In William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), Pitt Crawley, Becky Sharp’s first employer, “an old, stumpy, short, vulgar, and very dirty man, in old clothes and shabby old gaiters, who smokes a horrid pipe, and cooks his own horrid supper in a saucepan,” is given a characteristic by his creator that nicely rounds out his unusual character: The baronet has a taste not only for family prayers, but for sermons.
“We will resume yesterday’s discourse, young ladies,” he informs his female household, “and you shall each read a page by turns; so that Miss a—Miss Short may have an opportunity of hearing you”—at which the poor girls begin to spell out “a long dismal sermon delivered at Bethesda Chapel, Liverpool, on behalf of the mission for the Chickasaw Indians. Was it not a charming evening?”
By and large, with few exceptions, 20th-century historians tended to follow Thackeray in regarding sermons as little more than fodder for satire. Sir Robert Ensor might have conceded that, in the Victorian triumph of religion, “the pulpit dominated,” but he does not say how or why. Theodore Hoppen is no more illuminating, simply saying, “Middle-class Victorians loved sermons, the longer the better.” The otherwise fair-minded historian G. M. Young considered the mere hearing of sermons deleterious: After noting how “a young man brought up in a careful home might have heard . . . a thousand sermons,” Young points out that “the form of preachers was canvassed like the form of public entertainers, and the circulation of some Victorian sermons is a thing to fill a modern writer with despair.”
Here was proof of the insatiable appetite of the public for sermons of all kinds. Still, for Young,
If we consider the effect, beginning in childhood, of all the preachers on all the congregations, of men loud or unctuous, authoritative or persuasive, speaking out of a body of acknowledged truth to the respectful audience below them, we shall see why the homiletic cadence, more briefly Cant, is so persistent in Victorian oratory and literature. It sufficed to persuade the lower middle classes that Tupper was a poet and the upper middle classes that Emerson was a philosopher.
To say that a literary genre as supple and capacious as the sermon could only produce a taste for mountebanks like Martin Tupper and Ralph Waldo Emerson was typical of the 20th century’s unwillingness to meet the sermon on its own varied ground. In omitting to pay any attention to the sermons of the most influential homilists of the 19th century, Young was giving a misleading impression of the sermons of the Victorian age, as none of that era’s best preachers, for all their doctrinal differences, went in for anything that could be justly characterized as cant.
To appreciate afresh the wide-ranging field commanded by the sermon at a time when religion was still genuinely respected in the public sphere, even by agnostics and atheists, one needs only to recall the great preachers themselves: John Tulloch, the voice of liberal orthodoxy within the Church of Scotland; Henry Liddon, the heir of Pusey and learned Tractarianism; John Caird, the author of that most Victorian of sermons, “Religion in Common Life,” which he delivered before Queen Victoria at Balmoral in 1857. There was also Thomas Chalmers, first moderator of the Free Church; William Connor Magee, the great advocate for the benefits of the Church of Ireland, on an isle where Presbyterians and Roman Catholics were perpetually at each other’s throats; and Robert William Dale, the passionate evangelical whose sermons on St. Paul and the Trinity redefined what it meant to be evangelical long before Mark Noll began remonstrating with his co-religionists for neglecting the intellectual aspects of faith.
Sermon writers were much more than mere pulpit entertainers: They could set the course for decades of theological inquiry. In the 18th century, Joseph Butler’s pivotal sermon “The Ignorance of Man” (1719) prefigured a theology of devout skepticism to which generations of Anglicans would subscribe, from John Keble and Samuel Wilberforce to Dean Inge and Rowan Williams. Indeed, the great preachers made sermons bestsellers for serious readers right up to the end of the 19th century and beyond. It is high time that historians of religion paid such work the justice it deserves.