[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — Philip L. Stein]

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hen Dorothy Stanbury lulls her ailing aunt to sleep by reading her a sermon in He Knew He Was Right (1869), Anthony Trollope assumes that his audience understands his prejudices about sermons. But Robert Ellison's collection of essays on the nineteenth-century sermon prompts us to resist Trollope's invitation to scoff. "In each age," wrote Paul Welsby some years ago, "the Church proclaims the Word of God in terms intelligible to that generation" (Sermons and Society [London, 1970] 11). This is why a study of the sermons of the age is so informative: it reveals how the nineteenth century understood their theology and exposes the cultural gulf between our generation and theirs.

This set of essays is part of an ambitious series that started in 1998 with a study of second-century Greek-speaking preachers, progressed through sermons in Anglo-Saxon and late-medieval Italian, then examined preaching in the Reformation and the eighteenth century, and has now reached the nineteenth. This new volume (number 5 in the series) is a work of considerable significance for Victorianists, for while the Victorian practice of religion has long been considered a major element of nineteenth-century culture, it has not drawn fitting attention in this more secular age. Ellison sets out to remedy this defect. As editor of this collection, he aims to shift the focus of inquiry from the lives and personalities of nineteenth-century preachers to the form, style, and content of their sermons. In thus shifting, as he says, "from biography to rhetorical analysis" (1), Ellison offers something new to those of us who know the great actors of the theological stage from what they did, rather from what they said and how they said it.

In assembling his scholars and scholarship for the sixteen essays in this collection, Ellison also resists Anglo- and Anglican-centrism, a welcome realignment. In addition, he and his contributors avoid familiar ground, such as well-known and well-trawled sermons of the age. Instead they reckon with such disquieting topics as the number of sermons preached on behalf of preserving slavery. Furthermore, their assessment and citing of the scholarship on sermons are judicious and informed. Indeed, one of the (many) strong points of this book is the thoroughness of all the contributors' bibliographic entries in their footnotes -- a wealth of "where to start" pointers.

The essays are divided into three sections: Theory and Theology, Sermon and Society in the British Empire, and Sermon and Society in America. These sections, and the chapters within them, display a pleasing continuity and contrast. Thus a chapter on Tractarian sermons is followed by one on Richard Whately, not himself a Tractarian, but there at Oriel with all the main players; in turn, this chapter segues into one linking Frederic Farrar, a Broad Churchman like Whately, with Henry Ward Beecher, a Stateside counterpart.

Ellison's own chapter, on the Tractarians' speeches and sermons, examines the similarity of content and discourse in different modes of sermons. Pushing beyond their historical and theological features, he also exposes them to the scrutiny of critical theory and the social sciences. Likewise, Carol Poster carefully probes the sermons, theories, and practice of Richard Whately, who left behind a fine body of advice to clergy about how to compose and deliver sermons. Next, Thomas Olbricht examines the preaching of Frederic Farrar, like Whately a major player in the Broad Church movement, alongside the American, Henry Ward Beecher.

As a Congregational minister in America, son of a strict Calvinist father and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Beecher was known for the physical energy of his delivery and for his abolitionist stand. So he seems a strange bedfellow for Farrar, so famous for his erudition in the early Greek and Hebrew of the New Testament--as well as his authorship of the best-selling novel Eric, or Little by Little (1858). But Olbricht reveals what the sermons of both displayed: newer approaches to the study of translation and authorship, particularly the sources and authorship of the Pentateuch, referred to as "Higher criticism." Olbricht demonstrates that they both used the same rhetorical syllogisms to structure their sermons, that they both "appealed to presuppositions commonly accepted by the people they hoped to win over"(119). Having said that, Olbricht does go on to stress what they said rather than how they said it. Yet he finely analyzes the similarity of belief and argument displayed in sermons preached by two very different proponents of the Word of God, and shows how both of them tackled significant shifts in the way that Word was perceived in their fast-changing worlds.

