Preaching Manuals, The Eighteenth Century, Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Smith

The Sermon Culture of the America prior to Joseph Smith’s advent was dominated by several important figures. Certainly the most well known of the 18th century was Jonathan Edwards. While Joseph Smith rarely penned much of anything, and never wrote down a sermon, he had stock topics that he returned to with some frequency.

For the most part, this contrasted mightily with his Protestant brethren, who wrote out sermons or sermon notes, sewed them together and left them in pulpits for future reference. Many published their homilies and the sermon library of early America is large. Joseph Smith’s extemporaneous speeches, never practiced or read, reminds me of George Whitefield or the Wesleys. Whitefield at least, appeared to speak extemporaneously but actually engaged in memorizing large texts which he could then “mix and match” as occasion seemed to dictate.

Edwards did not do this. By self admission he just couldn’t memorize those large chunks of writing (some ministers put the extemporaneous sermon on par with hysteria and Edwards was a pretty conservative guy anyway). Hence his sermons survive in large part because of his self-recording. Edwards sermons were, if not spell-binding by virtue of freedom of delivery, artistic, in point of fact. And Edwards’ phrasing was copied religiously by his contemporaries and successors. Edwards employed definite strategy in sermonizing, a strategy that is clearly repeated in Lehi’s dream of the Book of Mormon. Edwards observed that it was “God’s” strategy to lead the sinner through the terrors of judgment and darkness, a wilderness in fact, to a final bright city full of joy. Edwards is nevertheless most famous for his images of hell, rather than heaven (and possibly gets a bad rap over this). One of my favorite bits comes from his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God delivered at Enfield, Conn. in the summer of 1741:

Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and you healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a fallen rock.

Somehow this reminds me of Jacob’s preaching especially in 2 Nephi 9, but other places too.

Edward’s use of language was expert. Not the drama of Whitefield, but the imagery and poetic descriptions engaged his listeners (and readers) and fellow ministers. And while he died twenty years or so before the Revolution, his library of sermons helped shape first the apocalyptic and then the millennialist fervor that surrounded the war.[1]

Preaching is always a reflection of culture, but it can drive it too. And there is no better illustration of that than Joseph Smith. Never a great speech-maker like Edwards, Joseph’s sermons, such as they survive, became bedrock for large parts of Mormonism in its early times and in a resurgent sense in the 20th century. I see them fading in importance now in some respects. Not that Joseph’s words will be forgotten, but they will be increasingly cannibalized or I should say, proof-texted or acontextualized.[2] (More so as the reconstructed texts of the 1850s fade from view, I think.) And while the magnificent Papers of Joseph Smith will preserve many of the raw sources, the sermons themselves may come to be curiosities of past centuries. But to paraphrase Joseph, this boy will always find them fascinating.

I mentioned preaching manuals in the title and I thought I might write something about Edwards’ contemporaries training manuals. Edwards himself didn’t write any training materials beyond his own sermons and published discussions, but he did do something that greatly influenced evangelical preaching in his lifetime and later. He held “schools of the prophets” for bright students like Bellamy and Hopkins. They did the same. These Schools of the Prophets were repeated and Joseph and Sidney may have borrowed from them in a way a suppose. Hence Edwards’ on the ground training set the course for much of New England’s clergy for decades after his death. Is Edwards’s influence still felt? I think so, certainly among Calvinists at least and his “Papers” project is in some sense reflected by Joseph Smith’s.

Preachers are pretty cool. I’m no good at it myself, but I can admire a good pulpit-master. (grin)

[1] Edwards could be seen as anticipating Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham too. His imagery fused the physical and spiritual in a way that reminds me of the Abrahamic text: planets go around the sun for Edwards to show how the Christian orbits Christ the Sun of Righteousness. God made the trees to bloom by the brook in anticipation of how the Holy Spirit nurtures the soul of man. In Abraham at least our modern interpretation suggests the equation Kolob = Christ, etc.

[2] I don’t mean to suggest that sort of thing is new or evil or the like. Church teaching and preaching and even Nephi I suppose, has always done this.

5 Responses to Preaching Manuals, The Eighteenth Century, Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Smith

  1. J. Stapley says:

    WVS, is there much documentation for the preaching of Methodist itinerants?

  2. WVS says:

    There is some, but I haven’t found good concentrated sources. There is Jonathan Cooney’s dissertation, Boston U. 2007. His abstract includes this:

    This study concludes that the sermons written and published by New England Methodists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were more sophisticated than generally thought. While adapting some of the style and logic of established Congregationalism, these sermons continued the debate over the doctrines of election and predestination well into the antebellum period, suggesting that theology continued to be an important platform for public discourse in the formative years of the republic.

  3. I once talked briefly with Ken Minkema, who runs the Edwards papers, about Edwards’ sermon notes. If I remember right, Edwards wrote down entire sermons in very small script on small notecards that he would hold in his hand. Edwards even had his own punctuation for dramatic pauses.

  4. BHodges says:

    fun thoughts, thanks wvs.

  5. WVS says:

    Welcome Blair. Mark, Edwards’ textual legacy makes him what he is in present estimations. I think the same could be said about Joseph Smith. The notecard thing is pretty cool and the small script brings to mind Thomas Bullock.

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