St. Mary's pulpit, OxfordBy Professor Barbara Wyman

The term “sermon” has a different connotation today than it did throughout the Romantic and Victorian era. Today when we think “sermon”, what we’re really imagining is a homily, a term which has come to mean (in the words of Merriam-Webster)  a “usually short talk on a religious or moral topic.” Sermons during the time of John Henry Newman were a different category of preaching than what we are accustomed to today. Those sermons (and sermons from other famous churchmen) are now considered to be a literary genre in their own right, worthy of study, much as one would any work of literature. This is understandable because the sermons as preached by the masters of this genre were finely crafted pieces of writing.

The sermons during the time of Newman were meant to be read, not delivered extemporaneously, and there were those preachers who were more gifted at reading than others.  There is plenty of evidence, however, that these gifted preachers had little trouble keeping the attention of their congregations, even if the sermon was rather long. Newman himself was not a gifted preacher as far as the strength of his voice and the variation of his tone of voice yet the power in his words and his deep spiritual demeanor captivated the congregation.

It’s also good to remember that during the time of Newman, before all the distractions of the modern world, church was the main event of the week; and the longer sermon was meant to give instruction and points of meditation which would last throughout the whole week. One contemporary of Newman, Matthew Arnold, a leading poet and critic, tells us what Newman was like in the pulpit. Regarding Newman’s preaching, he wrote,

“Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St. Mary’s, rising into the pulpit, and then, in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music,–subtle, sweet, mournful.” (Discourses in America 139-140)

Newmans sermons are more complex perhaps than sermons of today, but they were intended for parishioners of a village church, which is why they are termed “plain.”

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