The sermon is at once the most prolific and least clearly defined literary genre of the Western world of the past two millennia. Essentially a religious address intended to instruct and exhort an audience, the genre, format, context, and content of sermons have varied enormously throughout the history of the church. At times, the sermon form is indistinguishable from a theological commentary or exegetical paraphrase, and at others it is meticulously taxonomized into the different species of homily and sermon, with subspecies delineated according to audience and occasion (such as university, monastic, parish, court, assize, outdoor). Sermons can be delivered orally, recorded and circulated in manuscript, or printed in books; they can be delivered in formal church services or in informal gatherings or read in private.

The connection between sermons and scripture has varied just as widely, as preachers working within various contexts have responded to changing liturgical and rhetorical requirements, indeed to changing conceptions of scripture itself. Yet despite variations in character, the Bible’s central—and indeed foundational—role in sermons has been constant throughout the history of Christianity. Within the nascent church, scripture and sermon were mutually constitutive, as preachers helped to establish scripture’s canon; in late antiquity, a more firmly established scriptural text led sermons to focus more heavily on what precisely constituted correct (and orthodox) modes of scriptural interpretation. Medieval preaching branched into simpler parochial exegesis (blended with accounts of exemplary saints’ lives) and complex scholastic disquisitions intended for university and monastic audiences. The Protestant Reformation brought insistent pressure to bear on scriptural text, with emphasis on universal and vernacular access; with the Enlightenment and the modern era, textual and linguistic discovery became balanced against emphasis on national traditions and parochial simplicity.

Although marked by the wider currents of Western and ecclesiastical history, the sermon genre is, of course, the product of the individual artistic methods and impulses of the countless preachers who have constituted its history. The sermon has played an incalculable role in the course of church theology and history, and in national politics and policies; yet at its foundation, this literary genre—rightly referred to as “preaching the Word”—represents the Western world’s most extensive literary interaction with the Bible.

Early Church.

Sermons and scripture have been inextricable since the earliest days of Christianity. In the New Testament itself, sermons are frequent; preaching, as in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount or the various evangelical orations described in the Acts of the apostles, was fundamental to the spread of the Christian message. In the preaching of Christ and the apostles, the Jewish scriptures are consistently referenced and assimilated; preaching the Word is, in this sense, a key component of the Word itself. Similarly, preaching as practiced by the apostolic and early church fathers preceded—and was foundational to—the composition and eventual establishment of the biblical canon. The early church and its practices of preaching emerged concomitantly with a patchwork body of Christian writings considered to be spiritually authoritative (to various and contested degrees by the several Christian communities); as the church developed and the canon of scripture was established (in its various forms), the emphasis of preaching moved more fully toward scriptural commentary.

In the preaching of Christ and the apostles, and in the first-century church, the scriptures to be expounded were the Jewish writings, principally in the form of the Greek Septuagint. Most of the emphasis on assimilating the Jewish scriptures to the new message was one of prophecy—both in terms of explaining how the Jewish scriptures were fulfilled in the person of Christ and the message of Christianity and in terms of defining the function of the preacher along the lines of the Hebrew prophet. For the earliest Christian churches, this emphasis on the prophetic function of preaching, rather than explication of specific scriptural passages, was paramount. For example, in the early-second-century preaching of Hermas of Rome (author of the Shepherd of Hermas, now considered extracanonical but included in important early codices such as Codex Sinaiticus), reference to scripture is infrequent, in preference for “unmediated” expounding of the Holy Spirit’s message.

Yet in this prophetic preaching of the first- and early-second-century church (that of Hermas included), a considerable range of texts is nonetheless expounded as in some way “scriptural.” For both the New Testament and the Septuagint (the content of which, and its relationship to contemporary Hebrew texts and canons, was also not yet fully determined), the body of writings referenced was significantly greater than what was eventually included in either canon. From the mid-first through the mid-second century, a growing corpus of Christian writings came to be referred to as scripture and was afforded the same spiritual authority as the Jewish writings. Alistair Stewart-Sykes (1998) suggests that the need to “test” the prophetic messages of preaching led to the development of a normative core of scriptural texts and increasingly replaced the prophetic function of preaching with scriptural exegesis. For later second-century preachers like Hippolytus of Rome or Justin Martyr, scriptural exegesis and hermeneutics became increasingly central concerns (although combined with the hortatory elements of prophecy).

