Methods of public address can generally be divided into four categories:

Victorian homileticians rejected the first and last of these methods and spent a good deal of time debating whether sermons should be read or delivered extempore.

Some argued that written sermons were generally better organized and more logically sound than extemporaneous ones. Many others, however, believed that "to read is human, to extemporise divine" (Evans 62). In their view, passion was more important than precision; they argued that because extemporaneous sermons had "more life and vigour and power" than written ones ("Extempore Preaching" 449), preachers who spoke extemporaneously would do a much better job of "affecting the heart and determining the will" than those who read their sermons ("An Essay on Extemporary Preaching" 580).

Despite their differences of opinion, theorists on both sides of the debate acknowledged the merits of the opposing school of thought. Those who encouraged the use of written sermons frequently suggested that preachers should not merely read, but should read "with effect" (Herbert 28), investing their delivery with the force and passion found in the best extemporaneous addresses. Conversely, many suggested that extemporaneous preachers could benefit from the intellectual discipline that writing demanded. By combining the "clearness, accuracy, and order" of the written sermon with the "warmth and reality" of the extempore address, preachers could achieve what Islay Burns called the "great point" of sacred rhetoric--"to awake interest, sustain attention, and hold the listening multitude under the spell of the speaker's eye, and voice, and soul" (Robinson 416; Burns 452).

[Adapted from Chapter 1 of The Victorian Pulpit: Spoken and Written sermons in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Copyright 1998 by Susquehanna University Press.]

Additional adaptations available on The Victorian Web:


Victorian Overview Religion sermons: An
Overview Genre,
Mode,  and Technique

Last modified 1998