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Pulpit Oratory

Considering the many thousands of preachers of all denominations who address every week more or less intelligent congregations, it would be conducive to the public taste as well as pleasure, if-each preacher spoke well. Mr. Bright was of opinion that no one should be appointed to preach who had not a tolerable voice, and some knowledge of the art of expression. Soldiers of the cross, like other soldiers, should be selected with reference to their capabilities for discharging the duties of the service.

Oratory, the art of public persuasion, might exist in the Church to a greater extent than we find it, but for its dread of imitating the theatre. Art is mostly suppressed among the Dissenters by the influence of evangelism. Did this not exist, their precarious pay would deter them from the pursuit of eloquence. The bar is too full of business and too anxious for fees to reach much distinction. The politician is generally indolent if not dependent; and if necessitous, he has to struggle for himself when he should be struggling for excellence. General Ludlow, whose maxim the reader has seen, said a man 'should say what he means, and mean what he says.' This is rhetoric, because it means sincerity, and sincerity is persuasion to all who know no more than the speaker. Sincerity is not errorless; the most honest man may be mistaken, but the logician should never be mistaken. Logic is the art of avoiding error, and should be one of the attainments of every preacher. Cardinal Newman was of this opinion. In a remarkable passage, he says:—
'One main portion of intellectual education, of the labors of both school and university, is to remove the original dimness of the mind's eye, to strengthen and perfect its vision; to enable it to look out into the world right forward, steadily and truly; to give the mind clearness, accuracy, precision; to enable it to use words aright, to understand what it says, to conceive justly what it thinks about, to abstract, compare, analyze, divide, refine and reason correctly. There is a particular science which takes these matters in hand, and it is called logic; but it is not by logic—certainly not by logic alone—that the faculty I speak of is acquired. The infant does not learn to spell and read the hues upon his retina by any scientific rule; nor does the student learn accuracy of thought by any manual or treatise. The instruction given him, of whatever kind, if it be really instruction, is mainly, or at least preeminently, this—a discipline in accuracy of mind.'

Mr. Spurgeon, who made pleasantry popular in the pulpit, used to tell young preachers how he went with a friend to the Crystal Palace one day, and going to the rifle range his friend took a shot and made a 'center,' and he seemed proud of it. But there were two targets, one on the right, and one on the left, and the man in charge said, 'Which target did the gent aim at?' His friend answered, 'The right-hand one.' 'I thought so,' said the man, 'for you hit the left one.' That was not a creditable thing to a marksman, though he succeeded in hitting something. Mr. Spurgeon said it was no credit to a minister to win a soul by inadvertence. He should aim, and learn the art of hitting what he aimed at.

The principles of oratory, which conduce to secular efficiency, are necessary to excellence in the spiritual sphere. As the law of causation which reigns in matter extends to mind, so the laws of rhetoric reign in divinity as well as in the drama.

A lecture, a speech, a sermon, or a conversation, is like a city in which you seek a destination. Unless the pathway of the meaning is clearly marked by relevant words, the listener will never find his way to it. If you leave any nameless openings, his thoughts will turn down there, and you will be at the end of your argument before the mind of the hearer gets back to it.

Sometimes preachers so treat their hearers that they know not what they are to get back to. Some years ago, I went to hear the Rev. J. Guinness Rogers and the Rev. Dr. R. W. Dale, when those eminent ministers went through the land in exposition and vindication of Nonconformity of the Congregationalist type. But neither of them when speaking in the Dome, Brighton, ever said what Congregationalism was. Its aim, I understand, is to increase the life of the Church, and many of the great audience whom they attracted, who were of that persuasion, doubtless knew all about it. These brilliant propagandists appeared to assume that all the audience did. Three fourths of the assembly, to my knowledge, had not the remotest idea of Congregationalism as a distinctive religious democracy. The first thing a preacher should think of is, that three-fourths of a miscellaneous congregation have little knowledge of what he is talking about.

Though we must admit that illiterate passion affects us more than learning without it, we must keep in view that this passion is the passion of conviction. All the rest is, to Englishmen, rant. The passion of conviction is modest, manly and earnest. If the conviction is manifestly founded on knowledge and reason, and is seen to be based on what Grote happily called 'reasoned truth,' it is omnipotent.