An additional impetus in the development of the canon and the sermon’s function as scriptural commentary was liturgical practice. Frances Young (2008) emphasizes the importance of liturgy and preaching in canon formation; church worship provided the primary setting for scriptural interpretation, and the texts that were regularly read and explained were those that become authoritative. Developing liturgies, which placed preaching after scriptural readings, prompted a focus on scriptural interpretation and the establishment of regular patterns of lectionary through biblical books (lectio continua). The third-century homilies of the grammarian and textual scholar Origen are marked by their emphasis on systematic exegesis in this manner; famous for his editorial work on the Jewish scriptures in the Hexapla, Origen’s preaching in Caesarea moved through Psalms, the Prophets, and the historical books, offering first a summary of the reading followed by an interpretive explication. For Origen, the dual need for an established text (although he placed more emphasis on philology and the specific wording of available books than canon formation) and systematic methods for understanding it was key. His hermeneutic method, which came to be known as the Alexandrian school, distinguished between the literal or philological sense of scripture and its spiritual (allegorical and moral) sense, with the priority attached to the allegorical or symbolic meaning.

The Alexandrian school and Origen’s interpretive methods are frequently pitted against those of the Antiochene school and preachers like John Chrysostom, whose fourth-century preaching also worked extensively and systematically through both Jewish and Christian scripture in the context of a liturgy. Chrysostom’s corpus is the most extensive extant of the early church; it pursues a format that came (later) to be defined as the “homily”—verse-by-verse commentary on the literal meaning of a full liturgical reading (a “pericope”). Yet while the hermeneutic and compositional methods pursued by the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools differ, both demonstrate a shared sense of the sermon’s role as scriptural exegesis in response to a liturgical reading and refer to an increasingly similar core body of writings.

In his homilies, Chrysostom refers to a body of scriptural books that closely matches the texts accepted as canonical scripture by key figures in the more formal establishment of the canon in the fourth century, Eusebius, Athanasius, and Jerome (although none of the various canon lists produced in this period by individuals such as the above, councils such as the Council of Carthage, or in manuscripts such as the Muratorian Canon entirely agree). Stewart-Skyes’s argument (that the need to test prophetic preaching prompted early growth of the canon) can profitably be read alongside the arguments of Michael W. Holmes (2008) and Young (2008), who suggest that the canon developed as and when it did in response to the establishment of orthodoxy. The texts considered to be canonical in the wake of the great ecumenical councils of the fourth century were those that supported orthodox doctrine (as then defined); the canons proposed by Marcion or the Gnostics, for example, afforded scriptural authority to different selections of books. Thus the preaching that helped to define orthodoxy considered the texts that eventually formed the canon to be authoritative; reflexively, an orthodox canon provided a defined set of texts against which not the prophecies but the doctrine of a preacher could be both tested and circumscribed.

Late Antique and Early Medieval.

The long process of establishing orthodox doctrine had other effects on the relationship between scripture and sermon. While the development of a formal canon and regularized liturgies ensured that an established Bible (by the early fifth century, the Vulgate in the Latin West) was definitively the subject of the homilist, the Christological controversies of the fifth through seventh centuries provided considerable subject matter for preachers. Scripture in this period increasingly came to be used for proof-texts against heresy, and the job of the homilist was to transmit orthodox doctrine in accordance with church tradition. As such, deference to the traditional and authoritative writings of the early fathers (St. Augustine in particular) prompted preachers to borrow heavily from earlier sermons, commentaries, and tractates.

The rise of Western monasticism following the Rule of St. Benedict and the Carolingian reforms of the late eighth century prompted the further replication of patristic homilies in the early medieval period. Chapter 9 of Benedict’s Rule requires scriptural readings followed by patristic commentary at the office of Nocturns; this rule gave rise to collections of patristic texts arranged by scriptural pericope in accordance with the liturgical cycle of lections. Preaching reforms introduced by Charlemagne in the Admonitio generalis of 789, which required preaching to lay audiences in the vernacular on Sundays and feast days, stipulated that both regular and secular clergy have access to Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule and Homilies on the Gospels, as well as the homiliary of Paul the Deacon, which was a compilation of patristic texts (chiefly on the gospel pericopes) commissioned by Charlemagne. The ninth century saw, as a result, a considerable rise in sermon writing and collecting, with a marked tendency toward the transmission and recapitulation of authoritative patristic exegesis as presented in such preaching aids.

