- Who Reads an Early American Sermon?
“The sermon’s neglect,” Dawn Coleman frankly confesses, “might be traced to the perception that the genre is dull” (5). Having fallen asleep more than once in my march through Thomas Hooker’s thousand-plus pages on The Application of Redemption, I am willing to acknowledge that sermons can, occasionally, act as a soporific. But the pulpit riffs described by Meredith Neuman, in sermons “whose general movement from theme to variation resembles jazz” and its “almost limitless potential for elaboration and exploration … crescendos and shifting rhythms,” are a reminder that the textual evidence of preaching often preserves theology better than it does the emotions prompted by aural experience (112). Scanning the score for Juan Tizol’s jazz standard “Caravan” (1937) is hardly the same experience [End Page 517] as listening to Duke Ellington’s orchestra from the front row of a crowded concert hall, and for English colonists in North America, listening to Sunday sermons was a profoundly affective experience. As James Byrd argues, preaching not only persuaded colonists “to be willing to die” but also “to be willing to kill” in their struggle for independence (74). And “sermons on issues from independence to war, constitutionalism to federations,” Eran Shalev suggests, inspired citizens of the new republic to think of the United States as a chosen land, an American Zion (4–5). In the hands of these four scholars, the early American sermon is more stimulant than soporific, a genre rife with interpretive possibilities and surprising sociopolitical implications.
That these four books, each taking the colonial or antebellum sermon and related forms of religious discourse as its focus, should be published in a single year suggests that Sandra Gustafson no longer need lament the “relative neglect … of religion and literature” in early American studies (1). The scholarship of Byrd, Coleman, Neuman, and Shalev attests to a vigorous and interdisciplinary resurgence of interest in the textual record of religious experience; the sermon, in their capable hands, is an instrument of “provocation,” inciting intercontinental war and personal guilt, congregational unity and the jealousy of novelists (Neuman 11). Collectively, these writers demonstrate the essentially democratic character of sermon literature, debate the utility of close reading as a methodology, and illustrate the direct influence of an American sermonic tradition on genres—such as the novel—that few have ever found dull. To read Neuman or Coleman or Byrd in isolation is to peer into the future and see how advances in book history, the digital humanities, and other relatively new fields will transform our understanding of the sermon. To read all three at once is both to trace the evolution of a broadly influential genre across three centuries and to acknowledge the unstated assumptions that have cultivated an unfortunately narrow scholarly approach to the genre. Together, these books make a compelling case that far more scholars and students should be reading early American sermons.
Every anthology of American literature includes pastoral exhortations from at least two preachers: John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charitie” and Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” are omnipresent.1 Sermons by other preachers, especially those who spoke to congregations in the late eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth centuries, [End Page 518] rarely find their way into an anthology; a student leafing through the Norton, Heath, or Blackwell might reasonably come to the conclusion that between Edwards and Martin Luther King, Jr., American writers simply stopped composing sermons. Literary critics certainly haven’t forgotten Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Finney or Lucretia Mott and Joseph Smith, but a survey of the extant scholarship suggests that teachers—as much as students...