Alleged Defects of Unitarian Preaching 

The Rev. Charles Robinson

Berry Street Lecture, 1844                                                                                                               

 

Delivered before the Berry Street Ministerial Conference

Boston, Massachusetts

May 29, 1844

 

        In using the term alleged, in this connexion, it is not intended to intimate that the defects which we are about to consider are mere allegations, the groundless charges of ignorance and prejudice. Urged against us, as they have long been, by friends, as well as by foes, and reiterated in every tone of regret, ridicule, reproach and sarcasm, it would imply a want of humility and candor, not toacknowledge that they may have some slight foundation, at least, in truth. It will be my object at this time to show how far this is the case. Nor will it be deemed, I trust, wholly unsuitable to the occasion of our present meeting, if we employ the few minutes, which are usually assigned to this exercise, in considering whether the defects alluded to in our subject do really exist, and to what extent ; and :also to inquire, what remedies, if any, can be applied.

 

        We were never, perhaps, in a more favorable situation for instituting inquiries of this kind, than we are at present. We are not now obliged, as we once were, to stand wholly upon the defensive. We have ascertained our position. We have vindicated to ourselves a right to exist; have gained for ourselves a place among our sister denomina­tions. We have become a well-established, prosperous, growing sect, and that too without becoming very deeply infected with the spirit of sectarism. Our views are spreading themselves as fast as the community are prepared to, receive them. The great principles for which we have contended, freedom of thought, the rights of the individ­ual conscience, the liberty of prophesying, are, notwith­standing some recent appearances to the contrary, steadily progressive- are gaining a stronger and stronger hold upon the general mind, and are destined, we believe, essentially to modify the opinions and feelings of the whole Christian world. What we have now to do, is not to settleprinciples, but to apply them; to endeavor, first of all, to enter into the spirit, the full significance of the sublime, soul-renewing, soul-gladdening truths to which we have attained; to translate them into our own experience andillustrate them in our lives, and then to urge them home upon the hearts and consciences of others, with earnestness, sincerity, fervor and power.

 

        And herein it is, that we are thought to be most defi­cient. Unitarian preaching is said to be cold and lifeless, wanting interest and efficacy, wanting in power over theaffections, wanting in those solemn and fervid appeals, which touch the heart, awaken the conscience, rouse all thereligious sensibilities of our nature. This is an old com­plaint; yet it comes up from so many different quarters, and is so often repeated, that we cannot refuse to give it a hearing. Admitting then, that it is not wholly groundless, that there is room for improvement here, and need of it, I still maintain, that whatever may have been the case in former times, the charge of coldness and lifelessness not one to which the Unitarian preaching of the presentday is peculiarly liable. I believe that much of the ablest and most effective preaching in the world is now to be heard in many of our Unitarian pulpits. Indeed, it issubject- of frequent remark, that Unitarian preaching is everywhere becoming more serious, more evangelical and spiritual, in the right sense of the words, more animated and soul-stirring. And this is certainly the case; nor, in this regard, do we fall a whit behind those who claim for themselves a monopoly, not only of all the true light, but of all the vital warmth of religion.

 