Massillon, like Demosthenes, won renown by virtue of compression, coherency, energy of statement, and vigor of insight. He had the penetration to see what others overlooked, and when he showed to his auditors what all might but did not see, they were astounded. How many profess to relinquish the things of this world—but how few do it.

'Where are they,' Massillon exclaims, 'who renounce, in good faith, the pleasures, customs, maxims and hopes of the world? All have made the promise—who have kept it? We see many people who complain of the world; who accuse it of injustice, ingratitude, caprice; who inveigh bitterly against it; who speak loudly of its abuses and errors; but in denouncing it they love it, follow it, and cannot do without it; in complaining of its injustices they are angry, but not disabused; they feel its evil treatments, but do not recognize its dangers; they censure it, but where are those who hate it? And by that may be very well judged the people who make pretense to salvation. In fine, you have uttered the anathema against Satan and his works; and what are his works? Those which compose, well-nigh, the thread and entire course of your life; the pomps, the plays, the pleasures, the spectacles, the illusions of which he is the father, the pride of which he is the model, the jealousies and the contentions of which he is the artificer.'

Massillon understood that overdoing was undoing, and stopped at the point of effect. It was Voltaire who, more than any other writer, made the fame of Massillon. At passages like these, and the one previously quoted, Voltaire said in the Encyclopedia, the audience were 'stirred by a sort of involuntary motion, the whole assembly started up from their seats, and such murmurs of surprise and acclamation arose as disconcerted the speaker, though they increased the effect of his discourse.'

The business of a preacher is to represent his master—not himself. His art is but the light by which the great picture is seen. The purity and quality of that light is important. It reveals everything, but never draws attention to itself. Edward Irving was very desirous that Robert Hall should hear him preach. This came to pass, and when Hall was asked what he thought of Irving's impassioned eloquence, he answered, 'He presented a magnificent picture, but stood too much in front of it himself.'

A story is told of Massillon which many have heard and supposed to be of more recent origin. It is said that one day, when he was preaching upon the Passion before Louis XIV. and all the court, he so affected his hearers that everybody was in tears except one citizen, who appeared as indifferent to what he heard as to what he saw. One of his neighbors, surprised at such insensibility, said to him, 'How can you refrain from weeping, while we are all bathed in tears?' 'That is not astonishing,' answered the citizen, 'I am not of this parish.' The eloquence which I have endeavored to describe would have included this man also in the general weeping; just as the preaching of Whitfield emptied the pockets of Franklin, the greatest utilitarian economist who ever listened to him. Was it not Whitfield of whom it was written—
Grant some of knowledge greater store,
More learned some in teaching;
Yet few in life did lighten more,
Or thunder more in preaching?

The common impression is that Whitfield had revivalist rudeness and passion. On the contrary, he had extreme grace of manner. He had art as well as fervency, and the union made him irresistible to his hearers, to whatever parish they belonged.

