Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
The Parson Preaching
By George Herbert (1593–1633)
From A Priest to the Temple

THE COUNTRY PARSON preacheth constantly; the pulpit is his joy and his throne. If he at any time intermit, it is either for want of health, or against some great festival, that he may the better celebrate it, or for the variety of the hearers, that he may be heard at his return more attentively. When he intermits, he is ever very well supplied by some able man, who treads in his steps, and will not throw down what he hath built; whom also he entreats to press some point, that he himself hath often urged with no great success, that so, in the mouth of two or three witnesses, the truth may be more established. When he preacheth he procures attention by all possible art, both by earnestness of speech (it being natural to men to think that where is much earnestness there is somewhat worth hearing), and by a diligent and busy cast of his eye on his auditors, with letting them know that he observes who marks and who not; and with particularising of his speech—now to the younger folk, then to the elder; now to the poor, and now to the rich: “This is for you, and this is for you;” for particulars ever touch and awake more than generals. Herein also he serves himself of the judgments of God, as those of ancient times, so especially of the late ones; and those most which are nearest to his parish; for people are very attentive at such discourses, and think it behoves them to be so, when God is so near them, and even over their heads. Sometimes he tells them stories and sayings of others, according as his text invites him; for them also men heed and remember better than exhortations, which though earnest, yet often die with the sermon, especially with country people, which are thick and heavy, and hard to raise to a point of zeal and fervency, and need a mountain of fire to kindle them; but stories and sayings they will well remember. He often tells them that sermons are dangerous things, that none goes out of Church as he came in, but either better or worse; that none is careless before his Judge, and that the Word of God shall judge us. By these and other means the parson procures attention; but the character of his sermon is holiness: he is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but holy; a character that Hermogenes 1 never dreamed of, and therefore he could give no precept thereof. But it is gained, first, by choosing texts of devotion, not controversy, moving and ravishing texts, whereof the Scriptures are full. Secondly, by dipping and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts before they come into our mouths, truly affecting and cordially expressing all that we say, so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is heart-deep. Thirdly, by turning often, and making many apostrophes to God, as, “O Lord, bless my people and teach them this point”; or, “O my Master, on whose errand I come, let me hold my peace, and do Thou speak Thyself, for Thou art love, and when Thou teachest all are scholars.” Some such irradiations scatteringly in the sermon, carry great holiness in them. The prophets are admirable in this. So Isaiah lxiv.: “Oh that Thou wouldst rend the heavens, that Thou wouldst come down!” etc.; and Jeremiah x., after he had complained of the desolation of Israel, turns to God suddenly, “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself,” etc. Fourthly, by frequent wishes of the people’s good, and joying therein, though he himself were with St. Paul even sacrificed upon the service of their faith; for there is no greater sign of holiness than the procuring and rejoicing in another’s good. And herein St. Paul excelled in all his Epistles. How did he put the Romans in all his prayers! (Rom. i. 9); and ceased not to give thanks for the Ephesians (Eph. i. 16); and for the Corinthians (chap. i. 4); and for the Philippians made request with joy (chap. i. 4); and is in contention for them whether to live or die; be with them or Christ (verse 23); which, setting aside his care of his flock, were a madness to doubt of. What an admirable epistle is the second to the Corinthians! how full of affections!—he joys and he is sorry, he grieves and he glories: never was there such care of a flock expressed, save in the great Shepherd of the fold, who first shed tears over Jerusalem, and afterwards blood. Therefore this care may be learned there, and then woven into sermons, which will make them appear exceeding reverend and holy. Lastly, by an often urging of the presence and majesty of God, by these or suchlike speeches:—“Oh, let us all take heed what, we do! God sees us, He sees whether I speak as I ought, or you hear as you ought; He sees hearts as we see faces: He is among us; for if we be here, He must be here, since we are here by Him, and without Him could not be here.” Then turn the discourse to His majesty, “And He is a great God and terrible: as great in mercy, so great in judgment. There are but two devouring elements, fire and water: He hath both in Him; His voice is the sound of many waters (Revelation i.); and He himself is a consuming fire (Hebrews xii.).” Such discourses show very holy. The parson’s method in handling of a text consists of two parts: first, a plain and evident declaration of the meaning of the text; and secondly, some choice observations drawn out of the old text as it lies entire and unbroken in the Scripture itself. This he thinks natural and sweet and grave. Whereas the other way of crumbling a text into small parts, as, the person speaking or spoken to, the subject and object and the like, hath neither in it sweetness, nor gravity, nor variety, since the words apart are not Scripture, but a dictionary, and may be considered alike in all the Scripture. The parson exceeds not an hour in preaching, because all ages have thought that a competency, and he that profits not in that time, will less afterwards, the same affection which made him not profit before making him then weary, and so he grows from not relishing to loathing.
Note 1. Hermogenes, a Greek writer on rhetoric, in the age of Marcus Aurelius. [back]

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