Project Canterbury

Some Archbishops of Dublin
by T. S. Lindsay.

Dublin: Church of Ireland Printing Co., 1928.

Soporific Sermons

IT is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles that one Sunday, during Evening Service at Troas, a young man went to sleep during the sermon, and fell out of the window with fatal results, which St. Paul, by the exercise of his miraculous power, was fortunately able to rectify. St. Luke assigns two reasons for this somnolence, first, that there were many lights in the room, which, no doubt, exhausted the oxygen in the air, and secondly, that the sermon was a long one, for it was midnight when the accident occurred. Doubtless Eutychus was a healthy young fellow who had worked in the open air all day, and it was long past his usual time for going to bed. St. Luke did not think the worse of St. Paul for discoursing at such length; on the contrary, he considered it a great proof of his zeal and his ability, as well as of the devotion of the congregation who listened to him, hour after hour, with unabated interest and rapt attention. And St. Paul did not regard the young man's fall as a warning against long sermons, for we read that after his resuscitation he talked again a long while, even till break of day. And no one appears to have thought the fact that Eutychus yielded to the soft allurement of sleep as deserving of any blame.

Dean Swift, however, took a different view. "Of all misbehaviour," he says in a sermon on the Fall of Eutychus, "none is comparable to that of those who go to Church to sleep. Opium," he adds, "is not so stupefying to many persons as an afternoon sermon; perpetual custom has so brought it about that the words of whatever preacher become only a sort of uniform sound at a distance, than which nothing is more effectual to lull the senses. For that it is the very sound of the sermon which bindeth up their faculties is manifest from hence, because they all awake so regularly as soon as it ceaseth, and with much devotion receive the blessing." Swift contributed an article to The Tatler in which he describes a parishioner complaining of the Vicar, that "generally, when his Curate preaches in the afternoon, he sleeps sitting in his desk on a hassock." The Curate probably did not dare so to misbehave himself while the Vicar was preaching in the morning, but it must be remembered that since then both Vicar and people had indulged in a plentiful dinner, and the process of digestion does not tend to wakefulness.

But Cowper, later in the century, does imagine such an unlikely case. It is the Rector who drones above, the Curate who dozes below. Probably he had for once allowed the Curate to take the morning Sermon.

We find the lines in The Task:

"Sweet sleep enjoys the Curate in his desk,
The tedious Rector drawling o'er his head,
And sweet the clerk below."

The clerk! Could we expect him, with the example of the clergy before his eyes, to resist the temptation? And if reprimanded, he had his excuse ready. "Sandy," said a Scotch minister to his beadle, "how is it that when a stranger preaches you are briskly attentive, but when your own Pastor tries to instruct you, you invariably doze?" "Deed, Sir, a can sune explain that. When ye're in the poupit yersel, a ken its a' richt, but when a stranger is here, a like to watch his doctrine a wee."

But it was not only the Church functionaries that thus yielded to the seductive influences of dinner and of lack of ventilation. It was the regular and accepted custom for the people. Goldsmith, in his Citizen of the World, makes a Chinese traveller describe his experiences in England. "The Priest himself, in a drowsy tone, read over the duties of the day. 'Bless my eyes,' cried I, as I happened to look towards the door, 'what do I see? One of the worshippers fallen asleep, and actually sunk down on his cushion; is he now enjoying the benefit of a trance, or does he receive the influence of some mysterious vision?' 'Alas! alas!' replied my companion, 'no such thing, he has only had the misfortune to eat too hearty a dinner, and finds it impossible to keep his eyes open.'" And Addison, in his inimitable picture of Sir Roger de Coverley, the typical country gentleman, describes him as landlord to the whole congregation in Church, and as such keeping them in very good order, and suffering nobody to sleep during Service but himself. "For if by chance he has been surprised with a short nap at sermon, upon recovering out of it he stands up and looks about him, and if he sees anybody else nodding, either wakes them himself or sends his servant to them." But the allusions to this prevalent habit in books of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are very numerous. Pope propounded the query whether churches are not dormitories of the living as well as of the dead. Hogarth drew a picture entitled "The Sleeping Congregation," with a heavy parson promoting the slumbers of his flock. And Ben Jonson, a century before, extolled the efficacy of a prescription for insomnia, which was to go to church thrice a week to hear a preacher under whom no one could keep awake. We recall the story of Jamie Fraser, the half-witted looney, who sat in the front gallery wide awake while the people dozed below. The minister paused in his discourse to reprove them. "You see," said her "even Jamie Fraser, the idiot, does not fall asleep, as so many of you are doing." To which an instant reply came in a shrill voice from the gallery: "An a hadna been an idiot a wad ha' been sleeping too." George Eliot, in her Scenes of Clerical Life, tells of Mr. Fitchett, a tall fellow, once footman in the Oldinport family, but gone down in the world, who "had an irrepressible tendency to drowsiness under spiritual instruction, and in the recurrent regularity with which he dozed off until he nodded and awaked himself, looked not unlike a piece of mechanism, ingeniously contrived for measuring the length of Mr. Barton's discourse." And in Mr. Gilfil's Love Story, perhaps the most touching of all her tales, she describes the two o'clock Service in Knebley Church in the day of a former Mr. Oldinport, when the Squire and Lady Felicia Oldinport "made their way among the bows and curtsies of their dependants to a carved and canopied pew in the chancel, diffusing as they went a delicate odour of Indian roses on the unsusceptible nostrils of the congregation. The farmers' wives and children sate on the dark oaken benches, but the husbands usually chose the distinctive dignity of a stall under one of the twelve Apostles, where, when the alternation of prayer and responses had given place to the agreeable monotony of the sermon, Paterfamilias might be seen, or heard, sinking into a pleasant doze, from which he infallibly woke up at the sound of the concluding Doxology. And then they made their way back again through the miry lanes, perhaps almost as much the better for this simple weekly tribute to what they knew of good and right as many a more wakeful and critical congregation of the present day." John Galt, in his delightful Annals of the Parish, the supposed journal of a quaint, simple-minded Presbyterian Minister, tells of Mr. Pittle, a man whose sermons in the warm, summer afternoon were just a perfect hushabaa, said the Provost's wife, that no mortal could hearken to without sleeping. And James Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd, critically observed the female countenances at such times. "As for the auld wives, they lay their big bonnetted heads on their shoulders, and fa' o'wer into a deep sleep at once, yet you'll never hear a single one of them committing a snore. .... But the curiousest thing to obsairve among the lasses, when they are getting drowsy during sermon, is their een. First a glazedness comes over them, and the lids fa' down, and are lifted up at the rate of about ten in the minute. Then the puir creatures gie their heads a shake, and unwillin' to be o'ercome, try to find out the verse the Minister may be quotin', but a' in vain, for the hummin' stillness o' the kirk subdues them into sleep, and the sound o' the preacher is in their lugs like a waterfa'."

