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Nazianzen, to a due simplicity; a native force and beauty; having joined to the plainness of a clear but noble style, the strength of reason, and the softness of persuasion. Some were disgusted at this plainness, and they brought in a 'great deal of art into the composition of sermons: mystical applications of scripture grew to be better liked than clear texts; an accumulation of figures, a cadence in the periods, a playing upon the sounds of words, a loftiness of epithets, and often an obscurity of expression, were according to the different tastes of the several ages run into. Preaching has passed through many different forms among us since the reformation. But without flattering the present age, or any persons now alive, too much, it must be confessed, that it is brought of late to a much greater perfection than it was ever before at among us. It is certainly brought nearer the pattern that St. Chrysostom has set, or perhaps carried beyond it. Our language is much refined, and we have returned to the plain notions of simple and genuine rhetoric.
We have so vast a number of excellent performances in print, that if a man has but a right understanding of religion, and a true relish of good sense, he may easily furnish himself this way. The impertinent way of dividing texts is laid aside, the needless setting out of the originals, and the vulgar version, is worn out. The trifling shews of learning in many quotations of passages, that very few could understand,* do no more flat the auditory. Pert wit and luscious eloquence have lost their relish. So that sermons are reduced to the plain opening the meaning of the text, in a few short illustrations of its coherence with what goes before and after, and of the parts of which it is composed; to that is joined the clear stating of such propositions as arise out of it, in their nature, truth, and reasonableness, by which the hearers may form clear notions of the several parts of religion, such as are best suited to their capacities and apprehensions: to all which applications are added, tending to the reproving, directing, encouraging, or comforting the hearers, according to the several occasions that are offered.
This is indeed all that can truly be intended in preaching, to make some portions of scripture to be rightly understood; to make those truths contained in them to be more fully apprehended; and then to lay the matter home to the consciences of the hearers, so directing all to some good and practical end. In the choice of the text, care is to be taken not to choose texts that seem to have humour
in them; or that must be long wrought upon, before they are understood. The plainer a text is in itself, the sooner it is cleared, and the fuller it is of matter of instruction; and therefore such ought to be chosen to common auditories. Many will remember the text, that remember nothing else; therefore such a choice should be made, as may at least put a weighty and speaking sentence of the scriptures upon the memories of the people. A sermon should be made for a text, and not a text found out for a sermon; for to give our discourses weight, it should appear that we are led to them by our texts: such sermons will probably have much more efficacy than a general discourse, before which a text seems only to be read as a decent introduction, but to which no regard is had in the progress of it. Great care should be also had, both in opening the text, and of that which arises from it, to illustrate them by concurrent passages of scripture. A little of this ought to be in every sermon, and but a little; for the people are not to be overcharged with too much of it at a time; and this ought to be done with judgment, and not made a bare concordance-exercise, of citing scriptures, that have the same words, though not to the same purpose, and in the same sense. A text being opened, then the point upon which the sermon is to run is to be opened; and it will be the better heard and understood, if there is but one point in a sermon; so that one head, and only one, is well stated, and fully set out. In this, great regard is to be had to the nature of the auditory, that so the point explained may be in some measure proportioned to them. Too close a thread of reason, too great an abstraction of thought, too sublime and too metaphysical a strain, are suitable to very few auditories, if to any at all.
Things must be put in a clear light, and brought out in as short periods, and in as plain words as may be. The reasons of them must be made as sensible to the people as is possible; as in virtues and vices, their tendencies and effects, their being suitable or unsuitable to our powers, to both souls and bodies, to the interests of this life as well as the next; and the good or evil that they do to human societies, families, and neighbourhoods, ought to be fully and frequently opened. In setting these forth, such a measure is to be kept, that the hearers may perceive that things are not strained, in the way of a declamation, into forced characters; but that they are set out, as truly they are, without making them seem better by imaginary perfections, or worse by an undue aggravation. For the carrying those matters beyond the plain observation of mankind, makes that the whole is looked on as a piece of rhetoric; the preacher seeming to intend rather to shew his skill, in raising his subject too high, or running it down too low, than to lay before them the native consequences of things; and that which upon reflection they may be all able to perceive is really true. Virtue is so good in itself, that it needs no false paint to make it look better; and vice is so bad, that it can never look so ugly, as when shewed in its own natural colours. So that an undue sublime in such descriptions does hurt, and can do no good.
