Sunday, 8 July 2018

The Tedium of The Long Sermon (and other amusing observations)

"John Knox Preaching in St Giles, Edinburgh 1570"
Detail From a Victorian Stained Glass Window
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

In this Blog I will be primarily relating some often rather humorous period remarks on the length of sermons and other amusing observations relating to the delivery of sermons which I am sure you will enjoy as much as I have.

For those of us who have or do attend Church the length of a sermon today is not something that we would or should find fault with. But spare a thought for our pious forebears up to at least the late Victorian era who regularly sat for long periods of time on hard wooden Church pews attempting to follow the peripatetic [i.e. rambling] thoughts of their venerable Parson or Minister. Little wonder that one of my Scottish forebears owned their own "pew cushion", being noted as sold at a roup [clearing sale] in 1910.

The first recorded instances of actual preaching  appear in the Book of Nehemiah viii, 1-8 where we read that Ezra, and on a high wooden platform, preached from the Book of the Law of Moses "from daybreak till noon for seven days". In Acts xx, 7-9 we read of Paul preaching at length at Troas continuing with "many lamps" until midnight. 

Our forebears would also be subjected to lengthy sermons but, it would appear, not always willingly. That Ministers would later take well over an hour to expound the Scriptures from the pulpit challenged many hearers who suffered or at least tolerated long drawn out effusive, rambling, and often fiery utterings. And not a few, as we shall read, would also take exception to the content which could descend into a "superfluity" [excess] of words, be of a scholarly nature with "big words" above their hearer's comprehension, or even, as we shall also read, descend into a highly personal attack on one's professional and personal credibility.

There having been no actual sermon given during worship prior to the Protestant Reformation perhaps preachers were now just making up for over a millennium of lost time! Margo Todd in her book "The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland" writes that sessions and presbyteries eventually began to impose monetary fines upon their Ministers for exceeding a determined or appropriate time limit for preaching. In 1587 the Edinburgh Presbytery of the Church of Scotland even ruled; "that preachers exceeding an hour in their sermons be fined 18 pence". Elgin's Kirk Session; "went even further by threatening long-winded preachers with a fine of six shillings and eight pence".

But it would appear that by the 17th century, in Scotland at least, that such regulations had been overtaken by an increasing zealous spiritual fervour to both hear and deliver the Word of God. One must remember that even up to the earlier years of the twentieth century parishioners would worry that they were spiritually fit or worthy to even receive Communion let alone enter the Kingdom of God. Nothing less than saving their souls from perdition [eternal punishment and damnation] was at stake.

An Elizabethan Hour Glass from St. Mary the Virgin
Anglican Church, Pilton in Devon
[Source : The Pilton Story]

Timekeeping, in these earlier years and with a dearth of clocks or watches due to cost, would often, especially in the English Church, be regulated by means of hour-glasses filled with sand placed on or by the pulpit and being turned as required. But it would appear that over these early years sermons of over an hour were still actually the rule rather than the exception.

During the Seventeenth Century the Scottish Presbyterians now engaged in what were termed "Religious exercises". The services were long and frequent and once a Preacher was in the pulpit the only limit to his "luoqacity" [talkativeness] would be his strength. If he spoke for two hours he would be considered "zealous pastor who had the good of his flock at heart". He was also expected; "to display great vehemence [forcefulness], and to evince his earnestness by toiling and sweating abundantly". Being of this period in time, we read of Dr John Menzies, Professor of Divinity at Marischal College, Aberdeen (1624-1684), that; "Such was his uncommon fervour in the pulpit, that we are informed, he used to change his shirt always after preaching, and to wet two or three napkins with tears every sermon."

The First Church of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand
showing the unusually wide and centrally positioned
Pulpit in the raised Sanctuary area
[From my own collection]

This reminds me of the unusually wide pulpit in the First Church of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, having been, of necessity, doubled in width for the Scottish born and Edinburgh trained Rev. Thomas Nisbet sometime after 1904 due to his decidedly "peripatetic" [i.e. physically active and spirited] manner of preaching.

In 1653, John Lamont of Newton Parish in Fife, Scotland wrote in his journal of great occasions where several clergymen would be present at one service so that when one was fatigued another would take his place; "the patience of the hearers being apparently inexhaustible" and "to hear a favoured preacher, they would incur any fatigue, and would undertake long journeys without sleep or food. Their power of attention was marvellous. The same congregation would sometimes remain together for ten hours, listening to sermons and prayers, interspersed with singings and readings."

But Lamont is also widely credited with this perceptive comment;

"Nothing can justify a long sermon, 
If it be a good one it need not be long;
And if it be a bad one it ought not to be long."  

