"Changes in Religious Opinions and the Character of Preaching in New England during the last Fifty Years”
Ezra Ripley, First Parish, Concord, MA
Berry Street Essay, 1830
Read before the Ministerial Conference
Address.— (first draught)
Mr. President & Brethren,—
The subject of the present address is "Changes in Religious Opinions and the Character of Preaching in New England during the last Fifty Years.”
This subject appears to me like an extensive field, without definite bounds or trodden paths. Materials, indeed, are not wanting; but I have found it difficult to determine how to arrange them, & what course to adopt to meet the expectations naturally excited by the proposition. It seems to me, we must look farther back, than fifty years, to form just ideas of the changes in religious opinions within the last half century.
Previous to the Revolutionary war, the clergy & laity of New England, I believe, were Calvinists in speculation & creed, with a few exceptions. There were some more enlightened & independent minds, who avowed Arminian principles—there was a Mayhew & Chauncy, a Hedge & Foster in the country, & some others. But as far forth as they were counted Arminian, they were generally unpopular, & looked upon as heretical & dangerous teachers.
Henry’s Commentary & Notes, Willard’s body of divinity, the Assemblies catechism, Boston’s Fourfold State, & authors of that character, gave a general tone to the sentiments of ministers & people. But, if I mistake not, there was general tranquility & little inquiry respecting religious sentiments, until Dr. Edwards published his celebrated Treatise on the Will. That work, with Dickinson on the five points of Calvin, excited attention, & added warmth to the Armenian controversy of that period. The effects of the writings of Edwards were very interesting & some what various. Some were more confirmed in the Calvinistic faith—some more convinced of their fallacy,—others became skeptical, & many perplexed. But a spirit of inquiry was awaked—ministers expressed their minds more freely, & the difference between Calvinists & Arminians became more visible. The greater part, especially in Connecticut, & the Western part of Massachusetts, adhered to Calvin & Edwards. In this section, & the Eastern part of Massachusetts proper, Arminian principles prevailed. Calvinism was softened,—a disposition to examine sentiments increased;—but there was a singular mixture of Calvinism & Arminianism,—& it was difficult to say whether the clergy & the considerate laity could be more properly ranked under Calvin or Arminianism.
Willard’s body of divinity was just into my hands, when a youth, by a clergyman of the more liberal class. He passed for a Calvinist, though he preached Arminianism, & by some was considered as such. I remember to have heard him, when preaching against the doctrine of Election, say to his people, "If you will use the means of religion as I have stated & directed, I dare pledge my own soul, you will obtain salvation.” This was thought by some a bold speech, & unwarranted by the bible.
As freedom of thinking & speaking increased, disputes & contentions arose in churches, & Ecclesiastical Councils were multiplied. Several ministers were accused, & tried, & dismissed for being Arminians, & yet they declined owning the charge. After a while, the tables were some what turned, & the ministerial butchers, as they were called, themselves fell under censures & became victims to the more liberal party. These ecclesiastical contentions elicited some new light on the subjects of controversy; & while the opposing parties became more distinct, Arminianism acquired confidence & strength.
But all this time, there was no controversy in New England, respecting the doctrine of the Trinity. We have learned that there were then some few unitarians among us. But they had their faith to themselves, & were not known as Unitarians. You, my brethren, know the rise & progress of Unitarianism, in this country. I do not recollect any controversy on the subject, until the writings of Priestley, & some others, were circulated among us. The subject was neither understood nor examined. When I was ordained, the whole council were Trinitarian, & at least practical Arminians. I did not understand the doctrine, & expressed my belief on that head in the language of religion was acknowledged, & its influence I felt. Men of learning gave their attention to religious subjects & publicly avowed their attachment to the bible & to the Christian cause. The commanding influence of religion has continued to the present day, & a great proportion of learned & professional men, & a larger of the best informed women are the professed disciples of Jesus Christ.
Infidelity & Atheism in this & some other cities in this country are recently attempting to rear their deformed heads. Where they are, I shall now leave them.
Before the revolution there were comparatively few religious sects. Protestant Congregationalists & Baptists were the most conspicuous & numerous. The latter of these began to divide & rank themselves under Calvin & Arminias. The latter class were denominated Free Will Baptists, & continue a sect. Some of the Baptists have renounced close communion. The Calvinistic exclusionists of the present day & the close communion Baptists act in concert, & appear to have imbibed the same spirit of bigotry & uncharitableness.
Soon after the revolution sectarians began to multiply. Liberty of conscience & free inquiry were abused, at least were not sufficiently under the control of rational principles, the love of virtue & practical wisdom. Some of the laws in this & other States have favoured, if not invited sectarianism, and divisions in religious societies, & separations in churches.