Since both of them preached that the new historicizing of the Bible should be a source of Christian strength and renewal, it is no surprise that they both embraced the principles of Darwinism, the subject of Keith A Francis's essay in Part 2. Francis focuses on Charles Kingsley, priest and natural scientist, not Farrar and Beecher, but both of the latter help to buttress his claim that few clergymen felt called to preach on Darwinian topics. Many theologians accepted the argument for evolution as they accepted an historical Christ and a modernised view of the Pentateuch. Francis argues that the supposed battle between scientist and theologian was a one-sided fight waged by scientists like T. H. Huxley and J. D. Hooker. Most clergymen who accepted Darwinian theory, as well as those who did not, chose to use their pulpits for the exposition of matters more spiritual. Few priests, even those who were outstanding natural scientists in their own right, felt called to preach on scientific subjects. Francis's empirical research on this draws him to conclude that less than 1% of sermons were in any way scientific, and only a fraction of these were Darwinian. Francis begins his argument by quoting Owen Chadwick (The Victorian Church, Parts 1 and 2 [1966/1970]) on the ignorance of evolution that generally prevailed among church members. He fails to mention, however, as Chadwick does, that science and theology united to give Darwin the ultimate Anglican funeral arranged by Farrar, Canon of Westminster, in the Abbey, with T. H. Huxley and J. D. Hooker and A. R. Wallace among the pall-bearers (Chadwick 2:28). Francis's scholarship does, however, rebut the prolific Peter Bowler, who makes sweeping and unsupported generalizations such as this: "The churches opposed Darwin when he published the Origin of Species in 1859, and that has shown no signs of relenting." (Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons [2007] 1)

Tamara Wagner opens the next chapter with a pertinent quotation from Margaret Oliphant's Salem Chapel: "Preaching his business . . . He's in our employ, and we pays him well," (309) -- a timely rebuttal of Francis's assumption that priests alone decided these matters. Wagner traces the influence of sensation fiction. on uncanonical religious novels, and finds them subtly changing between the 1840s and the 1870s. This strategy helps her to defamiliarize the canonical, revealing some overlooked nuances in Bleak House and The Moonstone. In a closely-argued and scrupulously researched essay, Wagner shows that while canonical fiction heavily satirizes clergy and their sermons, non-canonical fiction presents them unmediated. Indeed, she says, this class of novel "operates as a fictionalized sermon itself" (312). Her close examination of the representation of evangelical life metamorphoses into its satirical renditions and, most memorably, into the emergence of the fraudulent clergyman as narrative gambit. The fake clergyman becomes a sensation trope, taking the place of the sectarian attacks in earlier sermon novels. Her final section features a close reading of two non-canonical texts that function as sermons; they give us preachers as fraudulent as ever Dickens and Trollope created in the oily Chadband and the "nasty, greasy, lying, squinting jew-preacher," Mr Emilius. But whereas Dickens' and Trollope's creations are parodic and peripheral, the fakes in these novels by Amelia Edwards and Charlotte Yonge are totally evil and central to the plot. These now unread novels thus "cast a different light on the significance of religion in Victorian fiction" (338) and prompt us to ask why sermon novels have been so excluded from the canon.

Bob Tennant's thoughtful essay, "Missions, Slavery and the Anglican Pulpit," seeks to examine colonialist attitudes in the sermon as a tool for conversion, not of the slave, but of the free heathen. In closing with the point that F.D. Maurice's non-imperialistic vision for the propagation of the gospels was upstaged by the mid-century wars, Tennant anticipates the next chapter, John Wolffe's "British Sermons on National Events." Wolffe both reflects Tennant's colonialist themes and presages Francis's study of clerical responses to Darwin. He also notices, as Francis does, that what is most significant is what is not preached about.