From the ninth century onward, however, gradual movement is discernible away from the reproduction of patristic homilies toward more original compositions as well as the rise of the sermon form as distinct from the homily, with the sermon achieving general ascendancy from the twelfth century. The terms cannot be sharply distinguished; sermo and homilia were essentially interchangeable in the early church and were used unsystematically throughout the medieval period. However, for purposes of criticism, a useful and necessary distinction can be made between sermons and homilies, particularly as a means of describing the change in the forms of preaching witnessed in the medieval period. Traditionally, the homily refers to the verse-by-verse explication of a full liturgical pericope; it is exegetical in nature and lends well to the collation of patristic authorities. The sermon, on the other hand, constructs an argument around a key phrase or topic, called the “theme”; it is exhortative in focus. As such, the movement from homily to sermon reflects a change in preachers’ sense of their responsibility to scripture. In the growth of vernacular preaching following the Carolingian reforms, the homily served to translate or paraphrase in vernacular the Latin (Vulgate) liturgical reading and provide authoritative orthodox commentary. The sermon, on the other hand, had its roots in the Latinate contexts of the monasteries and schools and developed as a form of more complex theological argumentation.

Drawing a sharp distinction between vernacular and Latin preaching is not, however, entirely useful. Many sermon texts were recorded in Latin despite being originally preached in the vernacular, and many vernacular sermons were compiled from Latin sources. The goals and techniques of sermon and homily composition developed in interaction between Latinate culture and the growing vernacular literatures of the Medieval West’s various linguistic regions. However, regional and linguistic distinctions in vernacular preaching certainly emerged in this period.

Vernacular preaching must have occurred in Anglo-Saxon England from the time of the late-sixth-century mission of Augustine of Canterbury. However, the tendency to record preaching in Latin (if at all) has resulted in a restricted corpus of Old English sermon texts. The chief documents, all dating from the tenth/early eleventh century, are the anonymous homilies contained in the Vercelli Book and the Blickling Homilies, and the writings of Ælfric of Eynsham and Archbishop Wulfstan of York. The difference of style between Ælfric and Wulfstan, who worked in the same period (and indeed, wrote to one another and from each other’s materials), demonstrates that a strict teleology from homily to sermon does not hold. Ælfric represents the exegetical style of the homilist; not only does he pursue explanatory readings of liturgical biblical passages, his homilies are recorded with complete and precise translations of the Vulgate reading into Old English (unlike Latin homilies of this period, which generally commence with the first verse of the pericope followed by et reliquia). When compared to his methods of quoting and translating patristic sources (he often paraphrases, condenses, expands, and otherwise rearranges such material), the care with which he provides accurate scriptural readings demonstrates his sense of the vernacular homilist’s responsibility as a scriptural translator (Ælfric additionally translated large portions of the Heptateuch, although he expressed reservations about the translation of scriptural texts outside of the homiletic context).

Wulfstan, in contrast, pursues the hortatory and argumentative style of the sermon. Much of his work is eschatological in tone, moving over the course of his career from an emphasis on the millennialism of the New Testament to the punitive justice of the Old Testament’s historical and prophetic books. Wulfstan, too, provides translations of his scriptural sources; however, he is far more likely to make adjustments to his texts in accordance with his hortative emphases. While he commences his sermons with a scriptural quotation, he does not systematically explicate full pericopes; rather, he tailors his translations to reflect his argumentative goals. For example, in his sermon on Matthew 24:1–14, 36, and 42, Wulstan omits portions of several verses in order to maintain focus on the subject of false prophets. Wulfstan’s sermons are not the less focused on the Bible—he cites scripture throughout the development of his theme—but the Bible is considered primarily to operate in service of a moral argument.

Late Medieval.

With the growth of the universities, the role of the sermon as a genre for theological argumentation and moral exhortation became increasingly formalized. The development of rhetorical artes praedicandi and associated scholastic tools—books of distinctions, florilegia, exempla, biblical concordances, and the Glossa Ordinaria to the Vulgate—gave rise to increasing complexity of theological argumentation and structure. Sermons continued to employ scriptural passages as the introduction to their “theme” or subject, which was divided and amplified according to the preacher’s organization of his argument; however, while the scriptural basis for the theme generally derived from the liturgical lection, preachers did not feel bound to explicate that lection. Rather, the scriptural text served as a point of departure; an argument might be built around a noteworthy key term, which could be collated against other uses in the Bible or expounded according to multiple senses (historical, tropological, allegorical, or anagogical). Furthermore, the growing number of saints’ days had the result that many sermons were focused not on a lection, but on the life of the saint whose mass was celebrated, with many sermons drawing heavily from John Mirk’s Festial.