During the revolution, the fetters of bigotry were more & more broken, the tenets of Calvin were less regarded, & Unitarianism began to appear & to be advocated.
Dr. Freeman, first professed Unitarian minister.
In Suffolk, Essex, & perhaps, Middlesex counties, young ministers were ordained, who refused to adopt the usual creed, & to be fettered by men. The venerable Dr. Bancroft was, I believe, the first, in the county of Worcester, who openly rejected Calvinism in toto. He met with opposition & endured many censures; but has long triumphed over his opposers & their bigoted sentiments. In other places successful efforts were made in favor of liberal views & freedom from shackles too troublesome to be longer borne.
The Unitarian controversy in this country is of recent date. You, brethren, well know, when Dr. Morse opened the religious campaign, & the general excitement occasioned by his & other publications. Unitarianism was then vindicated, the modern doctrine of the Trinity was examined, & proved, as we say, to be unscriptural. Not only clergymen, but the people of information, began to examine the subject for themselves. The more it was examined, the more "light broke out from the word of God,” & Unitarianism spread far & wide, beyond the most sanguine expectations of its advocates. A little more than 25 years ago, a solitary Unitarian was established at Deerfield, on Connecticut river, in the midst of violent opposition from the ministers & churches in the vicinity. Now, in the same section of the State, there is an association of nearly one dozen Unitarian ministers. This may be considered a fair specimen of the increase of Liberal sentiments, or Unitarianism. The violence & bitterness with which Trinitarians have opposed, has, it is believed, very much facilitated the growth of Unitarianism. The present prospect for the increase of liberal views of Christianity, is encouraging & fair. The Orthodox, so called, seem to be united in one bold measure of opposition, viz. that of exclusion. But the great body of the people oppose the system of exclusion; & do it with intelligence & on rational principles, which embrace the social, civil, & religious interest of the community. If the people shall insist upon their rights, & refuse to relinquish them to the clergy, the state of religious society will soon be changed for the better; & I trust the change will be for the better: But we may expect convultions in society unhappy & grievous! May we be prepared to meet them with wisdom & prudence, with firmness & united efforts in the cause of pure & simple Christianity.—
The other branch of our subject, viz. the character of preaching in the last fifty years, appears to me not less difficult than the former to be properly treated. So much must depend on memory, & judicious observation, that I feel quite inadequate. And here I must be allowed to carry back your attention some 10 or fifteen years before the revolution, that is, to the time of Whitefield & his coadjutors. That eloquent Methodist occasioned, not only great excitement among the people, but aroused the ministers to more vigorous exertions. It is probable he was the means of changing the character of preaching, at the period, more than any other instrument. He groomed the attention of ministers as well [as] people. I remember to have heard the observation that "the ministers were asleep, & Whitefield waked them up.” I doubt not, this remark was just in degree. The sermons of that day were generally long, & delivered in a dull monotonous manner, that attracted the attention of only the very pious & good. There were indeed some exceptions; & some of these fell under my personal observation more than sixty years ago.
Whitefield thought thus, & ergo applied to them the complaint of the prophet, "Friends of ages that die.” *********** Whitefield was a Calvinist. But his sect has been superseded by the Wesleyans. Murray, the Universalist, about the year 1770, had some effect in promoting a natural & engaging style.
Preaching received additional life by the revolution & became somewhat more interesting. But still, there was, with here & there an exception, a lamentable deficiency in the construction & delivery of sermons. I pretend not that the clergy were not as pious & faithful, as at any period; but they were wanting in learning, in books, in study, & in the means of living. There were obliged to instruct scholars, or labor on a farm to provide a comfortable subsistence. Many of their sermons therefore were crude, indigested, & superficial. Pulpit oratory was little thought of & unpracticed & more than a few were in the habit of leaning forward on the cushion, & reading their sermons in a manner & with a tone far from engaging. There were some learned, able, & powerful men in the ministry; but most of them were unpopular in their manners & delivery. There was not sufficient life & animation in the preachers to gain the attention & interest the feelings of the hearers. If the understanding was informed, the heart was unaffected. This defect in preaching continued till a late date, till the observations of most of you render mine unnecessary. I should say, however, that the style & character of preaching have been much improved since the establishment of theological schools among us, & the late rapid march of knowledge & literature in general. I must think too, that the zeal & animation of our orthodox brethren, in late years, have quickened the ministerial powers of the Liberal clergy. We have seen the need & the propriety of adapting our discourses & manner of speaking to the capacity & taste of the common people as well as the better informed, & of counter acting an untempered, unenlightened, & infatuating zeal. We have observed what kind of pulpit oratory has effect, & have endeavored to cultivate a more popular manner of writing, & a more natural, impressive, & engaging method of delivery. When I compare the young gentlemen who entered the ministry 50 years ago, with those who enter at the passing period, I see a vast difference in favour of the latter in all respects. But, probably, the difference is not greater than in the advantages enjoyed.
