Letter to Mr. – on the Meliorating and Beneficial Effects
of Pulpit Elocution
To Mr. –.
I thank you, my friend, for the remarks with which you have favoured me, on the Wakefieldian controversy; the question is I conceive of some importance, and will I have no doubt be ultimately beneficial; received opinions ought to be brought to the test, as in this state of imperfection there is scarcely any thing which will not admit of, nay, does not call for, emendation.
Without adopting Mr. Wakefield’s ideas, you tell me, you yet feel your mind in  some degree affected by them, and that you are struck more especially with his ridicule of the ostentation attending public expressions of devotion, and pulpit oratory.* ]What Mr. W. writes on this subject, reminds me of an anecdote related in Enfield’s History of Philosophy. Antisthenes, the founder of the Cynic sect, used to attend frequently on the lectures of Socrates, and in order to shew his contempt of Athenian refinement was generally attired in a ragged cloak, which instead of attempting to conceal, he took great pains to bring forward to notice; Socrates, who understood the human heart, observing this affectation, asked him if he were not ashamed to display his vanity through his rags! And surely in informing the world that we are too wise to be instructed, and that we contemn all that mankind has agreed to reverence; there is a far greater degree of pride, and  vainglory, than in uniting with our fellow-creatures in a custom (I am not contending about the propriety of it) which has long been so invariably practiced in all countries, and by all nations, that no one dreams of arrogating to himself any superior degree of piety in falling with the general practice of his neighbours.
We will admit that in exhortations from the pulpit, the effect is considered as well as the utility; and what author composes a work with the pure intention of benefiting the world, free from all selfish motives? Does any one pretend to do so? or if they did, should we give them credit? On the contrary, the love of fame is a presage of immortality, and ever glows in a noble mind. Hero’s, legislators, and sages, the first, and the wisest of men, have all bowed at its shrine, and courted its rewards. “Can it be reasonable, (says the author of Fitzosborne’s Letter) to extinguish a passion which nature has universally lighted up in the human breast, and which we constantly find to burn with the most strength  and brightness in the most elevated and best formed bosoms?” To be “Exalted with honour,” and to be had “in everlasting remembrance,” are encouragements from revelation; and the mother of the Messiah is represented as rejoicing, that “all generations shall call her blessed.” We are not required to annihilate our passions, but only to keep them in subordination; for so mingled are the qualities of the human mind, that was it possible to prune off every exuberance, you would destroy the energy from whence arises its excellence. It has been observed, “that in all hot climates flowers and weeds shoot up to an enormous growth; in colder countries, where poison can scarcely be feared, perfumes are seldom boasted.” Where there is A, B, C, (says Lavater) you will generally find D, E, F; let the wheat, and the tares then grow together, till they are separated at the day of harvest. Who does not perceive that the wit and genius of the contemner of social worship, arises out of the same exquisite nervous  irritability that makes him (like the sensitive plant, sensible to the slightest touch) return full measure, and running over, to every one who dares venture the least degree of personal recrimination?