Similar to the Carolingian reforms of the ninth century, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) promoted vernacular preaching for popular audiences by extending the office beyond bishops and abbots. With the formation of the mendicant monastic orders (chiefly the Franciscans and Dominicans), vernacular preaching—and preaching outside monastic and clerical centers, usually at outdoor preaching crosses—proliferated. Despite growing emphasis on vernacular preaching, Latin remained the preferred medium for recording sermons; as such, an enormous quantity of Latin sermons is extant, while sermons in Middle English are comparatively scarce, particularly following the Norman Conquest. However, Old English preaching material continued to be copied, and as Bella Millett (2010) and Mary Swan and Elaine Treharne (2000) have shown, the material contained in many twelfth-century manuscript collections (such as the Lambeth and Trinity Homilies) suggests that Middle English copyists creatively recast Anglo-Saxon preaching material, demonstrating significant literary interaction with the changes and continuities of post-Conquest English.

The institutional prioritization of Latin that resulted from the Norman Conquest persisted until the late fourteenth century, and as such many of the later Medieval English sermons that remain are associated with the Lollard movement, which built on the ideas of John Wycliffe (the initial translator of the Wycliffe Bible) and for which vernacular scripture was a defining issue. Scripture in English is a predictably popular topic of Lollard preaching, yet such preaching does not merely argue for its presence. Polemic certainly features, but for the most part Lollard preaching pursues a decidedly “homiletic” approach, providing in-depth exegesis of the entire biblical lection.

Early Modern.

Lollardy (and similar Continental movements, such as the Hussites of Bohemia) argued for the authority of scripture and for its availability in the vernacular. In this regard, such movements anticipated some of the key concerns of the early modern period; during the late antique and medieval periods, preaching (while important) was one component of a range of clerical duties and was in many ways supplemental to the Mass and the administration of sacraments. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries witnessed several interrelated developments that drastically changed the role of the sermon in worship and society: the rise of print, humanism, and the Protestant Reformation.


The first book to emerge from Gutenberg’s printing press in 1454–1455 was, famously, a Bible. Bibles (whether full copies of the Vulgate, with or without the Glossa Ordinaria, or portions, such as the 1457 Mainz Psalter) were common incunabula, responding to a ready market for Latin Vulgates and, in time, printed Bibles in the vernacular. The easier access to Bibles enabled by print contributed to increased levels of general literacy and demand for vernacular translations; it also had significant impact on the ways in which sermons were composed, as audiences (particularly into the mid- to late sixteenth century) could reasonably be expected to have access to a Bible. Similarly, printed sermons were common—whether individual or in collected volumes, Latin or vernacular, contemporary or ancient. As a result, far more sermons have survived from the early modern period than from earlier centuries—the earliest extant in print being John Chrysostom’s Homiliae super Matthaeum, or possibly Chrysostom’s Sermo super psalmum L (both printed in 1466), and the earliest extant in English being William Caxton’s Quattuor Sermones (Westminster, 1482).

Certainly, manuscript culture did not lose its importance in sermon culture; auditors’ notes, authorial papers, and collection/circulation within coteries were common and continue to provide valuable resources for sermon scholarship (particularly in reconstructing the original preached versions of printed sermons, as in the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne [McCullough, 2013] or in the work of Arnold Hunt [2010]). Nonetheless, the advent of print marks a significant shift (in both Protestant and Roman Catholic contexts) toward higher emphasis on the verbal aspects of Christianity, with far-reaching impact on the relationship between sermons and scripture.