But while we notice with high satisfaction the great improvements in the construction of sermons & the art of preaching, are there not still defects that might & ought to be remedied? Is there not, in the younger clergy, & candidates for the ministry, an undue solicitude to appear learned & refined in composition, & too little to be useful? Are not some discourses constructed more like polished essays, than gospel sermons? The enlightened may be gratified & applaud, but may receive no religious impressions; & the ignorant go away unmoved & dissatisfied: Little or no moral effect is produced. The design of preaching seems to be overlooked & is object not obtained.
If a cold manner of delivery accompany this class of sermons, very few are religiously edified. The great mass of the people love excitement, they love to be excited, & they would have the preacher make them feel their own interest in the sentiments advanced. Are not many induced to adopt errors, being captivated by the animation & zeal of sectarian preachers, who might have been retained by a more fervent & interesting manner, & more direct & plain discourses? No matter how much learning a sermon contains, nor how elegant the composition, provided it be intelligible, & adapted to the capacities & moral wants of the hearers, & have a manifest aim & tendency to make people feel their moral obligations and induce them to believe & obey the gospels. Preaching must convince their hearers that they believe & feel the truth & importance of what they preach—that they are in earnest, & sincerely desire to promote the religious improvement & best interests of the souls of their hearers. I recollect to have heard persons express satisfaction with a minister of a very poor delivery, because, said they, he appears so sincere, humble, & interested himself.
It may be, my brethren, that you have all heard the anecdote of the bishop of London & Garrick, the celebrated stage player. But there is in it a lesson so pertinent & interesting to ministers, that I will venture to repeat it, though perhaps not very correctly. Said the bishop to Garrick, "How is it, that you, who professedly speak fictions, can arrest the attention & interest the feelings of your audience; while we, who professedly preach realities the most important, can hardly gain attention & keep our hearers awake”? Garrick replied, "The case is plain,—the question is easily solved—We speak fictions as though they were realities, but you, sir, speak the most important realities as though they were fictions.” Let us profit by application.—
By a comparison of the present with the past, we perceive great improvements in theology & in religious advantages; a forward march of intellect,—a higher cultivation of moral powers. This must be very encouraging to the advocates for liberal sentiments & Unitarian doctrines. And to me there is not doubt of their eventual triumph. The conflict of the two opposing sects appears to approach a crisis, which will be hastened by the violence of measures adopted. But the contest will yet be sharp, & the efforts strong. We have need, not only to commit our cause to God, to trust in him, to seek continually his aid & blessing, but to be wise, & prudent, & united in our exertions to promote pure Christianity. The differences of opinion among Unitarians are comparatively of little importance & seem premature. We have scarcely had time to examine thoroughly the deep & difficult subject in all its extent & bearings. If we divide on minor points, it will inevitably lessen our strength in supporting the great cause of Unitarianism—Our opponents will not fail to avail themselves of our slight shades of difference in opinion. We should avoid every measure that can give them an advantage against us. They are not wanting, at least some of them, in worldly wisdom & policy, & neglect no measures by which they can render our sentiments unpopular & their own acceptable with the ignorant & uninformed. It does not seem to me prudent to identify ourselves with the Unitarians of Europe, nor with the theologians of Germany, whatever communications may be held with them. We may read, & hear, & rejoice in the progress of light & truth; but we should think & act for ourselves, feel independent, & endeavour to establish in this country, in New England especially, a theological, religious, & moral character of our own, as far as the nature of the case admits.
Finally, if we would successfully recommend our views of Christianity, we must exhibit them in good temper, in a kind & charitable spirit, free from all bitterness & reviling. Let them, & the world, see that we have learned of Christ,—that we have imbibed his spirit, & are imitating his amiable example in practical piety & goodness. And who will materially harm us, if we be thus followers of that which is good!
 Ezra Ripley Papers (MS Am 1613.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University. Series I, Manuscripts, folder (4) Ripley, Ezra, 1751 - 1841. Address. A.MS. (unsigned, incomplete); [n.p.,n.d.]. 11s.(42p.) First draft of a speech on the history of preaching in New England.