Sermonizing the act or system of constructing sermons. While other forms of religious address have had their successive periods of predominance, the sermon has maintained the rank of preeminent importance since the time when our Lord delivered his sermon on the Mount..
I. History of the Subject. — The age of the Church fathers was that in which the homily most prevailed. The mediaeval period was that of postils. During both these periods the quality and character of religious discourses greatly declined, and the true idea of Christian preaching became at length nearly lost. To speak in the most guarded manner, it was overshadowed amid the ceremonials of worship and the abounding spirit of worldliness.
The reformers availed themselves of preaching as the means of combating the errors and superstitions into which the Church had fallen. They set themselves diligently to proclaiming the essential truths of God's Word, and by them the sermon was restored to its original importance. That importance has been so fully recognized in modern times that the sermon has come to be generally regarded as the correlate of preaching itself. The exhortation and the homily still have a place among religious addresses, but it is not said of ministers of the Gospel that they preach exhortations or homilies. If they preach, in any proper sense, they preach sermons. Hence none who regard themselves the subjects of the Savior's injunctions, "As ye go, preach," "Preach the Gospel to every creature," and of the apostolic precept "'Preach the Word," can be indifferent as to the best methods of constructing sermons.
II. Rules. — Sermonizing may be said to embrace the two important particulars of plan and style.
1. Plan. — Little is hazarded in saying that a good plan is essential to a good sermon. It is by no means essential that the plan be formally stated or even made perceptible to the hearer, but it is needed to guide the thought and accomplish the aim of the speaker. The preacher who has no plan is liable to wander from his proper line of thought, to repeat himself, to confuse his hearers, and to fail in all the important objects of a sermon. Superficial readers have imagined and sometimes asserted, that the sermons of Christ and his apostles were uttered without plan. Careful analysis will, however, reveal in every instance an underlying or pervading plan well adapted to the object in view. Still it is proper to acknowledge, judging from the reports that have come down to us, that not only during the New Test. period, but during the early Christian centuries, but little, if any, attention was given to artificial or minutely drawn plans. The style of preaching during the patristic age being for the greater part expository, preachers were naturally held to the order of the portions of Scripture expounded. To whatever extent panegyrics were introduced in the 4th and 5th centuries, in imitation of the Greek orators, the order of narration was naturally followed. Rarely were the formal parts of an oration, as described by the Greek and Roman rhetoricians, distinctly developed in sermons. It was reserved for the schoolmen of the 12th century and later to apply the minutiae of ancient rhetoric and logic to the framework of sermons. That application was, however, so ingeniously made by them as to project its influence downward through successive centuries. That influence may be traced in the preaching of both Catholics and Protestants of various countries even down to the present time. The prevailing fault of what maybe termed the scholastic method of sermonizing has been that of excess in detail. By not a few authors it has been drawn out into a minuteness of division and subdivision, and, in short, an extreme of artificiality sufficient to destroy all freedom of thought and expression. Not only professed scholastics, but various writers of comparatively recent date, have bewildered themselves and their readers with their tedious and multiplied schemes of suggestion and division. Whoever has the curiosity to see this statement illustrated may find ample material in a joint comparison of bishop Wilkins's Gift of Preaching, Claude's Essay on the Composition of a Sermon, and G.W. Hervey's Christian Rhetoric. While it may be said that in some sense these three books represent England, France, and the United States of America, and also the 17th, the 18th, and the 19th centuries, it would be more proper to say that they represent an antique fashion, together with the action of a certain class of minds, of which more or less appear in every age.
Wilkins, seeking to simplify the detailed processes of preceding writers, so as to enable preachers to "teach clearly, convince strongly, and persuade powerfully," gives schemes of explication, confirmation, and application which cover six continuous duodecimo pages.
Claude, in order to help preachers avoid "poor, dry, and spiritless observations," and also to reduce "obscure matters to a natural, popular, and modern air," prescribes twenty-seven different sources of observations, designed to aid thought and facilitate invention. They are practically copied from the Loci Communes, or Commonplaces, of Aristotle, one only of his twenty-eight being omitted.
Hervey, in the modest endeavor to do what he thinks all other American writers have failed to do — namely, "to find the true ground works of homiletics, and to reduce the science to something like a clear and sufficient system" — not only repeats the twenty-seven topics of Claude, but, on his own account, enumerates and exemplifies forty-one kinds of topical division!