In parallel with the alterations made to the production of and access to Bibles and sermons occasioned by print culture, the growth of humanist methods of scholarship altered the ways in which the Bible was understood and studied. The humanist principle of ad fontes (to the sources) prioritized the original languages and earliest documents of scripture’s composition, with the result that the Latin Vulgate lost its status as the preeminent text of scripture. Humanist emphasis on the textual authority of the original Greek and Hebrew (as well as the philological usefulness of early Syriac, Aramaic, and Arabic sources), rather than the authority of the Roman Catholic Church’s custodial care of the Vulgate, served to destabilize consensus over what, exactly, the words of scripture were. New editions, beginning with Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum (a new Latin translation of the New Testament based on a newly edited Greek text, which came in later iterations to be referred to as the textus receptus), and including Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros’s Complutensian Polyglot, Daniel Bomberg and Sebastian Münster’s Rabbinic Bibles, Benito Arias Montano’s Antwerp Polyglot, and Sanctes Pagninus and Immanuel Tremellius’s Latin versions, provided not only new translations but differing versions of scripture’s original texts.

In both Roman Catholic and Protestant contexts, audiences were faced with a polyglossia of bibles. In Protestant contexts, new translations into vernaculars were also produced—often in multiple, conflicting versions. In England, for example, eight discrete versions were produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Council of Trent promulgated the primacy of the Vulgate within Catholic contexts, yet the impact of humanist textual scholarship was felt nonetheless; the Tridentine ruling did not specify which version of the Vulgate was to be used, thereby ignoring the significant variation that could exist between editions (as the disparity between the post-Tridentine Sistine and Clementine recensions demonstrated). Furthermore, Catholic scholars such as Montano continued to produce editions showcasing scripture’s multilingual status.

Such textual scholarship was paired with considerable emphasis on the philological study of biblical languages. Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge established chairs in Hebrew and Greek, and trilingual colleges (Alcala, Louvain), as well as multilingual teaching at institutions such as the Collège de France, Tübingen, and Basel, promoted linguistic training as a key component of university education. Scholars such as Johannes Reuchlin and Elias Levita produced grammars and lexicons, many of which provided access in Latin to Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, or Arabic material (such as Pagninus’s Thesaurus Linguae Sacrae, a Latin translation of David Kimhi’s Masoreth ha-Masoreth).

Preachers made extensive use of such philological training and tools. While levels of textual and philological argumentation in sermons varied across confessional lines, a sense of the preacher’s duty to explicate the literal composition of texts pervades early modern preaching. Not all preachers engaged in the minute dissection of the linguistic bases of their texts, quoted Hebrew or Greek, or referenced Rabbinic commentary (although many, like Lancelot Andrewes, did); however, the expectation that preachers would make an argument for what the text was and bear theological fruit from an increased understanding of the textual history of the Bible, as well as its many compositional languages, became increasingly commonplace in the sixteenth century.

Humanism’s effect on sermons was not, however, merely a byproduct of biblical scholarship. Erasmus and Philip Melanchthon produced enormously influential humanist preaching manuals, in which they argued for the incorporation of classical principles of rhetoric (classical scholarship being that other purview of humanism) in sermon composition. While advocacy for modified forms of Ciceronian rhetoric in preaching was not altogether new (Augustine, for example, argues for it in chapter 10 of De Doctrina Christiana), Erasmus and Melanchthon’s arguments effectively displaced the thematic sermon style. In these and in subsequent ars rhetoricae and ars predicandi (such as William Perkins’s Art of Prophecying), emphasis was placed on a single verse or verses and a sermon structure that derives from the division of that verse into topics of address (what Melanchthon termed the “right cutting” of the verse and sermon). Such preaching manuals further emphasized humanist approaches to explicating scriptural verses—according to the historical sense, and on the basis of collation against other scriptural passages. Such principles are generally recognized as fundamental tenets of Protestantism; equally, they are fundamental humanist principles concerning how to understand a text in its own context.

The Protestant Reformation.

The textual emphases of print culture and humanism became expressed in Protestantism through the doctrine of sola scriptura, which located primary religious authority in the Bible rather than the church. The arguments of reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon, and Calvin for the right of the individual Christian to read and understand the scriptures prompted widespread vernacular translation and popular ownership of Bibles as well as vernacular liturgies. In addition, reformers urged for moves not merely toward scripturalism but also away from certain understandings of the sacraments; in reformed liturgies, emphasis was shifted away from the Mass and onto the sermon (although this shift was expressed to varying degrees, and with differing understandings of the sacraments, within the many forms of Protestantism).

