Jeremiah's Scribes

By reconstructing the aural culture of sermons in Puritan New England, Neuman shifts our attention from the pulpit to the pew, demonstrating how sermon auditors helped to shape this dominant genre of Puritan New England.

Jeremiah's Scribes
Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England

Meredith Marie Neuman

2013 | 280 pages | Cloth $69.95
Literature | Religion
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Table of Contents

Note on Transcription
Preface

Introduction
Chapter 1. Unauthorizing the Sermon
Chapter 2. Reading the Notetakers
Chapter 3. Publishing Aurality
Chapter 4. Crumbling, Collating, and Enabling
Chapter 5. Narrating the Soul

Notes
Bibliography
Index
Acknowledgments


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction

The distinguished scholar was absolutely correct when he quipped, "Indeed, ours has been a notably sermon-ridden literature from the beginning." The Puritan sermon has long been the elephant in the room for many teachers and scholars of early American literature. We know that we have to deal with it, but we are often not sure how to do so. Historical- and cultural-studies approaches often explicate—and accordingly reaffirm—the dominance of sermon culture as a manifestation of theological, intellectual, or sociological idiosyncrasies. Literary approaches, by contrast, have particular difficulty gaining traction on the slippery slopes of shifting aesthetic judgment (we do not generally read like seventeenth-century readers) and seemingly insurmountable differences in faith perception (we do not generally believe like seventeenth-century Calvinists). Accordingly, when trying to account for the phenomenal popularity of sermons in seventeenth-century New England, literary scholars favor predominantly historical- and cultural-studies approaches or, alternatively, deflect focus toward more familiar genres, such as poetry and autobiographical writing. Early American literature may be "sermon-ridden," but those sermons often remain at the margins of the literary canon. In retrospect, we should recognize that Puritan sermon literature has always been complicated by the fraught connotations of its peculiar rationale. Puritan ministers themselves struggled with the implications of sermon composition, eschewing rhetorical excesses and questioning the very efficacy of human language. The laity, in turn, articulated their own pious doubts in agonized dialogic responses to the experience of the meetinghouse. The question, finally, cannot simply be how modern readers can come to terms with a sermon-ridden literary past. We must instead begin by asking how a modern critic might even phrase the question to which the conscientious Puritan writer, reader, or auditor would not object.

Illustrations of sermon popularity rely upon anecdote. Cotton Mather reports in the Magnalia Christi Americana ("the great works of Christ in America"), for example, that upon John Norton's taking up the Boston pulpit, a certain "godly man" of Norton's former congregation in Ipswich would travel on foot to hear the weekly lecture. John Cotton's famously "untrimmed sermons" must have achieved the rhetorical goals of plain style wonderfully, for John Wilson reports that he "preaches with such authority, demonstration, and life, that methinks, when he preaches out of any prophet or apostle, I hear not him; I hear that very prophet and apostle; yea, I hear the Lord Jesus Christ himself speaking in my heart." John Wilson spoke as an apostle, according to Thomas Shepard, and his ex tempore skills were impressive enough that one of his few New England-based publications was based on a lecture that he had had only a day to prepare, owing to the absence of the expected speaker. Given the vicissitudes of such exemplary anecdotes, perhaps especially those preserved by the filiopious Mather, it is no wonder that explanations of sermon culture give way to a pathologizing instinct. That is to say, the question of what drove popular demand for preaching quickly becomes: What was wrong with people that they wanted to hear so many sermons?

Part of the problem is that the Puritan sermon is a literature of disproportion. In practice, the proverbial Protestant principles of sola fides (by faith alone) and sola scriptura (by scripture alone) seem to be taken to curious extremes. The creators and consumers of Puritan sermon literature are a people who distinguished themselves by saying that faith alone is enough for salvation. So why, we might rightly ask, did they spend so much time in the pulpit and pew? (Harry S. Stout estimates that the average person would have spent 15,000 hours in his or her lifetime listening to sermons.) Their sermon compositions are referred to as "plain style." So why would they spend months explicating a single verse of scripture? (Thomas Shepard spent four years explicating the Parable of the Ten Virgins to his congregation, and the print edition of that sermon cycle runs to more than 600 pages.) They also thought of the Bible as a perfect book—in a sense, the only book that really counted. So why did they make so many more books, written in their own imperfect human language? (Print sermons were often based on notes taken by individual auditors who transcribed their own sense of the minister's expository pulpit explication.) Are such demonstrations of pious copia simply enactments of good piety, some inevitable excess in pursuit of elusive spiritual closure? Or might the very disproportions and excesses that so perplex the modern reader supply a clue to the sermon's popular appeal?

