Sermons, More Sermons and Funeral Sermons

Sermons in antebellum America were both innovative and derivative. While disestablishment opened wider the doors of American Religious Culture to the radical, it also strengthened the radical establishment (by that I mean the unsettled Methodists and Baptists). Preachers naturally came in similar breadth and hence their sermons found all sorts of niches in which to settle.

We are dependent on the egos or concerns of the preachers themselves (for the most part) to see what they preached and where and when they did it. Late colonial preachers in America were a driving force in Revolution. They found much in the Bible to support liberty and war in its behalf (no Anglicans here please!). While chaplains complained of lapsing congregations in their army assignments, their located counterparts didn’t mind risking life and property for the cause. Early national preachers in America began to see a bright future — one that continued fascination with Children of Israel narratives. At the same time, dissent exploded in divisions and subdivisions of denominations. Sermons both reflected this, and made it possible. Freedom was everybody’s business. Canon was breached on several fronts and the resulting “sects” — that favorite dirty word among Protestants — saw both success but mostly bright flaring short lives or transformations to the mundane.

Sermons took on a broader class of subjects in various ways. The community week-day sermon of colonial times could still be found (often it was more effective than the Sunday version because people showed up for public reasons rather than merely “go to meeting” ethics). Topics therefore varied from the fire and brimstone of revival speech (still popular in itinerant sects) to local politics, church building, school construction, slavery, war and so on. Sermons invaded all sorts of areas that presently people often object to, mightily.

Sermons could be history. Indeed, some of these were extremely long if we are to believe their published versions.[1] Hours of sermonizing were as characteristic of the times as they are rare today. Three hours, no problem. Imagine one or two speakers per session of General Conference? Not that unusual in early Utah, and then the same speaker for another session. Lung power there.

Sermons argued for one theological position or another. Oberlin was well-known for this sort of thing, with Charles Finney’s revivalesque preaching finding for the prefectionism of people like the Wesleys (without credit mostly I think), a gantlet the Mormons shared from the beginning. Funeral sermons are found in abundance in the record, but for the most part they share a common thread: they are memorials for the pillars of the community -whether academic, or fellow “men of the cloth” of whatever. (Lincoln’s memorials are legend.) While in smaller communities the funeral sermon may have been seen as a cultural necessary, preachers gradually turned against it for several reasons. One was it’s lack of utility and potential for offense. Pressing buttons about unbaptized children or lack of devotion during life didn’t have much lasting effect apparently. And the new radical movements sometimes offered better solutions than traditional Calvinist approaches.

Moreover, in contrast to the plethora of self-reports for public figure funerals, funerals in homes and smaller venues lack value for study. We just don’t know much about what was said. Death culture was wide and deep in antebellum America, but the funeral sermon is a problematic part of that culture.

Mormonism saw a focal change in the service of death, at least with Joseph Smith. Smith used the funeral sermon in both similar and much different ways. Not flagellating backsliders as much as offering comfort via doctrinal precipice – the most famous being the King Follett Sermon. This was fairly typical of Joseph Smith’s funeral addresses in Nauvoo. None of them were really eulogies in any respect, perhaps the closest one to that was the James Adams sermon, but none of them (that is, as we have them) were personal in any respect. And Protestant funeral addresses, from such limited paradigms as we have, failed to invade personal space much. That was for the bedside interview (hopefully), the nearly deceased offering fraught counsel to those watching for his or her last breath.

Following Joseph Smith’s death, Mormon preaching among the upper echelon of leaders fell into the standard categories of Protestant discourse, excepting some private or family venues where details of the temple might be discussed. By Utah, sermons were even more Protestant in character. Sure, flights of theological speculation took place (much of this was remembrance-expansion from Joseph Smith’s later preaching – public and private – and went in various directions), but fire and brimstone, history, and other types had their day.

The preaching we enjoyed over the last weekend held up well in liberal ways that were unusual for the previous century. Possibly the so-called Mormon-moment made for a rhetoric more sensitive to unfamiliar ears. Preaching styles and artifice seemed to change little. Elder Nelson couches his sermons in medical terms. President Monson finds his way through poetic feeling and stories of his bishop years, Elder Holland was not combative but erudite for all that, giving us his usual thoughtful stuff while President Uchtdorf (failing the airplane analogy) is still the champion of the gen X (Y and millennials too maybe) crowd. *We* may not focus on technique or speech patterns much but I believe many of *them* do. And that makes listening even more interesting.

[1] A great Mormon example of this is Sidney Rigdon’s preaching at the April 1844 conference.

4 Responses to Sermons, More Sermons and Funeral Sermons

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Great thoughts. What of the masonic funeral?

    • WVS says:

      Masons and other fraternal orders published eulogies I think. But they were mostly involved in burial processions as far as I know. Members marched from the lodge to the dead man’s home, gathered the remains and carried the coffin in slow march to the graveyard. There was plenty of speech giving at other times though like laying corner stones or lodge anniversaries.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks. Back when I was looking for antecedents for grave dedication, I came across this publication. It is later, but has really quite ellaborate funeral rites. I don’t know whether it is reliable or applicable.

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