This article is about preaching style and the presence of God in preaching and the worship service. 

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1992. 2 pages.

New England Preachers and the Presence of God

Harry Stout is the Professor of American Religious Study at Yale University. This book is the first of his study of over 2,000 New England sermons, both printed and hand written, from five generations. The picture of New England preachers that emerges is of men who were not only exemplary students of the original languages of Scripture, but who prepared their own hearts before speaking to others.

Stout describes Cotton Mather while preparing a sermon on 'the sacrifice of a glorious Christ'. As he did so he would apply the Word to himself, aware that he needed the benefits of the cross.

I loathed and judged myself before the Lord exceedingly. The victories which temptation had obtained over me filled me with unspeakable confusion. I thought that as vile as I was yet it was my duty to look still unto the Lord for pardon and healing. So I pleaded the great sacrifice. I cried unto a glorious Christ that he would be my advocate. I begged, I begged that a holy heart might be bestowed upon me, because a glorious Christ had purchased it for me, and by his death purchased the death of my sin. I begged that the dreadful wrath of heaven might not break forth against me, nor against my flock, nor against my poor family for my sin.

Then Mather turned to the text and first preached to himself the message of comfort he would then bring to his congregation on the Sunday (p. 151).

But Josiah Crocker, while agreeing with that method of thorough personal preparation, made a plea for some flexibility and the benefits of spontaneity, and he wrote:

I think, indeed, it is my duty to study my sermons as well as I am able, and to labour to feel the power of them upon my own heart before I deliver them to the people; yet I believe ministers may sometimes be called in providence to preach when they had not had an opportunity for such preparatory studies as might be their duty at other times, and then, they may humbly look up to the Holy Spirit for, and expect, his gracious assistance answerable to their necessities. (p. 219)

The preaching Whitefield encouraged was extemporaneous. He said,

I think the ministers preaching almost universally by note (i.e., with a MS), is a mark that they have, in great measure, lost the old spirit of preaching. Though they are not to be condemned who use notes, yet it is a symptom of the decay of religion, when reading sermons becomes fashionable where extempore preaching did once almost universally prevail. (p. 192)

John Barnard of Marblehead took about four hours to write out his sermon of an hour and a quarter's length. The value of this was that it helped him memorise it better. But in the pulpit he hardly glanced at the manuscript:

I kept indeed my notes open, and turned over the leaves as though I had read them, yet rarely casting my eye upon my notes, unless for the chapter and verse of a text which I quoted. (p. 153)

Whitefield himself recounts an experience of immediate help in preaching. Once when speaking in Philadelphia he recorded:

At dinner I had not fixed upon a text. When I was going to preach, I was so ill that some of my friends advised me to go home. I thought it best to trust in God. I went on, began preaching, and found my heart somewhat refreshed; but all on a sudden, my soul was so carried out to talk against depending on our natural reason, that my friends were astonished, and so was I too: for I felt the Holy Ghost come upon me, and never spoke on this wise before. (Journals, p. 492)

The preaching was frequently vivid: 'John Mayo, for example, likened the human predicament of man without God to that of one who was cast forth 'into the sea in a little cork boat without oars or sails'. Without the wind of the Spirit and the compass of the Word he would drift aimlessly for ever' (p. 44). The preaching was deeply earnest: Cotton Mather cries: 'The Lord is coming, is coming, is coming, the great and terrible day of the Lord, it is near, it is near wherein the mighty man shall cry bitterly' (p. 103). Joshua Moodey warned his hearers: 'You shall be held accountable not only for all the sermons you have heard, but also for those you might have heard' (p. 104).

The longing of these preachers was for God's presence in their midst. As Eleazar Mather taught: 'The continuance of the Lord's gracious presence with a people, from fathers to children after them, is a special favour of God, and much to be desired by all that are cordial to the weal (welfare) of the Israel of God' (p. 67). Such tokens of God's presence were experienced by most ministers once or twice during their ministries (p. 98), for example, in 1678 Increase Mather reported a 'shower of converting grace' in a congregation in Milford, Connecticut. He noted how eighty persons had come before the church in his own congregation in Boston. They had 'declared what God has done for their souls, and in that way subscribed their names to the God of Israel' (p. 98).

Under George Whitefield such awakenings were experienced in a number of congregations, and Stout transcribes the response of two ministers to hearing Whitefield preach: 'What do you think of the man and his itinerant preachings I scarcely know. The things which I know not I pray to God to teach me. Wherein I am in error I pray God to discover it to me. Wherein I have embraced the truth I pray God that I might hold it fast to the end' (p. 195). Jonathan Parsons of Lyme noted how Whitefield's sermon had had 'great influence on my mind. God made use of frequent accounts about Whitefield to awaken my attention, to humble me for past deadness, and rouse me up to see my own standing, and sound an alarm in some poor sort, to a drowsy, careless people' (p. 358).

New England preachers were as attentive in trying to understand recent providences as they were in remembering those that had formed their nation. They had 'a deep-seated conviction, nurtured over three New England generations, that if they did not know their history they did not know God' (p. 136).

Professor Stout deals sympathetically with that notorious episode in New England history involving the hanging of witches in Salem village (pp. 114-15). A new pastor, Samuel Parris, identified evil happenings in the community with witchcraft. There were social fears and political tensions brewing. There existed warring factions in Salem Town and Salem Village. His preaching exacerbated the situation, encouraging the villagers to purge their feelings of frustration and guilt by locating and destroying the 'witches' in their midst. Before the panic subsided and the neighbouring evangelical ministers intervened to halt the judicial proceedings, over 150 suspected witches had been imprisoned and nineteen hanged at 'Witches' Hill' on the western side of the town. These Calvinistic ministers perceived how the accusations at Salem had got out of hand and they played the leading role in halting the prosecutions and arranging the release of the accused women. The story is one of the danger of the mob, and moral cowardice and the power of demagogy deserves the full attention it has received. But its anomalousness must be stressed as well. It was viewed as fearfully by New England evangelists then as it is today.

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