Tennyson's famous hero, the old style Northern farmer, in his death-bed self eulogy, almost boasts:--

"An' I hallus coomed to 's chooch afore moy Sally war dead
An' 'eard 'urn a bummin' awaay loike a buzzard-clock ower moy 'ead,
An' I niver knawed what a meaned, but I thowt a 'ad summut to saay,
An' I thowt a said whot a owt to a' said an' I coomed awaay."

I remember the late Earl of Meath, an old man 40 years ago, describing for me the family pew in St. Peter's Church in Dublin, where they attended during their winter stay in town, in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was a square, roomy apartment, with a fire poked in cold weather to make them comfortable. The walls of this pew were decorated with sporting prints, and it was furnished with easy-chairs, in which the worshippers sat during the lessons, the prayers and the sermon. They stood for the Creed and the Psalms--they never knelt. But he did not think that anyone ever really attended to what was going on; they were satisfied that the respected Parson, with the Clerk, did everything correctly, and as they lay back in their chairs they either meditated on other matters or slumbered peacefully.

Well, things are greatly changed now, and various causes may be assigned for this. In the first place, churches are better ventilated, and people are learning the value of fresh air. In the second place, afternoon Services, following a heavy dinner, have gone out of fashion. In the third place, it is no longer thought disgraceful for a man to be a cultor paucus et infrequens; a great many of our nominal Church people go seldom or never to church, and as those who do go are more religious and attentive, old bad habits are dying out. But lastly, and perhaps chiefly, both Services and sermons are shorter than they used to be, and the present tendency is to shorten them still more. In old times .sermons were very long indeed; an hour-glass was a frequent ornament of a pulpit, and we read of cases where the preacher used to turn it when the sand was down, and proceed. Now, a quarter of an hour is a usual time, and often ten minutes. But furthermore, sermons are brighter, more practical and better delivered than formerly. The one indispensable quality of the old sermon was soundness; of the new sermon that it should be interesting.

Since I have enjoyed more leisure for reading, I have, among other things, been skimming through the works of Eusebius, and have found them, somewhat to my surprise, full of interest. Among them are several sermons and addresses on special occasions, which he introduces by some such words as, " a person of very moderate abilities then said." They are, in their way, very fine, but they are very long, and I doubt if he could have held his hearers' attention to the end. A vast number of the sermons and homilies of Chrysostom have come down to us, orthodox, vivid and practical, but tremendously long. But perhaps his beautiful voice and splendid oratory, and the greater patience of those times, kept the audience on the alert, and they manifested their approval by frequent bursts of applause. To less gifted preachers they were less attentive, and Origen complains that much disturbance arose from the people busying themselves during his sermon with secular gossip. Women, he says, were especially troublesome, making such a noise with chattering about their children, their woolwork and their domestic affairs, that he was sometimes barely able to collect his thoughts.

Puritan sermons were very long. When I was a Curate in Bray a worthy parishioner presented me with a number of volumes of discourses by Puritan Divines, bound in worm-eaten calf, with the suggestion that they would be very edifying if delivered in St. Paul's Church. I calculated that none of them would occupy less than an hour, some of them nearer two. I suspect that my excellent friend did not really mean me to read them in public, but that he had a two-fold purpose in the gift, first, to provide more room on his own shelves, possibly for cheap novels, and secondly, to gain some credit for generosity. I took the opportunity of forgetting them when I moved to Malahide, and perhaps my worthy landlady improved the quiet hours of Sunday afternoons by studying them.

But, really, the Sunday sermon is a great opportunity. The people want to be helped, to be taught, to be comforted, to be uplifted, to be inspired. They want to be made feel the love of our Heavenly Father, to be made into truer and more devoted followers of Christ, to be helped to make the Holy Spirit a welcome guest in their hearts.

Let me end by quoting a few verses from Primate Alexander's fine poem, The Preacher's Meditation:--

"And at times give me the trembling,
Inevitable words that none forget.
Give the living golden moments
When a thousand eyes are lit and wet,
And some pathos makes the silence
Palpitate, and grow more silent yet.

"And a thousand hearts together
Are as one, love-fused and reconciled,
And a thousand passionate natures
Hardened by the world and sin-defiled,
Look upon me for a moment,
With the soft eyes of a little child.

"So for all these thousand spirits,
Differing more than any faces do,
Christ through me may have some message
That shall be at once both old and new,
And my sinful human brethren
Through my sinful lips learn something true."

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