Most Victorian homileticians expected the sermon to be a blend of classical oration and literary essay. They agreed with Aristotle's and Cicero's assertion that rhetoric is, above all else, the art of persuasive speaking (De Inventione I.v; Rhetoric I.2). As H. Rogers wrote in 1840, the only discourses "entitled to the name" of sermons were those "specially adapted to the object of instructing, convincing, or persuading the common mind" (70).

Victorian theorists also shared Aristotle's belief that orator's character is "the most effective means of persuasion he possesses" (Rhetoric I.2). Perhaps the best statement about the importance of the preacher's ethos appeared in William Thomson's essay "On the Emotions in Preaching": "I have ventured to think," he wrote, "that good men sometimes preach bad sermons, but I do not forget that bad men will never preach good ones" (101).

Most Victorians departed from classical theory in their standards for the structure and style of the sermon. Cicero's six-part structure--"exordium, narrative, partition, confirmation, refutation, [and] peroration" (De Inventione I.xiv)--was a prominent feature of earlier secular and sacred rhetoric, but it received very little attention in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The only structural components discussed in Victorian homiletic manuals were the application, which was regarded as an "essential part of every good sermon" (Gresley 246), and the partition, which most rejected as "inexpedient," "complicated," and "decidedly undesirable" (Thorold 9; Rogers 88; William Davies 71).

Victorian theorists also rejected the ornate style of classical oratory. While Cicero emphasized "the art of adorning eloquence" (De Oratore III.xxxi), the Victorians insisted upon what James Davies called "plain, outright preaching" (210). They expected their preachers to avoid all rhetorical excesses--"turgid language," "florid declamation," "imaginative finery," and "tawdry ornament" (Wenham 5; Rogers 69)--and cultivate a style marked by plainness, simplicity, and clarity, the same qualities emphasized in the literary theories of Thomas Babington Macaulay (Madden 129), Matthew Arnold (449-450), and Walter Pater (560).

[Adapted from Chapter 1 of The Victorian Pulpit: Spoken and Written sermons in Nineteenth-Century Britain.]

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Last modified 1998