Describing the moments and images leading to Moses' death, Henry Melvill — writing in the first person — uses the language of direct, or empirical, experience. He "contemplate[s]" and gaze[s]" upon Moses, transforming himself from a preacher, writing from a distance of thousands of years, to a witness, actually watching Moses beginning his ascent of Pisgah. He is there — in the desert with Moses — and, by being there, he acts as a direct connection between nineteenth-century audiences and the Biblical events taking place around 1300 BCE. History loses its linear quality, the nineteenth-century is suddenly positioned within the Bible, and anyone listening to Melvill's sermon feels intimately involved with the events taking place outside Canaan.

And never does Moses wear to me such an air of moral sublimity, as when I contemplate him leaving the camp, for the express purpose of resigning his soul into the hands of his Maker. Never does his faith seem to me so signal, so sorely tried, nor so finely triumphant. I gaze on him with awe, as, with the rod of God in his hand, he stands before the Pharaoh, and appalls the proud monarch by the prodigies which he works. And there is a fearful magnificence in his aspect, as, with outstretched arm, he plants himself on the Red Sea's shore, and bids its waters divide, that the thousands of Israel may march through on dry land. ["The Death of Moses" p. 6]

Questions

1. What effect might this kind of first-person narrative (this feeling that Melvill was a witness to the events in the desert) have had on religious rhetoric?

2. In the paragraph following his first-person description of Moses's actions, Melvill writes, "We cannot follow Moses in this his mysterious journey. We know not the particulars of what occurred on the summit of Pisgah; and where revelation is silent, it does not become us to offer conjectures ("The Death of Moses" p. 6). Here, Melvill's refusal to narrate (imagine) beyond what the Bible explicitly names is placed in juxtaposition to the immediacy of his earlier first-person narrative. What is the effective difference between witnessing and second-person interpretation (hearsay) in religious discourse?

3. How might this first-person accounting (and then limiting of accounting) cater to the changing expectations of nineteenth-century readers?

4. What could these changing expectations be?


Victorian Overview Religion sermons: An
Overview

Last modified 19 September 2004