In the American tradition, the great pioneer of Puritan studies, Perry Miller, continues to delimit the scope of scholarship. His argument for the sermon was built upon an impressive foundation of intellectual history: an account of rhetoric and logic training in the English university, the fine points behind irresolvable theological controversies, and, throughout, a sense that the Puritan—that inimitable dinosaur of inflexible spirituality—was nevertheless the Ur-American. Subsequent generations have enacted their inevitable adjustments to Miller, but Miller's explanation of the working of the "New England Mind" has always been plausible enough to remain foundational. The notion of a monolithic New England Mind has been shattered, thankfully, and replaced with a more accurate understanding of many New England Souls, not all white, not all male, not all elite, and not all Puritan. But this newer, savvier scholarship continues to explain away Puritanism as theological, sociological, and cultural idiosyncrasy. From Miller on down, Puritanism has often appeared as a puzzling historical chapter that, for better and worse, gives clues to future manifestations of American character and foible.

By contrast, much scholarship on English Puritanism has traditionally focused on literary aspects of the phenomenon, although arguably not on the literariness of the sermon per se. Rather, as Lori Anne Ferrell and Peter McCullough point out in their introduction to The English Sermon Revised, studies of English Puritanism throughout the twentieth century served primarily to contextualize John Milton as the Poetic Puritan, on the one hand, and John Donne as the Metaphysical Poet Preacher (in opposition to plain style), on the other. The result has disproportionately featured, in their words, "the history of English prose style, antiquarian literary history, and a preoccupation with 'the Metaphysical.'" For the past few decades, English scholarship has usefully blurred old theological and stylistic lines of distinction between the Anglican and the Puritan, and every new book, it seems, must begin by worrying the question, What is a Puritan? That question is perhaps easier to answer in New England, where one could argue that a Puritan is anyone who felt strongly enough about the current situation to get on a boat. Nevertheless, American scholarship could benefit from more regard to the ambiguities of doctrine and style. On either side of the Atlantic, however, a plausible claim to "the Literary" continues to elude the study of the Puritan sermon. We talk about experience, about mourning, about social control and transgression, about piety and resistance. We speak about the many phenomena of Puritanism. Conveniently, then, we can remind ourselves that literature might consist of not only a poem or a play but a controversial pamphlet or a catechism or a report on missionary activity, as well. We can turn almost anything—from a visual image, to a historical event, to a devotional practice—into a text to read. Yet none of these necessary and illuminating expansions of Puritan literature has addressed recalcitrant resistance to that more traditional literary genre of the sermon for modern readers. Most of us still hate to read sermons—and Puritan sermons in particular. While we can argue that sermons are literature, we do not always feel the necessary truth of those arguments.

We make a mistake when we concede the premise that Puritan writers are rote rhetoricians and dogmatists who are constantly responding to circumstances: to the curious exigencies of Reformation politics and culture, to the vicissitudes of the early Stuart regime, to exile, to migration, to heretical threats from within a community of Visible Saints. This premise characterizes Puritans as a reactive, proscriptive sort of people, led by an unwieldy theology and not enough latitude for creative innovation. They do not appear to us as constructive theorists of their own literary output; they are too busy justifying their untenable religious positions. And, in actuality, guidelines for sermon composition (such as William Perkins's Arte of Prophecying and Richard Bernard's The Faithfull Shepheard) do not offer particularly sophisticated theories of composition or language. On their surface, directions for plain-style preaching—enticingly called "prophesying"—come off rather like the instructions on a pastoral shampoo bottle: "Open scripture, present doctrine, apply doctrine, repeat. . . ." In the context of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century practice, "prophesying" meant something much closer to basic textual explication (close reading scripture, that is) rather than inspired speech. Certainly, a good minister (or a "godly minister," as he might be called) was understood to be specially enabled by God to speak, but he was also dependent upon years of training in the university disciplines of logic and rhetoric. Ironically, methodical plain-style preaching (straightforward scriptural explication that moves directly toward practical application and avoids rhetorical flourish for its own sake) is associated with those very theologians who reject other potentially rote practices (such as set prayer and prewritten homilies) as idolatry. Indeed, the reified, seemingly uninspired formula of prophesying or "opening scripture" in the plain style appears to be at odds with the radical potential inherent in the Reform commitment to the vernacular and the direct working of faith in the process of salvation.

