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and then, indeed, there appeared a pungent and instructive preacher; as Macarius, Augustine,* and Chrysostom in the fourth century; Leo in the fifth ; Gregory in the sixth ; and Bernard in the twelftht Others might be named, who have shone at distant intervals, and cast a feeble light on the darkness that surrounded them. But the number is small. Most of the preaching seems designed, not so much to promote vital godliness as to exalt external duties and ceremonies, the virtues and pretended miracles of sainted martyrs, voluntary acts of mortification, and gifts lavished on the church.
In the ages which more immediately preceded the Reformation, the state of the pulpit was still worse. The subjects selected were adapted, not to mend the heart, but to excite the admiration of the hearer. He was entertained with cabalistic and allegorical expositions, ingenious descriptions of vices, and the curious, empty speculations of scholastic theology. His attention was directed to such inquiries as these : Can God sin if he choose? Can he do now all that he has done in time past ? Would Jesus Christ have been crucified, if Judas had not betrayed him? Would the Virgin Mary have crucified her son, if no one else had been found willing to do it?
Though the preacher, for the sake of form, read a text, yet he generally paid no regard to the subject it suggested. If it led him to speak of alms-giving, he would treat of the sources of the Nile, and the benefits of that noble river; if to preach on the mystery of the cross, he would commence by speaking of Bel and the Dragon. If his object was to inculcate the necessity of fasting, he would philosophize on the twelve signs of the Zodiac. In discoursing on the words, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, one exhorted his audience in this manner : “ The stains of your sins must be effaced by the aqua fortis of your tears; to which if you add a fifth part of sal ammoniae, and place the whole over the fire, you will form an aqua regalis, with which gold may be dissolved.”I
At the period of which we are speaking, when the pulpit was thus prostituted, the state of religion and morals, it is well known, was most deplorable.
In the sixteenth century, when the Reformation commenced, its friends found it necessary, at first, to discourse much on ecclesiastical abuses and the enormities of Popery. Soon, however, the grand principle of Protestantism, that the Bible is our only proper standard of faith and practice, led the reformed preachers to treat directly of the plain truths which it contains. Thus, to a very great extent, the distinguishing principles of Christianity became again the common subjects for sermons. These were the subjects on which Latimer, and Cranmer, and indeed most of the Fathers of the English church, employed their zeal. Piety revived ; the power of religion was felt in the hearts of men, and exhibited in their lives.
* Augustini Opera, tom V.
See M. Roques, Discours Historique sur la Prédication.
But in the latter part of the reign of James I., the preachers began to depart from the simplicity of their predecessors. They exhibited an ostentation of learning, and not unfrequently introduced subtle, scholastic speculations into their discourses. If a doctrine was to be proved, it was not enough that the apostle Paul had taught it: they must repeat all that had been written upon it by a long series of the ancient fathers.. If a Christian duty was to be urged, it was not enough that Christ had commanded it: they must show, at large, how ingeniously it had been treated by a whole train of heathen moralists. It is true, that amid the learned lumber with which they crowded their sermons, many important, practical truths were often intermingled ; but, from the connection in which they appeared, they lost much of their native energy. The speculative and disputatious were gratified; for their consciences were left, in a great measure, at ease. Religion began already to decline.
But in the next reign, that of Charles I., when Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury, the stream of corruption which had begun to flow increased rapidly, and swelled into a torrent. He was an opposer of what are sometimes termed, by way of eminence, the doctrines of grace. He discountenanced those preachers who taught truths unwelcome to human pride. The lax theology which he patronized soon became the prevalent system; and, as he was a strenuous advocate for the prercgitives of the crown and of the mitre, sermons on political subjects,* and on the alleged sin of nonconformity to the Established Church, soon, to a lamentable extent, took the place of evangelical discourses. A flood of vice and immorality broke in upon the nation.
During the commotions which followed in the age of Crom
* Clarendon, Hist. Civil War, b. I, pp. 53 and 54, in fol.
well, the subjects for the pulpit partook considerably of the spirit of the times. It was, indeed, a day of strife and turbulence. The Nonconformists generally had, all along, continued to preach on subjects which were considered the most important in the purest ages after the Reformation. But, for the most part, their manner was wanting in elegance and attractiveness.
Upon the restoration of the monarchy, when the Churchmen came again into power, it seems, they endeavored to differ as much as possible from those whom they had been in the habit of viewing as objects of disgust and contempt. They, of course, scrupulously avoided both the manner and the matter of sermons among the Dissenters.
Besides, Charles II. was a profligate prince. His station, however, required him to attend church; and the clergy at court found it politic to please his taste, and avoid disturbing his conscience. A polished, courtly style was introduced; and those subjects were selected which are fitted to soothe and agreeably occupy the mind, without touching the heart. Whatever title it might borrow from the text, the sermon was only a smooth lecture on morality, or an elegant dissertation on some article of faith, or an interesting fragment of sacred history, or a fine delineation of some Scripture character. The great, distinguishing truths of Christianity were passed over, as belonging to the crude notions of enthusiasts, and associated with Puritanical rebellion.
