SPECIAL MAXIMS FOR SERMONIZING.
Having, in the preceding chapter, laid down some rules for the general preparation for sermonizing, we proceed to give some maxims for the immediate preparation of sermons. If the preacher has fitted himself for the direct composition of discourses, by acquiring a homiletic mental habit, by forming a high ideal of a sermon, by training himself to self-reliance, and by uniformly maintaining a serious and spiritual mind, he is ready to compose sermons always and everywhere. He is a workman that has learned his craft, and is in possession of a constructive talent which he can use whenever he is called upon. But these general maxims need to be supplemented by some particular rules, relating to the process of composition itself, and these we now proceed to specify.
1. Before beginning the composition of a sermon, bring both the intellect and the heart, into a fervid and awakened condition. Although this general preparation for sermonizing, of which we have
spoken, will naturally keep the mind and heart more or less active, still there will be need of more than this ordinary wakefulness, in order that the : preacher may do his best work. Such a general preparation, it is true, will prevent the sermonizer from being a dull and lethargic man, but he will need some more immediate stimulation than this, in order that he may compose with the utmost energy and vigor possible. As, in the chemical process of crystallization, a smart stroke upon the vessel, in which the solution has been slowly preparing for the magical change from a dull fluid to a bright and sparkling solid, will accelerate the movement, and render the process seemingly an instantaneous one; so, a sort of shock given to the mind, filled as it is with rich stores, and possessed as it is by a homiletic habit, will contribute greatly to the rapid and vigorous construction of a sermon.
Some agitation and concussion is requisite, in order to the most efficient exercise of the understanding. The mental powers need to be in an aroused condition,—so to speak, in a state of exaltation,—in order to work with thoroughness, and energy. Hence, some very distinguished literary men have been wont to resort to the stimulus of drugs, or of alcohol, to produce that inward excitement which is needed, in order to the original and powerful action of the intellect. Poets and orators, in particular, feel the need of this intellectual fermentation, and hence the instances of such artificial stimulation of the intellectual powers are most common among these. The preacher is precluded by Christian principle, from the use of such means of rousing and kindling his mind, even if the lower prudential motives should not prevail with him. For the mind, like the body, is fearfully injured by artificial and unnatural stimulation. Minds which have been accustomed to it, and have been forced up in this unnatural way to unnatural efforts, show the effects of such treatment, in premature debility, and commonly in final insanity or idiocy.
The true and proper stimulant for the intellect is truth. There is no sin in being excited by truth. There is no mental injury in such excitement. The more thoroughly the intellect is roused and kindled by a living verity, the more intensely it ia affected and energized by it, the better is it for the intellect, and the man. In order, therefore, that the sermonizer may produce within his mind that excitement which is needed in order to original and vigorous composition, let him possess it with some single truth adapted to this purpose. And this, from the nature of the case, should be that * leading idea which he proposes to embody in his discourse. Every sermon ought to be characterized by unity,—a unity arising from the presence, and the presidency, within it of some one leading thought. The t7ieme, or proportion of the sermon should, therefore, be that particular truth by which the sacred orator should excite his intellect, and awaken Ms powers to an intenser activity. If the preacher is not able to set his mind into a glow and fervor, by his subject, let him not seek other means of excitement, but let him ponder the fact of his apathy, until he is filled with shame and sorrow. Let him remember, that if he is not interested in the truth, if divine truth has no power to quicken and rouse his intellectual faculties, he lacks the first qualification for sermonizing.
But the sermonizer who has made that great general preparation for his work, of which we have spoken, will find all the stimulation he needs, in his theme. It will be taken from the circle of truths in which he has become most interested, both by the habits of his mind, and by his general culture. It will be suggested to him by his own spiritual wants, and those of his audience. It will have direct reference to the supply of these wants. Let the preacher, then, so far as intellectual excitement is concerned, so fill his mind with the particular idea of the discourse which he is about to prepare, that all inaction and lethargy shall be banished at once. Let him, before beginning the construction of a sermon, set all his mental powers into a living play, by the single leading truth he would embody in it.
But, besides this intellectual awakening, some more than ordinary enlivenment of the feelings and affections is needed, in order to vigorous and eloquent composition. And this is especially true of the composition of sermons,—one main purpose of which is, to reach the affections and feelings of the human soul. Without that warm glow which comes from a warm heart, the purely intellectual excitement, of which we have spoken, will fail to influence the hearer, in the way of emotion and action. A purely intellectual force and energy may arrest and interest an audience, but taken by itself, it cannot persuade their wills, or melt their hearts. The best sermons of a preacher are generally composed under the impulse of a lively state of religious feeling. If preachers should be called to testify, they would state that those discourses which, were written when they were in their best mood as Christians, constitute the best portion of their authorship.