Having regard to the dreadful message many preachers elect to deliver, which no art can render humane, which must freeze the manner of the deliverer, the sincere preacher must find his art more difficult than other speakers. The Duchess of Buckingham, who had heard Whitfield's message, wrote to the Countess of Huntingdon, who favored his communion, saying,—
'It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretch who crawls the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting, and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good-breeding.'
No doctrine that is true ought to be deemed repulsive. The object of the pulpit orator is to persuade the minds of men to the acceptance of sacred truth. But to do this effectually, he must not only choose times and seasons, but his audience. In the earlier days of co-operation it suffered from neglect of this precaution. Some earnest speakers delighted to make statements which had the effect of an electric shock upon hearers. They exceeded Prudhon, who said in his sharp, naked way, that property was robbery, which represented all mankind as engaged in thieving. If anyone desirous of arresting the attention of certain passengers in a crowded street should roll a skittle ball among them, all who had india-rubber ankles might find the percussion tolerable; but those with tender shins would be so wounded and wroth that they would, when they recovered, be disposed to kick the indiscriminate gentleman who had attacked them so sharply. If a man could pass an electric shock through a crowd, he might do good to some by the excitement he would create, but a good part of the feebler sort he would knock down. So it is when the shocks of logic are sent indiscriminately through the human understanding; some minds are knocked quite over by it, and never recover. This is too little thought of in preaching. It is a serious thing to shock the wrong persons. It may shatter them. The mind may be splintered as well as a bureau, and never be good for much after. If we regard the process of treating conviction as a science, then we must be reasonable in the use of reason, Sterne cites it as a sign of Providence, that God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb. Most persons who give attention to the art of diffusing new opinions will quite agree that it is wise sometimes to temper the fierce wind of logic to the feeble intelligence shorn of robust strength. If the experienced eye is discerning enough, it may see lying all around the fierce logician, prostrate and shattered minds, in the last agonies of new ideas, which have struck them mercilessly and fatally. Beyond all doubt there are many persons whose notions are so heavy, dull and matted together, that thought cannot move within them, and a vigorous disintegrating shock is the best thing for them. Their minds are loosened thereby, and they become able to think. But this class of persons should be got together when addressed, and what is said to them should not be reported, or that will happen which Bishop Colenso relates. When he had explained to a Zulu chief the minatory character of salvation, he did not contradict the bishop, but answered like a gentleman, 'It may be true, but I would rather not believe it.' It is a maxim in modern hydropathy that what shocks, or pains, or creates revulsion, is wrong, and may create new diseases. Pressnitz killed his own discovery by severity in treatment. Smedley reanimated it by making hydropathic healing agreeable. When Fox was canvassing Westminster he asked a butcher in St James' market for his vote, who answered, 'Sir, I admire your head, but damn your heart.' To which Fox replied, 'Sir, I admire your candor, but damn your manners.' There should be faithfulness and candor in the pulpit, but it will be more effective if considerately expressed.

Though the clerical orator should not repel by austerity, neither should he seek to advance his views by jocoseness. The nature of the best religion demands a cheerful reverencebut reverence in language there must be. Mr. Spurgeon sometimes stepped over the boundary which separates pleasantry from buffoonery. When Bishop Disney sent over to England some negro evangelists from Canada, one sang 'The Old Sexton.' The lines—
I gather them in! for man and boy,
Year after year of grief and joy,
I've builded the houses that lie around,
In every nook of this burial-ground;
Mother and daughter, father and son,
Come to my solitude, one by one,
But come they strangers, or come they kin,
'I gather them in, I gather them in,'
were sung with a pathos that moved every heart. Then came a song beginning,—
I'm born of God, I know I am,
And you deny it, if you can,
I want to go to heaven when I die,
To shout salvation as I fly.

There was no palpitating hope here, as to who would 'gather them in' at the last day. The tone of the song was that of singers, who would gather themselves in. All this took place at the Mansion House in London. Merchants who had taken out their checks to give to the mission put them up again as these jocose, irreverent songs proceeded. The Egyptian Hall contained many of the first Christian families of London. How could they be expected to subscribe for promoting theological teaching of this description? There may be poor negroes to whom this revivalist chatter has charms for their humble minds, but these Canadian colored men and women, who were singers, were capable of nobler things, and gave proof how well they could sing songs of tenderness and moving sentiment. Why were they not advised to sing only such songs? Christianity should never be comic. Yet many ministers who would not commit this fault themselves will countenance it in others as good enough for the multitude—betraying their cause thereby.

But consistency is more difficult than decorum in piety. Criticism, like competition, is sharper in these days, when intelligence is more general, than heretofore; and the pulpit orator should understand that his hearers find it hard to believe in the sincerity of any man who tells you the words of the Lord are true, and who knows he has said, 'My people shall not sow and another reap, they shall not plant and another gather,' yet see this done every day, and they aid and abet it and act it themselves. The pulpit orator who is the advocate of well-discerned Christian consistency in social life, would convince and conciliate adversaries as no mere rhetoric can.