To the extent that Puritans are perceived as having literary theory, that theory is usually characterized as essentially antiliterary and hostile to familiar genres such as poetry and drama. Not only do Puritans close down all the theaters in England first chance they get, but they reject all the artful preaching of, say, John Donne or Lancelot Andrewes. To adapt H. L. Mencken's dismissive formulation, the Puritan writer becomes someone who lives with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is spinning an extended metaphor with eloquence and wit. When Puritans write poetry, doctrine often seems to take precedence over eloquence, and so the Bay Psalm Book limps its way awkwardly across the page, and Michael Wigglesworth's notorious Day of Doom parades its vision of final judgment in doggerel fourteeners. In such light, the famous claim from the preface to the Bay Psalm Book, reminding the reader that "God's altar needs not our polishing," seems more like an excuse than a poetic principle. In such light, the saving, textual vitality of the sermon seems lost forever beneath the implausible hyperbole of Puritan anecdote.

Perhaps we must begin by conceding that the sermon is the controlling logic of all Puritan literature. Central to the lived experience of piety, sermon culture dictates not only habits of thought but habits of interpretation and expression as well. Illustrated perhaps most famously by John Winthrop's Modell of Christian Charitie, this sermonic habit of thought manifests itself in civic discourse. Winthrop's little speech aboard the Arabella and his closing explication of Matt. 4:15 ("a City upon a Hill") inaugurate centuries of debate over the relationship between church and state as well as constantly evolving tropes of exceptionalism. Non-sermonic prose and poetry often appear distinctly inflected with sermonic tone, structure, and technique, adding to the distinct generic fluidity that characterizes much canonical Puritan writing. Notably, Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative demonstrates multiple literary genres simultaneously. The preface offered "Per Amicam" frames Rowlandson's personal account of The Sovereignty and Goodness of God in terms of the covenantal relationship of the entire community with God. A minister's wife and a member of a New England gathered church, Rowlandson did not need Increase Mather's clerical instigation to appropriate features of the sermon for the narration of her experience. For Rowlandson—as for any New England Puritan attendant upon the sermon as the "ordinary means" to salvation—it would have been difficult not to have explicated biographical insight alongside scriptural revelation or to have sought resolution of unmanageable trauma without doctrine. Rowlandson explicates Job, Daniel, and David into contiguous identity with her own experiential exposition of self. She systematizes what is perhaps the most irreconcilable aspect of her ordeal—her anger at the English army's ineffectual attempts at rescue—through the familiar rhetorical technology of numbering "a few remarkable passages of Providence; which I took special notice of in my afflicted time." Scripture and doctrine are not imposed upon Rowlandson's experience from the outside; rather, they arise naturally in the course of exegetical habit.

We might also recognize in Puritan poetry generally the sermonic logic and exegetical habits that help negotiate tensions endemic to a life of visible sanctity: between doctrinal resolution and contingent experience (as when Anne Bradstreet struggles to conform her response to the burning of her house according to the principles of "weaned affections"); between divine articulation and limping human language (as discovered in the rather wooden translations of the Bay Psalm Book); between the immediacy of grace and the decaying half-life of its recollection (as when Edward Taylor attempts through writing to recover past moments of spiritual certainty). Human poetic endeavor continually requires justification, especially in a Bible commonwealth. Accordingly, Taylor's God's Determinations Touching His Elect functions as casuistry (a work of practical divinity), and Michael Wigglesworth's notorious Day of Doom and God's Controversy with New-England both make the familiar arguments associated with the jeremiad. Poetic eulogies—typically offered by male elites for other male elites—fulfill a public, civic function, but the more personal, confessional poems of Bradstreet and Taylor demonstrate the contemplative mode and figurative sensibility that similarly inform clerical expression from Thomas Hooker's vivid sermon imagery to Thomas Shepard's agonized autobiographical scrutiny. The domestic poems that make up much of Bradstreet's posthumously published works and Taylor's miscellaneous verses—largely favored in undergraduate classrooms for their "relatability"—are not personal indulgences so much as they are consistent with the means of spiritual examination as modeled in sermons.