As such, the Protestant Reformation is often described as transforming Christianity into a religion of the Word: the Word read and the Word preached. Of course, as the foregoing demonstrates, scripture and preaching were always important elements of Christian belief and practice, and emphases on scripture and sermon within the context of a liturgy and religious culture writ large differed between the various forms of Protestantism and between states; nonetheless, the various Protestant churches established in Europe brought scripture and sermon into a closer relationship than had been witnessed since the church’s earliest days.

Early modern England.

The establishment of the Church of England (independent from Rome, adhering to Protestant theologies, with vernacular liturgy and scripture) was an uneven and lengthy process. Henry VIII’s 1534 Act of Supremacy, which positioned the monarch as the supreme head of the national church, was largely a political action intended to allow Henry’s divorce; relatively few Protestant doctrinal reforms were instituted under his reign, and what Protestant forms he did institute underwent various alterations under the brief reigns of Edward VI and Mary I.

During this uneven period of Tudor supremacy and succession, the position of English Bibles (particularly in liturgical use) proved a perennial point of contention and variance. In contrast to the German Luther Bibel, which came to see monolithic use among German-speaking Protestants, the translation and institution of scripture in English resulted in multiple overlapping and competing versions. Some versions, such as the Tyndale, Geneva, and Douay-Rheims (and to an extent, Matthew) Bibles, derived from contexts of religious exile and were inflected with Continental imperatives (such as the distinctly Calvinist notes of the Geneva Bible or the Counter-Reformation project of Douay-Rheims). Versions appointed for use in churches (the Great, Bishops’, and King James Bibles) underwent various forms of state regulation, such as Henry VIII’s prohibition of marginal notes or the (nominal) Episcopal consensus over the Bishop’s Bible. Each new translation was used in different, often overlapping contexts—the Geneva Bible, with its easily portable, legible, and affordable formats (especially in English printings after 1576), was popularly used outside liturgical services; within the liturgy, overlapping “official” versions (Great, Bishops) existed alongside unofficial use of Geneva until the more widespread adoption of the King James Version in the 1630s (although the Great Bible’s version of the Psalter continued to be used, and indeed is still used in many churches to this day). Furthermore, from 1549 (with new editions in 1552, 1559, and 1662), the Book of Common Prayer was instituted, which cemented its own scriptural translations in public consciousness.

English preachers thus faced a distinctly English version of the biblical polyglossia urged by humanism. The interacting imperatives of humanism, print culture, and Protestantism ensured that while the sermon form’s connection to “the Bible” was solidified, its connection to any one specific Bible was less clear. As Perkins outlines in his 1607 The Arte of Prophecying, “the perfect and equal object of Preaching is the word of God” (p. 4); yet while the word formed the entire and sufficient basis of preaching, it was not immediately synonymous with its representation in scriptural forms of Earth. Rather, “the Word is in the holy Scripture. The Scripture is the word of God written in a language fit for the Church by men” (p. 6).

English preachers took full advantage of the many linguistic options available, in the forms brought to the fore by biblical humanism, and in the many English versions. The vestiges of the medieval thematic sermon were retained in the organizational substructure of preaching on one or a few scriptural verses (called the “text” rather than the “theme”); however, the argumentative structure of the sermon (called the divisio) was derived from the semantic breakdown of that verse rather than associated theological precepts or morally exemplary saint’s lives. Lengthy passages could be constructed around the lexical breakdown of a single word—its meaning in the original language and early translations, its etymological connection to other words, its collated use across other biblical books. Lancelot Andrewes, for example, as Peter McCullough (2005) notes in his edition of Andrewes’s sermons, typically maintains intense focus on a single key word in his sermons, given in many linguistic formats, as when he builds an entire sermon around the dissection of the word “remember” in Luke 17:32 (“Remember Lot’s wife”). The interplay between versions involved in such detailed textual focus lent itself to flexible and often highly creative methods of quotation; in a sermon on Job 19:26, for example, John Donne rarely quotes his text in the same form twice, moving through every available English version of the verse, the Hebrew original, the Vulgate, Antwerp Polyglot, and Tremellius-Junius Latin versions, the Aramaic Targums, and his own paraphrases.