A good voice has an advantage in the pulpit as well as on the platform, and he who is a master of sense as well as sound, will command a high place in public opinion. But, as popular education goes, voice will do more for a preacher than matter, since a man who can be heard has a chance of attention, while he who is not audible has none. Besides, people naturally like sounds which come to them of their own accord, and need no effort to hear. Moreover, a hundred persons may be entertained and even satisfied by cadence and vocalization for ten who will be capable of intellectual appreciation of what is said and whose enjoyment depends upon its purport.

When a deputation of elders were sent from New York to Chicago to invite Dr. Robert Collyer to be their minister, they had but one misgiving,—' Would his voice fill the place?' 'If that is all,' said the doctor, 'I shall do, for my voice is cramped in Chicago.' His voice would reach across a prairie. If John the Baptist spoke with his pleasant power I do not wonder that the desert was crowded with hearers. Strong sense borne on a strong voice is influential speaking. When weighty sense sets out on a weak voice it falls to the ground before it reaches distant listeners.

Preachers have always had trouble with drowsy hearers of the word. Even Puritan ministers had to have recourse to 'woodchuck' contrivances to keep their congregations awake. In 1646, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Whiting was minister of Lynn, Massachusetts. One Obadiah Turner kept a journal at that time. The following is an extract:—
'1646, June ye 3d. Allen Brydges hath bin chose to wake ye sleepers in meeting, and, being much proud of his place, must needs have a fox taile fixed to ye end of a long staff wherewith he may brush the faces of them yt will have naps in time of discourse; likewise a sharp thorn wherewith he may prick such as be most sounde. On ye last Lord his day, as he strutted about ye meeting house, he did spy Mr Tomkins sleeping with much comforte, his head kept steadie by being in ye corner, and his hand grasping ye rail. And soe spying, Allen did quickly thrust his staff behind Dame Ballard, to give him a grievous prick on ye hand. Whereupon Mr Tomkins did spring up much above ye floor, and with terrible force strike his hand against ye wall, and also, to ye great wonder of all, profainlie exclaim in a loud voice, "Curs the woochuch!" he dreaming, as it seemed, yt a woochuch had seized and bit his hand. But on comeing to know where he was, and ye great scandall he had committed, he seemed much abashed, but did not speak. And I think he will not soone again go to sleepe in meeting. Ye women may sometimes sleep and none know it, by reason of their enormous bonnets. Mr Whiting does pleasantli say yt from the pulpit he doth seem to be preaching to stacks of straw with men jotted here and there among them.'

Were there only natural art in reading Scriptures and collects in the churches there would be no need of an Allen Brydges the Waker to walk the aisles.

When in Washington, one of my delights was to wander into negro churches. There was one church of colored people, well to do, and therefore more conventional in their worship. There was another and humbler church, to which I preferred to go, which I found more genuine, and therefore more entertaining and instructive.

The preacher who conducted the services was beyond the middle age, and of sedate, honest aspect. His reading of the Scripture was the most religious reading I heard in America. It was slow, distinct, impressive, earnest, now hushed, now loud, now a cadence of alarm. His tone changed with the sense, with natural dramatic passion, as though the reader comprehended the words of Heaven, and was reading them aloud for the first time. It was not like the reading I had heard in the morning in the President's church, where the lessons were read with what seemed to me a cold propriety, in which all the tragic pathos of the sacred story was frozen in the preacher's throat; it was earnestness in a refrigerator.

The negro sermon was in keeping with the reading. The colored gospel was not bad—peculiar, but seldom extravagant. Its discernment and candor would surprise any English hearer. 'My brethren,' said the preacher, 'Christ bid us love our enemies. David was a man after God's own heart, but David did not do this.' The preacher said this merely, and left it as a thing to be noted, and not to be explained away. 'We should have clean hands,' he remarked. 'Clean hands do not mean hands clean according to nature, it means clean souls.' The conclusion of his sermon was an exhortation, after the manner of preachers, but in the vein of his race. 'My brethren, pray! You can telegraph to God. You can telegram right away. The man is always at the other end. You can telegram at midnight, the man at the wheel is always awake. Always awake, my brothers and sisters. Pray! brothers, pray! The office is always open, the man is always at the wheel. Brothers and sisters, telegram right away.' The preacher had got his figures of speech a little mixed. He was thinking of the ship when he spoke of the 'man at the wheel.' Still, he managed his simile pretty effectively, and the comparison between the speed of a telegram and a prayer was creditable to his powers of illustration. He was quite understood. Some laughed, some smiled, some made audible assent, especially two rows of dark sisters dressed in resplendent blue dresses—members of the 'Society of Moses.'