Most explicitly, Taylor's Preparatory Meditations deliberately blurs generic boundaries between poem and sermon. Each of these poems is an explication of a verse also used for a communion (Lord's Supper) sermon. On the surface, Taylor's Meditations appears to be anything but plain style; his extensive, decorum-breaching conceits have caused critics to worry the question whether he is simply a "burlap version of Herbert." His openings of scripture verses, however, are examples of poetic explication that differ from some Puritan sermonic examples perhaps only by style and intended audience. Each poem proposes a doctrinal theory, which Taylor in turn attempts to answer with an intensely personal, figuratively extreme, and often deliberately absurd application. Furthermore, his continued reworking of single verses over the course of several poems recalls the common pulpit practice of sermon continua (the opening of a single verse or passage of scripture over the course of many weeks) and suggests similarities between the explication of scripture via shifting doctrinal and poetic vantage points. In many ways, Taylor's poetry is somewhat sui generis, but the blurring of genres also reveals the overlap of pastoral and creative methodologies, illuminating not only this one minister's poetic practices but a broader fluidity in Puritan genres.

Sermonic habits of interpretation and expression lend coherence to both idiosyncratic and highly conventional Puritan literary production across genres. An understanding of the theory and practice of the sermon is necessary for a complete understanding of non-sermonic Puritan literature, and an understanding of the sermon requires an understanding not only of published works but also of such phenomena as the aural experience of the meetinghouse, the variegated modes of preservation and circulation of texts, and the lived application of doctrine over time. Sermon literature and the sermon culture where it originates should be distinguished. I construe the scope of sermon literature broadly, including not only the records of delivered sermons but closely related genres such as the conversion narrative. These ancillary genres provide insights into the experience of sermon culture, but, more important, they conform to the same ideas of language as do sermons. They are sermon-ridden not because theories for composing and receiving preaching intrude from the outside but because the logic and conventions that inform sermons also inform these other genres. Those genres we now consider to be more belletristic (for example, poetry and autobiography) often function, in the parlance of the seventeenth century, as "handmaidens" to the dominant genre of the sermon. Sermon culture, by contrast, is an entire set of practices that produce not only texts (sermons proper as well as non-sermonic writing, especially history, biography, and anecdote) but also material artifacts (printed sermons, notes, copies, and transcriptions). The production of sermon literature by both clergy and laity is material as much as it is textual.

The aim of this book is to explore the experience of sermon culture in order to understand the phenomenon of sermon literature more clearly. By detecting traces of the aural experience of the meetinghouse, it is possible to delineate much of the phenomenal event of the sermon and its subsequent dissemination in the lives and texts of the community. The relationship between auditor and sermon was far from passive. The experiential premises of the New England Way required scrupulous, active engagement with the explication and application of scripture. The lived religion of Puritan New England was anchored in a deeply textual sense of spirituality that crossed many generic boundaries and that left many material traces in print and manuscript. The phenomenal event of the sermon had a long and discursive afterlife as the entire community of saints spoke, wrote, listened, and contemplated their way toward spiritual apprehension and (they hoped) faith itself.


The greatest obstacle in understanding seventeenth-century New England sermon literature and culture is simply that we do not have easy access to the oral tradition that was its heart. Stout has gone far in delineating the contours of an oral preaching culture with his study The New England Soul. He transcends the obvious limitations of working with clerical and lay notes with the sheer volume of extant manuscripts that he has analyzed. Stout's disciplinary foci are history, religious history, and American studies, however, leaving ample room for much needed literary analysis. Recent work by Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing, has provided an indispensable background not only of the history of English Reformation preaching but also of its roots in theological and interpretive arguments. Still, our sense of oral sermon culture remains rooted in anecdote and clerical accounts and records of their work. Manuscript sermon notebooks kept by lay auditors, by contrast, invite a synthesis of literary and cultural analysis that coincides with the material culture implications of the physical texts. These manuscript notebooks open up ways of understanding the complex relationship between the oral performances (no longer available to us) and published works (bearing some residue of the oral text in its imperfect reworking of the original).

In his introduction to The New England Soul, Stout lays out his preference for clerical notes: "Not everyone in New England read sermons, certainly not routinely, but nearly everyone heard them, week in, week out. The most accurate guide we therefore have to what people actually heard are the handwritten sermon notes that ministers carried with them into the pulpit." Lay auditor notes—precisely because they are less consistent and less "accurate"—render a clearer sense of what is necessarily subjective in acts of hearing. This individualized hearing experience might best be called "aurality" rather than "orality." Furthermore, the material record of notetaking, manuscript circulation, and publication suggests that sermon literature is created not only by individuals but, significantly, by entire communities. The application of sermon hermeneutic strategies and composition methods to lived experience (and vice versa) further illustrates Puritan New England as a site of shared interpretive endeavors and common practice.

