The "efficiency" of the sermon was a popular topic for Victorian homileticians. Some claimed the pulpit had lost its influence and attributed the decline to monotonous preaching, underprepared and overworked clergy, and the "traffic in sermons"--the common practice of reading discourses that had been written by someone else. Suggestions for the rehabilitation of preaching included keeping sermons no longer than 30 minutes, making worship and preaching separate activities, establishing higher standards for prospective preachers, and, ironically, encouraging the traffic in sermons so inexperienced, overworked, or unskilled ministers could bring high-quality addresses to their congregations each week.

Several theorists objected to the "chronic recalcitration against the sermon" (Davies, James 203) and challenged the notion that British preaching was in decline. They cited large numbers of skilled preachers--Robert Hall, Henry Melvill, John Henry Newman--and unabated public interest --"crowded churches, doors besieged long before the time of service . . . and thronging audiences in theatres and cathedral naves" (Burns 425, 26)--as "unquestionable proof that the office of the preacher has in no way lost its hold upon the mind of the people" (Oliphant 210).

Furthermore, some predicted that the pulpit would continue to be an important force in British society. Faith in the future of preaching was expressed as late as the 1880s, 25 years after J.H. Rigg reported that many regarded the pulpit as "the grave of genius, and a sermon its funeral dirge" ("The Pulpit" 379). In 1883, H. H. M. Herbert wrote, "there is no sign that the modern world . . . can dispense with the art of the preacher," and a critic writing in the Saturday Review asserted that the "preaching of Christianity has not lost its power on society, and we see no signs that it is about to lose it" (Herbert 25; "The Abolition of sermons" 500).

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

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Last modified 11 April 2018