The sermonizer, therefore, should seek for a more than ordinary quickening of his emotions and affections, as he begins the work of immediate preparation for the pulpit. It is difficult to lay down rules for the attainment of this state of feeling, that will be suited to every one. Each individual Christian is apt to know the best means of rousing his own mind and heart, and hence it is better to leave the person himself to make a choice, out of the variety that are at his command. Generally speaking, however, any. thing that contributes to awaken in the soul a livelier sense of the excellence of divine things, any thing that tends to stir and quicken the Christian affections, will furnish the preacher what he needs in order to vigorous composition. Probably, therefore, no better advice can be given to the sacred orator, in the respect of which we are speaking, than that very same advice which he gives to the common Christian, when he asks for the best means and methods of quickening his religious affections. It has been said by one of the most profound, and devout minds in English literature, that " an hour of solitude passed in sincere and earnest prayer, or the conflict with, and conquest over, a single passion or subtle bosom sin, will teach us more of thought, will more effectually awaken the faculty and form the habit of reflection, than a year's study in the schools without them." If prayer and Christian self-discipline do this for the habits of thought, most certainly will they do the same for the habits of feeling. If an hour of serious self-examination and self-mortification, or an. hour of devout meditation and earnest prayer, does not set the affections of the preacher into a glow, probably nothing in the way of means can. The greatest preachers have, consequently, been in the habit of preparing for composition by a season of prayer and meditation. The maxim of Luther, bene orasae, est bene studuisse, is familiar to all. Augustine says: "Let our Christian orator who would be understood and heard with pleasure, pray before he speak. Let him lift up his thirsty soul to God, before he pronounce any thing." Erasmus, a man in whom the intellectual was more prominent than the spiritual and devotional, yet observes, that " it is incredible, how much light how much vigor, how much force and vitality, is imparted to the clergyman by deep earnest supplication." And the pagan Pericles, according to Plutarch, "was accustomed, whenever he was to speak in public, previously to entreat the gods, that he might not utter against his will any word that should not belong to his subject"
By filling his mind with his theme, and awakening his religious affections by prayer and devout meditation, the sacred orator will bring his whole inner being into that awakened and exalted condition, which prepares for direct and rapid composition. He will become a roused man, and will find all his faculties of cognition and feeling, in free and living action.
2. And this brings us to the second maxim for facilitating the process of composition, which is: Compose continuously. When the preacher has made all the preparation, general and particular, of which we have spoken, and his mind and heart are ready to work, he should proceed in the composition of a sermon without intermission. The intellect works with far the greatest intensity and energy, when it works continuously. It acquires strength by motion, and hence a stop in its action diminishes its force. When, therefore, a full preparation for its agency has been made, it ought to be allowed, or if need be, compelled, to work aa hard and as long as is compatible with the physical structure of the individual. Some men are capable of much more protracted mental efforts, than others; though, in this case, the mental processes themselves are apt to be much slower. When the mind moves with rapidity, it is unable to continue in motion so long as when its movements are more dull and heavy. Each man should know himself in these respects, and understand how much his mind and body can endure without injury. Having this knowledge, he ought then to subject himself to as intense, and as long continued composition, as is possible. Having seated himself at his writing-desk, he ought not to lay down his pen, until he has tired himself by the process of original composition. Then let him unbend in good earnest, and allow his mind and his body a real genuine relaxation.
Too many sermons are composed during an intermittent activity of the mind which does not draw upon its deepest resources, and its best power. The sermon is the product of a series of isolated efforts, instead of one long, strong application. It wears, consequently, a fragmentary character and appearance, as if it were written one sentence at a time, or each paragraph by itself. Even if there ia a connection of the parts, there is no fusion of them. Even if the discourse has method, it has no glow.
"Write with fury, and correct with phlegm," is admirable advice for the sermonizer. But it ia impossible to rouse this fury of the miud, except by a continuous application of its energies. If the composer stops for a season, his intellect begins to cool again, and much of the energy of his' succeeding effort is absorbed in bringing it up to the same degree of ardor, at which it stood at the close of the preceding effort. It is as if the smith should every moment withdraw his iron from the fire, instead of letting it stay until it has acquired a white heat. The same amount of mental application, condensed into a single continuous effort, will accomplish far more, than if it is scattered in portions over a long space of time. "Divide up the thunder,1' says Schiller, "into separate notes, and it becomes a lullaby for children, but pour it forth in one continuous peal, and its royal sound shall shake the heavens."
