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Three Restoration Divines: Barrow, South and Tillotson. Volume I

Irène Simon

Part one


Texte intégral

  • 1 Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. G. Birkbeck Hill, revised by L.F. Powell, Oxford, 1934-50, IV, 105.
  • 2 It has been estimated that some 12,000 sermons were published in the Elizabethan period alone (see (...)

1Boswell relates that when Mr. Beauclerck’s library was sold in 1781 John Wilkes expressed his surprise at finding that this gentleman owned so many sermons; to which Johnson replied: “Why, Sir, you are to consider that sermons make a considerable branch of literature; so that a library must be very imperfect if it has not a numerous collection of sermons.”1 In the eighteenth century sermons indeed constituted an important part of publishers’ lists, as they had done in earlier ages,2 and they were still read by the educated public. Readers did not confine themselves to the works of their contemporaries, but frequently turned to sermons of earlier ages, that is, of the Restoration period and of the early eighteenth century, and many of these were reissued in handsome editions. No doubt some readers prized them not for their literary merits but for the ‘sentiments’ expressed in them, and expected from them edification rather than aesthetic pleasure: one remembers that the husband of Fielding’s Amelia was converted by a series of sermons by Barrow in proof of the Christian religion. On the other hand, periodical essayists and grammarians often recommended the works of earlier divines as models of style and composition, while Blair paid special attention to them in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783). Through their training in rhetoric as students, gentlemen would have become familiar with sermon literature, though not all would have summed up the advantages to be reaped from such study as Don Juan was to do:

  • 3 Don Juan, II, clxv.

Much English I cannot pretend to speak,
Learning that language chiefly from its preachers,
Barrow, South, Tillotson, whom every week
I study, also Blair, the highest reachers
Of eloquence in piety and prose—3

  • 4 See The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. George Sherburn, Oxford, 1956, II, 81 (1721).
  • 5 See Allan Wendt: ‘Fielding and South’s “luscious morsel”; A Last Word’, N. & Q., N.S., IV (1957), (...)
  • 6 Op. cit, IV, 105-6.
  • 7 Op. cit, III, 247-8.

2In later years some of these gentlemen may have bought sermons with no other purpose than to display them in their libraries and impress their visitors, like Addison’s Leonora earlier in the century. None the less, in the eighteenth century any well-stocked library would have contained a numerous collection of sermons, even if the owner was, like Mr. Beauclerck, a member of the gay world. For Johnson they made a considerable branch of literature, and he was not the man to judge by sheer numbers. Parson Adams discovered to his dismay that they were mere drugs on the market, but that booksellers were always willing to publish sermons “with the name of some great man”. Among such names those of several Restoration divines were certainly prominent: editions of the works of Barrow, Tillotson or Stillingfleet testify to the continued interest of the reading public, while references to, or praise of, other preachers such as South or Sherlock by eighteenth-century men of letters suggest that these too were still read with pleasure. Addison and Steele repeatedly commended Tillotson to their readers; Pope owned a set of Barrow’s Works4; Fielding read South’s sermons when he was a young man and returned to them in his later years5; Boswell found the most lively account of wit in Barrow’s sermon Against Foolish Talking and Jesting6, while Johnson was once asked to give his opinion as to which were the best sermons for style7. Such a discussion of the comparative merits of pulpit orators is sufficient evidence that sermons were regarded as literature offering both profit and delight.

  • 8 A selection of his sermons appeared when this book was already in the press: Lancelot ANDREWES: Se (...)

3Men like Johnson would not have dreamt of dissociating the two ends of poetry when judging any literary work, but twentieth-century readers have tended to distrust works that purposely set out to edify, and many of them are likely to apply to all literature Keats’ famous dictum on poetry that has a palpable design upon us. As a consequence sermons have fared badly with modern readers. Though no student of English literature can ignore Burke’s speech On Conciliation with America, sermons have been allowed to fall into oblivion, unless interest in them has been aroused by the personality of the preacher and his contribution to other domains of literature. Donne is a case in point, but it is surely significant that even T.S. Eliot’s vindication of that other great Jacobean preacher, Lancelot Andrewes, has so far failed to induce scholars to edit his sermons8; nor is Jeremy Taylor much better known, except from the Selected Passages edited by Logan Pearsall Smith. The publication of Donne’s sermons has shown, however, how misleading such selections can be, for the representative passages tend to be purple patches, and their function and significance cannot be rightly assessed apart from the whole. Neither the late-eighteenth century Beauties of South, nor the twentieth-century Golden Book of Tillotson, nor the Selected Passages from Donne’s sermons, can give the reader any inkling of the structure of the whole, of the way the themes are developed, or of the full force of the argument, and little idea of the contribution of the style to the purpose in hand.

4A more serious consequence of our neglect of sermon literature is that some of the best prose stylists and most vigorous minds of the past, such as Robert South, are virtually unknown to the student of English literature, while every scrap of writing by some minor poet is treasured carefully. Coleridge was no doubt an omnivorous reader, and he was deeply concerned with religious problems; still, his many annotations of seventeenth-century divines suggest what an important place he intented to accord them in his projected history of the development of English prose style. Apart from the intrinsic merits of individual pulpit orators, the Restoration divines contributed through their sermons to the final triumph of the new prose style and encouraged the taste for simpler structures in literary compositions. It is hard to define the part played by each of the several converging forces in the gradual emergence of the new tastes and standards, but pulpit oratory must have had a far-reaching influence since from an early age many boys and girls were expected to give their parents or teachers an account of the sermons they heard. From the testimonies of men and women who in their youth or even childhood were trained to take notes and memorize both the matter and the manner of sermons, we gather that these were regarded not only as means of moral edification, but as examples of composition from which the children could learn. Such was the vogue of sermons in the Restoration period that preachers often complained that many people considered hearing sermons as the sum of religion, and that among these a fair number were mainly interested in comparing the merits of the several divines they went to hear; but Evelyn’s notes show that devout men were also interested in, and sometimes criticized, the preachers’ style and manner. When the sermons were published, they could be read for the same dual purpose, and their influence on modes of thought and of style lasted well into the next century.

