- A New History of the Sermon: The Nineteenth Century
Attending to sermons is a promising way forward for Victorian studies. Among both historians and literary scholars there is a growing renewal of appreciation for and interest in how profoundly religion shaped nineteenth-century Britain. Literary scholars such as Mark Knight and Emma Mason have begun to demonstrate what can be done when studies of Victorian fiction move beyond the trope of “hypocritical and untrustworthy Low-Church clergymen” (314)—as Tamara S. Wagner puts it in her essay in this collection—to explore with sympathy religious genres and voices.
Robert H. Ellison is at the center of a new interest in the Victorian sermon and A New History of the Sermon is an important contribution to this endeavor. But the worst thing about the book, besides perhaps its outrageous price point, is its deceptive title. This volume certainly does not aim at the comprehensiveness and proportionality of either a textbook or a work of reference, the fact that it is titled like the former and priced like the latter notwithstanding. It is rather a well-constructed set of essays that tilts toward adding historically marginalized groups to the discussion (for example, Mormons, Jews, and African Americans). Conversely, this collection is a little too willing to ignore the major preachers of the age as already explored terrain.
Almost all of these sixteen essays are both fascinating and good pieces of scholarship. The worst exception to this general assessment is Dorothy Lander’s chapter on the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Its opening sentence is, “The prevailing norm in the history of the Christian gospel has been: women teach and men preach” (367), and the whole piece proceeds on the basis of this fundamental and somewhat baffling misconception. The biblical passages used to restrict the ministries of women mention teaching, but never preaching, and preaching has often been viewed throughout church history as a form of prophesying which the Bible explicitly warrants women to do. The failure of this chapter is particularly disappointing as it is the only one on women; moreover, as it is focused on women who did not actually deliver sermons from pulpits, the ministries of many influential and fascinating nineteenth-century female preachers are nowhere addressed in this collection (a figure as notable as Catherine Booth, for example, does not even receive a passing reference in the volume’s almost six hundred pages). Thomas H. Olbricht’s essay on biblical criticism is the only other one that disappointed me. It is based on a wrong calculation of chronology (he sees the disruptive impact of biblical criticism as coming in the 1890s, when it actually came earlier). Moreover, for the “common premises” held in nineteenth-century Britain, Olbricht’s sole recommendation to his readers is the badly dated scholarship of Basil Willey (135).
Having got those out of the way, one is then spoiled for choice regarding which of the cornucopia of fine chapters in this volume to highlight. John Wolffe’s engaging “British Sermons on National Events” convincingly traces a move away from providential readings of contemporary events. As he deftly puts it, as the century progressed “belief in divine retribution was becoming contentious rather than a consensus” (198). Wolffe also demonstrates the ways in which the choice of texts for memorial sermons signaled the relative popularity of monarchs: whereas “‘Then he died in a good old age, full of days, riches and honour’ was deemed appropriate for sermons on the death of George III, [End Page 161] more ambivalent attitudes to his son George IV were indicated by the choice of Daniel 2:2, ‘he [God] removes kings and sets up kings’” (187).
The only figure to get an entire chapter to himself is Richard Whatley. As Ellison explains in the introduction, this is a matter of editorial policy, motivated by the desire to see studies of the Victorian sermon move beyond a focus on biography to rhetorical analysis. While Whatley is generally identified as a Broad...