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Marmontel (1723-99) insisted that it was unnecessary to trouble churchgoers with doctrine, since the fact that they were present in church proved them to be Christians already; hence, the purpose of the sermon should be to turn loyal Christians into virtuous churchgoers.23

In a hermeneutics sharply criticized by, among others, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), the biblical text was seen as an historically outmoded husk in which a kernel of truth was preserved. Those verities which Jesus and his apostles had adapted to the limited understanding of their own contemporaries now had to be reaccommodated to the somewhat superior capacity of late eighteenth-century audiences. This entailed an attack on the Canaan-ite tongue utilized by previous generations and epitomizing its obsolescence by such unintelligible expressions as 'children of wrath', 'putting on Christ' and 'being in the letter of circumcision'. To combat this 'orientalism', a German preacher might make use of the Wörterbuch des Neuen Testaments zur Erklärung der christlichen Lehre (1772) by Wilhelm Abraham Teller. According to Teller's dictionary 'conversion' was simply an archaic term signifying 'self-improvement'. The preacher thus turned into the teacher and 'enlight-ener' of his congregation. For preachers such as Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Jerusalem (1709-89), whose sermons were widely enjoyed by educated publics throughout Europe, the sermon was a principal agency of enlightenment, moral integrity, and spiritual equanimity.

Preachers now often addressed themselves specifically to what they regarded as the atheism needlessly rampant in the higher social circles. Apologetics developed into a prominent theme, Mosheim (among many others) producing a sermon on 'The foolishness of scoffers at religion'. If sermons ought to reformulate and defend the meaning of biblical texts, they should also be useful. This emphasis on utility led some sermonizers to discuss such topics as the advantage of feeding livestock in stables (appropriately held during Christmas), the possibility of being buried alive (preached at Easter) and medical theories promising a healthier and longer life. In general, the successful pastoral response to the development of an articulate public open to moral guidance but free to pick and choose its spiritual shepherds reaffirmed the status of the sermon as a primary means of oral transmission. Preachers preferred reaching audiences effectively and publicly to endorsing traditional assumptions in institutional environments. One consequence was the growing respectability of those sermons held outside the established churches. In the twilight of the ancien regime, the independent sermon of the revivalist movements and missionary societies had become a valued mode of religious oratory.

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