“Apply the subject to the cases of such as are convinced of the truth of Christianity but do not heartily embrace it, and openly espouse its cause”

Within the little village of Palmyra, New York, at the corner of Main Street and Canandaigua Road stand four churches. The First Methodist Church on the northeast corner, the First Baptist Church on the southwest corner, the Palmyra Zion Episcopal Church on the southeast corner, and the Western Presbyterian Church on the northwestern corner. The East Palmyra Presbyterian Church was the first Presbyterian church in the area (it wasn’t on the corner of Main and Canadaigua). It was not quite like the upper crust of Congregationalism, yet it carried a more staid reputation than Methodism, whose successful revivals were seen as dangerous (and unfairly competitive) by the former establishment. In sermonizing, Methodism was perhaps ahead in volume, but behind in preservation of those sermons. Methodist itinerants left behind some brief notes but few extensive reports or manuscripts. They generally preached extempore and Joseph Smith probably found the beginnings of his own style in his Methodist association together with the reformed baptists encountered in Kirtland, Ohio.

The post title comes from Methodist preacher Enoch Mudge’s (1776-1850) manuscript sermon outline (Boston Univ. School of Theology Library) and suggests a typical style and raison d’être. “Stationary” or located Methodists like John Mott Smith left more extensive notes of sermons and such men might engage Greek and Hebrew in their preaching, territory usually occupied by the frequently more educated clergy in establishment pulpits. Methodist La Roy Sunderland published his sermon “This Life is a Time of Probation” in The Methodist Preacher in 1830 and quoted Greek words in his narrative on judgement in Revelation 20.

Generally though, this classification of churches and sermons fell out along related lines of clergy versus layman, intellectualism versus piety, enlightenment versus “affections.” In colonial times these “rivals” had often existed in the same pulpit (or preacher) but nearer the Revolution, things began to heat up in New England, with “intrasectual” war opening up in public venues. It was one thing to steal converts, quite another to call other preachers by interesting names, or claim their reasoning ability to be equivalent to a breeze. Such rationalists saw fire and brimstone competitors as ignorant of the true meaning of the Bible and were nearly always from the Puritan-Calvinist corner. There were many exceptions of course and Calvinists saw the warfare open among their own.

These sorts of arguments were illustrated in preaching styles. Expository preachers might focus on a particular book of scripture. One spent several years worth of Sunday preaching examining Romans essentially verse by verse, employing various translations and appeals to Greek, etc. Topical evangelist preachers found this nearly useless in stimulating crowds to belief and charged that it put scripture ahead of God.

Mormon preaching seemed to partake of both styles. Topical in nature, it often moved to the expository rather than fire and brimstone. Joseph Smith’s revelatory style was unusual, but to Latter-day Saints it felt like inspired understanding. Joseph’s style developed over time and ended with a blend of exposition and topic or even a text, though the latter had a rather liberal sense. Over time it is Joseph’s avant-garde exposition that is remembered most often (think King Follett), though we do tend to cherry pick quotations.

Preaching in modern Mormonism has varied significantly over the same spectrum. How would you classify the sermons in the recent General Conference? Seen any exposition lately? I think it’s relatively rare. We’re Methodists! (grin)

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3 Responses to “Apply the subject to the cases of such as are convinced of the truth of Christianity but do not heartily embrace it, and openly espouse its cause”

  1. WVS says:

    I just listened to President Uchtdorf’s Oct. 3, 2009 conference address. It seemed so ecumenical to me that I wonder if he got an invite from the Crystal Cathedral. Great sermon, subtly Mormon, but change a few words and it might have been some brand of historical Methodism. ;)

  2. J. Stapley says:

    I agree that it is rare. Some with JS, BY and JT, it is hard for me to think of much after that.

  3. WVS says:

    I think JS felt some comfort with exposition, and the first generation did a little with it. GAs were never selected for the sort of knowledge that would make them comfortable with much exposition. We have engaged in biblical debates some up through the Roberts period. I think a sermon that embraces textual argument is open to criticism from the same quarter. No Raymond Browns will be general authorities. But it would be fun! We share something with evangelicals there. Exposition, unless carefully metered, doesn’t have a lot of reviving value?

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