English sermons were not, however, primarily linguistic affairs and were far from dry litanies of lexical variance. Rather, such explorations represented attempts to map connections in the Bible, an attempt that was reflected in other interpretive techniques, such as typology. Tracing prophetic connection between biblical persons and events allowed Protestant preaching to access the richly symbolic content of the Bible while respecting the literal sense. Typological readings also permitted preachers to link events in their own time and context into an ongoing biblical narrative; the expectation that preachers apply their scriptural texts to the immediate moral needs and situation of their audiences was an imperative on par with explicating their meaning. It is this need to apply the text, with the result that the full meaning of such preaching is enormously contingent on the audience and context of its delivery, that has led scholars such as Jeanne Shami (2003) and Peter McCullough (2013) to reconstruct the initial occasions of early modern preaching.

The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century.

The intense scrutinization of the textual details of scripture prompted by Protestantism and humanism led, from the later seventeenth century, to various challenges, on textual and philosophical grounds, to the Bible’s status as a revealed text. Philosophers like Baruch Spinoza, Richard Simon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke argued for rationalist political and moral approaches, while philologists and textual scholars (such as Jean Le Clerc, J. A. Bengel, J. G. Eichhorn, and J. D. Michaelis, among numerous others) demonstrated the considerable levels of textual variation and composite authorship discernible in biblical texts, arguing for editorial approaches that assumed the Bible was a historical text like any other. However, as Jonathan Sheehan (2005) has argued, such reappraisals did not lead solely to skepticism and secularization; rather, writers and critics developed novel approaches to scripture, integrating the Bible within a range of historical and cultural functions.

Key to the continued cultural preeminence of the Bible was the celebration of and adherence to what had become traditional vernacular versions: the Luther Bibel in Germany and the King James Bible in England. The drive to produce new vernacular translations, which had been so strong in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (especially in England), was replaced, in the face of such textual and philosophical assessments, with loyalty to the national and nostalgic function of such translations. Sermon culture played a considerable role in this shift: while text-critical issues were explored in the more rarefied and Latinate culture of the universities, preaching took a decidedly parochial and “plain” turn. Rationalism played itself out in the pulpit by an emphasis on simplicity, adherence to plain readings of familiar texts, and a pastoral focus on moral exhortation.

The primary figure in the development of a parochial “plain” style in England was Archbishop John Tillotson. Tillotson, along with other late-seventeenth-century preachers like Edward Stillingfleet and Isaac Barrow, argued for the inherent rationality of Christianity—and for Tillotson, this rationality of belief was rhetorically modeled by verbal simplicity. His style is no less scriptural than earlier preaching; rather, the texts chosen and cited were designed to be simple, recognizable, and applicable rather than linguistically or rhetorically impressive. This plain style gained ascendancy across genres; writers such as Dryden, Swift, and Benjamin Franklin cited Tillotson as an important influence on their conceptions of good prose. Preachers continued to base sermon composition on a single verse or short passage and organized their compositions by explication, confirmation, and application. As Frances Knight (2012) has shown, preachers demonstrated considerable individual variation regarding the relative balance of scriptural explication and application, but preachers of various confessional biases nonetheless began, by the nineteenth century, to emphasize (and publish in greater numbers) collections of “village sermons,” which made claims for plainness and accessibility.

From the mid-sixteenth century onward, the growth of Nonconformist and preaching movements complicated the landscape of English sermon culture. Among the various Dissenting churches that emerged in England over the course of the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the belief in scripture as the sole and paramount Christian guide was a general feature. As Scott Mandelbrote and Michael Ledger-Lomas (2013) have demonstrated, Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, and Unitarians alike asserted their claims to “pure” biblicism and modeled themselves after the primitive Christianity of the Bible. Dissenting churches almost uniformly held preaching and scriptural explication to be the cornerstones of worship; emphasis on extemporal preaching based on the inward prompting of the Holy Spirit tended to generate sermons composed of dense webs of scriptural references. John Wesley, for example, filled his sermons with wide-ranging arrays of biblical quotations, drawn from a vast storehouse of memorized verses. Such preaching was, especially within Methodism, intended to provoke an emotional response to scripture—the “heart stirrings” of authentic belief.

Noteworthy across English preaching from the mid-sixteenth century to the early twentieth century, whatever the confessional stamp, is the almost universal adherence to the King James Bible. The reasons behind such adherence are complex—equal parts plainness, familiarity, and nationalism, as Sheehan (2005) has shown. The reach of the King James version was, in fact, global; in 1804, the British and Foreign Bible Society determined that it would be its sole scripture (and indeed, the KJB formed the basis of many missionary translations). The effect of the King James Version in scriptural citation in sermons is monolithic; from the Restoration period onward, the collational approaches and layering of versions that so marked early modern sermons are replaced by the essentially wholesale citation of King James.

