[I have based this transcription on the very rough OCR text provided by the Internet Archive online version, following the original punctuation and included italics with one exception — I have italicized the title of British Critic, to indicate that it is a periodical. To permit readers to cite and locate passages in the print edition, page breaks are indicated in the following manner: "347/348." The original text identifies quoted scriptural passages with footnotes, which here have been converted to in-text citations that appear within brackets. — George P. Landow).]
The author of these discourses is well known in England as an eloquent and earnest preacher of the Gospel. “Envy itself,” says the British Critic, “must acknowledge his great abilities and great eloquence.” After having occupied the highest standing, while an under-graduaie of the University of Cambridge, he was chosen to a Fellowship in St. Peter's College, and, for some time, was a tutor in that Society. Thence he was called to the pastoral charge of Camden Chapel, (a proprietary chapel,) in the overgrown parish of Camberwell, one of the populous suburbs of London. The first twelve discourses in this volume were preached in that pulpit, and the rest, while he was connected therewith. It has not unfrequently been the privilege of the Editor to worship and listen, in conpany wilh the highly interesting and intelligent congregalion that crowds the pews and aisles, and every corner of a standing-place in that edifice; fully participating in that entire and delightful captivity of mind in which their beloved pastor is wont to lead the whole mass of the numerous auditory.
Melvill is not yet what is usually called a middle-aged man. His constitution and physical powers are feeble. His lungs and chest needing constant care and protection, often seem determined to submit no longer to the efforts they are required to make in keeping pace with his high-wrought and intense animation. The hearer sometimes listens with pain, lest an instrument so frail, and struck by a spirit so nerved with the excitement of the most inspiring themes, should suddenly break some silver cord, and out to silence a harper whose notes of thunder, and strains of warning, invitation, and tenderness, the church is not prepared to lose. Generally, however, one thinks but little of the speaker while hearing Melvill. The manifest defects of a very peculiar delivery, both as regards its action and intonation; (if that maybe called action which is the mere quivering and jerking of a body too intensely excited to be quiet a moment) — the evident feebleness and exhaustion of a frame charged to the brim with an earnestness which seems laboring to find a tongue in every limb, while it keeps in strain and rapid action every muscle and fibre, are forgotten, after a little progress of the discourse, in the rapid and swelling current of thought in which the hearer is carried along, wholly engrossed with the new aspects, the rich and [3/4] glowing scenery, the bold prominences and beautiful landscapes of truth, remarkable both for variety and unity, with which every turn of the stream delights him. But then one must make haste, if he would see all. Melvill delivers his discourses as a war-horse rushes to the charge. He literally runs, till, for want of breath he can do so no longer. His involuntary pauses are as convenient to his audience as essential to himself. Then it is, that an equally breathless audience, betraying the most convincing signs of having forgotten to breathe, commence their preparation for the next outset with a degree of unanimity and of business-like effort of adjustment, which can hardly fail of disturbing, a little, a stranger's gravity,
There is a peculiarity in the composition of Melvill's congregation which contributes much to give peculiarity to his discourses. His chapel is a centre to which hearers flock, drawn by the reputation of the preacher, not only from all the neighborbood, but from divers parts of the great metropolis, bringing under his reach, not only the highest intellectual character, but all varieties of states of mind; from that of the devout believer, to that of the habitual doubter, or confirmed infidel. In this mixed multitude, young men, of great importance, occupy a large place. Seed sown in that congregation is then scattered over all London, and carried into all England, Hence there is an evident effort on the part of the preacher to introduce as much variety of topic and of treatment as is consistent with the great duty of always preaching and teaching Jesus Christ of always holding up the cross, with all its connected truths surrounding it, as the one great and all-pervading subject of his ministry. To these circumstances be alludes in a passage towards the end of the sermon on the Difficulties of Scripture, a sermon we would particularly recommend to the reader — and a passage, introductory in one of the most eloquent and impressive parts of the whole volume. “We feel (he says) that we have a difficult plan to perform in ministering to the congregation which assembles within these walls. Gathered as it is from many parts, and without question including, oftentimes, numbers who make no profession, whatsoever, of religion, we think it bound on us lo seek out great variety of subjects, so that, if possible, the case of none of the audience may be quite overlooked in a series of discourses.” We know not the preacher who succeeds better in this respect; who causes to pass before his people a richer, or more complete array of doctrinal and practical truth; exhibits it in a greater variety of lights; surrounds it with a scenery of more appropriate and striking illustration; meets more of the influential difficulties of young and active minds; grapples with more of the real enmity of scepticism, and for all classes of his congregation more diligently “seeks out acceptable words,” or brings more reasonably out of bis treasurea, things new aod old, and yet without failing to keep within the circle of always preaching Christ — teaching not only the trulh, but “the truth as it is in Jesus,” without obscurity, without compromise, and without fear; pointedly, fully, habitually.
