Does Anyone Listen to Sermons?

Review by Robert W. Prichard

O.C. Edwards, Jr., former Seabury-Western president and emeritus of preaching, has put together a collection of essays about 19 examples of “Christian proclamation.” His provocative subtitle presumes the answer to a question that has been the object of hearty debate since the American bicentennial. Does American Christianity shape American history? Does it have any effect at all?

A Nation with the Soul of a Church
How Christian Proclamation Has Shaped American History
By O.C. Edwards, Jr.,
with James Dunkly.
Praeger. Pp. 366. $58

Sidney E. Mead (1904-99) framed the debate about the effect of Christianity on American history with a similarly provocative 1967 essay in the journal Church History. Mead’s article and the volume in which it was republished (The Nation with the Soul of a Church, Harper & Row, 1975) popularized G.K. Chesterton’s quip about America that is also the source of O.C. Edwards’s title (see the first chapter of Chesterton’s What I Saw in America, Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1922). Mead answered the question of whether religious institutions shape American history in the negative. He suggested that America’s religious institutions had little direct effect on the life of the nation because, rather than having one predominant religious body, America had “about three hundred collectively incoherent religious institutions whose claims tend to cancel each other out.”

Yet precisely because of their incoherence, American religious institutions did have an indirect effect on the course of American history; their conflicting claims made it necessary for the secular government to take on religious functions, first “to adjudicate these differences” between churches, and then to fill the vacuum created by the inability of squabbling churches by offering the only “cosmopolitan, universal theology” available in the nation (Mead, p. 69). Mead then drew on the work of John E. Smylie to suggest the three basic elements of this universal civil religion: “the nation emerged as the primary agent of God’s meaningful activity in history,” became “the primary society in terms of which individual Americans discovered personal and group identity,” and took on “a churchly function in becoming the community of righteousness” (“National Ethos and the Church,” Theology Today 20 [1963]).

At about the same time, Alan Heimert provided a concrete example of the way in which the American secular government began to take on a quasi-religious function. In his Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Harvard, 1966), Heimert suggested that part of the success in the American Revolution was due to the way in which American politicians drew on the religious language of the Great Awakening in creating support for the revolution.

Together Mead and Heimert provided a picture of American religion characterized by denominational impotence and political cooption of religious themes. The debate about their ideas has continued to reverberate ever since. Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty (Basic Books, 2010) and John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (Westminster John Knox, 2011) are recent examples of authors who part company on whether Heimert properly understood the relationship between the religious themes of the Great Awakening and the political themes of the American Revolution. Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Belknap, 2012) is in one sense a restatement of Mead’s argument on a larger canvas. He sees the fracturing of the church in multiple denominations as a consequence of the Reformation, and the resultant need of the civil government to adjudicate between competing religious groups as a problem not just of the United States but of Western civilization as a whole.

Edwards’s subtitle suggests that he holds a clear position in this continuing debate — not only believing that Christian proclamation does shape history but offering examples to prove the case. Most of his examples are of sermons, but some are not, which is why he used proclamation in his subtitle (p. x).

Edwards’s book does not, however, live up to the title. By the second page of the introduction, Edwards is already retreating from the subtitle’s claim. The proclamations under discussion do not shape history alone or even “cause a basic shift in American opinion,” but play a more modest supporting role. Edwards suggests, for example, that Benjamin Palmer’s sermon in support of Southern withdrawal from the Union “did not cause secession, but it was a catalyst that at least moved it along a little faster.” Such orations do so by putting “into words the shape of” changes in society, providing people with “a vocabulary” to discuss such shifts. Preachers are “among those who have done” this naming of moments of change, but apparently they can claim no monopoly on that role (pp. x-xi).

Individual chapters contain their own qualified claims. Billy Sunday’s sermon on alcohol cannot “claim the credit for the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution” (p. 180). The sermon in which Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., called on God to damn America for racism did not affect the election in which his parishioner Barack Obama was engaged and did not cause “personal damage to Wright’s ministry because he was in the process of retiring,” but it may have affected his reputation (p. 319). In contrast, Edwards complains about the continuing vitality of the civil religious ideas of which Mead wrote. “Almost two-third of the American people continue to believe that ‘the United States has a divinely ordained place in history.’ … Americans should not say, ‘My country right or wrong,’ … We would serve God and our country better if we were more modest” (p. 323).

The essays on sermons and oration in the collection do not offer strong evidence that Christian oration changes American history. Rather, they constitute a kind of chain letter that spans the breadth of American history, as seen through a New England lens: half of the texts come from there, and the essays of those from elsewhere in the country often point to links to figures and to themes common among preachers in New England. The narrative line of the letters chiefly concerns the continuing revision in the Reformed-Calvinist tradition brought to New England by 17th-century Puritans. There are occasions in which questions of political importance — the Civil War, Prohibition, and civil rights — make an appearance, but in general the changes sought by these proclamations are more focused on right belief than shaping American history.

