Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696). Characters. 1885.

Of the Pulpit


(1.)A SERMON at present has become a mere show, in which there is not the least appearance of that evangelical gravity which is the very soul of it; a good appearance, a well-modulated voice, careful gestures, choice expressions, and prolonged enumerations supply its place. To listen attentively whilst Holy Writ is dispensed is no longer customary; going to church is an amusement, among numberless others, and is a diversion in which there exists rivalry and many persons bet on various competitors.

(2.)Profane eloquence is transferred from the bar, where Le Maître, Pucelle, and Fourcroy formerly practised it, and where it has become obsolete, to the Pulpit, where it is out of place.

Clergymen contest even the prize of eloquence at the altar and before the holy mysteries; every person in the congregation thinks himself a judge of the preacher, censures or applauds him, and is no more converted by the sermon he approves of than by the one he condemns. The orator pleases some and not others; but agrees with all in this: that as he does not endeavour to render them better, they never trouble their heads about becoming so.

An apprentice ought to be obedient and do what his master tells him; he profits by his instructions, and in time becomes himself a master; but man is more untoward, for he criticises the preacher’s discourses as well as the philosopher’s works, and thus becomes neither a Christian nor a philosopher.

(3.)Orators and declaimers will attract large congregations until that man returns who in a style, based on the Holy Scriptures, shall explain to the people the Word of God in a simple and familiar manner.

(4.)Quotations from profane authors, dull allusions, bathos, antithesis, and hyperboles are no longer in vogue, and portraits will also cease to be in fashion, and give way to a plain exposition of the gospel, accompanied by other means that produce conversion.

(5.)At length a man has made his appearance for whom I so impatiently longed, but whom I dared not expect to behold in this age. The courtiers, from delicacy of taste and a feeling of decorum, have applauded him; and what is almost incredible, have left the king’s chapel to mingle among the crowd, and hear the Word of God preached by a truly apostolic man. The town was not of the same opinion as the court, and in whatever city-church he spoke not one of the parishioners came, and the very churchwardens left their pew; the clergymen indeed stuck to him, but the flock was scattered and went to swell the congregations of neighbouring orators. This is what I should have foreseen; and therefore, I ought not to have advanced that such a man, whenever he appeared, would be universally followed, and would only have to open his mouth to be listened to, for I know how difficult it is to eradicate force of habit in mankind in all things. During the past thirty years, rhetoricians, declaimers, and enumerators have been listened to; and people run after preachers who depict in a grand style or in miniature. Not long since sermons were full of points and clever transitions, sometimes even so smart and pungent that they might have served for epigrams: now, I confess, these are somewhat softened, and may pass for madrigals. Three things, these preachers argue, are always absolutely indispensable, mathematically necessary, and worthy of your entire attention; one thing they prove in the first part of their discourse, another in the second, and another in the third; so that you are to be convinced of one truth, which is their first point of doctrine; of another truth, which is their second point; and of a third truth, which is their third point. In this manner the first reflection will instruct you in one of the fundamental principles of religion; the second in another principle which is not less fundamental; and the last reflection in a third and last principle, the most important of all, but which, for want of leisure, is reserved for another opportunity. In a word, to recapitulate and abridge this division, and to form a scheme of … “Hold,” you exclaim, “do these preachers require more preparation for a speech of not quite an hour’s length which they have to deliver? The more these gentlemen strive to explain and make things clear to me, the more they bemuddle my brains.”—I can well believe you, and it is the most natural result of such a mass and confusion of ideas which come all to one and the same thing, but with which they unmercifully burden the memory of their audience. To see them obstinately persist in this custom, people would almost think that the grace of being converted was inseparable of such long-winded divisions and sub-divisions. But how is it possible to be converted by apostles, whom we can hardly hear, follow, and keep in sight? I should like to ask them to condescend and rest several times, in the midst of their headlong career, and give their audience and themselves a short breathing time. But I may spare myself the trouble of addressing them and of wasting words on them. Homilies are out of date, and the Basils and Chrysostoms could not restore them, for if they came back, people would take refuge in other dioceses, so as not to hear them nor their familiar and instructive discourses. Men in general like fine phrases and periods, admire what they do not understand, fancy themselves well informed, and are satisfied with deciding between a first and second point of doctrine, or between the last sermon and the last but one.

