Review. Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England

Jeremiah’s Scribes : Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England
Meredith Marie Neuman
University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia) 2013.
Hardcover: $64.00 (Amazon).
280 pages.

I have been meaning to write something on Meredith Neuman’s study of Puritan preaching for some time, first because I enjoyed her careful work on sermons and their impact in a community that valued preaching as the Christian prophetic voice. Second because I found it useful in my own work on preaching. Neuman’s approach reveals much of preaching as lived religion in early New England.

Early Puritan preaching is a fascinating topic. The rules of interaction for preacher and audience set a remarkably democratic tone, one that encouraged the participation of listeners, and held preacher and listener to a standard that seems singular in some of twenty-first century preaching culture. The source materials Neuman works with are only now beginning to see the light of day beyond archival treasure troves.

Neuman does foundational theory, work that helped me form my own thought and categories in my work on Joseph Smith’s preaching, and she turns the spotlight onto the riches produced not just by preachers but their auditors in the chapel. Neuman looks at the art of notetaking as it found its way in the theologies of individuals. People who felt it their duty to report, discuss, and critique the pulpit. Preaching impacted and was impacted by turns, print culture, manuscript audits, oral-aural interfaces and outcomes, and the material culture of preservation.

Of particular interest to me was the classification of sermon notes. Preaching was at times written beforehand by preachers in detail, written after the fact for personal ministerial records, or for print circulation from redacted notes. Such reports were almost never static productions. Preaching as moment was rarely a strict reproduction of notes or prepared manuscript. And a preacher’s notes and manuscripts might differ markedly from not only the event itself, but subsequent imprints. And that leads to the question of the purposes in sermon scholarship. Neuman brings another dimension to these issues by her focus on the pew. Material considerations invade the discussion as they must, and Newman carves out a three dimensional space for those auditors and their connected purposes. Aural auditors were the once we imagine, sitting with pen and paper, trying valiantly to keep as near a record of words said as possible. Content auditors reported impressions, reasoning, recovered meanings, and critiques of preaching logic and use of scripture, perhaps by contemplative evening candlelight. Structural auditors moved through outlines of preaching, graphing as it were the often detailed branching of a preacher’s real or perceived deconstruction of scripture.

Neuman’s skillfully selected transcripts and facsimiles show her detailed grasp of early New England sources and broad understanding of the shifts in the economies of keeping records.

Jeremiah’s Scribes was an enjoyable read and a fine study of the human interactions in preaching and how the act of sermon making and delivery shaped the lives and minds of people in pew and pulpit.

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2 Responses to Review. Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England

  1. ricke says:

    Thanks for this.

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