5As Edward Arber pointed out in the preface to his edition of The Term Catalogues,

  • 9 Op. cit., III, vii.

it was the religious people first, and the Scientists next, that made the fortunes of the London Book Trade. They often subscribed as much for the folios of a single writer, like Tillotson or Rushworth, Baxter or Ray, Manton or Bunyan, as would have bought a complete set of all the plays of that Time.9

6The popularity of some preachers, with the polite audiences at Whitehall or Westminster as well as with the sober congregations of the City, also appears from several manuscript collections of sermons that have come down to us: apparently some people would copy whole sermons by hand, presumably from shorthand notes, in order to read them again or to hand them round to friends. Any account of the temper or intellectual climate of the age that ignores these facts is therefore bound to be distorted. Nor can the problem be dismissed by positing the existence of two cultural groups and by assuming that the Dissenters alone were much concerned with religious issues. Dryden’s Religio Laid is a private meditation, but its style and manner are those of a man aware of other men faced with the same difficulties, not those of the contemplative worrying out the problems in his closet. Similarly, his satiric mode in Absalom and Achitophel cannot be valued rightly unless one remembers that his readers would have heard the story of David expounded and applied to English history in sermon after sermon.

7One may wonder how close the printed versions were to the sermons delivered in the pulpit. This would depend on the method of delivery, which varied from preacher to preacher. Some divines read their sermons, while others preached memoriter; the former practice was discouraged by Charles II, and most divines complied, though Tillotson reverted to his earlier manner when he found that the effort to memorize his text was too great a strain. In both these cases the sermon was written out carefully before delivery; if the preacher was asked to print it as delivered, as was sometimes the case for sermons preached before the King, there would be few differences or none between the spoken and the printed version. But some divines, like Burnet, preached from notes and in such cases the discrepancy might be much greater. Moreover, when they prepared their sermons for the press some divines would revise them carefully, unless otherwise instructed; indeed they were sometimes asked to publish “what farther they had prepared to say”, as was usually the case for sermons preached before the Mayor and Aldermen of the City. They would then avail themselves of the opportunity to expand some passages, or they would compress the matter of successive sermons into one, or they would leave out passages which they had used elsewhere before. However interesting comparison of the two versions may be for the light the revisions throw on methods of composition and on individual authors’ sense of style, the printed versions alone have a right to be treated as a branch of literature, not only because they alone were known to the wider reading public but because in revising their texts for publication the authors, like any other men of letters, wished to polish their work. They often had in mind the reading public, whose response could not be guided by the inflexions of the speaker’s voice or by his gestures, but depended solely on the quality of the words on the page. In fact, they turned their sermons into literature.

8The present selection purposes to make available to a wider public some of these Restoration sermons, which at present can only be found in the better libraries, and to place them in their historical context with regard to the developments in pulpit oratory in the seventeenth century and to the trends of thought which they reflect. The underlying assumption is that sermons were a considerable branch of literature in that period, and that they constitute a definite genre, whose success depends on the writer’s ability to arouse and sustain his readers’ interest, or to move them, or both. The interest will inevitably vary according as the reader is more or less concerned with the kind of problems expounded by the preacher, but it will also depend to a large extent on the preacher’s way of handling his theme. One need not feel particularly concerned with the working of Providence in order to admire the magnificent structure of Bossuet’s funeral orations, nor need one believe that “Unto God the Lord belong the issues of death” in order to be profoundly moved by Donne's Deaths Duell. The sermons in this collection do not achieve, or indeed attempt, such effects as Donne wrought on his audience and still works on his readers to-day. They will appeal not to those who, as T.S. Eliot said of Donne’s readers, are “fascinated by ‘personality’ in the romantic sense of the word”, but to those who value the craft of the artist in handling his theme and in making his words serve his purpose. These divines addressed an educated public, whether at Oxford or Cambridge or in the metropolis; they set out to convince and persuade, not to arouse the passions. They did this in their several ways, each of which reveals the quality and scope of the mind at work in the composition.


1 Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. G. Birkbeck Hill, revised by L.F. Powell, Oxford, 1934-50, IV, 105.

2 It has been estimated that some 12,000 sermons were published in the Elizabethan period alone (see F.P. Wilson: Seventeenth Century Prose, Cambridge, 1960, p. 122); after the Restoration the chief readers were ‘‘the religious people, who, with their Sermons, their Treatises, and their Book Wars, kept the metropolitan Book Trade going.” (Edward Arber: The Term Catalogues, London, 1903-6, I, xv.)

3 Don Juan, II, clxv.

4 See The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. George Sherburn, Oxford, 1956, II, 81 (1721).

5 See Allan Wendt: ‘Fielding and South’s “luscious morsel”; A Last Word’, N. & Q., N.S., IV (1957), 256-7.

6 Op. cit, IV, 105-6.

7 Op. cit, III, 247-8.

8 A selection of his sermons appeared when this book was already in the press: Lancelot ANDREWES: Sermons, Selected and edited with an Introduction by G.M. Story, Oxford, 1967.

9 Op. cit., III, vii.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1967

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