While the material-textual record clearly demonstrates practice—how sermon literature is received, recorded, disseminated, and applied—the theoretical premises beneath these practices remain difficult to explain satisfactorily. Understanding how the sermon was received, disseminated, and applied may simply be easier to explain than why sermons were preached in the first place. If redemption comes only through faith (sola fides) and through scripture (sola scriptura), then lengthy, repetitive, human explication might be redundant at best. If human reason is—along with the soul itself—fallen, then human language might produce only impaired explications of the divine Word. And so the knotty questions that lurk uncomfortably beneath every revelation of practice remain: What essentially is a sermon, and what kind of efficacy can its necessarily impaired, contingent language have in contrast to the coherent perfection of scripture?

The material conditions for sermon literature—from frequency and duration of preaching, to delivery conventions, to auditor practices, to the many variations of textual production by laity and clergy alike—are inextricably linked to textual meaning. Thanks in part to the obsessive self-scrutiny characteristic of Puritan piety, sermon literature leaves varied and instructive material traces, especially in the form of auditor notes and other fugitive, idiosyncratic textual records. Ultimately, the curious materiality of sermon literature reveals the theoretical and linguistic questions at stake. Put another way, the materiality of sermon literature returns us to central questions, not only about the pathology of the sermon (what made this tedious genre so popular?) but also to a set of questions to which the conscientious Puritan writer (or reader, or auditor) would not object. What did Puritans think language was? Specifically, what was the perceived relationship between human and divine language, and what did Puritans think they were doing when they composed a sermon (or heard, or read, or recorded one)? The questions are theoretical and linguistic, but the answers are drawn largely from the lived experience and material practices of sermon culture. Surely, the human endeavor of the minister alone does not constitute the soul-saving efficacy of the sermon. Theological principles, rhetorical dictates, stylistic practices, communal engagement, and the material circulation of preaching combine to determine meaning and relevance. The controlling logic of the sermon—along with its theological and linguistic premises—is created discursively across gathered communities and disseminated through the hybridity of print, oral, and manuscript practices.

In a common trope for pulpit eloquence, the minister is said to be merely a vessel. Two anecdotes about Thomas Hooker by Cotton Mather offer contrasting fantasies of the relationship between the divine Word and that human vessel. The first is typical of claims for the power of godly pulpit oratory generally:

A profane person, designing therein only an ungodly diversion and merriment, said unto his companions, "Come, let us go hear what that bawling Hooker will say to us;" and thereupon, with an intention to make sport, unto Chelmsford lecture they came. The man had not been long in the church, before the quick and powerful word of God, in the mouth of his faithful Hooker, pierced the soul of him; he came out with an awakened and a distressed soul, and by the further blessing of God upon Mr. Hooker's ministry, he arrived unto a true conversion; for which cause he would not afterwards leave that blessed ministry, but went a thousand leagues to attend it and enjoy it.

Variations on mundane Pauline conversions abound: Paul's instantaneous, unambiguous conversion as narrated in Acts provides a model for the sudden and irresistible striking down of the sinful conscience, particularly when the impious, mischievous, or resistant soul is converted in the immediacy of the preached word. In one proverbial feature of the above anecdote, conversion creates further desire for good preaching as the newly converted soul is drawn to the minister, the style, and the doctrine that it once avoided and disdained. Such desire for preaching purportedly fueled not only much migration within England but increasingly to New England as well, especially as Archbishop Laud continued to silence nonconformist ministers. The anecdote also reveals a delicate balance that Mather must strike in his praise: Hooker's preaching pierces the profane man's soul, but more precisely, "the quick and powerful word of God, in the mouth of his faithful Hooker" does the real work of conversion. The profane man could be saved sola scriptura and sola fides, but he will likely not turn to the Bible, or consider it properly, or apply it correctly to his own precarious case, without provocation.

Technically speaking, the hard-line Calvinist position insisted that God's grace alone could effectually save an individual. Nevertheless, it was also understood that individuals must seek "ordinary means" to salvation. Though not effectual in an absolute sense, such practices were considered necessary in the pursuit of faith. The ordinary means to redemption (regular attendance upon the preached word and the proper application of scripture explication) suggest an enabled partnership between the human activity of prophesying and the effectual truth of scripture. On the one hand, Protestantism fundamentally privileged the ordinary workings of salvation in the post-apostolic period, emphasizing preaching over the sacramental role of the minister, and English Puritan thought came to emphasize preached explication of scripture (sometimes, as critics such as Richard Hooker suggested, even over reading alone). New England ministers emphasized ordinary means as a spiritual-exegetical process with a penchant for sermon continua and prolonged explication of entire chapters and books. Sunday preaching tended to be pastoral in its goals, and Thursday lecture preaching focused more on theological concepts. Both kinds of preaching were part of ordinary means, and, ideally, the sense of explication as an ongoing process also made sermons applicable for auditors at any stage of spiritual development.