"The Convenanters' Preaching"
By George Harvey
[Source : Google Public Commons]

Prior to "The Glorious Revolution" of 1688 (when the Catholic Stuart rulers were replaced by the Protestant Hanoverians) and the abandonment of forced episcopacy ["English" style Church Governance such as appointed Bishops and Curates], the Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters, who figure largely in my own family history, would gather in the hilly moors for secret and highly illegal outdoor 'conventicles' [gatherings] to hear preaching and sing metrical psalms which would often last the whole day. If caught attending such conventicles hearers risked imprisonment and confiscation of property (one of my Covenanting forebears was shot and is thus commemorated as a martyr) while preachers faced certain public death by hanging but all relished the opportunity to gather together for extended worship and fellowship and to hear the Word of God.

Rev Charles Spurgeon in his Library
[Source :]

The still well known and popular English Baptist Pastor Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), and when giving an address to workmen in January 1872, offered his own succinct opinion on not just the ideal length of a sermon but also the use of "big words";

"Long sermons... were a great evil. If a parson preached a long sermon, it was because he had 'nothing to say. It might appear odd, but it was nevertheless a fact, that, when people had nothing to say, they took a long time about it; but when they had got something worth telling, they out with it at once. Therefore, he repeated, when a man makes a long sermon, he sets out with a very little, and begins to spin, spin, spin.

...Some persons, said Mr Spurgeon, complain that they cannot understand the sermons they hear. The reason was, that ministers would use big words. He (Mr Spurgeon) always endeavoured to get rid of all the big words out of his sermons, and was as particular as their wives were to get the stones out of the plum-pudding. They would get in somehow, but the main thing was to preach as simply as possible."

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers.
From a calotype taken circa 1843
[Source : University of Edinburgh]

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers F.R.S.E. (1780 - 1847), the great Scottish Presbyterian Theologian, Lecturer, and Leader of the Scottish Free Church after the "Disruption" of 1843, also offered his own personal opinion on this issue, clearly emphasizing that the quality of a sermon is preferable over quantity;

"...once asked how long it took to make a sermon. " That," he replied, "depended Upon how long you wanted it. If your sermon is to be half an hour long, it will take you three days. If it is to be three-quarters of an hour, it may take you two days, or perhaps only one; but if you are going to preach for an hour, why there is not much occasion to think a great deal about it. It may be done in an hour."

Again, Spurgeon, and clearly emphasizing Chalmer's pointed opinion, writes;

"If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say. A man with a great deal of well-prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes, and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it in. Attend to these minor things and they will help to retain attention." 

A method by which worshippers attempted to keep awake is related by a family relative. On a sentimental journey back to revisit the place of his birth in and around Roslin in 1881 he recalled of his youth and when attending worship in the United Presbyterian Church at Brigend;

"When the sermon was rather long and the folks got sleepy there was always somebody with a snuff box to hand round so that the senses of the hearers should be sharpened up, and we youngsters always got hold of a peppermint drop from somebody’s pocket, towards the end of the sermon there was such a smell of peppermint that you might have scented out the Kirk from Auchendenny."

My Gt.Gt. Grandmother's Collection
of "Spurgeon's Sermons"
[From my own collection]

But again, our friend Charles Spurgeon can be quoted on this subject, recounting the rebuke received by, I dare say, a somewhat astonished Minister. Enough said!

"The minister who recommended the old lady to take snuff in order to keep from dozing was very properly rebuked by her reply,--that if he would put more snuff into the sermon she would be awake enough. We must plentifully cast snuff into the sermon, or something yet more awakening."

The Parish History of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Geraldine, New Zealand relates the subtle but apparently ineffectual means by which the Session sought to encourage their apparently blind Minister to spend rather less time in the pulpit;

"The Rev George Barclay of Geraldine suffered to such an extent from failing eyesight that he was forced to travel to England for eye surgery in 1882. Although returning with his eyesight somewhat restored, he is reported to have suffered 'recurrences' of blindness when he could not see the large clock which an Elder had placed in the Church to gently remind him that his sermons might be a little shorter....."

A correspondent replying to an Editorial relating to long sermons in the Nelson Evening Mail of June 1877 writes;

"It is rather owing to my observation of the effect of long sermons, the result of which after a regular attendance at church for many years is the conviction that they produce restlessness, inattention, and a disposition to levity in the congregations to which they are preached. On the other hand I have noticed that where the sermon is brief, and well considered, and thoroughly digested by the preacher before delivery, the effect produced is manifest in the church, and is perceptible outside it. In the one case the congregation leaves with a sensation of relief that the end has been reached, and frequently with an unmistakeable expression of weariness; in the other with an equally strongly expressed feeling of interest in the subject they have heard discussed, and of satisfaction with the preacher who without tiring them has given them something to think over on their return to their homes." 

Not mincing their words, another correspondent also replied;

"Do clergymen often or ever think of the positive harm as well as the possible good their Sermons may do? If they did, I venture to think they would always have in mind two things, not to weary their listeners with a superfluity [excess] of words, and not to shock them with illustrations and language that would not be tolerated elsewhere. If we go back to, apostolic times, the only evidence we have proves that the discourses of the Apostles were short, stirring, and practical. And our Lord's sermon on the Mount is the best of all models as to what a sermon should be."

