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  • Conscience, Voice, and Presence:Newman’s University Sermons and Victorian Platform Culture
  • Joshua R. Held (bio)

“Sermons,” notes Amy Cruse, “held, in Victorian days, the place that is now held by novels. Everybody read them” (116). Whereas Cruse considers the reading of sermons, John Henry Newman emphasizes the importance of hearing them, proposing in The Idea of a University (1852) that “there is something personal in preaching; people are drawn and moved, not simply by what is said, but by how it is said, and who says it” (343). Because Newman considers voice the most powerful and personal of sensory communication methods, he recognizes the power of voice in many aspects of human life—in music, in human speech, and as a perceived function of conscience.

Conscience figures prominently in Newman’s sermons and writings throughout his career, particularly in Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford (1843) and Grammar of Assent (1870). In many of these sermons, which Newman delivered in the esteemed office of university preacher, Newman not only describes the moral implications of conscience but enacts its force of conviction through the impact of the spoken word’s delivery. According to contemporary accounts, Newman’s delivery was quite unlike the aggressive oratory of contemporary London preachers, such as Edward Irving (1792–1834) at his Caledonian Chapel in Hatton Gardens or the Baptist Charles Spurgeon (1834–92) in his Metropolitan Tabernacle.1 And whereas the calm delivery of Puritan Jonathan Edwards’s (1703–58) sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” produced dramatic audience responses in eighteenth-century America, Newman’s university sermons were often disregarded by university leaders. Nevertheless, insofar as the spoken word of Newman’s sermons emulated the inner voice of conscience, his oft-described and long-remembered voice stirred the inward voice of conscience in his hearers.

Many scholars have examined conscience in Newman’s thought, producing seven monographs, as well as articles and book chapters.2 Only one of these monographs focuses on conscience in his sermons, however, and none considers the relation of conscience to the sermon genre. None, furthermore, studies physical influences such as the human voice on the intellectual faculty of conscience; they instead focus on philosophical and religious implications. [End Page 211] But Victorian platform and sound cultures, I argue, provide an important background for understanding conscience in Newman’s thought and practice because of both his pointed descriptions of conscience as a voice and the importance of Newman’s human voice in disseminating his instructions to his listeners’ consciences.

The field of Victorian platform culture, unlike that of Victorian sound culture more generally, and unlike the subject of conscience in Newman, has been little studied. There are two recent exceptions—Joseph Meisel’s Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the Age of Gladstone (2001) and the 2002 special issue of Nineteenth-Century Prose guest-edited by Martin Hewitt.3 One problem in studying the platform culture of the early and mid-Victorian era (and, to a lesser extent, the late-Victorian era) is the lack of audio and scarcity of visual records. But as David DeLaura has suggested, and as I will show, many contemporary accounts of Newman’s sermons focus less on their content than on the mysterious power of his voice. My study therefore contributes both to an understanding of conscience in Newman and to the emerging body of work on Victorian platform culture by 1) sketching a background to Victorian sermon culture, 2) sifting accounts of Newman’s voice, 3) examining Newman’s views of conscience as a voice, and 4) showing how Newman modelled the instructing voice of conscience in his university sermons.

sound and platform culture in victorian britain: the prominence of sermons

As both Meisel and Hewitt suggest, platform culture suffused Victorian life, from organized educational lectures to impromptu political speeches. Religious discourse, too, ranged from traditional Anglican homilies to a wide variety of non-conformist sermons, all as different as their individual preachers. The popularity of Victorian sermons emerged not just from the era’s emphasis on religion but also as part of an abundance of “soundscapes,” to use John Picker’s phrase. “Victoria...


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pp. 211-231
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