Article 12

ART. XII. Sermons By the Rev. Sydney Smith, A. M. late Fellow of New College, Oxford, Rector of Foston, near York, one of the Evening Preachers at the Foundling Hospital, and alternate Morning Preacher at Berkeley and Fitzroy Chapels. 2 vols. 8vo. London, Cadell and Davies. 1809.

[pp. 387-398] [original article in PDF format]

  1. A FEW years since, Mr. Smith made his appearance before the religious world in two volumes of sprightly sermons. They announced an important discovery. The church of England, it seems, had for ages pursued a wrong mode of preaching. Barrow had applied the powers of his great mind to the discussion of sacred subjects, explored the most secret recesses of religion and morals, and carried his hearers by regular inquiry, to the knowledge and acceptance of Christian truth. Here was the force of reason. The piety of Taylor was adorned with the fervour of genius. His views of revelation were variegated by poetical fancy. He clothed his subject with the most brilliant and vivid colouring, and called in the aid of a various and extensive literature to the illustration of scriptural sentiment. Here was the fire of imagination. But something was still wanting to give effect to these talents. Barrow and Taylor might be rational and eloquent; but, alas! they did not gesticulate in the pulpit!—These examples of stiffness and decorum had been too closely followed by the clergy of the establishment, who seem to have been persuaded, though erroneously, that argument and piety were preferable to any distortions of the body, however amusing or picturesque. Here then was a convenient opening for a new attempt. It was possible to create a new era of pulpit eloquence, and to make our preachers 'articulate with every limb, and talk from head to foot with a thousand voices.'—Pref. to Sermons, vol.ii. 1801.—Under the impression of these well-founded expectations, Mr. S. offered to the world the following remarks on the wretched management of the English pulpit.

    'A clergyman clings to his velvet cushion with either hand, keeps his eye riveted upon his book, speaks of the ecstasies of joy and fear with a voice and a face which indicate neither, and pinions his body and soul into the same attitude of limb and thought. If, by mischance, his hand slip from its orthodox gripe of the velvet, he draws it back as from liquid brimstone, or the caustic iron of the law, and atones for this indecorum by fresh inflexibility, and more rigorous sameness.'—[387]

    Hence he triumphantly asks,

    'Why call in the aid of paralysis to piety?—Why this holoplexia on sacred occasions alone?—Is sin to be taken from men, as Eve was from Adam, by casting them into a deep slumber?—And from what possible perverseness of common sense are we all to look like field preachers in Zembla, holy lumps of ice, numbed into quiescence, and stagnation, and mumbling?'—Pref. to ditto.

  2. It is needless to inform the reader, what was the character of a set of sermons framed on a plan announced in terms like these. Most happy was the correspondence between the sentiments, and the gestures by which they were recommended. A genteel and agreeable laxity pervaded both; and the whole stage—we meant to say, pulpit—effect depended on a few smart, but unconnected thoughts, delivered in a language and tone approaching to the familiar, and above all, on the graces of that species of gesticulation which Mr. S. was so anxious to recommend. It is impossible indeed to peruse those sermons without perceiving that he was less solicitous to impress his audience with those truths which it concerned their eternal welfare to know, than to bring distinctly before them his own endowments,—to amuse them with the briskness of his fancy and the point of his periods, and finally to surprise them by striking out a path which few men would have discovered, and fewer still would be disposed to follow.—It is not, however, with the earlier publication that we are now concerned; nor should we have noticed it at all, if Mr. S. had not chosen to make an appeal to it by employing the largest part of its contents, together with the loose type and wide intervals of his present pages, to furnish what he affectedly terms 'Two Volumes of Sermons.' To these no advertisement is prefixed; and we are left to gather from other quarters what may be his present sentiments concerning the 'orthodox gripe of the velvet,'—'field preachers in Zembla,'—'holy lumps of ice, numbed into quiescence, and stagnation and mumbling,' &c. &c. It is but justice to say (and we say it with pleasure) that we have lately seen him in the pulpit, and that, in his present attitudes, there is nothing extravagant or offensive. The result from this however is, that the grand improvement which he had meditated for the church, is already abandoned. His new era of pulpit action has not taken place; and the preacher is to be tried, as before the projected alteration, by the quantity of reason, eloquence and piety which he may possess. We are ready to judge him on this ground;—yet with a feeling of regret which cannot fail to accompany the discharge of a painful duty. [388]