The narrative begins with John Winthrop (chapter 1) and his use of Calvinistic theological themes to prepare Puritan settlers bound for Massachusetts Bay. One of those settlers was clergyman John Cotton, and one of his supporters was Anne Hutchinson (chapter 2). Hutchinson was attracted to views criticized by Winthrop as antinomian (i.e., suggesting that a Christian believer is not bound to follow any moral code); in time many Puritans veered in the opposite direction — Arminianism (the belief that God elects to salvation those foreknown to be obedient). Jonathan Edwards (chapter 3) sought to quell this danger. Edwards was not entirely successful in his effort, however. Jonathan Mayhew (chapter 4) continued to push in an Arminian direction, a trend that culminated in the Unitarianism of William Ellery Channing (chapter 5) and the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson (chapter 6).

Benjamin Morgan Palmer (chapter 7) was a supporter of an Old School Calvinism that was opposed to the direction in which Mayhew, Channing, and Emerson had moved, but it was his identity as a South Carolinian that led him to support secession from the Union. His Amherst classmate Henry Ward Beecher (chapter 8) disagreed with him on two counts. He thought secession and slavery were wrong, and he abandoned Old School Presbyterianism and accepted some elements of modern critical scholarship. Russell H. Conwell (chapter 9) grew up hearing his mother read Beecher’s anti-slavery sermons. He later became a leader in the institutional parish movement, an effort to create a congregation with organizations that met social as well as spiritual needs. Washington Gladden (chapter 10) shared a concern for the needs of the poor, but in the place of Conwell’s prosperity approach his efforts led to the Social Gospel Movement’s critique of the American economic system. Billy Sunday (chapter 11) focused on one particular social problem, alcoholism, and did so with a dramatic and colorful preaching style.

William B. Riley (chapter 12) of the World Conference on Christian Fundamentalism (1919) held theological views that “evolved from the conviction of the Puritan founders of New England” (p. 189). He defended those views from the modernist ideas of Harry Emerson Fosdick (chapter 13). Fosdick made use of the radio to communicate his message, a technique employed with success by Father Charles E. Coughlin (chapter 14). In contrast to Coughlin’s aberrant political and racial views, Reinhold Niebuhr (chapter 15) offered a more sophisticated analysis of American political and religious life. Martin Luther King, Jr. (chapter 16), built on ideas shaped by Niebuhr. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (chapter 17), preached in the prophetic tradition that King exemplified, criticizing the war in Vietnam and calling for tolerance of homosexuality. Billy Graham (chapter 18) knew Riley and King, and had the preaching success of Sunday and political influence that Coughlin sought. The series ends with Wright and the 2008 presidential election.

This chain of sermons makes interesting reading, particularly if read at a slow pace and in combination with the texts. In most cases each chapter is a commentary on the ideas in the preceding one. One could easily use this text to structure a multi-week parish series on the history of preaching. The full texts are not included. The omission is not surprising; all authors and editors must make compromises with length. A consistent and accessible apparatus for pointing the reader to the texts would have been a welcome addition to this volume, however. As it is, readers are left to search the notes, the Web, and the library to find the texts.

The title page and the dedication both bear witness to the role that James Warren Dunkly, lecturer in New Testament and theological librarian of the University of South, played as research associate in this project. Given that this book is the work of two men associated with important Episcopal educational institutions, it is surprising that no Episcopalian appears in the collection. Two works identified in the introduction as partial inspirations for the volume — American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr. (Library of America, 1999) and Larry Witham’s City Upon a Hill: How Sermons Changed the Course of American History (HarperOne, 2007) — could have been used to fill that gap. American Sermons contains sermons by Samuel Johnson, Devereux Jarratt, Absalom Jones, and Phillips Brooks. Witham, who devotes attention to every author in Edwards’s collection except for Wright, refers to Robert Hunt, Phillips Brooks, Stephen Elliott, James Madison, and Randolph McKim.

The absence of Episcopalians may explain the note in the conclusion about a projected sermon that was not included. Edwards had planned for an essay on a sermon delivered at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, Virginia, by assistant rector Patricia L. Merchant on the morning of President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. Edwards explained that he read an online account by a person claiming to be present in the congregation, with President Ford, when Merchant preached it. As Dunkly discovered, though, Ford heard no such sermon; his diaries show he attended another church on that Sunday.
Another persistent rumor has it that on the Sundays before Ford transferred his attendance to St. John’s, Lafayette Square, he arrived for church in a helicopter that landed on the grounds of the Virginia Theological Seminary, where Immanuel Chapel was located. Presidential logs made it clear, however, that Ford traveled to church on those Sundays by car. What did happen, at least on the first Sunday after Ford became president, was that the rector returned from vacation to participate in a service at which Merchant had been scheduled as preacher, because the rector wanted to be the one to address the new president.

Does Christian proclamation shape American history? Perhaps, but this collection will not be the one to put an end to the continuing debate.

Robert W. Prichard is Arthur Lee Kinsolving Professor of Christianity in America and instructor in liturgy at Virginia Theological Seminary.


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