Did Jonathan Edwards simply read his sermons?

It is not unusual for people to say that Jonathan Edwards sermon delivery was fairly boring.

Meaning basically, he simply read his sermons in a dry,almost disinterested manner.

As John Gerstner has said, “From the standpoint of delivery, he possibly was one of the most mediocre the Church has ever known. He had none of the grand eloquence of George Whitefield or that powerful or sonorous voice. Apparently there were no real gestures, just a solemn reading of the manuscript, most of the time, much to the chagrin of his senior pastor, Solomon Stoddard. His preaching went on without ceasing and one understands why he could never accept Stoddard’s advice not to read his own sermons from the pulpit. Even Edwards could never had produced the volume of sermonic and other literary output if he had been required even materially to memorize it for pulpit presentation. Being confined to the manuscript even in the outline sermons which were very full he had none of the freedom of utterance displayed by others.”

However, in his book, The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards, John Currick challenges that assumption:

“One of the problems with Gerstner’s assessment is that it ignores the very important homiletical principle that writing and reading on the one hand and writing and memorizing on the other are not the only possibilities with regard to the preparation and delivery of sermons; indeed, that they are not, in fact, the ideal method. There is a third possibility with regard to delivery – that advocated by Dabney, and utilized by many great preachers – namely that of diligent preparation and extemporaneous delivery (possibly from an outline) in which the preacher is, in effect, thinking on his feet and in which a process of invention or reinvention is actually occurring in the pulpit. Moreover, Gerstner’s assessment of Edwards’ in this regard surprisingly ignores the overwhelming evidence from Edwards’ own manuscripts to the effect that, increasingly, he did in fact move in this very direction in his preparation and delivery. It is simply incorrect to make the sweeping assertion that ‘he could never accept Stoddard’s advice not to read his own sermons from the pulpit.’ A much more nuanced assessment of the issue is required. Gerstner appears to have merely perpetuated a stereotypical caricature of Edwards’ delivery which ignores the development that clearly occurred in his preaching over the years.

It is important to note that one of the major homiletical influences upon the Northampton pastor, alongside that of his own father, Timothy Edwards, was that of his maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, whose assistant and successor he became in Northampton in 1727 and 1729 respectively. This influence must inevitably have extended, to some degree, to the issue of delivery. It is significant that Stoddard ‘preached in the grand manner.’ Moreover, it is significant not only that he preached extemporaneously, but also that he was highly critical of those who did not. In 1723 he had preached his famous sermon, ‘The Defects of Preachers Reproved’, in which he strongly condemned the practice of reading sermons. It is interesting to note the connection in his mind between extemporaneous and affection in preaching:

‘The reading of sermons is a dully way of preaching. Sermons when read are not delivered with authority and in an affecting way…When sermons are delivered without notes, the looks and gestures of the minister, is a great means to command attention and stir up affection. Men are apt to be drowsy in hearing the word, and the liveliness of the preacher is a means to stir up the attention of the hearers, and beget suitable affection in them. Sermons that are read are not delivered with authority, they savor the sermons of the scribes, Matthew 7:29. Experience shows that sermons read are not so profitable as others.’

It is reasonable to suppose that Stoddard’s obvious opposition to the ‘essay sermon’ and to’reading preachers’ cannot but have influenced his grandson.”

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