Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Error of Extempore Prayer and Preaching
By Thomas Sprat (16351713)
From a Visitation Discourse
WE have lived in an age, when the two gifts, as they were wont to be called, of extempore praying and extempore preaching, have been more pretended to and magnified than, I believe, they ever were before, or, I hope, ever will be again, in the Church and nation. Yet, for all I could ever learn or observe, the most sudden readiness and most profuse exuberancy in either of these ways has been only extempore in show and appearance, and very frequently but a cunningly dissembled change of the very same matter and words often repeated, though not in the same order.
As to that of extempore praying, which therefore too many mistake for praying by the spirit, it is manifest that the most exercised and most redundant faculty in that kind, is, in reality, only praying by the fancy or the memory, not the spirit. They do but vary and remove the Scripture style and language, or their own, into as many places and shapes and figures as they can. And though they have acquired never so plentiful a stock of them, yet still the same phrases and expressions do so often come about again, that the disguise may quickly be seen through by any attentive and intelligent hearer. So that, in plain terms, they who think themselves most skilful in that art do really, all the while, only pray in set forms disorderly set and never ranged into a certain method. For which cause, though they may not seem to be forms to their deluded auditors, yet they are so in themselves; and the very persons who use them most variously, and most artificially, cannot but know them to be so.
This, my brethren, seems to be all the great mystery of the so much boasted power of extempore praying. And why may not the like be affirmed, in great measure, of extempore preaching, which has so near an affinity with the other? Is not this also, at the bottom, only a more crafty management of the same phrases and observations, the same doctrines and applications, which they had ever before provided and composed, and reserved in their memories?
Do but hear the most voluble masters in this way once or twice, or perhaps oftener, as far as their changes shall reach, and at first, no doubt, you will be inclined to wonder at the strange agility of their imaginations and compass of their inventions and nimbleness of their utterance. But if you shall attend them calmly and constantly the vizor will be quickly pulled off, though they manage it never so dexterously; you will at last find that they only walk forward and backward and round about: one, it may be, in a larger labyrinth than another, but in a labyrinth still; through the same turnings and windings again and again, and, for the most part, guided by the same clue.
The explanations, perhaps, of their texts, the connections and transitions of the parts, and some sudden glosses and descants and flights of fancy may seem new to you. But the material points of doctrine and the commonplaces to which upon any loss or necessity they have recourse, these they frequently repeat, and apply to several subjects with very little alteration in the substance, oftentimes not in the words. These are the constant paths which they scruple not to walk over and over again, till, if you follow them very close, you may perceive, amidst all their extempore pretensions, they often tread in the same rounds, till they have trodden them bare enough.
But, God be thanked, the Church of England neither requires, nor stands in need of any such raptural (if I may so call it) or enthusiastic spirit of preaching. Here the more advised and modest, the more deliberate and prepared the preacher is, the better he is furnished, by Gods grace, to deliver effectually our Churchs solid sense, its fixed precepts, its unalterable doctrines. Our Church pretends not to enter into mens judgments merely by the affections; much less by the passions to overthrow their judgments. The door, which that strives first to open, is of the understanding and conscience: it is content, if by them a passage shall be made into the affections.