Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  A Good Tragedy the Best Model for a Sermon

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Good Tragedy the Best Model for a Sermon

By Nathanael Emmons (1745–1840)

[From his Autobiography.—The Works of Nathanael Emmons, D.D. 1842.]

THOUGH I read a variety of books, yet I always meant, if I could, to read the proper books at a proper time; that is, when I was investigating the subject upon which they treated. I gained but little advantage from reading any author, without a particular object in view; but when I read any author with reference to a particular object, I then took more notice of what he said, understood it better, and derived much more benefit from his writings. I usually restrained myself from reading for amusement; and put captivating books out of sight, when I had occasion of consulting authors upon any important subject. At times, however, I read some authors for the sake of their beautiful style, their lively descriptions, and moral sentiments. Some few novels possessed these excellences, and gained my attention at leisure hours. But I read deep, well-written tragedies, for the sake of real improvement in the art of preaching. They appeared to me the very best books to teach true eloquence. They are designed to make the deepest impression on the human mind, and many of them are excellently calculated to produce this effect. A preacher can scarcely find a better model for constructing a popular, practical, pathetic discourse, than a good tragedy; which all along prepares the mind for the grand catastrophe, without discovering it, till the whole soul is wrought into a proper frame to feel the final impression. I found also much benefit from reading a variety of sermons. I read ancient authors, for the sake of the matter contained in their discourses. They were more sentimental than modern preachers. I found good ideas poorly expressed, in old sermons; and those ideas I felt myself at liberty to borrow, and put into my own words. Besides, the Puritan writers breathed a most pious and devout spirit into all their discourses; which I wished to imbibe, and transfuse into my own sermons. I read modern sermonizers, for the benefit of learning the various methods of constructing sermons, and for the purpose of gaining a neat and perspicuous style. But lest I should become a plagiary, and imitator of any man, I made a point of choosing my subject and my text, and of laying out my method, before I read any author who had treated on the same text. For I found, if I read another man’s sermon before I had done this, I was naturally led to follow his track, or take peculiar pains to avoid it. Nor did I ever mean to make any single author my general model of sermonizing; though I wished to unite, as much as I could, the peculiar excellences of Watts, Doddridge, and Edwards. But it is probable that I did approach nearer to Mr. Edwards’s manner than to that of any other man, except Mr. Smalley, my admired instructor. His great excellence consisted in representing divine truths in a clear light, and in reconciling them with each other. This I endeavored to imitate in the general course of my preaching.