The Decline and Fall of the Protestant Sermon

It triggered a sense of loss and spurred me to a search for the real thing.

Editor’s Note: The piece is the fourth in a five-part series. The first three can be found here, here, and here.

The Episcopal Church of my youth, in a memory now fading around the edge but still vivid at the core, was a place of binary judgments. In those days now long gone, there was right and there was wrong and never were the twain to be conflated. God’s Commandments, which concretized Christian principles, were not offhandedly suggestive. They were starkly dispositive. Old-school sermons pushed home the point that there was His way and the dark way and, pace the triangulators, not much at all in the way of a via media.

When it came to moral conundra, as some of you may recollect, the intellectual living was easy. Clarity had been pressed upon us. We all knew where we stood, which was on the wrong side of the bright red line dividing saint from sinner. And we all knew what we had to do. As John Kennedy put it unforgettably in another context, we had to do better. (You had to be there. JFK’s salty Boston accent gave eternal life to the mundane phrase.)

As even a casual student of human affairs might have guessed, we didn’t do better. In the increasingly politicized view of fancy-pants Protestantism, we began to do worse. And the Episcopal Church, with theatrical reluctance, seized the opportunity to gather more extra-cathedral responsibility into its own well-manicured hands.

It was toward the middle of the Sixties when I first noticed that my church had promulgated its own foreign policy. In matters of war and peace, as also in matters of wealth and poverty, Episcopalians rolled out a series of pronouncements — in sermons, so-called — that were both rhetorically perfervid and objectively anti-American. From the exquisitely carved pulpits of what had once been houses of worship, those of us still trapped in the pews were informed that in Latin America, in Europe, in Africa, and most egregiously of all in Southeast Asia, America’s policy was, in a mendacious usage of an old and honorable word, wrong.

Why was America wrong? Well, take your pick, responded our triangulating pastors. America was wrong because we were disproportionately prosperous or, in the alternative, because we were historically tainted. In the WASPiest of the WASP churches, there was even the suggestion, at first cloaked and furtive, that America was wrong because we were white.

These pronouncements were not based in Scripture. They were not even based in thought. They reflected, rather, a fatal attraction to the editorial page of the New York Times, which for two generations had served as Holy Writ for the secular Left. (Just curious. Can anybody out there tell me when Times editorial writers stopped providing supporting argument for their daily asseveration? My own attention has flagged.)

It was no more than a few years later that the church opened a Bureau of Domestic Affairs, with an apparent mandate to accelerate change in the area of sexual mores. Reproductive rights, gay rights, gender rights, do-over rights — every glandular velleity seemed to be approved explicitly by church doctrine, at least as it was interpreted by the clerisy.

One chilly morning, I found myself at an Episcopal gathering in Portsmouth, N.H., when the presiding bishop announced that he was gay. Unlike my pew-mates, this declaration drew from me, a trained observer of the human parade, no gasps of shock and awe. (Stylistically speaking, His Eminence was not in deep cover.) But you will be relieved to hear that a pack of Green Mountain boys did not then rush the altar. You may be disappointed to hear that the congregation did not even subject him to a classic New England stare-down. No, they leapt to their feet and gave him a sustained and lusty ovation.

I remember asking myself at the time, what is it, exactly, that these people are applauding? We were in the House of God, were we not? We were not in some storefront campaign headquarters, were we? To accept our presiding bishop seemed like the Christian thing to do. To cheer him wildly seemed like an ideological thing to do.

The last time I attended an Episcopal service, I was informed — in a sermon, so-called — that it was God’s Will that the minimum wage be raised to $15 per hour. I had not gleaned that particular insight from my own Bible reading and I had two reactions. The first was a fervent hope that, if He finally speaks to me, we will not dribble away our precious time reviewing, bullet point by bullet point, the political agenda of, say, Kirsten Gillibrand. My second thought was that when divinity students devise economic policy, not to mention national-security strategy, they are likely to look silly, much like a cast of daft characters escaped from a Monty Python sketch.