        Still it cannot be denied that dullness is a besetting sin of the pulpit, and has been from the days of Chrysostom to the present time. "Dull as a sermon,” "tedious as a homily,” are phrases which have become proverbial in every language throughout Christendom. For a defect so universal, there must be some universal and permanent cause. And it will be found to lie, partly in the subjects which we handle, partly in the materials upon which we act, and partly in ourselves. Our concern now is solely with ourselves, and with ourselves especially as a distinctclass of preachers. Without apologizing, then, for indo­lence and unfaithfulness, which seldom, I believe, exist, I aver again, that our preaching is better than the average, and better in the very point which we are now considering, possessing a more true and heartyfervency both in spirit and manner. It is not, of course, to be expected that we should all be eloquent orators. It is not in the power of some of us to be. We want the requisite gifts, talent, temperament. Nor can we, at all times discharge our public duties with the same degree of satisfaction, either to ourselves, or to others. They recur at such short intervals, and overtake us in such different states of body and of mind that to be always equally fresh in feeling, novel in illustration and energetic in enforcement, is next to impossible. The whole head is sometimes sick, and the whole heart faint, yet the preparations for the pulpit— the full tale of brick, must be forthcoming, whether straw can be found or not. And this necessity which is laid upon us to prepare a new discourse for the coming sabbath, or what is harder still, to raise an old one from its grave, often haunts us through the week like a guilty conscience, and troubles our very dreams. And who among the most gifted of us, are able, on everyoccasion, in our performances, to work ourselves up to a desired degree of interest, animation, and engagedness? Indeed we should not work ourselves up at all. The warmth we need, should come spontaneously, if it come at all. It should be the result of solemn, earnest, prayerful meditation; the offspring of a faith which clothes itsobjects with life and reality, which brings the remote near, and renders the unseen present and visible. Like the prophet of old, we should speak in the name of the Lord, not because we must, but because we cannot help it. "His word is in my heart,” should be the feeling of each one of us. "His word is inmy heart, like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary with forbearing. Icannot refrain.” This is the kind of fervor we need, —not wrought up for the occasion, not caught from sympa­thy, not an excitement of the nerves, — but the genuine fervor of a believing and earnest spirit, of a heart that is filled and glowing with the love of God, of truth, of virtue, of souls. This is the only warmth which is not factitious, and can never be quenched. It is a species of inspira­tion; and if we have enough of it, we can never be formal and frigid in our ministrations.

 

        After all, I am free to confess, that I do not consider dullness - a tolerable degree of dullness - as the worst attribute of preaching. Extravagance and exaggeration are worse; a false enthusiasm is worse; an artificial and self-begotten excitement is worse; a flippant sentimentalism is much worse. Indeed the doubt has arisen in many minds, whether what is called exciting preaching is, on the whole, and in the long run, the most profitable. Its immediate effects may be obvious and striking; but the impression which it produces is often superficial, and soon passes away; and when after a long course of such preach­ing we come to inquire for the fruits, they are frequentlyfound to be anything but those of the spirit, "goodness, and righteousness, and truth.” Besides, such preaching is too apt to be sought for and rested in as an end. It is tooapt to be depended upon, not as a means of grace, but as grace itself and ministering grace to the hearers, whether applied and improved by them or not. The strong emo­tion, the glow of feeling which it awakens, is thought, in many cases, to be all that is needed, is made a substitute for watchfulness, prayer, and personal effort; so that it is by no means an uncommon thing, to find faith dying out; and morality and vital godliness running to a low ebb, in those churches which are blessed with the most powerful ministrations.

 

        It cannot be denied, I think, that some of the most useful ministers among us, some who have the strongest hold upon the affections of their people, who remain the longest in their places, and the influence of whose labors is the most permanent and beneficial, are what may be consid­ered dull preachers. They make no noise; they produce little or no excitement. They feed their flocks with wholesome, but unstimulating food. Their speech drops upon them like the rain, and distils like dew, and after many days the effect of their labors is seen, in the silent and unobserved growth of the Christian virtues and graces,among those to whom they minister. Such facts, and they are numerous, almost lead us to call in question the value of what is so much prized and coveted, at the pres­ent day, namely, the power, in a minister, of intensely interesting and exciting his auditory.