One principal reason why the pulpit ministra tions of the clergy do not, as they should, exhibit jheir utmost possibility of effort, lies in the fact, that too many sermons are composed scatteringly all along through the week. They are the products of the desultory efforts of the clergyman. He allows himself to be interrupted during the season of composition, or else' he has no fixed and stated season. The consequence is, that the sermon, instead of being produced by one uninterrupted gush of soul, or at least by a few gushes and outpourings that form a true connection with each other, and so are virtually a single continuous effort, is the patched and fragmentary collection of odd hours, and of ungenial moods. The discourse, in this way, drags its slow length along through the whole week, and the entire mental labor expended upon it, though apparently so much, is not equal in true productive force, in real originaut and influential power, to five hours of continuous glowing composition.
Let the sermonizer, then, proceed upon the maxim of writing continuously, when he writes at all. Let him have his set season for composition. Let him fix the time of writing, and the length of effort, in accordance with his physical strength, and then let him go through with the process of composition, with all the abstraction, absorption, and devotedness of prayer itself. In this way, the very best power of the man, the theologian, and the Christian, will be evolved, and will appear in a discourse that will be fresh, energetic, and impressive. In this way, the sermon would become a more uniformly vivid production, and a more generally vital species of authorship, than it now is.
It must be remembered, however, that this injunction to write continuously, and furiously, is a maxim only for one who has obeyed the other maxims, general and special, that have been laid down for sermonizing. It is no maxim for one who has not. It is one of a series, and pre-supposes obedience to what precedes, and also to what succeeds. If the preacher has formed a honiiletic habit of mind, if bis ideal of a sermon is high, if he has trained himself to self.reliance, if he has acquired a spiritual way of thinking, and if he has roused his mind by his subject, and his heart by prayer,—-if he has done all this, then what he does in the hour of composition, let him do quickly, and continuously.
3. The third maxim to be followed by the sernionizer, in actual composition, is this : Avoid prolixity. By prolixity, is* meant a tiresome length which arises from an excessive treatment of a subject,— as excessive explanation, or excessive illustration, or excessive argumentation. Theremin, in his treatise upon Rhetoric,1 emmciates the important distinction between the philosophical, and the rhetorical presentation of truth. The former, is that exhaustive and detailed development of a subject which is proper in the scientific treatise. The latter, is that rapid and condensed, yet methodical, exhibition of thought which is required of the orator, by the circumstances in which he is placed. Recurring to this distinction, the maxim, "Avoid prolixity," is equivalent to the 'rule, "Exhibit truth rhetorically," in distinction from exhibiting it philosophically or poetically.
The orator, of all men, should know when he is
through, and should stop when he is through. The
1 Book I. chap, x, xi; Book II. chap. iv.
preacher should perceive when he has subjected a subject, or a portion of a subject, to a treatment that is sufficient for the purposes of oratory, and should act accordingly. As soon as his presentation has reached the due limits of rhetoric, he' should bring it to an end, instantaneously, lest it pass over into a mode of representation that is foreign to the orator, and is inimical to all the aims of an orator. Prolixity, or excessive treatment, arises when the sermonizer continues to dwell upon any part of his discourse, after he has already sufficiently developed it. A plan is prolix, when it is filled up with sub-divisions which are so evidently contained in the principal divisions, that the mind of the auditor feels itself undervalued by their formal enunciation. An argument is prolix, when, from the employment of the philosophical instead of the rhetorical mode of demonstration, it is made tedious by syllogisms instead of enthymemes, and by trains of ratiocination instead of bold and direct appeals to consciousness. An illustration is prolix, when the short and rapid metaphor is converted into the long and detailed simile, or allegory.1
1 Figures are now the chief phor is the orator's figure, and
source of false rhetoric. The the simile is the poet's." The
preacher talks trope, instead of metaphor is swift and glancing,
talking truth and sense. Aristo- flashing its light instantaneously,
tie was not an orator, but he held and not impeding the flow of
the key to eloquence, by virtue thought and truth; the simile is
of Ims sagacious insight, and sci- the metaphor wire-drawn, de
entmc analysis. One of his preg- tailed, and expanded, so as to fill
nant remarks is, that " the meta- the whole foreground of the dis
Without, however, entering upon these particulais of plan, proof, and illustration, we would briefly call attention to that prolixity, or excessive and tedious treatment of a subject, which arises from an imperfect mastery of it. Suppose that the sermonizer has not made that general and special preparation for composition which we have described, and yet attempts the production of a sermon. In the first place, his manner of presentation will inevitably be confused; in the second place, it will inevitably be prolix, because it is confused; and in the third place, it will inevitably be tedious, because it is prolix and confused. Instead of handling his theme with that strong, yet easy, grasp, which is natural to a mind that is master of itself and of the truth, he handles it irresolutely, hesitatingly, and awkwardly. Instead of a clear, downright statement, because he knows whereof he affirms, he expresses himself obscurely and doubtfully, because he does not certainly and positively know. Statement follows statement, and yet there is little or no progress towards a final statement. Conscious that he has not done justice to the topic, he dares not let it drop, and take up another. Conscious that he has not lodged the truth fairly and surely in the mind of the auditor, he does not leave it, but continues to hover about it, and work at it, in hope of better success in the end. The result is, that instead of crowding the greatest possible amount of matter, into the smallest possible form, the preacher spreads the least possible amount of truth over the widest possible surface. He hammers out his lead very thin. For, in this process, the truth, itself suffers. Instead of appearing in the sermon, as it is in its own nature, bright, dense, and gem-like, under the manipulations of such a workman, it becomes dull and porous. The sacred oration, instead of being a swift, brief, and strong movement of thought, becomes a slow, long, and feeble one.