(6.)Not a hundred years ago a French book consisted of a certain number of pages written in Latin, with here and there a line or two of French scattered on each page. But such passages, anecdotes, and quotations from Latin authors did not only fill books; Ovid and Catullus, at the bar, decided finally in cases of marriages and wills, and were of as much use to widows and orphans as the Pandects were. Sacred and profane authors were inseparable, and seemed to have slipped together in the pulpit; Saint Cyril and Horace, Saint Cyprian and Lucretius, spoke by turns; the poets were of the same opinion as Saint Augustin and the rest of the Fathers. Latin was the language spoken before women and churchwardens, for any length of time, and even sometimes Greek; there was no preaching so wretchedly without a prodigious amount of learning. But the times are changed, and customs alter; the text still continues in Latin, but the sermons are preached in French, and in the purest French, whilst the Gospel is not so much as quoted. Little learning is requisite now-a-days to preach very well.

(7.)Scholastic divinity is at last driven out of the pulpits of all the great towns in the kingdom, and confined only to hamlets and villages for the instruction and edification of ploughmen and vine-dressers.

(8.)A preacher must have some intelligence to charm the people by his florid style, by his exhilarating system of morality, by the repetition of his figures of speech, his brilliant remarks and vivid descriptions; but, after all, he has not too much of it, for if he possessed some of the right quality he would neglect these extraneous ornaments, unworthy of the Gospel, and preach naturally, forcibly, and like a Christian.

(9.)An orator paints some sins in such alluring colours, and describes with such delicacy when they were committed, represents the sinner as having so much wit, elegance, and refinement that, for my part, if I feel no inclination to resemble his pictures, I have at least occasion to betake myself to some teacher who, in a more Christian style, may make me dislike those vices of which the other has given such a seductive description.

(10.)A fine sermon is an oratorical speech, which, in all its rules and freed from all its faults, is exactly governed by the same principles as any other piece of human eloquence, and decked out with all sorts of rhetorical ornaments. Not a passage nor a thought are lost to connoisseurs; they easily follow the orator in all the digressions in which he chooses to wander, as well as in his towering flights; he is a riddle to none but to the common people.

(11.)What a judicious and admirable sermon I have just heard! How beautifully brought forward were the most essential points of religion as well as the strongest motives for conversion! What a grand impression it must have produced on the minds and souls of the audience! They are convinced; they are moved and so deeply touched that they confess from their very souls the sermon they have just heard Theodorus preach excels even the one they heard before.

(12.)An indulgent and relax morality produces no more effect than the clergyman who preaches it; for a man of the world is neither excited nor roused by it, and is not so averse to a rigid doctrine as some people think, but, on the contrary, likes to hear it from the person whose duty it is to preach it. There seems to be, therefore, in the church two classes of men wholly distinct from one another; the one declaring the truth in all its amplitude, without respect of persons, without disguise; the other listening to this truth with pleasure, satisfaction, admiration, and applause, but acting neither the better nor the worse for it.

(13.)It may be said, and justly so, that the heroic virtues of some great men have been the cause of the corruption of eloquence, or have, at least, enervated the style of most preachers. Instead of joining with the people in rendering thanks to Heaven for the extraordinary gifts it has bestowed on those great men, these very preachers have enrolled themselves among authors and poets, and become panegyrists; they have even uttered more extravagant praises than are found in dedications, verses, or prologues; they have turned the Word of God into a whole warp of praises, which, though well deserved, are out of place, bestowed from selfish motives, not required, and ill-suited to their calling. It is fortunate indeed, if, while they are celebrating their heroes in the sanctuary, they even mention the name of that God or of that religion they ought to preach. Some have wished to preach the Gospel, which is for all men, only to one person, and have been so disconcerted when by accident that person was kept away, that they were unable to pronounce a Christian discourse before an assembly of Christian men, because it was not prepared for them, so that other orators have been obliged to take their places, who had only sufficient leisure to praise God in an extemporary exhortation.

(14.)Theodulus has been less successful than some of his hearers thought he would be; his discourse has gratified them, and so has he; but he would have pleased them much more, if instead of delighting their ears and their minds, he had flattered their feelings of jealousy.

(15.)Preachers and soldiers are alike in this; their vocation presents more risk than any other, but preferment is also more rapid.

(16.)If you are of a certain rank, and have no other talent but preaching dull sermons, preach away, however dull you may be, for you will obtain no preferment if you are utterly unknown. Theodotus has been well paid for his wretched phraseology and his tiresome monotony.

(17.)Some men have been preferred to bishopricks for their preaching, whose talents now would not have procured them a mere prebend.

(18.)There is a certain panegyrist whose name seems always weighed down by a heap of titles and qualities, of which a large number is always mentioned on the ample bills distributed from house to house, or printed in letters of enormous size on the bills stuck up in the streets, no more to be ignored than the open market-place is. After such a fine display if you hear that man preach, and listen for a while to what he says, you will find that in enumerating all his qualities, only one has been omitted, namely, that of being a wretched preacher.