It should go without saying, but perhaps it needs to be repeated, that if we as individuals wish to gross up a worker’s pay from the ten dollars of value he produces to the 15 dollars he prefers, good for him and good on us. Charity is a widely sanctioned activity, even as far as I can tell by the atavistic lights of the Episcopal Church. But to contend that raising the minimum wage provides some general social benefit is — what’s the word we’re looking for here? — wrong, and those who so contend must be reckoned either nitwits or charlatans. In the present moment, by way of illustration, the estimate would be that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a nitwit and Beto O’Rourke a charlatan. But I may have that backwards.

The decline and fall of the Protestant sermon triggered in me more than a sense of frustration. It triggered a sense of loss and spurred me to a search for the real thing — for the old-time religion preached by men both unclouded by doubts about Him and undistracted by the city lights of contemporary politics. I don’t mean to suggest here a deep and scholarly inquiry. My search was more of an amateur spelunking in church records of the late 17th and early 18th centuries — in the years, that is, leading up to the Great Awakening of 1739. I began with the words of my own forebears, men named Sewall and Mather and Edwards and Moody.

They had much in common, these Yankee preachers. Among the best-educated men in their respective hometowns, they had been schooled not only in history, literature, and Scripture, but also in classical mythology in both its Greek and Roman canons. Their sermons, many of them surviving in published form, read like spruced-up pamphlets — bracing, evocative, hortatory. They were crafted with literary care: There was nothing ad libitum about a sabbath sermon in a jam-packed and more than occasionally snowbound New England church. They were discursive, most of them, short on pith and long on elaboration. (A “feather man” patrolled the aisles, tickling awake, and mortifying, any congregants who nodded off.) Many of these sermons were structured — hinged somewhere near the middle — to allow for a midday break for lunch. It was the Lord’s Day, after all, and the faithful had nothing better to do.

(Indulge, please, a fugitive thought born of a fortnight immersed in well-wrought 18th-century declamation. Along with many other Americans, I have over the course of a lifetime been swept away by the powerful language of Jefferson’s Declaration. His ideas have engaged my mind and secured my assent. It was his eloquence, though — the rolling thunder of patriotic prose — that won my heart. Today, Jefferson speaks to us across the centuries in a language only superficially similar to our own. So is it possible that those brand-new Americans of 1776, all of whom had been steeped in high-order eloquence from the time they could walk to church, were left unmoved by Jefferson’s majestic language? Is it possible that they were able to focus on the ideas themselves, encased in what to them might have seemed straightforward, even unadorned presentation? Is it possible that, inured to the blandishments of eloquence and in the absence of patriotic trill, they could more clearly hear and thus more rationally appraise the fundamental proposition of the Declaration? I wonder. Thus endeth the apostrophe . . .)

As I worked my way through the ancestral trove, a few patterns began to form. Almost all of my preacher-men had delivered at one time or another an “election sermon,” in which the pastor spun commentary on recent voting returns to a congregation that customarily included both the governor and the colonial legislature. (You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that God’s favorite sons, in His inscrutable way, seem to have prevailed in every electoral contest.) Another staple was the “artillery sermon,” which called for the preacher to address military matters of general concern and then pray over the troops. (Pastors, then as now, did not excel at military analysis.) And then there were the many fixed stars in the church calendar — anniversaries, holidays, and such like — none more resoundingly observed than January 30, which marked the execution of Charles I in 1649. Among his more conspicuous sins, Charles had married a Catholic and raised taxes. Cromwell’s republicans found both actions inexcusable, as did much of New England, which was then crawling with anti-papists and proto-supply-siders. Protestant ministers danced on Charles’s grave for decades until he was replaced atop the colonial Most Wanted list by George III himself.

What I found in the old-time religion is that, at least from the pulpit, there was much dreary talk of the “proper ends of civil government.” The pastors, the most ambitious among them anyway, were indefatigable in their search for “just arrangements” between their flocks and the temporal powers of the day. And they took it upon themselves not only to find but to adjudicate the proper balance between the jostling claims of citizen and state.

What I found in the old-time religion, albeit dressed up in distracting period garb, was pretty much what I’d found in contemporary religion. What I found, in a word, was politics. Seemingly high-minded but ultimately tawdry politics.

I may need to dig a little deeper.

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Neal B. FreemanMr. Freeman is a former editor of and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line. This article has been adapted from his new book, Walk with Me: An Invitation to Faith.


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