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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XII. The English Pulpit from Fisher to Donne

§ 10. Puritan exaltation of the Sermon

The puritan tendency to exalt the sermon was not without its dangers to religious life, and had not an altogether wholesome influence on the sermon itself. In the times when religion flourished most, said Hooker, men “in the practice of their religion wearied chiefly their knees and hands, we especially our ears and tongues.” Bishop Andrewes, in an earnest sermon on the text, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only,” urged that St. James’s teaching was specially needed in an age “when hearing of the word is growen into such request, that it hath got the start of all the rest of the parts of God’s service”; “sermon-hearing is the Consummatum est of all Christianitie.” It affected the preaching of Andrewes himself adversely, when the pedantic king James I and his courtiers crowded to hear a sermon as an intellectual entertainment. Andrewes spoke out of bitter experience when he said of Ezekiel’s contemporaries,

  • they reemed to reckon of sermons no otherwise than of songs: to give them the hearing, to commend the aire of them, and so let them goe. The Musike of a song, and the Rhetorique of a sermon, all is one.
  • If this common attitude towards the sermon encouraged the preacher to spend pains upon the literary workmanship of his sermon, it also robbed him of that which gives wings to his rhetoric and can alone make it tolerable, namely, the force of conviction. Ingenious types and metaphors, paradoxical illustrations, verbal conceits, grammatical subtleties, may be useful allies; but, in the sermons of the period, they were apt to be valued for themselves. Exquisite pains were lavished upon the exposition, but the application was not pressed home.