(19.)The idleness of women, and the habit men have of frequenting the places they resort to, give a certain reputation to some dull orators, and for a while support the sinking credit of others.

(20.)Are greatness and power the only qualities which entitle a man to be praised at his funeral before the holy altar and from the pulpit, the seat of truth? Is there no other greatness but that derived from an official position or from birth? Why should it not be the custom publicly to bestow praise on a man who during his lifetime was pre-eminent for his kindness of heart, his love of justice, his gentleness, his fidelity, and his piety? What is called “a funeral sermon” is now-a-days but coldly received by the greater part of the audience, unless very different from a Christian discourse, or rather, unless very nearly resembling a secular panegyric.

(21.)An orator preaches to get a bishopric, an apostle to save souls; the latter deserves what the other aims at.

(22.)We see some of our clergymen return from the country where they did not stay long, as proud of having made converts, who had already been made for them, as of those persons whom they could not convert, compare themselves to Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Francis Xavier, and fancy themselves apostles. For such onerous labours and such a fortunate result of their mission they would think themselves scarcely repaid by having an abbey given to them.

(23.)A man starts up on a sudden, and without any previous thoughts, takes pen, ink, and paper, and resolves within himself to write a book, but without any other talent for writing but the need he has of fifty pistoles. In vain I say to him: “Dioscorus, take a saw, or else go to the lathe, make a spoke of a wheel, and you will be sure to earn your living.” “But I never served an apprenticeship to these trades.” “Why then, copy, transcribe, become a reader for the press, but do not write.” Yet Dioscorus will write and get it printed too. And because he must not send paper to the press with nothing written on it, he sets himself to scribble whatever he pleases, and likes to write such stuff as this: “That the Seine runs through the city of Paris; that a week has seven days; or that it threatens to rain,” and as there is nothing in such phrases against religion or the government, and as they will only harm the public by vitiating their taste, and accustoming them to dull and insipid things, he obtains permission to get his book printed; and to the shame of the age, and as a mortification to good authors, a second edition of it appears. Just so, another wiseacre resolves within himself that he will preach, and he preaches; he is without any talent, or has not the least vocation for it, but he wants a good living.

(24.)A worldly and profane clergyman does but declaim when he preaches.

On the contrary, there are some holy men whose character carries persuasion with it; they make their appearance in the pulpit, and every one who comes to listen to them is already moved, and, as it were, carried away by their mere presence; the sermon afterwards completes their conversion.

(25.)The bishop of Meaux (Bossuet) and Father Bourdaloue recall to my mind Demosthenes and Cicero. As both of them are absolute masters of pulpit eloquence, they have had the fate of other great models; one of them has made many wretched cavillers, and the other many wretched imitators.

(26.)The eloquence of the pulpit, with respect to what is merely human and depending on the genius of the orator, is not easily perceptible, is known but to few, and attained with difficulty. It must be very difficult to please and to persuade at the same time; for a man is obliged to keep to beaten paths, to say what has been said, and what is foreseen he would say. The subjects he has to treat of are grand, but worn and trite; the principles are invariable, but every one of his audience perceives the inferences at the first glance. Some of the subjects are sublime; but who can treat of the sublime? There are mysteries to be explained, but they are better explained in a lecture at college than in a harangue. The morals, too, of the pulpit, though they comprehend matter as vast and diversified as the manners and morals of men, turn all upon the same pivot, exhibit the same imagery, and are restrained to much narrower limits than satire is; after the usual invective against honour, riches, and pleasures, there remains nothing more for the orator to do but to finish his discourse and dismiss his audience. There may sometimes be tears, and people may be moved; but let the calling and talent of the preacher be considered, and perhaps it will be found that the subject lends itself to a sermon, or that it is chiefly a feeling of self-interest which produces this agitation; and that it is not so much true eloquence as the strong lungs of the missionary which shake us and produce within us these emotions. In short, the preacher is not provided, as the lawyer is, with always fresh matters of fact, with various transactions and unheard-of adventures; his business is not to start doubtful questions, and improve probable conjectures—all subjects which elevate talent, give it force and breadth, and instead of putting a restraint on eloquence, only fix and direct it. The preacher, on the contrary, has to draw his discourse from a source known to all and used by everybody; if he deviates from these commonplaces, he ceases to be popular, becomes abstruse and a declaimer, and no longer preaches the Gospel. All he needs is a noble simplicity, which is difficult to attain, rarely found, and above the reach of ordinary men; their talent, imagination, learning, and memory, so far from assisting them, often prevent their acquiring it.