It is not surprising that such excesses have called forth both opposition and ridicule, and have even provoked some minds to the rejection, if not of all plans, yet of all divisions of a sermon. Fenelon, archbishop of Cambray, represented the opposition of his period to the scholastic system in his Dialogues concerning Eloquence. He said, "For the most part, divisions give only a seeming order, while they really mangle and clog a discourse by separating it into two or three parts, which must interrupt the orator's action and the effect it ought to produce. There remains no true unity after such divisions, seeing they make two or three different discourses, which are joined into one only by an arbitrary connection. Three sermons preached at different times, if they be formed upon some regular concerted plan, make one piece or entire discourse as much as the three points of any of these sermons make one whole by being joined and delivered together." That Fenelon, in the above quotation, was arguing against the abuses of division, rather than against proper plans of discourse, is sufficiently obvious from his own subsequent directions as to the plan and development of a sermon. "We ought," said he, "at first to give a general view of our subject, and endeavor to gain the favor of the audience by a modest introduction, a respectful address, and the genuine marks of candor and probity. Then we should establish those principles on which we design to argue, and in a clear, easy, sensible manner, propose the principal facts we are to build on, insisting chiefly on those circumstances of which we intend to make use afterwards. From these principles and facts we must draw just consequences,. and argue in such a clear and well-connected manner that all our proofs may support each other, and so be the more remembered. Every step we advance, our discourse ought to grow stronger, so that the hearers may gradually perceive the force and evidence of the truth; and then we ought to display it in such lively images and movements as are proper to excite the passions." A following sentence discloses more definitely the view of Fenelon: "We ought to choose some method, but such a method as is not discovered and promised in, the beginning of our discourse." In this he admits the importance, if not the necessity, of a plan, but denies the propriety of stating the plan in advance. In respect to the latter item, it is safe to believe that different subjects and occasions may make different requisitions of the preacher — circumstances not seldom occurring in which a lucid statement of plan may conduce greatly to the appropriate objects of a sermon. At other times and on other subjects, it may be better to carry the hearers insensibly along to conclusions, without disclosing the processes or marking the steps by which the conclusions are reached. The governing principle in this matter should be that of adaptation. Hence any attempt to fix arbitrary and unvarying rules must result in failure. But the preacher should not, on this account, make the mistake of attempting to prepare and deliver sermons without plan. He should rather accustom himself to habits and forms of close logical analysis and synthesis, studying carefully the adaptation of the most available forms to different classes of subjects and occasions. By this means, he may rise above the necessity of loading down his mind with numerous rules, and attain not only facility, but correctness of mental action in shaping his addresses to the comprehension and the persuasion of his hearers. On this plan, an essential and ever increasing variety, both in the form and matter of his discourses, maybe secured; while without it, or some similar mode of procedure, there is great danger of falling into ruts or grooves of thought which, however easy to the preacher, become trite and wearisome to hearers. If, then, his logical plans be set on fire with evangelical love and a consuming zeal in behalf of the souls of men, he will be able to produce sermons of the highest rhetorical power.
According to all the best authorities, a sermon should have an organic structure — at least an introduction, an argument, and a conclusion. In cases of extreme brevity, the beginning and end of the argument may serve as the introduction and conclusion of the sermon. Whether and to what extent the principal and essential parts of a sermon should be marked with divisions and subdivisions should be determined with. reference to the probability of oratorical effect. If they can be made to secure greater attention on the part of hearers, and to fasten clearer and deeper impressions on their minds, it would be prudery to reject them. If, on the other hand, they would break the course of thought or mar the unity of the sermon, it would be folly to employ them. So of any style of division, if found helpful and auxiliary to good results, it is to be cultivated. If it seem artificial, redundant, or otherwise a hindrance to oratorical power, let it be sternly rejected.
2. Style. — The impracticability of prescribing fixed and arbitrary rules as to the language to be employed in preaching is quite as great as in reference to plans of discourse. Nevertheless, there are not wanting important principles to guide the composers of sermons, whether written or oral.
(1.) The language of a sermon should be prose, and not poetry.
(2.) All the essential qualities of a good prose style should be found in every sermon. Summarily stated, those qualities are purity, precision, perspicuity, unity, harmony, and strength. The lack of any one of those qualities may justly be counted as a defect in the style of any sermon. It belongs to the science of rhetoric to define and illustrate them severally, and also to give suggestions as to their attainment, their laws, and their special uses.
(3.) Superadded to the general qualities of a good style, a few special characteristics may be named as highly desirable in the style of sermons, although with some variation of degree in accordance with subjects and occasions.
No discriminating criticism of sermons can be made, apart from a proper classification of each particular sermon, on the basis of its subject or special design. By such a classification, sermons are usually distributed into five classes, viz. expository, hortatory, doctrinal, practical, and miscellaneous or occasional. The last named class requires a somewhat extended subclassification with reference to special topics and occasions, e.g. a, missions; b, education; c, temperance; d, charity; e, funerals; f, ordinances; g, festivals, etc.
To a thoughtful mind, the law of adaptation will hardly fail to suggest important, though not easily described, variations in the style to be employed in treating topics so different in character. Yet a sermon on any one of these subjects, or, in fact, on any subject appropriate for discussion in a Christian pulpit, will fall short of the highest excellence if lacking in such qualities of style as the following:
1. A combination of simplicity with dignity. It is essential that a sermon embody such a choice of language as will tend to make wise the simple; yet, in his effort to be plain, the preacher must avoid triviality. He must employ words and present images corresponding to the grandeur of the truth which he proclaims, and which may also be understood by the unlearned. Simplicity in the sense recommended is opposed to the affectation of elegance and the straining after pompous words and unusual expressions. It employs the language of the people, but makes it the instrument of elevating their thoughts and ennobling their character.
2. It is incumbent on preachers to make frequent use of scriptural quotations and allusions as a means of declaring and illustrating God's message in its proper form and spirit. Hence the style of their sermons should be in harmony with the tenor and spirit of the Holy Scriptures. The peculiar quality hereby indicated, and which the quotations themselves do not supply, is sometimes called scriptural congruity. It is the picture or framework of silver in which the apples of gold may be fitly set.
3. Another peculiar quality of style demanded in sermons is directness of address. It is the province of poetry to sweep circles and various curvilinear lines of beauty through the realms of thought. Its objects may be well accomplished by exciting admiration and emotions of pleasure. True preaching has a higher aim, and consequently needs to focalize its power in order to produce conviction in the mind and proper emotions in the heart. Hence a good pulpit style tolerates neither the indirectness of an essay nor any rhetorical embellishments which are not auxiliary to directness of address. It rejects circumlocutions and demands those forms of expression that make hearers feel that they are personally the objects of the sacred message. As a good portrait looks every person calmly in the eye, so a good sermon seems to speak directly to every hearer. When, in connection with a just reference to the principles above stated, preachers severally maintain their individuality of thought and expression, they will find sermonizing not only a fascinating engagement, but one full of encouragement from the happy results following.
So far as this subject has a literature, it is found in works on homiletics and preaching (q.v.). (D.P.K.)