 

        Let us covet the best gifts, but let us not be over­anxious to be thought powerful and stirring preachers. Let us not be tempted, for the sake of present effect, to resort to modes of appeal and influence which are not accordant with our tastes and feelings, merely because they are seen to be so effective in other hands. Why should we hanker after a system of measures, which those who have tried it the most effectually, and have witnessed its results, are now the foremost to repudiate and condemn? Why should we, any one of us, wish to put on the cast-off garments of Orthodoxy? We have a mission of our own to fulfill, and it is different, in some respects, from that of any other class of Christians. It is ours to act upon the intellect of the people, upon their moral and religious ideas,and, through these upon their sensibilities and sympathies. We knownot how to persuade, till we have first enlightened and convinced. All craft therefore and management, all attempts to produce an unhealthy excitement of feeling, are quite out of place with us. It belongs to us not to yield to any of the morbid tendencies of the times, but to do as much as in us lies to resist and check them. We have from the beginning maintained an attitude, at once reformatory and conservative; recognizing and adopting the great principle of progress, yet reverencing and holding fast to all that is true and good in old opinions and usages, Let us still maintain this attitude, and be willing to forego at those modes of appeal and means of influence, however effective they may be thought, which we cannot use in entire good faith, and which, whatever they may be in other hands, can be with us little else than a species of empiricism. Let us not give into any practices, which are felt to be inconsistent with what may be calledthe spirit and genius of our sect. The time is far distant I trust, when there will be any essential departure from the honesty and fair dealing, the good sense, the correct tastes the sober practical wisdom, the sound and healthy moral tone, which have so long and so honorably distinguished the Unitarian pulpit. Let us be true to our mission; let us adhere faithfully to our distinctive peculiarities, laboring, as best we may, to unfold, illustrate, enforce and apply the great vital truths embodied in our faith, and we shall be able, with the blessing of God, to build up, in fair propor­tions and symmetrical form, a true Christian temple.

 

        Another alleged defect of Unitarian preaching which I shall briefly notice, is that it is too scholastic, refined, and elevated, moving in a sphere far above the sympathies and comprehension of the large majority of those to whom it is addressed. This is, unquestionably, a characteristic fault of much of our preaching, and the chief cause, perhaps, why it is so deficient in interest and attractiveness, at least for themultitude. If you will look around upon any of our congregations, while in the act of listening to, or rather I should say, sitting out, one of our carefully elaborated and well-written discourses, and then observe the same assembly when addressed by some popular lecturer, who pours out his fervid thoughts in rude and homely phrase, without much regard to method or connexion, but with a full-souled sincerity and earnestness, —in the dullness, apathy and yawning listlessness which you will notice in the one case, and the animated, eager, excited attention which is given in the other, you will see a better illustration than I can possibly furnish of the nature and causes of the defect which we are now considering. I allow, that we must and ought, in our preparations for the pulpit, to aim, first of all, to satisfy ourselves; to be true, that is, to our own judgment and tastes; to do our utmost, on every occasion, to come up to our own ideal of excellence. But may it not be, that we are somewhat too fastidious in our tastes, that we have set up to ourselves, not a too lofty, but an unsuitable standard of excellence? Is it not the case, that we make too much account of mere correctness; that we attach an undue importance to the literary character of our performances; that we are more particular and nice, than need be, in regard to the elegancies and amenities of thought and expression? When we sit down, in our studies, to compose a sermon, are we not too apt to bring before ourselves, not the rude and ignorant, who form so large a proportion of every congregation, but the few professional men, the few critical and discriminating minds who may belong to our auditory, and to write to the latter, rather than to the former? And is not this one of the reasons why our ministrations are thought to be so wanting in popular interest and effect?

 

        Do we consider how few there are in any of our societies who are able to appreciate the literary merits of a discourse,- how utterly insensible the great majority are to all the refinements and graces of style and diction, we should be less solicitous about these things ourselves, and more studious to adapt ourselves to the condition and wants of the common mind. May not preaching, without losing any of its dignity, assume more directness, become more free, easy, and familiar in its tone, be brought into closer and more living contact with the associations and feelings of the great mass of our hearers? Is it not possible to unite elevation, nay, even profoundness of thought with such familiarity of illustration and simplicity of style and language, that it shall be on a level with the humblest minds, while it shall minister instruction, comfort, and edification to the most refined and cultivated? Such was certainly the character of our Saviour’s preaching. While he uttered the grandest, the sublimest thoughts which ever entered human conception, thoughts whose depth and significancy have never yet been fully penetrated, he always clothed them in the very plainest attire; he always addressed himself to the common mind; his images and illustrations were always familiar without being mean, were drawn from the commonest objects, from the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. We never find him using a hard word or making a learned allusion. We never find him running into vague generalities or metaphysical refinements. On the contrary, he was always simple, direct, popular; and "the common people heard him gladly.” It is melancholy to think how many able and beautiful dis­courses are almost lost, wasted, in consequence of the fault which we are now considering. By aiming too high they overshoot the mark altogether. They rise often and soar with a rocket-like brilliancy, producing no other effect but to awaken a momentary admiration.

