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Of Explanatory Sermons..... The choice of a Subject and of Texts.
In my last prelection on the subject of pulpit eloquence, after enumerating the different sorts of discourses, from the consideration of the faculty addressed, I entered particularly into the examination of those, which with us are commonly called lectures, and which we divided into two sorts, one, whose principal end was to remove difficulties in a passage not perfectly clear; the other, whose aim was to form and enforcę useful observations from a passage naturally fitted to give scope for reflection. The first we called exposition, the second lecture. I now return to the consideration of those discourses, which come under the general denomination of sermons, and which were distributed into five orders, the explanatory, the controversial, the commendatory, the pathetic and the persuasive. The first and the simplest is the explanatory, which defined a sermon addressed to the understanding of the hearers, and of which the direct view is to explain some doctrine of our religion, or the nature and extent of some duty. In this species of discourses, the preacher's antagonist (if I may so express myself) is ignorance, which it is his business to dispel.
The first thing, that falls under consideration, is the choice of a subject. And in this, care ought to be tiken, that whether it be more or less extensive, it may be strictly and properly one, that it may neither be imperfect, and consequently afford the audience but an indistinct apprehension of the matter discussed, whether it be the explication of a tenet, or of a precept of christianity ; nor redundant, by being conjoined with other points or topics, which however useful in themselves, are neither immediately connected with, nor necessary to the elucidation of what is properly the subject. The rule of the poet,
Sit quod vis simplex duntaxat et unum,
will be found a good rule, not only in epic and dramatic poetry, but in evey kind of composition without exception. The reason is, it is founded in nature, and what is adapted to the faculties of a being such as man. When things are brought together into a discourse, between which there is no immediate connection, that which happens to be last said goes far to obliterate out of the minds of the hearers all that went before. There being no natural and manifest relation between the things themselves, and no dependance that the one has on the other, the last mentioned thought or topic doth as it were exclude its predecessor, by entirely occupy. ing its place. Whereas in clearing up the several parts of one entire subject, whatever it be, the explication of every other branch or member, as you advance, necessarily tends, by the laws of association in our ideas, to recal to our reflections the account given of those that preceded, with which its several parts are naturally and intimately connected. That we may form
some idea of the influence of connection, simplicity and unity upon the memory, do but consider the effect in point of remembrance, for it is of this only I am now speaking, that would be produced upon an audience by one of our Lord's parables, for example, or by a distinct
passage of his history, or of that of the apostles, or by any one speech of Peter or Paul recorded in the Acts, and compare with it the effect that will be produced by reading an equal portion of the book of Proverbs, or of the 119th psalm, in neither of which was there any connection of sentiments proposed, the greater part of the first being intended merely as a collection of wise observations, but independent one of another, on the conduct of life; and the other as a collection of pious ejaculations, arranged, not by affinity in the sentiments, but by the letters in the Hebrew alphabet with which the several sentences begin. But what is necessary to constitute this unity of subject and design, we shall have occasion more particularly to consider afterwards.
A subject being chosen, the next thing to be sought is the text. This seems calculated to answer a double purpose. In the first place, it serves as a motto to the discourse, notifying to the congregation the aim and subject of the preacher; secondly, being taken from sacred writ, it adds a certain dignity and importance to the subject, shewing that it hath a foundation in scripture, the only standard of our religion. It may not be amiss here to examine a little, some objections, that have been thrown out by a celebrated writer of the present century, in his Age of Lewis the 14th, against this method so universally practised by preachers of introducing their subject to the hearers by a text. “ Perhaps,” says he,“ it were to be wished that in banishing from the pulpit the bad taste which dishonoured it, this custom of preaching on a text had also been banished. In fact, to speak long on a quotation of a line or two, to labour in regulating one's whole discourse by that line, such a toil appears an amusement scarcely becoming the dignity of the ministry. The text proves a sort of device, or rather riddle, which the discourse unravels. The Greeks and the Romans never knew this usage. It was in the decline of letters that it began, and time hath consecrated it." The author must here doubtless be understood to mean by Greeks and Romans, those nations whilst in a state of paganism, for that this practice was current among
the Greek and the Latin fathers of the church appears manifestly from such of their works as are yet extant. And indeed to acquaint us gravely, and urge it as an argument, that the pagan priests never preach. ed upon a text, must appear extraordinary to one who attends to this small circumstance, that they never preached at all, that there was nothing in all their yarious modes of superstition, which was analogous to what is called preaching among christians. And even if there had been any thing among them that bore an analogy to preaching, their example could not have had the least authority with us in this particular, as it is notorious they had no acknowledged infallible or established standard of doctrine corresponding to our Bible, whence their texts could have been drawn. But if our author alludes in this, not to the customs of the heathen priests, but to those of the demagogues and pleaders, the cases are so exceedingly dissimilar, that hardly can any comparison with propriety be made between them, or any inference drawn, from the usage of the one to what is proper in the other. If indeed we make the proper allowances for the disparity in the cases, the example of the ancient orators will be found rather to favour, than to discountenance the practice; because though they had nothing which could in strict propriety be called a text, they had in effect a subject propounded, to which they were bound in speaking to confine themselves. Thus in judiciary or forensic harangues, the summons or indictment was to all intents a text, and in the deliberative orations pronounc
ed in the senate house or in the assembly of the people, ", the overture or motion which gave rise to the debate
answered precisely the same purpose. At least one of the designs above mentioned, which the text with us is calculated to answer, namely, a notification to the hearers, and a remembrancer as to the subject of discourse, was fully accomplished, and as to the other end, the difference in the nature of the thing superseded the use of it. The only species of discourses with them, in which there was nothing that bore the least analogy to this so universal usage among christian teachers, was the demonstrative, or their eulogiums on the dead. And here doubtless the notoriety of the occasion and purpose of their meeting, which was commonly at funeral solemnities, rendered any verbal intimation of the subject less necessary, than in the two others already taken notice of. It may indeed be urged in answer to what hath been said, that the preacher himself may intimate bis subject in as explicit terms as he pleases before he begin. But to this I would reply, that a bare intimation is not enough in a matter of so great consequence, that the effect of the