In days when only written books existed, those able to read them must have been impressed by them in a degree unknown to us. Then men knew less than now, but what they knew they knew better. When the Bible was chained to the altar of the Church, crowds must have hung upon the lips of the reader as they heard for the first time what they took to be the actual words of God. What curiosity, impatience and astonishment were to be read in the faces of the auditors! What awe, what reverence, what pathos, what passion there would be in the tones of the reader! If preachers had the original belief of the colored reader of Washington, and were to read as he read, churches would have more frequenters than they have now. It is recognized now that there is all the difference in the world between a man feeling not that he must say something,. but that he has something to say. This is as true in the pulpit as Parliament.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Parker—who, when a young preacher, had merely a good presence, a good voice, facility and fervor of speech—owes all his distinction to himself, by the cultivation of strong natural powers. He has given it as his opinion, that 'until there is better hearing there will not be better preaching.' This may be true in one sense. No preacher would think of delivering the same quality of sermon before auditors of known intelligence which he would preach to a congregation not known to have any. Dr. Parker can hardly intend to say that the hearers are to raise the preacher, whose duty it is to raise his hearers. Dr. Parker did not wait for this. He has made his hearers. It is true that neither orator nor preacher can go much further than his auditors can see; for when he is out of sight his influence ceases. A preacher is a leader, but he cannot lead unless he is ahead of his hearers. When his subject is beyond their range of knowledge he must be informing and explanatory. He need not lower the truth, but raise the understanding of those to whom it is addressed. If that be the preacher's endeavor he will do much to elevate his hearers. Once I was a guest of a rector for whom I had personal affection. For two Sundays I sat in the family pew. His sermons had no relation to anything in the heavens above or the earth beneath. Yet he excelled in his knowledge of this world. Such sermons, however well intended, could not elevate the parochial hearers in a century. Dr Parker is the only divine who has advisedwhat I thought I was alone in advising years ago, namelythat preachers who have to preach twice on a Sunday should preach a sermon of the great orators of the Church once in the day, and reserve their unwearied minds for their own discourse. The sermons of the Fathers of the Church and orators of Dissent, from early times to the present, afford a mighty field of selection. Wealth of illustration, felicity of expression, splendor of ideas, and passion, lie there mostly unknown to preachers and almost entirely so to modern, busy, narrow-minded, uninformed congregationsnarrow-minded because ignorant of the brilliant sermons with which the pulpit orators of every denomination have enriched and delighted the minds of the generation in which they lived. A preacher who knows how to read, who has good discernment of relevant passages, judgment not to make them too long, and preface them by an account of who the preacher was, would command grateful hearers, whom he would reform, gratify and refine. A great play delights as often as it is well acted; why should not a great sermon, when well spoken? Acquaintedness with great discourses would often improve the preacher as well as his flock. As Butler said long ago:—
All smatterers are more brisk and pert
Than those that understand an art,
As little sparkles shine more bright
Than glowing coals that give them light.

Professor Francis William Newman, a man of wider information than his brother, the cardinal, told me he deemed it beyond his power to preach a sermon every week—he who never spoke, or wrote any mean or incomplete thing, measured a sermon by a standard of his own. One minister I have known, who, though always preaching, was always fresh, was Henry Ward Beecher. His ideas were inexhaustible. The Rev. Hugh Price Hughes's definition of the essential requisites of modern preaching are 'simplicity, flexibility, spontaneity and earnestness'—qualities of his own preaching, aided by a voice which travels like a bird over the audience and along the galleries. Ward Beecher had the four qualities above named, with the addition of imagination; always bright and often poetical, when every sentence was tinted with a hue of its own, as is the case with sermons by the Rev. Stopford A. Brooke, which a connoisseur in pulpit orations would know when he saw them quoted, though no preacher's name was appended to them.