 

        And here I cannot help observing in regard to preaching, not to ours in particular, but to preaching in general, that it would be much better than it is, and vastly more effective, if there were a more entire absence from the minds of those who officiate, of all thought of self, of all desire of self-display; if there were a more entire singleness of pur­pose and aim, having reference solely to the glory of God, and the salvation of sinners; if there were a more entire self-absorption, if I may so express myself, in one deep, awful feeling of responsibleness. If I should venture to name what seems to me one of the most striking defects in the modern pulpit, I should say, that it is vain, ambi­tious, egotistical, and self-seeking in the extreme; that it is, in many cases; little more than a theatre for self-exhibition. There is, I have often thought, among many of our preach­ers of the present day, a sad want of what Fenelon calls Christian simplicity, self-forgetfulness, self-abandonment, an overlooking and losing of themselves in the greatness and importance of their subject. They doubtless wish to do good, to promote virtue and dissuade from vice; but they wish also to sustain and heighten their reputation, to draw attention to themselves. In the composition anddelivery of their sermons there is too often an evident desire to shine, to excite admiration. They are not willing to preach Christ only, but they must preach themselves, in part, likewise. They covet usefulness, but they covet pop­ularity too, and usefulness, sometimes, it is to be feared, as a means of popularity. And what they seek they obtain. They have their reward, but is it such as the Christian teacher should be most anxious to secure?

 

        Every profession has its dangers and temptations, and this unquestionably is the exposed side of ours. We would win souls to Christ, but we would also win favor and applause to ourselves. And it is the having of this two-fold object before us, it is the complexity of motive and aim, which does more than anything else, I think, to weaken the effect of our ministrations, to prevent us from re­ceiving that full blessing upon them which we might otherwise hope to achieve. This, I repeat, is our weak side. Here we need to be most upon our guard. We should watch and pray against this our infirmity, our characteristic and besetting sin. Let us strive to keep our "eye single,” looking to but one end, the fulfillment of our ministry, by bringing sinners to repentance. And as it will sometimes happen while composing a sermonthat certain turns of thought or expression will present themselves to our minds, which seem to us particularly brilliant and, happy, calculated to draw attention to ourselves - when this is the case, let us sacrifice them without mercy. We need more of the spirit of old Chrysostom, who, on receiv­ing a burst of applause from his hearers, exclaimed, "What mean these acclamations, these empty plaudits, which I hear? I wish to be rewarded not by your praises, but byyour conversion. This is the reward I wish to derive from my discourses, and this is all my ambition. I prefer yourconversion to a kingdom.” It is the mark of a truly good preacher, says one, that while he is actually preaching, the hearer does not think of him at all, that is, does not consider whether he speaks well, has talents, learning, refinement, gracefulness, but is wholly engrossed by the subject of the discourse and the impression it makes on his mind and heart, and goes his way to meditate and pray, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance. Let a worthier ambition be ours, than to be to our hearers like the song of one who "hath a very pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument,” whose words they receive and applaud; and that is the end of it. But that is not the end of it, either to them or to us. A day of reckoning is coming, when inquisition will be made, not only how they have heard, but how we have preached. Then a single soul saved by our faithfulness from death, will be deemed a richer recompense than the most brilliant reputation which minister or mortal ever gained.