Back-to-back essays by Jessica Sheetz-Ngyen and Miriam Elizabeth Burstein examine, respectively, Catholic preaching and Anti-Catholic preaching. Sheetz-Ngyen's essay, though largely an account of the place of the sermon in the Roman Catholic rite, is also a history of the continuing disabilities of Roman Catholics, particularly the impoverished, beyond the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act. But she doesn't convince me that this Act was largely spurred by the number of Irish Catholics fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. According to Chadwick (Part 1: 7-24), it was hotly opposed by politicians and people alike, many of whom perceived it as unconstitutional, and he argues that it emerged as a natural progression from the Act of Political Union of 1800-1. Sheetz-Ngyen's study of Catholic preaching is also counterbalanced by Miriam Elizabeth Burstein's study of anti-Catholic sermons. For the Protestant majority, says Burstein, "to be Catholic is to be un-English in one's very essence" (266).

The final section, “Sermon and Society in America,” displays the panoramic breadth of the nineteenth century American pulpit in all its schismatic and ecumenical richness, warts and all. The essays all point up previously unploughed areas of study. Rich on primary sources, they are less rich in analysis, but not thereby less compelling.

In "Midway between Slavery and Citizenship," David Timmerman reasonably examines the undertow of racism that colored Christian teaching and preaching in the years after the Civil War. To show how the "providence of God" was variously interpreted to justify both the loss of life during the war and the continuation of white supremacy, he examines two sets of sermons, the first preached in the days following the assassination of Lincoln, the second a selection of Thanksgiving Day sermons delivered over the next fifteen years. Both sets of sermons, he shows, tergiversate over the meaning of "freedom" for black Americans. While the preachers of some well-trawled sermons did seek to expose racism, Timmerman's focus is on that majority who used their pulpits to advance a creed, both implicit and explicit, that denied full citizenship to black Americans.

Following Timmerman, Joseph Evans examines the oratory of Frederick Douglass. Comparing his sermons with the speeches of Martin Luther King and Gardner Calvin Taylor, Evans shows how free and freed African Americans used both biblical and life-story telling as part of their rhetorical strategy. This was a two-edged sword, since this effective oratory reinforced the white expectations of their stereotypical "slave story-teller" (443).

Thomas Carmody examines an American preacher's response to the high-profile shoot-out between the Vice-President and a former Secretary of the Treasury. In campaigning from his pulpit to muster opposition to duelling, Lyman Beecher (the father of Henry Ward Beecher, profiled in section 1) initiated the concept of single-issue politics. He argued that citizens should use their vote to oppose any politician who did not oppose duelling, a strategy subsequently adopted to fight intemperance and slavery, with reverberations in the twenty-first century. As for intemperance, Dorothy Lander's feminist revisiting of tracts, memoirs, and sermons from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union enhances what we know of this and similar movements, though one regrets reading that Eliza Daniel Stewart "linked temperance with sexual violence" (388), an unfortunate solecism in this context. Dawn Coleman's chapter on the Ante-bellum American sermon as lived religion is another scrupulous piece of groundwork research on the way congregations experienced the delivery of sermons. Miriam Saim's carefully researched essay on the sharing of pulpits between Jews and Christians identifies Max Lilienthal's March 1867 address from a Unitarian pulpit as the defining moment in the history of ecumenicalism. In Brian Jackson's chapter on the oratory of the Great Basin Prophets and on how well they performed without any formal training or education, he both reminds us of preachers like Douglass and lets us see the differences. His conclusion sums up the import of this book as a whole:

For the history of the sermon, the tension between inspiration and human artifice remains central, not only for understanding the sermons themselves, but for understanding the way power circulates through those whose hopes lay beyond this world. (520)

And we'd all say amen to that.

About the Reviewer

Margaret Markwick is Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter, UK. Her books include New Men in Trollope's Novels: Rewriting the Victorian Male (Ashgate, 2007) and The Politics of Gender in the Novels of Anthony Trollope (Ashgate, 2009), co-edited with Deborah Denenholz Morse and Regenia Gagnier. She is currently working on a book about expressions of religious faith in the mid-Victorian Novel.


A New history of the Sermon: the Nineteenth Century. ed. Robert H. Ellison . Brill, 2010. xiii + 236 pp.

Last modified 22 July, 2020