When a young man, I heard a sermon by the Rev. William Knibb, a Baptist minister, whose life was wasted in Jamaica, begin with these words, which I still remember, 'In the days when infantine Christianity went forth to battle with the full-grown powers of superstition and darkness.' His picturesque sentences continued to the end, his unfaltering swiftness and distinctness I have never heard exceeded.

It was said of Morley Punshon, whom I sometimes hearda preacher of renown in his day—'He did not create; he did not inform; he did not reason; he did not criticize—he set forth things vividly.' That was a great merit; he held the field but did not extend it.

'Parsons of York,' as he was called (as men spoke of Jay of Bath, or Hall of Leicester—preachers who are remembered as no one else of those towns is) in later years, whatever may have been the case earlier, broke up his sentences with a dry hacking cough for the first fifteen minutes. Still the sentences went on their coherent way. Afterwards he suffered no interruption when the stately argument of his oration rose high before the hearer, who remembered it long after as though he had seen a great sight. It was in Whitfield Chapel, London, where I heard Parsons. Though unlike his famous predecessor in that place, those who heard Parsons left him, as men are said to have left Whitfield, with the impression that they had heard a master of the pulpit.

Sydney Smith complained in his day of the cold decorum of the pulpit. He said: 'The great object of modern sermons is to hazard nothing; their characteristic is decent debility, which alike guards their authors from ludicrous errors, and precludes them from striking beauties. Every man of sense, in taking up an English sermon, expects to find it a tedious essay, full of common-place morality; and if the fulfilment of such expectations be meritorious, the clergy have certainly the merit of not disappointing their readers.'

Since his day, preachers of note have arisen in the church. Neither Kingsley, nor Maurice, nor Bishop Magee were conventional in their preaching. Still, too many Church preachers are dull. Many of them are happily sent abroad. I have heard a colonial bishop so insipid and unimpressive of speech, that he could not convert on his own coast, where hearers had the advantage of knowing his tongue, much less those to whom he would speak in a language or accent foreign to them.

Preaching can never be what it might be, could the other side be heard after the discourse. The clergyman who told a great lawyer that his was a fascinating professionwas answered, 'Preaching is a better one, as the opposite party has no right of reply.' Ten lawyers have more alertness, many-sidedness, and circumspection than a hundred preachers. They know their learned brother lies in wait to question every unprovable statement they make. The Catholic clergy knew they lost weight by being all on one side, and invented the Devil's Advocate that the other side might be heard. But this advocate seldom put in an appearance, and when he did he was a poor substitute for the original, if his abilities are rightly reported. Were even a second-hand Satan to attend every Sunday, preaching would rapidly improve in truth, fairness and force. Then a hearer would seldom have to say of a preacher, as an observing woman did: In the first place he read his sermon; in the second he did not read it well; and in the third it was not worth reading.

As to the manner of preaching, Dr. Leifchild's rules for preaching would ruin any preacher—
Begin low,
Go on slow;
Rise higher,
And take fire;
When most impressed
Be self-possessed;
At the end wax warm
And sit down in a storm.

A preacher would be ridiculous in a month who did this twice a week. Shakespeare's advice to players is far wiser. Warmth will vary with conviction, and energy with earnestness and the nature of the subject. The close of a discourse should be better spoken than the explanatory parts. It may end in resounding sentences, or, like a farewell song of love, its last cadence may die in the air, leaving an impression which will never fade in the mind of the hearer.

If a preacher wants to know what he is going to say—or, better, wants to know what he ought to say—let him write out his sermon, not for the purpose necessarily of reading it to his congregation, but for the purpose of reading it to himself. He will never discover what links of argument he has omitted in an intended extempore speech—he will never become aware of the redundancies, contradictions, undesigned repetitions and incoherences of arrangement—until he writes right off what is in his mind. When he has revised, pruned, amplified where necessary, and given sequence where wanting, let him make marginal notes of the purport of each essential passage, and preach from these notes. Such was the advice of Professor Hall to an American divinity class of which he had charge. There is no better rule to follow. It fixes a comprehensive outline of the intended sermon in the mind. Written passages and illustrations will recur to the memory. There will be confidence, flexibility and coherence—audibility and earnestness will do the rest.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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