It is on account of this eminent union of variety and faithfulness, this wide compass of excursion without ever losing sight of the cross as the central light and power in which every thing in religion lives, and moves, and has its being; It is because that same variety of minds which throng the seats and standing-places of Camden Chapel, and hang with delight upon the lips of the preacher, finding in his teaching what rivets their attention, rebukes their worldliness, shames their doubts, annihilates their difficulties, and enlarges their views of the great and precious things of the Gospel, are found every where in this land, especially among our educated young men, that we have supposed the publication of these discourses might receive the Divine blessing, and be productive of very important benefits.
It can hardly be necessary to say, that in causing a volume to issue from the press, as this does, one does not make himself responsible for every jot and tittle of what it contains. It may be calculated powerfully to arrest attention, disarm prejudice, conciliate respect, stimulate inquiry, impress most vital truth; and in many Ways effect a great deal for good, though we be not prepared to concur with its author in some minor thoughts or incidental ideas on which none of the great matters in his volume depend.
There are some aspects in which these discourses may be profitably studied by candidates for orders, and indeed by most preachers, exclusive of the substantial instruction of their contents. We do not refer to their style. This we cannot recommend for imitation. However we may like it in Meivill, because it is emphatically his, the mode of his mind; the gait in which his thoughts most naturally march on their high places; the raiment in which his inner man invests itself, without effort, and almost of necessity, when he takes the place of ambassador of the King of kings, we might not like it anywhere else. However this peculiar turn and swell of expression may be adapted to that peculiar breadth, and height, and brilliancy of conception for which this author is often distinguished; with all those other attributes which adapt his discourses to opportunities of usefulness not often improved; and a class of readers not often attracted, by the preacher; we should think it a great evil if our candidates for orders should attempt to appear in such flowing robes. For the same reason that they sit well on him, would they sit awkwardly on them. They are his, and not theirs. His mind was measured for such a dress. Nature made it up and adapted it to his style of thought, sensible to himself. The diligent husbandman may be as useful in his way, as the prince in his. But the husbandman in the equipment of the prince would be sadly out of keeping. Not more than if a mind of the usual turn and character of thought should emulate the stride and the swing, the train and the plumage of Melvill.
It is in the expository character of this author's discourses, that we would present them for imitation. Of the expositions themselves we are not speaking; but of the conspicuous fact that whatever Scripture he selects, his sermon is made up of its elements. His text does not merely introduce his subject, but suggests and contains it; and not only contains, but is identical with it. His aim is confined to the single object of setting forth plainly and instructiveiy some one or two great features of scriptural truth, of which the chosen passage is a distinct declaration. No matter what the topic, the hearer is sure of an interesting and prominent setting out of the text in its connection, and that it will exercise an important bearing upon every branch of the discourse, constantly receiving new lights and applications, and not finally relinquished till the sermon is ended, and the hearer has obtained an inception of that one passage of the Bible upon his mind, never to be forgotten. In other words, Melvill is strictly a preacher upon texts, instead of subjects; upon truths, as expressed and connected in the Bible, instead of topics, as insulated or classified, according to the ways of man's wisdom. This is precisely as it should be. The preacher is not called to deliver dissertations upon questions of theology, or orations upon specific themes of duty and spiritual interest, but expositions of divine truth as that is presented in the infinitely diversified combinations, and incidental allocations of the Scriptures. His work is simply that of making, through the blessing of God, the Holy Scriptures “profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.” This he is to seek by endeavoring “rightly to divide the word of truth.” Too much, by far, has the preaching of these days departed from this expository character. The praise of invention is too much coveted. The simplicity of interpretation and application is too much undervalued. We must be content to take the bread as the Lord has created it, and perform the humble office of distribution going round amidst the multitude, and giving to all as each may need, believing that he who provided it will see that there be enough and to spare, instead of desiring to stand in the place of the Master, and improve by our wisdom the simple elements, “the five barley loaves” which he alone can make sufficient “among so many.”