  3. The first object of our attention must be his doctrine. It is of a degraded kind; and, after a very attentive consideration of these volumes, we are compelled to say, that the author of them appears to belong to the Socinian school. It is possible, that he may not be aware of the real nature of his own principles. He is obviously unacquainted with his profession;- and the time may come when better and more regular studies than London has permitted, will force this conviction upon him. At present we know that he will spurn at our insinuation;- but we appeal to Philip at Foston.—Meanwhile, we shall state the grounds of our opinion.

  4. Faith is defined by him as nothing more than 'a belief in the existence of God and Jesus Christ,' Vol. ii. 248. And his standing praise of the Gospel is confined to its 'beautiful morality.' His view of the character of Christ is in proportion to this. In language drawn from the history of heroes and legislators, he talks of the 'glory and greatness of the founder of our religion.' i. 181. He is a 'a great character;'—and indeed Mr. S. treats him as a very distinguished mortal. 'The love of truth enabled Peter to preach Christ crucified;- and it enabled that Christ whom he did preach, to die the death upon the cross.' i. 46. 'He used to restore and sanctify his nature by prayer.' i. 299. He encountered his sufferings 'with decent courage' i. 178. And 'his death was great, because he died simply, lifted up, by a great purpose, above fortune and the world.' i. 177. In short, he degrades the Saviour to an extraordinary being, of superior wisdom and fortitude,—some better Confucius,—some higher Socrates.

  5. It is to no purpose that occasional use is made of the terms 'Lord,'—'Saviour,' &c. The general doctrine too well shews his interpretation of them; and every part of these volumes proves, that the most significant titles which the Scripture bestows on Christ, and the most interesting and awful events which it describes, are understood by Mr. S. in a low and imperfect sense. He speaks of the death of the Saviour, not as a propitiation for the sins of men, but simply as. a proof 'of the truth of the Christian religion, or a practical example of morality.' ii. 175.

  6. Another important point of theology appears to be wholly obliterated from his creed. St. Paul calls 'love, joy, peace,' and other virtues, the 'fruits of the spirit.' Our shame and indignation are extreme, while we quote the following explanation of the apostle's meaning. 'We say, in our language, to seize [389] on the spirit of a thing; we talk of the spirit of our political constitution, of the spirit of our civil and criminal law; and we seem to mean by the expression, those few leading principles which uniformly pervade these respective codes, and give them consistency of character. In this sense, the apostle unfolds to us the spirit of Christianity, the object and tendency of all its laws, they are instituted to create love, joy, peace,' &c. ii. 54. Mr. S. is a beneficed clergyman. He has therefore sworn assent to the Articles and Liturgy of the Church of England. These have told him, that Christ is 'very God,' as well as 'very man;'—that the Holy Spirit is 'very and eternal God;' and that by him 'the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified.'—We put this to his conscience.

  7. His motives to right conduct are as imperfect as his creed. He recommends meekness to persons in superior stations, that 'the obedience of men may be raised into a species of idolatry.' i. 339. This is nothing but a beggarly and unprincipled vanity under the mask of an assumed humility.—Professing too to lay down proper motives for the government of the heart, he informs us, that 'when we have discovered that we pay in languor of body, and loss of reputation' (a terror with which he is perpetually haunted), for the pleasures of excess, we shall be gradually reconciled to moderation.' i. 167. We had thought, that the proper source of moral action was the will of God. But Mr. S. is generally content with inferior motives. He recommends to the man who would keep himself free from vice, to think on 'something ornamental or useful.' i. 168. and he informs seducers, that 'they are guilty of ungentlemanly conduct.' ii. 482. But we will no longer pursue this low divinity. Let us turn to another subject, and trace him in his method of collecting the desultory matter, of which these volumes are compounded;- for Mr. S. knows, full as well as Horace, to alight on the flowers in other men's gardens, and to make up the furtive sweets for his own use.

