Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Publication of the Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon 1689 - 1901 (Oxford University Press)

Thursday, 11 October 2012


Sermons once occupied more of people’s attention than sex or crime. This suggestion, by two scholars from Oxford Brookes University, is presented in the Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon 1689-1901 (Oxford University Press, 2012) published this month. ‘Sermons played a central role in public life that they have lost today’, claims William Gibson, Professor of Ecclesiastical History of the Department of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oxford Brookes University. ‘About a quarter of a billion preaching opportunities produced 25 million unique sermons and 80,000 printed sermons.’ The popularity of sermons, both as performances and as literature, meant that, as Gibson claims in the book: ‘in comparison with politics, economics, warfare, crime, and perhaps even sex, sermons probably occupied more of the attention of people.’ The new Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon 1689-1901 is edited by Professor Gibson and Dr Keith Francis, who was a visiting research fellow in the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History in 2011 and is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland University College in the USA. Sermons created the printing industry in the eighteenth century since half its output was published sermons. They were also the model for popular serial literature. But it was sermon performances which attracted people in huge quantities. By the end of the eighteenth century speculative builders planned chapels in London which were funded by ticket sales for sermons. Some celebrity preachers had large followings, Charles Spurgeon in the 1850s found that he needed 10,000-seater theatres to accommodate his congregations. He even preached at Epsom race track. Sermons were also a way in which national identity was formed. Great national events, victories in war, the unions with Scotland and Ireland, royal funerals and even elections were occasions for preaching. Despite this, the sermon remains one of the least studied literary and historical aspects of the past. The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon 1689-1901 corrects this for the first time. The 700-page Handbook contains 37 chapters by distinguished historians, theologians and literary scholars and makes the case for restoring the study of the sermon to scholarship.