"The Colonist" newspaper of January 1880 relates the story of the Minister who 'dupes' his hearers with the expectation that his lengthy sermon is coming to a close; 

"It's bad enough for a minister to preach a long sermon, but when he fools the congregation about every ten minutes by remarking that he has only a word more to say, and does not desire to try the patience of his hearers, it becomes almost time for somebody to rise to a point of order or for the sexton to turn off the gas [lamps]."

Before we move onto some amusing general observations on Ministers and Sermons I will again leave the last word to Charles Spurgeon, quoting from his classic, "Lecture to my Students";

"Over the head of military announcements our English officers always place the word "ATTENTION!" in large capitals, and we need some such word over all our sermons. We need the earnest, candid, wakeful, continued attention of all those who are in the congregation. If men's minds are wandering far away they cannot receive the truth, and it is much the same if they are inactive. Sin cannot be taken out of men, as Eve was taken out of the side of Adam, while they are fast asleep. They must be awake, understanding what we are saying, and feeling its force, or else we may as well go to sleep too. There are preachers who care very little whether they are attended to or not; so long as they can hold on through the allotted time it is of very small importance to them whether their people hear for eternity, or hear in vain: the sooner such ministers sleep in the churchyard and preach by the verse on their gravestones the better."

Now what of the content and delivery of sermons? Spare a passing thought for those in Falmouth England who will have literally squirmed in their pews with literally no where to hide as they found themselves personally and roundly denounced from the pulpit during a sermon in 1876. This was taking the line "We are all Sinners" rather too far;

"The M. P.'s for Falmouth, who, with Mayor, Magistrates, and . Councillors, attended service at the Parish Church on Sunday morning, were quite unprepared for the reception with which they met. The junior curate delivered a long sermon, filled with unsparing denunciation of every class conspicuously represented in the congregation. Members of Parliament were declared to be time-servers; magistrates to be prejudiced, lawyers to be venial, journalists to be blind, policeman to be bribed, tradesmen to be fraudulent, and society in general utterly, rotten. The distinguished visitors present were both enraged and amused."

Cardinal Manning
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

And then we have an aged Henry Edward Manning, the 80 year old Catholic Cardinal and Bishop of Westminster (also a widower and convert from Anglicanism) who must take the supreme award for sheer performance and delivery;

"Cardinal Manning on Sunday, March 25 [1888], at the Pro-Cathedral, Kensington, performed another of those astonishing tours de force which render it difficult for his flock to believe that he is really an older man than Mr Gladstone. The Cardinal, attired in full pontificals - cope of cloth of gold, and jewelled mitre, held in his left hand his gold crozier or episcopal staff during his long sermon, which lasted exactly fifty -five minutes. He held his congregation also, which was even more remarkable than the holding of his crozier."

But we should not omit the description of the "Awfully Profound Minister" as given to Brooklyn Lay College Students during an address on "Good and Bad Ministers" by the American Preacher, Dr T. De Witt Talmage (1832 - 1902), so "that our young men may be induced to avoid the undesirable and emulate that which is holy and right";

"He deals in metaphysics - talks about the laws of perception, the system of consequences, hypothosis, peripatetic doctrines, and apologetics until the audience can hardly see their hand before their face. He has a learned way of pushing back his spectacles, a learned way of employing his pocket-handkerchief. I have heard him cough until I could hear the echo of the ages. The audience does not know what he is talking about, and he does not know either. The only cheerful part of his sermon is when he gets through."

Rev Daniel Dutton of Caversham Presbyterian Church
Dunedin Worshipping the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness.
Taken during Harvest Thanksgiving, circa 1911-1915
[Source PCANZ Archives] 

And finally, the Scottish born and trained Rev W. Gray Dixon of St David's Presbyterian Church in Auckland, New Zealand would certainly fit into the intellectual category, having formerly been an English Professor prior to training for the ministry. While the published history of a later parish confirms that his sermons were indeed of a very scholarly nature, and I dare say with more than a few "big words", who would not want to have worshiped in the 'Beauty of Holiness' (Psalm 96:9) and to have been carried on an "intoxicating" journey through the Scriptures by this learned and much loved Minister?  

" ex-professor of 'belles lettres' [beautiful writing]; a widely-read student of Church history; a truly erudite [learned & scholarly] theologian; a preacher who loved to wander through sunlit meadows; pelt his people with violets and primroses, and intoxicate them with perfumes : withal a man whose courtly, gracious manner, and utter affability, disarmed prejudice, and, coupled with his other gifts, secured for him the status of a leader".
[From "The Story of St David's, Auckland", 1921]

All Rights Reserved


- Papers Past
- Reformation 21 Blog (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals)
- History of Civilization in England" Vol 3, 1894
- "The Diary of Mr John Lamont of Newton, 1649-1671"
- "The Reformed Reader"
- Various Internet sources
- Personal Family Papers and Photographs

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