But apart from the duty of preaching upon and out of the Scriptures, instead of merely taking a verse as the starting-place of our train of remark; apart from the obligation of so expounding the word of God, that the sermon shall take its shape and character from the [6/7] text; and the doctrine and the duty shall be taught and urged according to the relative bearings and proportions in which they are presented therein; this textual plan of constructing discourses is the only one by which a preacher can secure a due variety in his ministry, except he go outside the limits of always preaching Christ crucified, and deal with other matters than such as bear an important relation to the person, office, and benefits of “the Lord our Righteousness.” He who preaches upon subjects in divinity, instead of passages of Scripture, fitting a text to his theme, instead of extracting his theme from his text, will soon find that, in the ordinary frequency of parochial ministrations, he has gone the round, and traced all the great highways of his field, and what to do next, without repeating bis course, or changing his whole mode of proceeding, he will be at a great loss to discover. Distinct objects in the preacher's message, like the letters in his alphabet, are few — few when it is considered that his life is to be occupied in exhibiting them. But their combinations, like those of the letters of the alphabet, are innumerable. Few are the distinct classes of objects which make up the beautiful landscapes under the light and shadows of a summer's day. The naturalist, who describes by genera and species, may soon enumerate them. But boundless is the variety of aspects in which they appear under all their diversities of shape, color, relation, magnitude, as the observer changes place, and sun and cloud change the light. The painter must paint for ever to exhibit all. So as to the great truths to which the preacher must give himself for life. Their variety of combinations, as exhibited in the Bible, is endless. He who treats them with strict reference to all the diversities of shape, proportion, incident, relation, circumstance, under which the pen of inspiration has left them, changing his point of observation with the changing positions and wants of his hearers, allowing the lights and shadows of Providence to lend their rightful influence in varying the aspect and applications of the truth — such a preacher, if his heart be fully in his work, can never lack variety, so far as it is proper for one who is to “know nothing among men but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He will constantly feel as if he had only begun the work given him to do furnished only a few specimens out of a rich and inexhaustible cabinet of gems. By strictly adhering to this plan, the author of these discourses attains unusual variety in his ministry, considering that he makes it so prominently his business to teach and preach Jesus Christ.
But here it may be well to say that by variety, as desirable to a certain extent, in the preacher's work, we mean nothing like originality. Some minds cannot help a certain measure of originality. They may treat of old themes, and with ideas essentially the same [7/8] at any one else would employ, but with peculiarities of thought which aet them far apart from all other minds. But to seek originality, while it is very commonly the mistake of young preachers, is a very serious error. There cannot be any thing new in the preacher's message. He that seeks novelties will be sure to preach fancies, “The real difficulty and the real triumph of preaching is to enforce home upon the mind and conscience, trite, simple, but all important truths; to urge old topics in common language, and to send the hearer back to his house awakened, humbled, and impressed; not so much astonished by the blaze of oratory, but thinking far more of the argument than of the preacher; sensible of his own sins, and anxious to grasp the proffered means of salvation. To say the same things which the best and most pious ministers of Christ's church have said from the beginning; to tread in their path, to follow their footsteps, and yet not servilely to copy, or verbally to repeat them; to take the same groundwork, and yet add to it an enlarged and dirersified range of illustrations, brought up as it were to the age, and adapted to time and circumstance; this is, we think, the true originality of the pulpit. To be on the watch to strike out some novel method of display, — to dash into the fanciful, because it is an arduous task to arrest the same eager notice by the familiar — this is not originality, but mannerism or singularity. And although few can be original, nothing is more easy than to be singular.”