  8. In the second of these volumes is reprinted the celebrated Sermon on Toleration, produced by Mr. S. in the summer of 1807. None admire more than ourselves the wise and beneficent system adopted by our country, which, while it secures civil peace by the prudent maintenance of an Established Church, protects the right of conscience, and allows to all the undisturbed profession of religious opinions. This is a language which should be held by all men in all places; and is peculiarly becoming the [390] messenger of that God, who, in the words of Mr. S.'s text, is 'not the author of confusion, but of peace in all the churches.'

  9. It required some dexterity (and the praise of that dexterity is Mr. S.'s) to dishonour this glorious doctrine by prostituting and degrading it to the meanest of all human objects. The Essay, to which the abused title of a Sermon on Toleration is given, was written and preached for purposes merely political. Our readers are not ignorant that the question of 'Catholic Emancipation' was much agitated in the beginning of 1807, and that it was supposed to be one of the causes which led to the dissolution of that administration, of which Lord Grenville was the ostensible head. The flame that was then kindled, Mr. S. thought it a part of his sacred duty to increase. The sermon, was accordingly preached at Berkeley Chapel. Troops of political admirers followed it to the Temple Church: and we need not add, that it was then given to the world at the earnest request of the preacher's auditories.

  10. We mean not to enter on the interesting inquiry which furnished the text of the disquisition in question. It falls not within the period of our critical labours. Neither do we assume any right to examine Mr. S.'s political opinions, or feel the slightest curiosity to enquire, under which of the parties that divide and distract this great empire, the reverend gentleman has enlisted himself. We belong to none; nor acknowledge any principles but those of the British constitution. As attached to that constitution, however,—as disciples of the Church of England,—and as sincere and fervent Christians, we enter our most earnest protest against this unnatural alliance of politics with religion. It is not to the Church that the debates of the Westminster Forum ought to be adjourned; nor should Preaching be made an engine for furthering the purposes of the faction of the day.

  11. We might recommend to Mr. S. and to all who, from views of individual advantage, incline to tread in his steps, the advice of men who have loved the doctrine of toleration as well as Mr. S. and who have understood it much better. But we have at hand an authority which Mr. S. may be the more disposed to respect, because it is his own. 'Nothing can be more injurious to the true interest of the church than to mingle its name with the political feeling of the day, and to lend its authority to any purpose of individual ambition. If it is done by one party in politics, it will soon be imitated by another; we shall then become a mere [391] tool to answer the purposes of two opposite factions; and the dearest interests of mankind will be sacrificed to the vilest of all purposes. This is the true way first to disgrace a church establishment; and then (when it has incurred universal contempt) to destroy it.'—vol. ii. p. 106. This is a most extraordinary passage (we do not speak of its clumsiness) in a sermon written confessedly from political considerations; for we are told in a note, that it was drawn up and printed in the year 1807, 'when a clamour for political purposes was raised against the Catholics;' but it contains an important truth which the reverend author has at once acknowledged and violated.

  12. Of that part of the sermon which is valuable, the praise does not belong to Mr. S. It was at first given to the public without any intimation that its treasures were 'the property of another; when some ill-natured critic pointed out the source from which the industry of the morning preacher (apis matinae) at Fitzroy Chapel had drawn his wisdom. It had been conveyed from a chapter of Paley on Religious Establishments. The secret being thus discovered, it became necessary that Mr. S. should discover it too:- yet in some way that would best save his character. Accordingly, we have the following very dexterous note, vol. ii. p. 93. 'This account of a Church Establishment is taken from Paley. Though such truths are so obvious, that a child might state them, if he had no interest in perverting the truth.'

