Trollope on Sermons

I’m reading Barchester Towers. Oh, the deliciousness of this book. Rush out and get it if you have not yet read it. Possibly you should start with The Warden, the first of the Chronicles of Barsetshire. I totally meant to do that, but didn’t. People kept saying Barchester Towers was their favourite, so to Barchester Towers I went. I’m not very far in yet, but have found a fabulous rant on sermons which I think as pertinent today as when Trollope wrote it a little over 150 years ago. This is at the end of the sixth chapter of the first volume, a chapter called “War.”

There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law or physic find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth on empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. … A member of Parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age … the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday’s rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God’s service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, no we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.

Excellent. Good preaching is a huge part of picking a church to go to for me. I’ve experienced quite enough of the tedium and heard too much bad interpretation (Trollope hits poor interpretation of the Bible in the paragraph that follows the quote above) to settle for listening to bad preaching as a routine part of church-going.

I am, however, not just a listener to sermons. I also preach. As a preacher I cringe at the description above and aspire to greater heights. I hope fellow preachers will do the same. Platitudes are insufficient. Length does not make a good sermon. Obfuscation, poorly chosen illustrations, bad jokes — all these make this hearer wish to flee. A clearly presented word from God, now there’s a good sermon.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Trollope on Sermons

  1. Alice

    Glad you’re reading Barchester Towers — the best is yet to come!

  2. Reblogged this on The Lonely Disciple and commented:
    I preach. I’ve preached around 47 or so sermons in the last year. I suffer from low preaching esteem to be sure. If anyone asks me how things went, I always defer to my wife, because I’ll almost never give myself a good review. This invaluable quote from HW is both helpful and scary for me. The responsibilities of a preacher are great and I’m never sure I do a good job.

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