A barrister’s profession is laborious, toilsome, and requires a vast amount of knowledge as well as great readiness of invention. A barrister is not, like a preacher, provided with a certain number of speeches, composed at leisure, learned by heart, uttered with authority, without any fear of contradiction, and which, with a few alterations, may serve more than once; his pleadings are grave, and delivered before judges who may silence him, and against adversaries who interrupt him; his replies have to be sharp and to the point; and in one and the same day he has to plead in several courts causes quite dissimilar. His house neither affords him shelter nor rest, nor protects him against his clients; it is open to all comers, who crowd upon him with their difficult or doubtful cases; he is not put to bed, nor is the perspiration wiped from his face, nor are refreshments offered to him; people of all qualities and sexes do not crowd his rooms to congratulate him upon the beauty and elegance of his style, or to remind him of a certain passage where he ran the risk of stopping short, or of some scruples he felt for having spoken with less warmth than usual; all the repose a barrister has after a long speech is immediately to set to work upon writings still longer; he only varies his labours and fatigues; I may venture to say he is in his profession what the first apostles were in theirs.

Having thus distinguished the eloquence of the bar from the profession of a barrister, and the eloquence of the pulpit from the calling of a preacher, it will appear, I believe, that it is easier to preach than to plead, but more difficult to preach well than to plead well.

(27.)What a vast advantage has a speech over a written composition. Men are imposed upon by voice and gesture, and by all that is conducive to enhance the performance. Any little prepossession in favour of the speaker raises their admiration, and then they do their best to comprehend him; they commend his performance before he has begun, but they soon fall off asleep, doze all the time he is preaching, and only wake to applaud him. An author has no such passionate admirers; his works are read at leisure in the country or in the solitude of the study; no public meetings are held to applaud him, nor do people intrigue to sacrifice all his rivals to him and to have him raised to the prelacy. However excellent his book may be, it is read with the intention of finding it but middling; it is perused, discussed, and compared to other works; a book is not composed of transient sounds lost in the air and forgotten; what is printed remains; sometimes it is expected a month or two before it is published, and people are impatient to damn it, whilst the greatest pleasure many will find in it will be their own criticisms; it vexes them to meet on each page passages which ought to please; often they are even afraid of being amused by it, and they throw the book away merely because it is good. Everybody does not pretend to be a preacher; the elocution, the figures of speech, the gift of memory, the gown or the calling of a preacher, are things people do not always venture on, or like to take on themselves, whilst every one imagines he thinks well and writes still better than he thinks, which renders him less indulgent to the person who thinks and writes as well as himself; in a word, the preacher of sermons will sooner obtain a bishopric than the most judicious writer a small living, and whilst new favours are still heaped on the first, the more deserving author may consider himself very fortunate if he gets some of the leavings of the preacher.

(28.)If it happens that the wicked hate and persecute you, good men advise you to humble yourself before God, and to beware of the pride you may feel in having displeased people of a similar character; so when certain men who admire everything middling, blame a work you have written, or a speech you have made in public, whether at the bar, in the pulpit, or elsewhere, humble yourself, for of all the temptations of pride there cannot be a greater and more enticing one.

(29.)A preacher, methinks, should select for every one of his sermons some capital truth, whether to terrify or to instruct, handle it thoroughly and analyse it, whilst omitting all fine-spun decisions so worn, trite, and different from one another; I would not have him suppose a thing which is notoriously false, namely, that great or fashionable people understand the religion they profess as well as its duties; so that he will be afraid of remonstrating with persons of their culture and subtle understandings. Let him employ the time others waste in composing a set, formal discourse, in making himself so completely master of his subject that his style and expressions may be original and natural; let him, after some necessary preparations, abandon himself to his own genius and to the emotions with which a great subject will inspire him; and then, he may be able to do without those excessive efforts of memory, which destroy all graceful gestures, and look more as if he had learned something by heart for a wager, than as if he were treating a matter of great importance; let him, on the contrary, kindled by a noble enthusiasm, persuade all minds, alarm all souls, and fill the heart of his hearers with another fear than that of seeing him stop short in the middle of his sermon.

(30.)A man who has not yet arrived to such perfection as to forget himself in the dispensation of Holy Writ, should not be discouraged by the austere rules which are prescribed, which may deprive him of the means of showing his intelligence and of attaining the honours to which he aspires. What more useful, more exalted talent can there be than preaching like an apostle; and who would better deserve a bishopric? Was Fenelon unworthy of that dignity, and could he have escaped his prince’s choice but for another choice?