- Corporate Holiness: Pulpit Preaching and the Church of England Missionary Societies, 1760–1870 by Bob Tennant
Bob Tennant’s work on the eighteenth-century British sermon dates back to at least 2004, when he published a book chapter on an antislavery sermon by Beilby Porteus, bishop of Chester from 1776 to 1787. Since then, he has also published essays on John Tillotson, the Scottish Episcopalian Robert Morehead, and sermons about charity schools in England and mission work abroad. This is his second book-length study, after Conscience, Consciousness and Ethics in Joseph Butler’s Philosophy and Ministry (Rochester, NY, 2011).
For most of the book, the meaning of the main title is not entirely clear. This is certainly a study of corporate Christianity, specifically the Incorporated Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), and the Church Missionary Society (CMS). “Holiness,” however, receives just a passing mention in the second chapter (p. 80). Only in the conclusion do we finally learn that the title comes from “William Warburton, who conceived of corporate holiness as an expression of national spirituality and practice, grounded on . . . the mutually reinforcing platforms of Church and State” (p. 287). This reasoning is sound, but it would have been preferable to find it in the introduction, where it could help set the stage for the chapters to come.
The appropriateness of the subtitle, in contrast, is evident from the start. The first three chapters examine sermons preached at the annual meetings of each of the three missionary societies. Tennant then traces the overall phenomenon of the “anniversary sermon” through three stages: the “heroic phase” (1810–32), “Christian Empire” (1820–60), and “From Christian Empire to Global Communion, 1850–70” (the title of the final chapter). By the end of the book, a complete trajectory has been traced: the sermon began as a vehicle for introducing corporate policy, then ceased to have an administrative function, and eventually became a “mainly ceremonial” event (p. 255).
Throughout these chapters, we see some of the interests pursued by Tennant in other projects: “directionality,” or the use of pronouns in preaching (p. 14); the frequency with which preachers invoke various scripture texts (appendix 2, pp. 293–95); and especially Butlerian philosophy. He also introduces the new idea of preaching as a “conversation.” This can take place within a single service, a “communal” event where the preacher invites the congregation to think with him, if not actually talk with him, about his topic for the day (p. 14). It can also involve the idea of preachers being in dialog with one another, using their sermons to endorse or refute ideas presented in earlier addresses. This is an important element of the anniversary sermons, which gave preachers annual platforms for engaging with their colleagues’ work. It also has applications beyond Tennant’s immediate subject, and it strikes me as adding an important new dimension to homiletic theory. [End Page 825]
Tennant concludes by describing his book as “an essay in criticism” (p. 287). This may be a nod to Alexander Pope’s 1711 poem, in which he offers this advice to aspiring critics: “In ev’ry Work regard the Writer’s End, / Since none can compass more than they Intend; / And if the Means be just, the Conduct true, Applause, in spite of trivial Faults, is due.” This is sound advice for the book reviewer as well. Corporate Holiness is not what Pope would call “a faultless Piece,” because there is no such thing as a perfect work of scholarship. In this case, for example, some of the earlier chapters may end a bit abruptly, and the references to Butler’s thought seem overdone at times. On the whole, however, Tennant has largely accomplished the task he set for himself, and this book is a welcome addition to the growing field of sermon studies.