The discourses contained in this volume are all that Melvill has published; unless there be one, or two, in pamphlet form, of which the Editor has not heard. We say all that Melvill has published. Many others have been published surreptitiously which he never prepared for the press, and which ought not to be read as specimens of his preaching. In the English periodical, called “The Pulpit,” there are many such sermons, under the name of Melvill. In justice to that distinguished preacher, and to all others whose names are similarly used, it should be known that the contents of that work are mere stenographic reports, by hired agents of the press, who go to church that they may get an article for the next number of The Pulpit. While the rest of the congregation are hearing the sermon for spiritual, they are hearing it for pecuniary profit. We see no difference between a week-day press, furnished thus by Sunday writers, and a Sunday-press furnished by week-day writers. “The Pulpit” is in this way as much a desecrator of the Sabbath as the “Sunday Morning Post,” or “Herald.” But this is not the point at present. We are looking at the exceeding injustice done to the preacher whose sermons are reported. It may be that he is delivering a very familiar, perhaps an unwritten discourse; special circumstances have prevented his devoting the usual time or mind to the preparation, or [8/9] have interfered with his getting up the usual energy of thought for the work. He does not dream of the public press. The sermon may be useful for his people, but just the one which he would dislike to send out before the world. Nevertheless, the reporter for “The Pulpit” has happened to choose his church, that morning, “for better, far worse,” and he cannot lose his time. The tale of bricks must be rendered to the taskmaster. The press waits for its article, and the stenographer wants his wages, and favorable or unfavorable, the report must be printed. Like all such productions, it is of course often careless and inaccurate; sometimes provokingly and very injuriously inaccurate. The attention of the scribe happened to be diverted at a place of main importance; he lost the explanatory remark, the qualifying words, the connecting link — his report is thus untrue: either he leaves the hiatus, occasioned by his negligence, unsupplied, or, what is often the case, daubs it up with his own mortar, puts many sentences into the preacher's mouth of his own tute and divinity — thus is the precious specimen composed, and that week is advertised, to the great mortification of the alleged author, an original sermon in the last number of the Pulpit by the Rev. Henry Melvill, &c.. Such is the history of almost every sermon which has as yet been read in this country as belonging to that author; the Pulpit, or extracts from it having circulated widely, while the real sermons of Melvill, having been, prior to this, confined to volumes of English edition, are scarcely known among us. No one can help seeing how injurious such surreptitious publioations must be to the preacher; what a nuisance to the body whom they profess to represent. So is the magazine of which we have been speaking, regarded in England. Not unfrequently ministers have been obliged to print their discourses for the purpose of correcting the errors of its reporters. More than once its Editor has been prosecuted for the purpose (though in vain) of stopping this exceedingly objectionable mode of sustaining “The Pulpit.”
The editor of this volume has thought it expedient to make these remarks by way of explanation of his having excluded all the discourses ascribed to Melvill contained in The Pulpit. If there be any discourses under the same name, in the other periodical of the same character, called the British Preacher, they are subject to the same condemnation.
It is no little evidence of the value of these sermons, in this volume, which were preached before the University of Cambridge, that their publication was in consequence of a request “from the resident Bachelors and Under-graduates, headed by the most distinguished names, and numerously signed.” A strong attestation has also been given not only to the University sermons, but to those preached in [9/10] the author's Chapel, in Camberwell, in the fact that, flooded as is the market with the immense variety of pulpit composition, which the London press continually pours in, so that a bookseller can scarcely be persuaded to publish a volume of sermons at his own risk, and such a volume seldom reaches beyond a single edition, these of Melvill have, in a short time, attained their third, and do not cease to attract much attention. The British Critic, though criticising with some justice and more severity some peculiarities of our author, speaks of the Cambridge sermons as possessing many specimens of great power of thought, and extraordinary felicity and brilliancy of diction. “Heartily” does the Reviewer “admire the breathing words, the bold figures, the picturesque images, the forcible reasonings, the rapid, vivid, fervid perorations.”
In conclusion of this Preface, the Editor adds the earnest hope that the author of these discourses may receive wages, as well in this country as his own — wages such as best pay the devoted minister of Christ; that he may reap where he did not think of sowing, and gather where he did not expect to strew, to the praise of the glory of our blessed Lord, and only Savior, Jesus Christ.
C. P. M.
Gambier, Ohio July 1, 1838
Henry Melvill. Sermons. New York: Stanford and Swords, 1854. Internet Archive online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 26 March 2018.
Last modified 27 March 2018