By exploring non-published materials, Harry S. Stout developed a substantially revised understanding in The New England Soul (1986); his study leaves Puritan preachers looking much kinder and more versatile than the stereotypical haranguers of “Jeremiads” we used to assume they were.
I have deciphered and transcribed sermon notes taken in a “short writing” code of his own invention by a teenager in Springfield, Massachusetts. At the time those notes were composed in 1640, Springfield was on the western colonial frontier. John Pynchon, the young man in question, was what Neuman calls an “aural auditor:” he wrote what he heard of the Rev. George Moxon’s preaching.
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It is his notes, with their sporadic phonetic spelling of Moxon’s Yorkshire words and pronunciation and his recording of Moxon’s occasional interpositions, like “Well,..” and “Only, by the way, one thing I forgot,” that make me confident that some recorded sermons offer vivid links to recoverable if not relivable moments. Again, in Sermon Studies imagination as well as analysis plays a part.
But access does remain a very large problem. My question is, will anyone beside me be able to make use of those notes on thirteen mid-seventeenth century sermons? What is the vehicle for making such primary material more widely available, more thoroughly studied, more carefully discussed? Short of a journal dedicated to this discipline, sessions on sermon studies at academic conferences could extend the conversation around this rich resource and the sometimes surprising access sermons provide to the past.