The figures of spiritual "milk" and "meat" were often employed to distinguish between more elementary and more advanced spiritual lessons that might be gained from scriptural explication, such as Hugh Peters's Milk for babes, and meat for men, or, Principles necessary, to bee known and learned of such as would know Christ here, or be known of him hereafter (London, 1630) and John Cotton's much reprinted Spiritual milk for Boston babes in either England. Drawn out of the breasts of both testaments for their souls nourishment, but may be of like use to any children (Cambridge, Mass., 1656). Properly explicated, scripture could yield both easier and more difficult theological concepts, and depending on an individual's spiritual-intellectual savvy, either "milk" or "meat" might be more appropriate and (to continue the seventeenth-century simile) spiritually nourishing. As one young notetaker puts the concept in what is probably a stock verse on the principle:

Noe age so young noe witt so small
which scriptur doth not fitt
Ther is milke for babes & yett witthall
Ther is meatt for stronger witt

All auditors, however, no matter what stage of spiritual renewal, were necessarily dependent upon some accommodation for their naturally depraved intellect. In his study of the interaction between clergy and laity in their common pursuit of effectual salvation, Charles Lloyd Cohen privileges what he calls "original debility"—the broad implications of the premise of original sin, innate depravity, and postlapsarian limits to human understanding. Whereas Cohen emphasizes the psychological implications of the theological principle, the premise of debility lies beneath Puritan attitudes toward language and, by extension, scripture itself. Even a redeemed soul with enabled capacity to understand would continue to be impaired to some degree. Sermons and sermon literature seem always to acknowledge the limits of even the most enabled debility.

Moreover, the lived experience of conversion usually proves to be less dramatic than Mather's preferred anecdotes suggest, even when attributed to a particularly powerful pulpit experience. As Patricia Caldwell points out, most of the "Cambridge confessions," which constitute a majority of extant conversion narratives, significantly highlight disappointment and ambiguity. The instantaneous efficacy of the preached word not only might fail the auditor but the minister, too. Mather uses the following anecdote (quoted here at length) to address those inevitable limits to human speech that even the most powerful minister might encounter:

Though Mr. Hooker had thus removed from the Massachuset-bay, yet he sometimes came down to visit the churches in that bay: but when ever he came, he was received with an affection like that which Paul found among the Galatians; yea, 'tis thought that once there seemed some intimation from Heaven, as if the good people had overdone in that affection: for on May 26, 1639, Mr. Hooker being here to preach that Lord's day in the afternoon, his great fame had gathered a vast multitude of hearers from several other congregations, and, among the rest, the governour himself, to be made partaker of his ministry. But when he came to preach, he found himself so unaccountably at a loss, that after some shattered and broken attempts to proceed, he made a full stop; saying to the assembly, "That every thing which he would have spoken, was taken both out of his mouth and out of his mind also;" wherefore he desired them to sing a psalm, while he withdrew about half an hour from them: returning then to the congregation, he preached a most admirable sermon, wherein he held them for two hours together in an extraordinary strain both of pertinency and vivacity.

After sermon, when some of his friends were speaking of the Lord's thus withdrawing his assistance from him, he humbly replied, "We daily confess that we have nothing, and can do nothing, without Christ; and what if Christ will make this manifest in us, and on us, before our congregations? What remains, but that we be humbly contented? And what manner of discouragement is there in all of this?" Thus content was he to be nullified, that the Lord might be magnified!


With this less typical anecdote, Mather delineates the double-edged sword of clerical success. Hooker's great success as a preacher is surely a component of those New England magnalia ("great works") that Mather details in his hagiographic history, but popular response has threatened to become a form of idolatry, "as if the good people had overdone in that affection." Willing to blame neither Hooker nor the saints of New England, Mather imagines God's check to clerical eloquence as a simple reminder that Hooker immediately comprehends and turns into an object lesson. Hooker's "shattered and broken attempts" are no personal rebuke for vainglory (a sin that the minister Thomas Shepard sometimes ponders in his private journal entries). Rather, the incident is an emblem for all to remember that nothing of value can be done but by God's will. The humbling even of the ordinary means of preaching is a reminder that "we have nothing, and can do nothing, without Christ" and an occasion to magnify God by remaining "humbly contented" with debility.

