Real and Alleged Defects of the Preaching of Unitarian Ministers

James Walker

Berry Street Lecture, 1836


Note:  The following is a report on the 1836 Berry Street Lecture, found in the Christian Register and Boston Observer, May 28, 1836.  The full text has not been located.


The conference met at 8 o'clock on Wednesday morning, and was addressed by Rev. Dr Walker of Charlestown, upon the real and alleged defects of the preaching of Unitarians.

He did not think that one mode and only one mode could be prescribed, and that a preacher would fail of success if that were not adopted. Unitarians like other preachers have their defects, which, if they are not remarkable are to some extent peculiar to them. It has been alleged, 1st, that Unitarian preachers shoot over the heads of their hearers, and 2d, that they do not address themselves enough to the feelings of their audience.

If by shooting over the heads of their hearers be meant a want of distinct views, he did not admit the justice of the charge. This is not a characteristic defect of Unitarians. They explain every thing, often perhaps to a fault, to the extreme of the literal. As to spiritual views, these are from their nature matters of suggestion, which to the unspiritual must appear vague. If on the contrary the latter are mainly addressed and their taste consulted, which is a danger besetting the preacher, the spiritual are not fed. It is to be feared that too much awe of the unspiritual is a more common fault than mysticism, which is sometimes charged upon the preacher on spiritual things.

Abstruse and metaphysical preaching was mentioned, not to be condemned, but for the sake of discrimination. Such as consists much in disputes about words should be avoided; but not that which goes to the root of the matter, to an exposition of those spiritual truths which produce an effect on all classes.

Prejudice against metaphysical preaching, so called, has led probably to the opposite extreme in some preachers, and to the adoption of the essay style of preaching; not to discuss doctrines, but to write about them. In the essay style of sermons remarkable gifts are requisite in order to excel; and declamatory and even metaphysical preaching is more generally interesting than that which takes the manner of an essay. Here lies a danger greater than that of shooting over the heads of the audience. The latter is not to be feared in close discussions of ‘the deep things of God.’

Again, in regard to the same general charge of going beyond the comprehension of the audience, the display of too much learning, even scholastic learning, is apprehended by some who have thought that a less learned ministry might be desirable fur some audiences. But, in general, those are most apt to make a display of learning who have but little. And some of the most awakening preachers have come from the highest schools of learning. The display of learning is not characteristic of Unitarian preachers. Indeed they may be too fastidious on the subject, and the indulgence of a little more learning than they now exhibit might not be amiss; as Dr Johnson said to Sir Joshua Reynolds, people like to be talked to as if they were a little wiser than they are, A preacher therefore is not to be aiming constantly to descend to the lowest of his hearers in understanding and information; and there are few things which we clearly comprehend that we cannot explain to the comprehension of most others.

The other alleged defect of Unitarian preaching is that it is not addressed enough to the feelings. There is room for difference of opinion about the nature of the defect and the remedy to be supplied. The understanding is not indeed to be exclusively addressed, nor is it the legitimate object merely to produce sympathy, or to excite emotions by coarse illustrations. Sympathy should be excited, but it should be done through the understanding. It does not exclude the argumentative; impassioned argumentation is no contradiction of terms, it is often attained.

In order to supply the defect of feeling which is alleged to exist, it is not enough to change from the polished essay to empty declamation; to interlard exclamatory interjections with high wrought phraseology, as if the speaker were determined at all events to be excited or to appear so. Sympathy, true feeling, springs up as well by the evidence of passion repressed as by that which gains utterance. It is by no artificial means, but by appeals to the sense of right, to the disinterested affections, to the longing desire of immortality in mankind, that the deepest and most enduring feeling is to be planted and nourished.

Dr Walker enumerated and glanced at three of the real defects as he regards them, which may be alleged against Unitarian preachers, namely.

1st. They generally make less account than others of the transition by which men become decidedly religious; which may be termed regeneration rather than improvement. A large majority of mankind within the preacher’s voice need to have this truth brought home to their minds and hearts.

2d. They have generally less confidence in the necessity of dear expositions of divine truth as they understand it.

3d. They should consider, that in order to produce the full effect of their doctrines, they are not to deliver them as traditions; that they are to feel the truths, to live them, to reproduce them in their own minds.

After the Address was concluded Rev. Mr. Allen of Bolton was appointed moderator of the meeting, and Rev. Mr. Robbins scribe. Several subjects came up for discussion, and among them that of a cheap popular religious publication to be issued semi-monthly. A committee was chosen to take such measures thereon as might be deemed expedient. Statements were made by some of the distant members of the conference of the condition of the churches with which they are connected, and of those more particularly within their knowledge and of the wants of the same.