But leaving these apologies for human nature, which produces no “faultless monsters” – Eloquence is assuredly never so well employed, as in alluring men from their vices, and bringing over the affections to the side of virtue. For one person who reforms his errors from the cool conviction of his reason, ninety-nine are accessible only to what affects the senses, and touches the heart. and a piety arising out of sensibility, in minds who have neither leisure nor capacity to pursue an abstract chain of ratiocination, may yet have all the meliorating effects that sweeten social intercourse, and amend the life. This is exemplified in the beautiful story of La-Roche, related in the mirror, which an infidel of taste could not read, and be unmoved.” **
A man  must have a very uncommon severity of temper indeed, who can find any thing to condemn in adding charms to truth, and gaining the heart by captivating the ear, in uniting roles with the thorns, and joining pleasure with instruction.” History attests in every page the powers of oratory; in Athens, in Rome, in France, in England, and in every civilized state you behold its effects. For though the fastidious, and philological critic, familiarised with beauty, till beauty ceases to charm, may turn away satiated from the rhetorical and polished period, it will still produce its effect on the majority, and the morals of the majority, and the morals of the majority constitute the welfare, or the misery of a state. I own I feel my heart gladdened when I contemplate a numerous auditory listening with delight to a popular preacher, who in insinuating language, chastened with becoming dignity, paints the ways of piety as ways of pleasantness, and all her paths as peace. Every impression reaches the brain through the medium of the senses, and from repetition, and association, flows down into the actions and conduct. Let us not by  frigid criticism refine away all our pleasures; to those who tell me the orator in displaying his abilities is seeking his own gratification, I answer, he seeks it in the recommendation of virtue, he employs his talents for the best purposes, he diffuses the satisfaction he feels, and we rejoice that it is reflected back to his own bosom! Let him enjoy it, it increases the stimulus to excellence; and so sympathetic are our feelings, that in labouring to excited others to goodness, it is scarcely possible but the divine energy will in some measure be generated in our own hearts. Indeed, genuine pulpit eloquence must be the result of pious affections, and benevolent zeal. No orator can affect his audience, who does not feel himself; tame cold declamation, upon a subject in which the speaker is not interested, will never awaken the sensibility of the hearers. People of any taste can easily distinguish between frothy ebullitions of the head, delivered with theatrical affectation, and the energetic language of seriousness and integrity. How are we to judge of causes, but from their effects? And that beneficial effects to society (notwithstanding all the deductions which may  be made) have been produced by public exhortations of this nature, no one, I believe, will pretend to dispute. You will excuse me if I speak with warmth on this subject? I confess myself peculiarly alive to the charms of eloquence. May the fastidiousness of criticism never deprive me of the innocent (I will say) laudable, intellectual gratification! I can never forget the pleasure with which I have attended to the discourses of my late valued friend Mr. Robert Robinson of Cambridge. “When he spoke –
“The air, a charter’d libertine, was still;
And the mute wonder lurked in men’s ears,
To steal his sweet, and honied sentences.”
Suppose a young mind, from early disappointment, sunk into a state of gloomy despondency, and awakened to delight, to improvement, to the pursuit of religious consolation and truth. What gratitude would be due to the sour critic, who should endeavor to rob the youthful heart of this amiable enthusiasm, throwing it back into melancholy and disgust with life? Do you recollect with Rousseau says of love? it is not very  inapplicable to the subject we are upon. “If it be an illusion, there is some reality in the sentiments it inspires in favour of the true beautiful, and we sacrifice every sordid idea to the imaginary model.” Most of the happiness of life perhaps conflicts in agreeable illusions, at least the tree must blossom, before it will bear fruit.
I think I perceive, both in scripture and reason, strong unanswerable arguments for social worship. Surely it is both beautiful and proper to unite in homage to our common parent for common blessings. Nor should I apprehend any danger from priestcraft if the state would not interfere about the manner of it. Multifarious are human opinion, and various are the avenues to the human heart; let every society choose its own discipline, and modes, whether they be preaching, debating, singing, or praying – Peace be with them! We will not object to their forms, if they do not impose them on us. “Better have any religion, than none at all.” So long as Christianity is kept distinct from civil polity, it will fall like a rich  dew, fructifying and fertilizing the human character. Priestcraft (I again repeat) is a creature of the state; dissolve the unnatural union, and its terrors vanish “into thin air.” I love the gospel; and all the different modes and forms which are pretended to be derived from it (apart from Hierarchy) have something of good in them, and are a glorious proof of religious liberty. Let us examine them gently; and while we endeavor to rectify, and simplify them, remember the gradations of human intellect, and never cherish the chimera of reducing all to our own standard. Little external errors are as the dust of the balance, when put in competition with moral benefit.
I remain, &c.
* “I am further of opinion, that the custom of looking for instruction to one only a pulpit exhibitioner (sarcastically writes Mr. Wakefield in his general reply) is of a very dangerous tendency, and obstructive to the furtherance of the gospel.”
** Fitzosborne’s Letters.