When the explanatory part of the sermon is over, the application comes next: and here great judgment must be used, to make it fall the heaviest, and lie the longest, upon such particulars as may be within the compass of the auditory. Directions concerning a high devotion, to a stupid ignorant company; or of generosity and bounty, to very poor people; against pride and ambition, to such as are dull and low-minded; are ill suited, and so must have little effect upon them: therefore care must be taken that the application be useful and proper; that it make the hearers apprehend some of their sins and defects, and see how to perform their duty; that it awaken them to it, and direct them in it: and therefore the most common sins, such as men's neglecting their duty to God, in the several branches of it; their setting their hearts inordinately upon the world; their lying in discourse, but chiefly in bargainings; their evil-speaking, and their hatred and malice, ought to be very often brought in. Some one or other of these ought to be in every application that is made, by which they may see, that the whole design of religion lies against them. Such particular sins, swearing, drunkenness, or lewdness, as abound in any place, must likewise be frequently brought in here. The application must be clear and short, very weighty, and free of every thing that looks like the affectations of wit and eloquence; here the preacher must be all heart and soul, designing the good of his people. The whole sermon is directed to this: therefore, as it is fit that the chief point which a sermon drives at should come often over and over, that so the hearers may never lose sight of it, but keep it still in view; so in the application, the text must be shewed to speak it; all the parts of the explanation must come in to enforce it: the application must be opened in the several views that it may have, but those must be chiefly insisted on that are most suitable both to the capacities and the circumstances of the people. And in conclusion, all ought to be summed up in a weighty period or two; and some other signal passage of the scriptures relating to it may be sought for, that so the matter may be left upon the auditory in the solemnest manner possible.
Thus I have led a preacher through the composition of his sermon; I will next lay before him some particulars relating to it. The shorter sermons are, they are generally both better heard, and better remembered. The custom of an hour's length forces many preachers to trifle away much of the time, and to spin out their matter, so as to hold out. So great a length does also flat the hearers, and tempt them to sleep; especially when, as is usual, the first part of the sermon is languid and heavy. In half an hour a man may lay open his matter in its full extent, and cut off those superfluities which come in only to lengthen the discourse: and he may hope to keep up the attention of his people all the while. As to the style, sermons ought to be very plain; the figures must be easy, not mean, but noble, and brought in upon design to make the matter better understood. The words in a sermon must be simple, and in common use; not savouring of the schools, nor above the understanding of the people. All long periods, such as carry two or three different thoughts in them, must be avoided; for few hearers can follow or apprehend these: niceties of style are lost before a common auditory. But if an easy simplicity of style should run through the whole composition, it should take place most of all in the explanatory part; for the thing being there offered to be understood, it should be stripped of all garnishing: definitions should not be offered in the terms, or method, that logic directs. In short, a preacher is to fancy himself as in the room of the most unlearned man in his whole parish; and therefore he must put such parts of his discourse as he would have all understand in so plain a form of words, that it may not be beyond the meanest of them. This he will certainly study to do, if his desire is to edify them, rather than to make them admire himself as a learned and high-spoken man.
But in the applicatory part, if he has a true taste of eloquence, and is a master at it, he is to employ it all in giving sometimes such tender touches, as may soften, and deeper gashes, such as may awaken his hearers. A vain eloquence here is very ill placed; for if that can be borne any where, it is in illustrating the matter; but all must be grave, where one would persuade: the most natural, but the most sensible expressions come in best here. Such an eloquence as makes the hearers look grave, and as it were out of countenance, is the properest. That which makes them look lively, and as it were smile upon one another, may be pretty; but it only tickles the imagination, and pleases the ear: whereas that which goes to the heart, and wounds it, makes the hearer rather look down, and turn his thoughts inward upon himself. For it is certain that a sermon, the conclusion whereof makes the auditory look pleased, and sets them all a talking one with another, was either not right spoken, or not right heard; it has been fine, and has probably delighted the congregation, rather than edified it. But that sermon that makes every one go away silent and grave, and hastening to be alone, to meditate or pray over the matter of it in secret, has had its true effect.
He that has a taste and genius for eloquence must improve it by reading Quintilian, and Tully's books of Oratory, and by observing the spirit and method of Tully's Orations: or if he can enter into Demosthenes, there he will see a much better pattern, there being a simplicity, a shortness, and a swiftness and rapidity in him, that could not be heard without putting his auditors into a great commotion. All our modern books upon those subjects are so far short of those great originals, that they can bear no comparison: yet F. Rapin's little book of Eloquence is by much the best, only he is too short. Tully has so fully opened all the topics of invention, that a man who has read him will, if he has any invention of his own, and if he knows thoroughly his matter, rather have too much than too little in his view, upon every subject that he treats. This is a noble study, and of great use to such as have judgment to manage it; for artificial eloquence, without a flame within, is like artificial poetry; all its productions are forced and unnatural, and in a great measure ridiculous. Art helps and guides nature; but if one was not born with this flame, art will only spoil him, make him luscious and redundant. To such persons, and indeed to all that are not masters of the body of divinity, and of the scriptures, I should much rather recommend the using other men's sermons, than the making any of their own. But in the choice of these, great judgment must be used: one must not take an author that is too much above himself; for by that, compared with his ordinary conversation, it will but too evidently appear, that he cannot be the author of his own sermons; and that will make both him