The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.

The twentieth century witnessed, from its outset, a significant decline in the number of sermons printed; in this sense, while preaching continued (and continues still) in churches, scholars are once again faced with something like the absence of material remains that besets studies of medieval preaching. While it is tempting to argue that the rise of secularism and new media formats in the twentieth century put an end the cultural ascendancy of the sermon (and certainly, compared to early modern and Victorian markets, the decline of the sermon’s popularity is marked), it is perhaps more accurate to say that the sermon’s connection to tradition has been dramatically altered—whether that be traditional versions, modes of exegesis and doctrine, or modes of composition.

Compared to the monolithic use of the King James Version in previous centuries, hundreds of English translations are now available to preachers (from the relative traditionalism of the English Standard Version to the evangelical, paraphrastic The Message or novelty versions such as the LOLCat translation). The decline of printed sermons has been supplemented by digital formats; preachers commonly provide audio recordings on church websites, and DVD series such as Rob Bell’s NOOMA offer sermon-like films containing biblical and spiritual reflections. If, however, the loose definition of “sermon” provided in the introduction—“a religious address intended to instruct and exhort an audience”—stands, then the developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries will challenge future critics with exciting possibilities about what sermons and scripture are and how they relate.




  • Holmes, Michael W. “The Biblical Canon.” In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter, pp. 406–426. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Hunt, Arnold. The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and Their Audiences, 1590–1640. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Knight, Frances. “Parish Preaching in the Victorian Era: The Village Sermon.” In The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689–1901, edited by Keith A. Francis and William Gibson, Robert Ellison, John Morgan-Guy, and Bob Tennant, pp. 63–78. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Mandelbrote, Scott, and Michael Ledger-Lomas, eds. Dissent and the Bible in Britain, c. 1650–1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • McCullough, Peter, ed. Lancelot Andrewes: Selected Sermons and Lectures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • McCullough, Peter, ed. The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne. 16 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013–.
  • Millett, Bella. “Change and Continuity: The English Sermon before 1250.” In The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English, edited by Elaine Treharne and Greg Walker, pp. 221–239. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Perkins, William. The Arte of Prophecying. London: Felix Kyngston for E.E., 1607.
  • Shami, Jeanne. John Donne and Conformity in Crisis in the Late Jacobean Pulpit. Woodbridge, U.K.: Brewer, 2003.
  • Sheehan, Jonathan. The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Stewart-Sykes, Alistair. “Hermas the Prophet and Hippolytus the Preacher.” In Preacher and Audience: Studies in Early Christian and Byzantine Homiletics, edited by Mary B. Cunningham and Pauline Allen, pp. 33–63. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.
  • Swan, Mary, and Elaine M. Treharne, eds. Rewriting Old English in the Twelfth Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Young, Frances M. “Interpretation of Scripture.” In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter, pp. 845–863. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Further Reading

  • Cunningham, Mary B., and Pauline Allen, eds. Preacher and Audience: Studies in Early Christian and Byzantine Homiletics. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.
  • Ellison, Robert H., ed. The New History of the Sermon: The Nineteenth Century. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.
  • Francis, Keith A., William Gibson, Robert Ellison, John Morgan-Guy, and Bob Tennant, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689–1901. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Gatch, Milton. Preaching and Theology in Anglo-Saxon England: Ælfric and Wulfstan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.
  • Kienzle, Beverly Mayne, ed. The Sermon. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2000.
  • Larsen, Tim. A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Mayer, Wendy. “Homiletics.” In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter, pp. 565–583. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • McCullough, Peter, Hugh Addlington, and Emma Rhatigan, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. See, in particular, Lori Anne Ferrell, “The Preacher’s Bibles,” pp. 21–33.
  • Muessig, Carolyn, ed. Preacher, Sermon and Audience in the Middle Ages. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.
  • Norton, David. A History of the Bible as Literature. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Van Eijnatten, Joris. Preaching, Sermon and Cultural Change in the Long Eighteenth Century. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.
  • Wabuda, Susan. Preaching during the English Reformation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Alison Knight