 

        There is stilt another defect in much of our preaching, which, though not peculiar to ourselves, may merit a moment’s consideration. It not only dwells too much in the region of abstraction, of vague generalities, but it does not propose to itself a sufficiently distinct and definiteobject. We are too apt, I suspect, to look upon our con­gregations as a set of orderly, well-behaved, moral people, who need improvement, who need a larger measure of the Christian virtues and graces, who need to be somewhat more devout and spiritually-minded, and that is all. Whereas we have too much reason to believe, with regard to most of them, that they have not yet breathed even the first breath of the spiritual life; that they are wholly destitute of all true faith and vital godliness; that they need to be made over anew. They need repentance, conversion, re­generation, as much as did those to whom the Gospel wasfirst addressed. They lack not one thing only, but every­thing that is peculiar and distinctive in the Christian life. They are spiritually dead; dead to all the higher objects, aims, interests, and hopes of their being; and they must he made alive. They must be awakened, aroused, made to feel their destitution arid danger, made to feel that it is notthe grosser vices alone which destroy the soul and disqualify it for heaven, but that worldliness, indifference, selfishness, thoughtlessness, frivolity, vanity, pride, ambition, avarice, will have the same fatal effect. Let them be taught thatconversion is not a doctrine for felons only, but that it is equally necessary to the sober and decent worldling, to sinners of steady habits and respectable characters, to those who are "lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;” that all such must pass through a change as mighty, a moralcrisis as marked and striking, as our Saviour had in his thoughts when he said, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Let there be this plain, close dealing with our hearers. Let the great sanctions, the awful alternatives of the Gospel be urged home upon their minds and hearts, with those searching, probing appeals which penetrate and alarm the conscience; and they will feel no disposition to criticise, or compliment thepreacher, but will go their ways "pricked in the heart, saying, men and brethren, what shall we do.”

 

        A voice is yet to issue from the pulpit, a winning, awakening, warning voice, of power to break the spell which worldliness, indifference and unbelief have fastened upon the minds of men; to rouse them to a sense of their spirit­ual dangers and needs; to raise them from the grave of sense and sensuality to a vivid apprehension of things un­seen and eternal, to a true, living, spiritual faith, to that love of God and imitation of his perfections, which is the resurrection and life. Let this voice be lifted up in all our pulpits, and the kingdom of God will come with power.

 

        That this end may be realized, our preaching, must be­come more direct, circumstantial, discriminating; it must be brought home more directly to the business and bosoms of men; more into contact with every point in the whole circle of their welfare, of their daily wants, duties, trials, pursuits and pleasures. It must be more adapted to that want of the age, which demands apt and pithy thought, vivid illustration, cogent argument and appeal, rather than well-turned periods. Our sermons must not be such as might have been written a quarter of a century ago. They must breathe the spirit, bear the form and pressure of the present day. They must be drawn less from books in ourstudies, less from the treasured stores of our minds, and more from our own personal experience and observation, more from what we have actually felt ourselves, and from what we have seen of the condition and wants of the living world around us. Let such be the character of our preach­ing, and it will produce greater and better results than we have yet witnessed from it.

 

        Above all, what we most need to give full efficacy to our ministrations, is more faith ourselves; a more earnest and living faith, a deeper conviction of the reality of what we teach and inculcate. We must be able to say, when we speak of religion, of the efficacy of prayer, of the duties, dangers, trials, joys and hopes of the Christian life, "We speak that which we do know, and testify that which we have seen.” Through him who hath this faith of experi­ence, a faith resting upon a firm historical basis, but trans­formed by the affections into a living sentiment, a kind of personal consciousness, the word preached will be quick and powerful to awaken the careless, to convince the skep­tical, to convert sinners, and to establish believers in ever­lasting consolation and good hope through grace. God grant that we may possess and exercise more of this faith! May the great Shepherd of the sheep give us all grace to be faithful, and enable us so to dispense the truths of hisword, as to save ourselves and those who hear us!