The history of the sermon in the century and a half between 1660 and 1800 has been described in terms of a turn from 'Baroque' to 'neo-Classical'. This is one plausible perspective. To a literary historian focusing on rhetorical theory, the contrast between Baroque and neo-Classical may seem more relevant than to a theologian interested in the doctrinal differences between post-Tridentine Catholicism and Lutheran orthodoxy. No method of organizing the variegated oratorical landscape of the period will be entirely satisfactory. The labels 'confessional' and 'polite' used here may be helpful to the extent that they shed some light on the engagement of early modern pulpit oratory with political change, communication processes and the development of public opinion. From this point of view, the 'confessional sermon' may be seen as an extension of a public sphere premised on authority and subordination, and the 'polite sermon' as reflecting a public sphere based on such Enlightened virtues as liberty, moderation and articulateness.
Contemporary research tends to evaluate the sermon within the historical context in which it originated, as a means of communication, as a rhetorical instrument implicitly sustaining (and sometimes subverting) the social and political order, and as a mode of discourse reflecting religious mentalities.14 Nineteenth-century historians, who were particularly harsh in their judgement of the later seventeenth-century and the eighteenth-century sermon, set a trend that has begun to fade away only quite recently. The more traditional sermon has long been either associated with old-fashioned devotion or condemned as obscure and unpalatable. Eighteenth-century innovations to the sermon have been denounced as practical, utilitarian, moralistic and superficial, or, alternatively, as reflecting the poised rationality and supposed secularism of the Enlightened mind. Pedantry, pomposity, polemics, and prolixity were qualities already attributed to the confessional sermon in the eighteenth century, when the impulse to reform also led to the first historical surveys of pulpit oratory.15 Partisans of new methods of preaching regretted the slow pace of change. The sermon certainly underwent substantial modifications, but very gradually, and only to a certain extent. A significant number of preachers stuck to traditional ways and methods until well into the period, and among traditionalists, looking wistfully back towards the era of the 'Fathers', demand for the old familiar sermons remained high.
Was this article helpful?