Preaching manuals of the period offer little insight into the zeniths and nadirs of Puritan preaching as figured in Mather's anecdotes concerning Hooker. The authors of the two most influential preaching manuals in New England, William Perkins and Richard Bernard, draw largely on sixteenth-century continental and English guides. Very little innovation to plain style based upon a faith in the literal sense of scripture is to be discerned in Perkins's almost ubiquitously repeated advice:


  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 it self.

  3. To collect a few and profitable points of doctrine out of the naturall sense.

  4. To apply (if he have the gift) the doctrines rightly collected to the life and manners of men, in a simple and plaine speech.

This type of "doctrine-use" structure of sermons, while typical of nonconformist preaching, was widely used by the early seventeenth century. Perkins's rather ubiquitously cited directives are, in essence, a concise summary of trends in preaching, the roots of which go back to Calvin, if not Origen, and whose practical rhetorical evolution begins with Erasmus's turn away from thematic preaching toward a more humanist model of classical oratory and Melancthon's subsequent repudiation of varieties of classical oratory in favor of doctrinal and use-oriented preaching. No manual or theory of preaching, however, could instruct the would-be minister how to be an inspired instrument for the Holy Ghost but only how to explicate according to human ability. The best a minister might hope for, "if he have the gift," is to offer application in persuasive but "simple and plaine" speech. Scholars have called the resulting sermons "formulaic" and "tedious."

One of the most immediately apparent features of this plain-style preaching was the rhetorical structure of Ramist branching—in which each point of explication might be subdivided into a multitude of subsequent numbered branching points for further explication. Ramist structure seems also to account for the remarkable fluency that auditors exhibited in recording, whether at the meetinghouse or at home after the sermon. Even more fundamentally, the method of Ramist logic is at the heart of sermon explication itself. Explanations of Ramist reaction to scholastic logic have suggested ways in which such rote configurations of prophesying might constitute innovative rhetorical change, yet such intellectual history approaches have failed to explain the exhilarating highs and lows of pulpit eloquence, especially for the auditor. Subsequent interventions into sermon literature scholarship—most notably, by Teresa Toulouse and Lisa Gordis—have tried to rescue sermon literature from its own apparent eye-glazing dictates by suggesting that the insufficiency of the guidelines requires fluidity and experimentation. Gordis, in particular, reframes the rhetorical problem as an exegetical issue, revealing not only how individual ministers interpreted preemptory directives such as Perkins's but also how auditors took and adapted what ministers, with their virtuosity, rendered apparently straightforward.

Puritan ministers often spoke ex tempore, a style of delivery that might suggest the enthusiasm and spontaneity associated with later trends in evangelical preaching from the Great Awakening through current-day revivalism, but such a comparison is misleading. Puritan ex tempore skill in the pulpit was developed through university training in which the memorization of lectures and sermons was standard pedagogical method. Under the influence of Ramist dialectic, method, memory, and composition theory dovetail not only in the theory of doctrine-use plain style but in the lived experience of the sermon. The incredible uniformity of notes—as produced by ministers either before or after delivery—is remarkably similar to that of notes taken by ministers listening to their colleagues' preaching. The formulaic structure of the sermon served as a kind of vernacular of Puritan preaching.

The structural conventions of university training emphasizing memorization and re-creation of sermons and lectures appear to have informed the notetaking practices of many nonuniversity-trained auditors, as many lay notetakers appear to have learned techniques indirectly. Even rather divergent notetaking styles among some auditors demonstrate how fully naturalized the elements of university training in plain-style auditing became in New England, as notetakers appear to have picked up recording practices in a community where notes circulated freely and eclectically. Idiosyncratic variations on university notetaking practices constitute an eclectic vernacular of sermon language and structure. This dissemination of notetaking did not occur merely top-down. Rather, notetaking styles reinscribed but also affected clerical practices and styles. Most concretely, the phenomenon of print sermons based on notes (clerical and lay, authorized and unauthorized) vividly illustrates the interdependence of ministers and auditors in the creation of sermon literature, as hearers adapted to preachers and preachers to hearers. The ability to follow the formal structure and core doctrine of a sermon via systematic notetaking was crucial to the lived experience of preaching but also to the preservation and dissemination of sermons in print. For better and for worse, publishing ministers were dependent upon auditors' experience and recording. Whether authorized or unauthorized, print sermons drew upon the notes of minister and lay auditor alike, ultimately reflecting a complexly discursive sermon culture.