  13. This is selon les regles; and the art of undervaluing is well understood by most classes of detected plunderers. It has however happily given rise to another acknowledgment, lest similar inconveniences should hereafter arise; and we are now told, that what he has produced on the Resurrection, and 'the Nature of Christianity' (there is no sermon which bears the latter title, but there are several on different branches of this subject) is, for the most part, taken from Paley's Evidence.—vol. ii. p. 394. Paley indeed, whether acknowledged or not, is his leading and general authority; though sometimes he mutilates, and sometimes misrepresents the writer from whom he so habitually borrows.—Yet Mr. S. does not reject other aid; for he loves variety. For his civil philosophy, his touches on 'savage and civilised man,' the 'division of labour,' &c. &c. he is indebted to the current treatises of the day, and the numerous encyclopediæ which enlighten our happy age. In the sermon on the Immortality of the Soul, (where, by the way, he unaccountably applies to the soul, what [392] St. Paul has said concerning the resurrection and change of the body,) we perceive that he has read with profit, the tragedy of Cato, and the Essay on Man. In his Christian notion of imploring 'the Great God of the Universe,' ii. 209, we see a happy adoption of the 'Universal Prayer;' and from the just observation, that 'no animal has wings that is not destined to fly,' it is obvious that he is not unacquainted with the philosophical poem of Mr. Payne Knight.

  14. In this account we have almost forgotten the Bible, but we may be the more readily excused, as Mr. S. himself does not seem to shew much fondness for quoting it. He says indeed, that one of the Apocryphal books, from which he chuses to draw a text, is very entertaining; and that the account of Judas Maccabæus has the 'vivacity and interest of romance.'—ii. 216. But for the intrusion of a few verses from a beautiful and affecting narrative of St. Luke, he very politely apologises to his audience—'I am sure you will excuse me if I give it you more in detail.'—i.249.

  15. WE have amply proved the agreement of Mr. S.'s writing with those of other authors. It is but justice to say however, that he takes frequent opportunities of shewing the independence of his mind by dissenting from himself. In his first volume he doubts 'whether complete selfishness, or universal philanthropy' be most adverse to Christianity.—p. 210. But in the second, he informs us, that by 'love,' one of the fruits of the spirit (the spirit of the Christian constitution) the Apostle means 'philanthropy, or a general love of our fellow creatures.'—p. 55. On one occasion he allows, that we are not safe except we pray for grace; (Paley's more mature sentiments on this subject have been recently published) but his habitual persuasion is, that we best obtain deliverance from sin by 'resolving to be free'—i. 27, and that, 'for every temptation there is a power within greater than it.' He reprobates the notion, that 'the commandments of God are too rigorous for our infirmities, and desires his hearers to copy the examples of men upon record, who teach us the true bounds, and dimensions of our nature.'—ii. 25. Once more, Mr. S. dislikes Methodists; and therefore in his quarrel with them, expresses himself handsomely and truly concerning the Established Church. 'It is not the habit of her ministers to speak insultingly, or to think arrogantly of those who worship the same God, however different be the mode of that adoration. She prefers her own doctrine, but she prefers [393] it without boasting, and without invidious comparison. She derives from her antiquity, calm and dignified satisfaction, and from her experience, the high blessings of moderation and forbearance.'—Vol. i. 289. But Mr. S. is partial to Roman Catholics. On this account therefore, we are fretfully, and somewhat forgetfully told, that 'the Church cannot endure the slightest extension of freedom to those out of its own pale!'—ii. 103. Yet that no inconsistency may be spared, he informs us in the very next page, that 'the last twenty years of our History have been honourably distinguished by the innumerable laws of persecution they have repealed, and the comparative freedom they have extended to every description of Christians!' We must be satisfied with these specimens of contradictions arising from an utter want of regular knowledge and fixed principles. Whoever wishes for more, may refer to these volumes at large.

  16. In searching them for the account above given, we have however made one unexpected discovery, so honourable to Mr. S. that it would be the extremity of injustice to conceal it from the reader. It has been commonly supposed, that the reverend gentleman is not only connected with a celebrated work, but the writer of several articles in it unjust to individuals and offensive to the public. We disbelieve the whole, and confidently ground our opinion on the following quotations from these sermons.

