Preaching in Antebellum America: An Example.

As some of you may know, I am fascinated by Protestant preaching in the decades prior to the Civil War in America. This partly stems from my book project, now nearing publication, A Textual Study of the Funeral Sermons of Joseph Smith. Mormon preaching in Joseph Smith’s time was often modeled on Protestant forms, but there were important exceptions. Much of Joseph Smith’s preaching was the result of the way church government evolved over time. But I won’t digress to that. Funeral sermons in Protestantism during the period often took place in the home of the deceased. This was often true even in the special case of preachers themselves, especially those in smaller interior churches.

I’ve just been reading a sermon by the Rev. J. E. Beaumont (Methodist) over the corpse of his fellow minister, Adam Clark, delivered on September 2, 1832. I can read this because Beaumont published his sermon in The Methodist Preacher: Monthly Sermons from Living Ministers edited by Ebenezer Ireson (Boston: Kane & Co., 1833). Most preaching at the period disappeared into the wind from the fashion of extempore. September 1832 was an important month for Mormonism, partly because it saw the delivery of one of Joseph Smith’s revelations that gave further definition to “priesthood.”

After a preamble describing his inadequacy in the project, Beaumont begins his sermon by looking at the figure a dead minister casts in the nature of religious life in the church. A ministers life is a life of tribulation, he says, quoting the end of John’s Gospel. Ministers, he says, are friends of God, in the mold of Lazarus (irony). He counts the death of a minister as instructive: why do they die? It might be because they failed in some way, like Aaron, or Moses. Beaumont allows that it may be because the church just wasn’t worthy of them. The church “made too much” of them, or too little. Beaumont says ministers are often taken at the time when they are at their best. His biblical examples at Stephen and John the Baptist. “Ministers die; but Christ liveth . . . forever” and that is a pledge that “his church shall flourish till the end of time.”

Beaumont then turns to standard funeral fare: resurrection. For Beaumont, the doctrine is nearly the substance of all Scripture, and he quotes from Paul, “Now is Christ risen from the dead . . . .” “But” he says, “all must die now.” There was an exception with Enoch (antediluvian), and Elijah (postdiluvian). This is a testimony that all that lived on both sides of this cleavage of time will live again. He doubts that there will be any further exceptions to the rule of death, until what he calls the “last generation.” Rapture. He wonders, how does resurrection occur? It happens in the way that water was changed to wine at Cana. In a moment, the twinkling of an eye. Jesus’ resurrection is a testimony of two things: he has a body in heaven, and so will all who dwell there. Beaumont sees the sacrifice of Isaac as testimony that Abraham believed in resurrection and gives an incredible recreation of Abraham’s thought processes on Mt. Moriah.

That’s only a taste of this sermon that goes on for 28 pages. It has an eloquence, and there is little in it that you might not hear in a sermon in Mormonism. These sermons from two hundred years ago feature much of what we find comforting in modern Mormonism, modulo the state of current events in some measure. Among other things, you might find it interesting that he evidently (passively) discounts the idea that John the Apostle lives on. But that idea was not popular outside of Mormonism. Its genesis within Mormonism is worth another post, I think.

Joseph Beaumont, people still read your stuff, brother.

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