The Victorian Pulpit: Spoken and Written Sermons in Nineteenth-Century Britain

The Victorian Pulpit is the first book to study the nineteenth-century British sermon from the perspective of orality-literacy theory (the branch of literary and rhetorical inquiry concerned with the differences between spoken and written language). Building on the groundbreaking work of Milman Parry in the 1920s Albert B. Lord and Eric A. Havelock in the 1960s and 1970s, and especially Walter J. Ong in the 1970s and 1980s, orality-literacy studies had become an active, wide-ranging discipline by the 1990s, the time the book was conceived and written.

The first part of this study of the sermon as "oral literature" focuses on orality-literacy intersections in the rhetorical and social history of the Victorian pulpit. I begin with homiletic theory, examining Victorian expectations that the preacher exhibit the ethos of the classical orator while delivering sermons exemplifying the literary sophistication of the accomplished essayist. I then consider methods of delivery, analyzing the debate over whether, and to what extent, the artifacts of literacy-manuscripts of sermons and the like-should be introduced into the oral lifeworld of pulpit oratory. Finally, I discuss public reception of the sermon, focusing on how the common practice of attending preaching services on Sunday and reading sermons during the week provides yet another illustration of the intersection of the spoken and the printed word.

The book closes with a comparison of sermons on John 11 preached by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, John Henry Newman and George MacDonald. These three belong to different categories in orality-literacy studies; their work illustrates some of the many ways in which the oral and written traditions intersect in the preaching of Victorian Britain.