    'It is a leading object with sceptics, to bring into disrepute the character of Christianity, of its teachers and adherents: and one mode by which they attempt it is, by attaching to all mention of these subjects, the idea of intolerance, bigotry, and narrowness of mind. The opposite virtues they ascribe to their own sect, as candour, liberality, the spirit of discussion, and an exemption from every human prejudice,' &c.- Vol. i. 201.

    'To depreciate our fellow creatures may gratify pride, by the comparative elevation of ourselves, or minister to vanity by the display of lively talents; but the pleasure is soon gone, and the bitterness remains.'—i. 201.

    'Contempt, so far from being favourable to the improvement of the mind, is perhaps directly the reverse: it increases so rapidly, that it soon degenerates into a passion for condemnation: the sense of what is good, withers away, and the perception of evil becomes so keen and insatiable, that every decision we make, is satire, not judgment.'—i. 375. [394]

    Now we ask, whether it be possible, that the reverend gentleman should be connected with the work in question, and the author of the above sentiments which have the appearance of being directly levelled against it? Would he lend himself to services thus contradictory? Would he deem it sufficient to sacrifice to decency and religion in sermons which he avows, and give himself a licence to aid the dissemination of malice and infidelity in anonymous criticism? It is not to be supposed. He could not have written in this manner against his fellow-labourers. He would not have produced one of his best and most experimental sermons expressly 'On the Errors of Youth.'

  17. There is another circumstance, still more convincing. In one of these volumes we find the following sentiments. 'Piety and honesty are always venerable, with whatever degree of error they happen to be connected. Far from considering the sectarian clergy as objects of ridicule, contempt and persecution) it is impossible to witness their laborious exertions for what they believe to be the truth, their poverty, the insignificance and obscurity in which they pass their lives, without experiencing for them very sincere sentiments both of pity and respect!'—ii. 208. And so penetrated is he with the necessity of making compensation for any wrong committed, as to declare with commendable warmth, 'If seas and mountains separate us from the being we have injured, we should pass over mountains and seas to find him;- to beg his prayers to God,' &c.—i. 7. We ask, again, whether the reverend gentleman could be the writer of these passages, and of the articles charged upon him by the public opinion? Is it possible, that he should be the author of the unchristian abuse and licentious ridicule so wickedly bestowed on those pious and laborious men, who, with whatever mistakes of opinion, are endeavouring to spread the knowledge of the gospel in foreign countries? We do not hear, that this inflexible lover of justice is preparing to set out for India to beg Carey's 'prayers to God,' &c. and therefore the indecent and injurious article against that missionary and his brethren, could not have proceeded from him.

  18. In forming an estimate of the abilities of Mr. S. as they appear in these sermons, our readers will probably have anticipated us. Our opinion of him is lower than we had expected. Indeed, we were well aware that there was something false and meretricious in the sort of celebrity which he has attained;- [395] something, which a wise man would never have allowed himself to acquire; or, having acquired, would be in haste to throw away. But it might be presumed, that in a publication like the present, a publication intended to be left behind him as a memorial of his professional talents, we should meet with something of a higher order. In this however, we are disappointed. He seems incapable of a regular or extended train of reasoning. He works up his paragraphs in a brisk and epigrammatic manner, careless how they agree with each other. Such indeed is the internal warfare of these volumes, that, at one time, we had intended to write an account of the 'Battle of Mr. S.'s Sermons.' Probably he is not aware of the shock given to his readers. To pass from one sermon to another, is to get into a new region, and to hear a new language. He has produced these addresses at various times and on various occasions, and is satisfied if he can talk with the requisite smartness during his fifteen minutes. His inconsistencies are the obvious effects of a want of fixed principles. We turn over page after page without advancing, and are every where crossed and impeded by opposing doctrines.

