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Have sermons really changed the course of American history? That is the thesis Larry Witham attempts to prove in his book, A City Upon a Hill: How Sermons Changed the Course of American History.
It is a fascinating study as he moves the reader from colonial times through the 20th century. In less than 300 pages, the author justly encapsulates sermonic trends from Robert Hunt, proclaimed as Jamestown’s “good pastor” by Captain John Smith, to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jerry Falwell. Each defining period of American history is marked by new preachers and their new messages. The question is; did the sermons change the culture, or did the culture change the messages? Who influenced whom?
Witham attempts to make the case that the sermons influenced culture enough to induce change. I was struck with the opposite impression. Other than the period extending from the colonial Puritans to the Great Awakening, each preacher cited seemed to either be responding to or a product of the zeitgeist.
Revolutionary preachers fomented the masses as America prepared to gain independence from England. Preachers used their pulpits to equate America’s western frontier with the Old Testament Promised Land during the days of Manifest Destiny. Preachers from the North and the South preached conflicting messages of abolition and justification of slavery. The industrial age, sweat shops and urban squalor saw pulpits proclaiming the social gospel and movements for civic change. Wartime brought with it patriotic preaching while peacetime saw the prosperity gospel being proclaimed.
Despite the author’s attempt to the contrary, I see each as an example of preachers being carried away with the spirit of the age. Rather than influencing culture, each was driven by the circumstances around them.
As a pastor, I recommend this book, not as a way to point out how influential the pulpit can be—but to remind us of how influential the world can be on our preaching. The fact remains that the Word of God, illumined by the Spirit of God is the only instrument that can truly impact history in the right way. As preachers, we fall into a trap when we use the pulpit to influence politics, drive movements and direct societal change. This book unintentionally illustrates that when those things become our focus, we are swept along with the cursed world in which we live.
The solution is to stay focused on the type of preaching in which our earliest American forefathers specialized. That is not to say our sermons should be two hours long and have 20 or more points, but they can have the basic puritanical traits.
Witham lists those traits in his first chapter as he quotes The Art of Prophesying, by English Puritan William Perkins.
1. To read the Text distinctly out of the canonical Scripture
2. To give the sense and understanding of it being read by the Scripture itself
3. To collect a few and profitable points of doctrine out of the natural sense
4. To apply (if he have the gift) the doctrine rightly collected to the manners of men in a simple and plain speech
With the Text as guide and primary interpreter, the preacher can resist the temptation to be swept away in the zeitgeist. As he is faithful to resist, his sermons will truly change the course of history—eternally, if not temporally.