course with pictorial elements, in prolix poetical fustian, and more
which both speaker and hearer of genuine eloquence, in the dis
lose sight of the subject. If this courses of a certain class of
dictum of the Stagirite were preachers, heeded, there would be less of
But prolixity may arise, also, from another cause besides ignorance of the subject. There may be prolixity from too much information. The preacher may have stored his memory with a multifarious knowledge, and not having acquired that thoroughly organizing habit of mind which, like life in nature, sloughs off all that is not needed, this knowledge inundates the sermon. It comes pouring in upon him by a merely passive effort of the memory, while the judgment is unawakened and unemployed, and, borne along upon this general deluge of materials, the preacher becomes the most prolix and tedious of mortals. Long after the topic under consideration has been sufficiently explained to the understanding, he continues to explain. Long after the topic has been sufficiently illustrated to the imagination, he continues to illustrate. Copiousness of information, unless it is under the regulation and guidance of a strongly methodizing ability, and true rhetorical talent, leads to prolixity as inevitably as sheer ignorance.
While the preacher is on his guard against this fault, he is at the same time to remember that he is dealing with the common mind, and must not be so brief as to be obscure. A certain degree of repeti tion, even, is required in the sermon, especially if it is highly doctrinal, in order to convey the truth completely. This trait should be managed with great care, however; for, even the common mind is less offended at a nakedness of statement which leaves it something to do, even if it is in the way of supplying ellipses and deficiencies, than it is at an excessive repetition, which tires and tantalizes it. It is impossible to lay down a general rule for the length of a sermon. It will not do to say that it should be thirty minutes in length, or forty-five minutes, or one hour. The length of a discourse will vary with the nature of the theme, and the peculiarities of time and place. And no stiff rule is needed, provided the sermonizer possesses that good judgment, that tact, which discerns when the subject, as a whole, or in its parts, has received a sufficient treatment. It is, in reality, a sort of instinctive feeling which comes in the course of a good rhetorical training and practice, rather than any outward rule, that must decide when the develop
merit of truth has reached that point where it must stop. Hence the remark so often made in praise of a skilful orator: "He knows when he is done." In fact, it is not the item of length, but the item of prolixity, which wearies an audience. An auditory will listen with increasing interest to a sermon of an hour's length, provided their attention is kept upon the stretch, by a sermonizer who says just enough, and no more, upon each point, and who passes from topic to topic with rapidity, and yet with a due treatment and exhaustion of each, while they will go to sleep under a sermon of a half-hour's length, in which there is none of the excitement that comes from a skilful management of the heads, and none of the exhilaration of a forward motion. There is less fatigue and weariness, in shooting through two hundred miles of space, in a rail-car, than in lumbering over ten miles of space, in a slow coach.
The importance of avoiding prolixity is very apparent, when we consider the relation of the sermon to the feelings and affections of the hearer. The feelings of the human soul are often very shy, and apparently capricious. The preacher sometimes succeeds in awakening a very deep feeling,—say that of conviction of sin,—but he is not satisfied with having said just enough, or perhaps he is destitute of that tact of which we have spoken, and does not know that he has, and continues to enlarge and amplify. The feeling of conviction in the hear er, which ought to have been left to itself, begins to be "weakened by the unnecessary repetition or prolixity of the discourse, and perhaps is ultimately dissipated by it. If the preacher had stopped \vhen he was really through, and had left the mind of the auditor to its own workings and those of the Holy Spirit in it, a work would have been done in the soul, which all this labor of supererogation on his part only serves to hinder and suppress.
Let the preacher acquire this nice discernment, "by acquiring a good rhetorical discipline, by making all the general and special preparation for sermonizing, and by studying the capacities of his congregation, and then he will instinctively avoid all prolixity in the discussion of truth. Then, his sermons, whether they are longer or shorter, will all of them exhibit that just proportion, that roundness of form and absence of all superfluity, which we see in the works of nature, and which appears In the productions of every wise and cunning workman who imitates nature.