Some honorable exceptions, indeed, there were. The sermons of Howe and of Beveridge breathe the same spirit as those of Baxter and of Bates, and are sufficient evidence that the Establishment was not destitute of ministers who bore an able and faithful testimony to the grand truths of the gospel. But such men, and preachers who, like Bunyan, dwelt mainly on what they in common with the apostles had most deeply felt, were comparatively few. A general destitution of vital piety ensued; and though a form of religion was retained, little was known of its power and saving efficacy.
While this unhappy change had been taking place in England, the pulpit in other Protestant countries also seems to have lost much of the evangelic character which it possessed in the ages immediately succeeding the Reformation. Some favorable events, however, had occurred.
The fathers of New-England, from among the Puritans, had brought to this country the same strain of preaching, and the same kind of subjects, that they had been accustomed, in their own land, to deem the most beneficial ; and, notwith
towards that many codliness, inghose doctroiety
standing some unchristian acts among them, it will not be too much to say, that, for a long time, religion prevailed in the hearts and lives of men more generally here, than in any other part of Christendom.
In Germany, towards the close of the seventeenth century, Spener and Francke, and many others, deeply affected by perceiving the general decay of godliness, insisted much on the religion of the heart. They preached those doctrines which are peculiarly Christian ; and a signal revival of piety succeeded.'
In France the pulpit was adorned, indeed, with the splendid eloquence of a Saurin, a Bourdaloue, and a Massillon. But generally the spirit of primitive preaching was not cultivated. Nor in this respect could the amiable Fenelon, with all his devotion and genius, effect a reformation among the clergy. In the choice and management of their subjects, they seemed to have aimed more at exciting admiration for their ingenuity and eloquence, than at commending the gospel to the consciences of their hearers. What the religious state of France has been for ages, and what it now is, no one needs to be informed. · In Scotland the fundamental doctrines of Christianity found many advocates. That favored country had her Binnings and her Erskines, who did not shun to declare faithfully the humbling and elevating truths of the gospel. The effect was seen in the prevalence of piety and correct morals. . If we look at England again, we perceive but few in the beginning of the eighteenth century, who, with Watts and Doddridge, “ held out the lamp of evangelic instruction at that darkened period.” But soon the prospect brightens. The time of Whitefield forms a memorable era in the history of preaching. The subjects which animated his soul and called forth all his zeal, were the subjects on which the apostles had addressed their audiences. Faithful ministers acquired new courage ; and men who had long slumbered over their awful charge, were roused to preach the gospel. England, Scotland, and America, all experienced a revival of religion never to be forgotten.
Since that period, the number of those who have adopted a similar strain of preaching has greatly increased ; and the consequences have been such as the experience of past ages would lead us to expect. If we survey the recent triumphs of the cross, and inquire by what weapons its enemies have been subdued, we find that it is by those which have been drawn from the armory of the gospel, the doctrine of the
reasoned eminent ? Certains, and all i
Cross. These the Holy Spirit has been pleased to make effectual. The subjects chiefly discoursed upon have been such as are adapted to awaken the conscience, to show sinners their guilt and their ruin in themselves, and, at the same time, a blessed way of deliverance through the riches of divine grace; to make all feel the duty and necessity of repenting, of believing on Him who suffered and died that we might live, and of obeying Him in all things ; to exhibit the love and the claims of God as they shine forth pre-eminently in Christ crucified ; in a word, to urge home to the hearts of all, as their respective circumstances require, the peculiar truths of Christianity.
Are we, then, it may be asked, are we to exclude from the pulpit all moral reasoning, and all incidental matters of temporal interest ? Certainly not. The prophets and apostles reasoned with men, in order to convince them of their errors and their sins. They employed pertinent and well. attested facts, and common sense, and conscience. If a fact needed to be proved, they proved it; if it needed to be illustrated, they illustrated it. And in doing this, they introduced what was best adapted to enlighten and influence the minds of their hearers, from whatever source it might be derived ; whether from the internal man or from the external ; from the common employments and the touching scenes of domestic life, or from the cherished records of history and literature; from the heavens declaring the glory of God, or from the earth presenting, on every side, innumerable manifestations of his knowledge, his goodness and his power.
The Saviour himself took occasion from passing worldly events to teach important religious truths. He pointed to the birds of the air and to the lilies of the field, and from them he enforced a duty. It was the duty of trusting in the providence of God. But he kept himself aloof from any view which would have secularized his discourses. He made it very manifest that he was, not a lecturer on politics, nor on any of the arts and sciences, however important these may be in their places, but a teacher of religion; and whatever he adverted to, his teaching was signally adapted to bring his hearers, as it were, into the presence of their Creator.
In like manner, we ought to have a wise regard to passing events,-as, for instance, to the revolving seasons of the year, -and make the opening blossom and the falling leaf impart instructive and impressive lessons leading to holiness and to heaven.