  19. But perhaps the most striking defect of these sermons is the scantiness of matter: and if they are to be the standard by which we must judge Mr. S. his provision of sacred knowledge is slender indeed. Amidst an apparent copiousness, we are surprised at detecting such poverty of thought; and this want of original power is ill compensated by the liveliness with which he would disguise it. To this desire indeed, we attribute his indulgence of so rhetorical and imposing a style. He endeavours too to conceal the sentiments which he adopts, by a phraseology of a peculiar kind; and seeks to mislead his reader's memory by an overheated appeal to his fancy. Hence come the false glare of his sentences; the forced and antithetical manner in which he points them; and his extravagant and grotesque accumulation of words, till the poor thought which struggles beneath, is overwhelmed by the fantastic load. We see this in his treatment even of those common sentiments which lie open to the use of all. He means to say, that 'pride was not made for man:' but behold the stir which he makes about it!—'After all, take some quiet, sober moment of life, and add together the two ideas of pride and of man. Behold him, a creature of a [396] span high, stalking through infinite space, in all the grandeur of littleness. Perched on a little speck of the universe, every wind of heaven strikes into his blood the coldness of death: his soul fleets from his body, like melody from the string; day and night, as dust on the wheel, he is rolled along the heavens, through a labyrinth of worlds, and all the systems and creations of God are flaming above and beneath!' ii. 61. If he wishes to employ the image of the cup of divine wrath, he is not content with its simple adoption; but it is necessary that the wrath should 'mantle in the cup!' i. 308. And if he exhorts his hearers to 'destroy the old man,' he burlesques the figurative language of scripture by requesting them to carry the old man 'forth to his funeral.' ii. 8. He does not mention the bearers and mourners with their clokes and hat-bands; which is to be lamented: as, in the hands of so powerful a describer, the scene might be made highly interesting and picturesque.

  20. It would be endless to produce every specimen of the ill taste which prevails in these volumes, and of the vulgarisms and defects of grammar which they betray. The following may be sufficient to startle the reader. 'If we were not aware of what a fallacious reasoner vice is.' v. i. p.14. 'There is not a tear but what it is eternally recorded against you.' v. ii. p.243. 'Be not so rash as to let the salvation of your souls depend upon whether the air of this day is noxious or pure.' v. i. p.121. 'The virtue of truth consists in this, that it almost necessarily implies so many other virtues, or so certainly leads to them.' v. i. p.50. 'As true religion consists neither in devotion alone, nor in fanaticism at all, it does not consist any more in theology.' v. ii. p.258. 'Such sort of occasions seldom occur.' v. i. p.147. 'Holy scripture speaks great word m[sic] concerning faith.' v. ii. p.12. 'Fresh perils lay hid in his pleasures.' v. i. p.317. 'I must lay on my last bed.' v. i. p. 110. &c. &c. If the reader wishes for a sample of extraordinary absurdity and contradiction, let him turn to Vol. ii. p.191. where he will find, that 'self-approbation is the vicegerent of God, and legitimate monarch of our actions.' If he is pleased with a piece of religious cabinet work, let him view 'a mind beautifully inlaid with the thoughts of angels, and wrought about with the signs and marks of heaven.' v. i. p.382.—But we must stop.—

  21. Umbritius is taking his leave of the town: and the impatient driver has long since beckoned him away. He lingers for a while at the gate, and pleads, in a novel and moving manner, the [397] advantages, moral and religious, which attend a life spent in London. 'Where is God more visible than in great cities? Can we see infinite wisdom and power in torrents, mountains, and in clouds, and not discern them in this wonderful arrangement of rights, appetites, and pretensions? Is God not visible in laws and constitutions? Is he not visible in refinement? Is he not visible in reasoning? Are not poets, and orators, and statesmen more stupendous creations of God, than all the depths of the vallies, and all the strength of the hills? If we are to be lured to God by all we see of his greatness and his power, here are his noblest works, and here his sublimest power; here he is to be felt, and honoured, and adored.' vol. i. p. 390.

  22. But the driver is obdurate. Probably he remembers and prefers the contrary doctrine maintained by the same reverend gentleman in another part of these volumes. 'In great cities, men are too busy to be religious.' 'It is not favourable to religious feeling to hear only of the actions, and interference of men, and to behold nothing but what human ingenuity has completed.' 'The moral and religious character is destroyed by the habits of great cities.' 'They darken evangelical light, and erase the name of God, &c.' vol. ii. 300.

  23. We are of the latter of these opinions, and applaud the resolution which fixes our author in a place more favourable to professional study, and seriousness of character.