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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XVI. The Essay and the Beginning of Modern English Prose

§ 3. Growing Plainness and Simplicity of Pulpit Oratory

The same need for greater plainness and simplicity of language was felt in pulpit oratory so far back as 1646, when Wilkins, afterwards bishop of Chester, one of the founders of the Royal Society, and its first secretary, had recommended, in his popular Ecclesiastes or the Gift of Preaching, that the style of preaching should be plain and without rhetorical flourishes. After the restoration, these views found an adequate exponent in his friend John Tillotson, whose sermons at Lincoln’s inn and St. Lawrence Jewry attracted large congregations. His St. Paul’s sermon, preached before the lord mayor, in March, 1664, and printed by request under the title The Wisdom of being religious, is, in its perfect plainness and absence of rhetoric, an instructive contrast to the brilliantly imaginative discourse which Jeremy Taylor delivered, only eight months earlier, at the funeral of archbishop Bramhall. But the reformation of pulpit oratory was not the work of one sermon or one man. Both Stillingfleet, reader at the Temple, who was even more popular than Tillotson, and South, public orator at Oxford, who was made a prebendary of Westminster in 1663, belonged to the modern school. In a sermon preached on Ascension day, 1667, the latter divine commended apostolic preaching for its plainness and simplicity:

  • nothing here of the finger of the North-star … nothing of the door of angel’s wings or the beautiful locks of cherubims; no starched similitudes, introduced with a “thus have I seen a cloud rolling in its airy mansion,” and the like.
  • This ungenerous hit at Jeremy Taylor, who was lately dead, well marks the antithesis between the new age and the old, between wit and poetry, between reason and imagination.