Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Puritan Preaching

From the introduction to Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson; G. Herbert, 1864–1866), xxix–xxxi.
The peculiarities of the puritan preaching arose from the circumstances in which they were placed, combined always with their deep piety. Most of them were highly educated men, trained in classics, logics, and ethics at the old universities. In their colleges, and in the Established Church, they had acquired habits of careful study and preparation for the pulpit, which they retained all their lives, whether they remained in or removed from the communion of the Church of England. Meanwhile, in the prosecution of their high aims, they were thrown into the midst of most exciting scenes, which moved society from its base to its summit. They had to make up their minds on most momentous questions, and to come to a public decision, and take their side,—it may be at an immense sacrifice of worldly wealth and status. With a great love for the national Church, and a desire to keep the unity of the faith, they declined, in obedience to what they believed to be the commands of God in his word, to conform to practices which the government, political and ecclesiastical, was imposing on them. In taking their part in the movements of these times, they had to mingle with men of all classes, to write papers of defence and explanation, and at times of controversy, and to transact a multifarious business, with bearings on statesmen on the one hand, and the mass of the people on the other. Out of this state of things arose a style of exposition different from that of the retired scholar on the one hand, and from that of the man of bustle on the other; equally removed from the manner of the independent churchman and of the ever stirring dissenter. The discourses are by men of thought and erudition, who must draw their support from the great body of the people, and address in one and the same sermon both men and women belonging to all ranks and classes. We see those characteristics in every treatise of Owen and Baxter and they come out in the discourses of Charnock. 
In most of the writings of the puritans, there is a movement, and in many of them a restlessness, which shew that they were composed for hearers or readers who were no doubt to be instructed, but whose attention required also to be kept alive. Their profound discussions and their erudite disquisitions, having reference commonly to expected, indeed immediate action, are ever mixed with practical lessons and applications which interrupt the argument, and at times give a strain and bias to the interpretation of a passage. In this respect their discourses, written with the picture of a mixed auditory before them, are very different from the essays or dissertations, philosophic or critical, of certain of the Anglican or German divines, who, themselves mere scholars or thinkers, write only for the learned; but possess an interest to them such as cannot attach to spoken addresses in which the popular and the scientific are mixed in every page. 
Because of this attempted combination, the puritans labour under another alleged disadvantage. Most of their writings contain too much thought, too much erudition, and above all too many logical distinctions, to admit of their being appreciated by vulgar readers. With the living voice and the earnest manner to set them off, the sermons may have been listened to with profound interest by large mixed audiences; but in the yellow pages of the old volume they scare those who do not wish to be troubled with active or earnest thought. In this respect they are inferior—some would rather say immeasurably superior—to the popular works produced in our day by evangelical writers both within and beyond the established churches of England and Scotland. They are not characterised by that entire absence, in some cases studious abnegation, of reflective thought and convincing argument, which is a characteristic of some of our modern preachers, who cast away their manhood and pule like infants; nor do they indulge in those stories and anecdotes by which some of our most successful ministers of the word attract and profit large audiences in our times. The puritans had learning, and they gave the results of it to their congregations. They thought profoundly themselves, and they wished to stimulate and gratify thought in their hearers and readers. 
The consequence of all this is, that there is a class who reckon themselves above, and there is a class certainly below, the puritan. There are contemplatists who are disturbed by their feverishness, and scholars who complain of the intrusion of unasked practical lessons. But if these persons would only exercise a little of that patience on which they set so high a value, they would find imbedded in the rich conglomerate of the puritans profound reflections and wise maxims, which could have come only from deep thinkers and scholars, who spent long hours in their studies reading, meditating, and, we may add, praying over the deepest questions which the mind of man can ponder. It is also true that there are men and women of all ranks and conditions who are below the puritans, such as the devourers of novels in our circulating libraries, our men of pleasure and of mere business and agriculture, who have never been led to entertain a thought above their amusements, or their shops and their warehouses, their crops and their cattle; and such are the masses in our great cities, and in our scattered rural districts too, who have been allowed to spring up in utter ignorance, but who would not have been left in such utter degradation if the puritans had been allowed to carry out their system of inspection, catechising, and careful Bible instruction. We allow that persons so untrained to thinking would speedily fall asleep if made to read a puritan treatise, with its deep thoughts and its logical distinctions. The puritan preachers no doubt required a prepared audience; but they had succeeded so far in training intelligent audiences in their own day, and they had a discipline which, if they had been allowed to carry it out, might have prepared the great body of the people for listening to the systematic exposition of the divine word. Nor is it to be forgotten that there are passages in the writings of the best puritans more fitted than any composed by uninspired men to awaken the unthinking and arouse the careless, and compel them to think of the things which belong to their everlasting peace. These passages continue to be regularly quoted to this day, and often constitute the very best parts of the articles in our popular religious literature.