Ever since the publication of the first two volumes of Sterne’s sermons in May 1760, critics have been wondering what to make of them. Then (as now) the sermons were most obviously connected to that fashionable literary sensation The Life and Opinions of [End Page 50] Tristram Shandy, the first installment of which had appeared in late 1759. Eager to capitalize on the success of his novel, Sterne published the sermons with two title pages— one announcing them as the “sermons of Mr. Yorick” and the other as those of “Laurence Sterne. A.M.”—a proceeding denounced by Owen Ruffhead in the Monthly Review as “the greatest outrage against Sense and Decency, that has been offered since the first establishment of Christianity.” Further blurring the boundaries between sermons and fiction, Sterne even included the text of his so-called Abuses of Conscience sermon in Shandy. First preached by Sterne in York Minster for the 1750 summer assizes, then recited by Trim and attributed to Yorick in the second volume of Shandy, and finally, a third appearance in the fourth volume of Sermons, published in 1766, the history of this sermon neatly illustrates Sterne’s conflation of his two homiletic personae.
It would, however, be a mistake to read Sterne’s sermons solely through his fictions. This view has been most forcefully articulated by Melvyn New, whose 1996 edition for the Florida Sterne emphasized Sterne’s orthodoxy and conventionality, discouraging readings of the sermons as expressions of his eccentric rhetorical brilliance. In the wake of New’s edition, this collection sets out to “define our present thinking about this important body of material in Sterne’s canon.” Mr. Gerard’s Introduction usefully foregrounds the eleven essays that follow with a chronological account of the critical and popular reception of the sermons from the 1760s to the present day. Some of this material is productively revisited in Jack Lynch’s perceptive account of the ways in which the genre of the sermons has been misunderstood. By reading the sermons as if they were essays, dramas, works of fiction, and even Shandean “anti-sermons,” Mr. Lynch argues that critics have failed to address the sermons as sermons. He rightly concludes that they call for “a more dialogic relationship among the genres, ‘literary’ and otherwise—one that comes to terms with the eighteenth century’s conception of genres rather than our own.”
So how should we read Sterne’s sermons as sermons? The main contribution of this volume is to position the sermons not just in relation to the rest of Sterne’s canon, but also in the context of eighteenth-century sermon culture more widely. By placing Sterne alongside other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sermonizers, several of the contributors do a good job of showing how Sterne both drew on and departed from established homiletic conventions. Martha F. Bowden examines William Rose’s Practical Preacher (1762), a collection in which three of Sterne’s sermons rub shoulders with the productions of many of the most prominent Anglican and dissenting preachers of the period. Michael Rotenberg-Schwartz uses a range of sermons on “the art of war” to illuminate Sterne’s concern with military themes and metaphors in both his sermons and his fictions, and Robert A. Erickson’s essay contrasts Sterne and Swift, exploring the reasons why it is so much more difficult to assimilate Swift’s sermons into his “literary” output than Sterne’s.
Melvyn New’s contribution perceptively stresses the need to “read the occasion” of Sterne’s sermons. A charity sermon, he explains, made very different demands on both preacher and audience than a political thirtieth of January or fifth of November sermon. Given the success of the “occasional” approach to the sermon’s literary art in recent work on seventeenth-century preachers (most notably Donne and Lancelot Andrewes), scholars of Sterne’s sermons will pursue this. Mr. New’s approach also generates a particularly fruitful reading of the “Abuses of Conscience” sermon. Understood as a picture of “justice [End Page 51] gone terribly...