The practices of sermon composition, delivery, and notetaking illuminate much that the preaching manuals fail to elaborate. Further understanding of a theory of the plain-style sermon can be found in discussions of scriptural interpretation itself. Gordis makes useful distinctions between Perkins's emphasis on "the centrality of exegesis to sermon theory" and Bernard's focus on "the minister as interpreter and teacher." Perkins's relative emphasis on the relationship between scriptural exegesis and sermon composition (the interdependence of literal sense and plain style) suggests an explanation of why Puritan preaching manuals essentially seem to offer negative dictates (for example, not to go beyond the text, not to chase down fourfold exegesis, not to indulge in digressions of mere wit and foreign phraseology). Returning to Perkins's handy list, we see that the first two directives ("To read the text" and "To give the sense and understanding of it") are premised on the primacy of the literal sense of scripture and a faith that, as Bernard puts it, "No Scripture is in itselfe obscure, but that wee want eie-sight to behold what is therein conteined." The practiced skill of the preacher, then, resides in the next two tasks of gathering doctrine ("out of the naturall sense") and applying it to lived experience ("if he have the gift"). The series of negative dictates expressed as prescriptive formula imply something more akin to proscription.

From a theological perspective, the directives of plain-style explication accommodate the strenuous Protestant insistence on the five solas. A commitment to sola fides might be sought by the three closely related principles of solus christus, sola gratia, and soli deo gloria (only through Christ, by grace alone, and only for the glory of God, respectively), but sola scriptura suggests a potentially competing logic of salvation. As James Simpson has observed, sola fides and sola scriptura exist in Protestant thought in uneasy opposition. Which is it that will save you? Is it faith alone, a phenomenon that, after all, is an extratextual, likely passive, and possibly predetermined event? Or is your salvation textual, based on your reading of the Bible, with all the vagaries of its contingent wordiness? Conventional wisdom and scholarly tradition have long privileged a view of the Reformation in which the turn toward vernacular scripture and away from hierarchical church structures empowered Protestants in matters of salvation and selfhood. The need to distinguish a literal sense in the Bible highlights the concept of scripture as an accommodation for fallen human intellect. We need the scripture because we are fallen; yet, precisely because we are fallen, we need help in understanding scripture. The five solas, then, function as reminders of human debility even as they offer salvation from that fallen state. These premises of debility are at the core of the negative dictates of Puritan writing—the plain style, the literal sense, the formulaic aspects of sermon composition. One might reasonably expect these premises and dictates to restrain literary production—not only in terms of quantity of spoken, written, and printed texts but in terms of what efficacy is expected from those human words. This expectation is shattered by the excesses of Puritan literary output: the sermon continua on a single passage that lasts weeks, months, or even years; the potentially infinite branching capacity of Ramist logic structures; the physical heft of a printed sermon cycle; the obsessive quality of notetaking and self-writing.

The apparent preference for restraint in plain style might begin with the Puritan insistence upon the literal sense. Reiterating the Protestant rejection of the "4. senses of the scriptures, the literall, allegoricall, tropological, & anagogical"—a trend that begins at least with William Tyndale in the first half of the sixteenth century—William Perkins insists in his Arte of Prophecying: "There is one onelie sense, and the same is the literall." Those senses that have come to be called "Anagoge and Tropologie are waies, whereby the sense may be applied." Certainly, this is largely a matter of semantics; Perkins can retain the hermeneutic scope of the three traditional nonliteral senses if he just recasts them as "application." Nevertheless, the implications of a single literal sense that unifies all moral, spiritual, and eschatological aspects in its historical truth have created profound repercussions from the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers to present-day Fundamentalists, as Simpson has recently argued. Perkins tells us that the "principall interpreter of the Scripture is the holy Ghost," essentially arguing for a self-explicating text. The problem is, of course, that those "dark places" in scripture are not merely spaces for deeper contemplation but also potential sites of confusion, doubt, controversy, intolerance, and violence. Sola scriptura, as Simpson points out, is surely as terrifying as it is comforting. In his preface to the New Testament in English, William Tyndale urges the reader to partake but also points out that the vernacular Bible functions like a crucible. The elect are saved by reading, and the reprobates are damned by the same act. Thus conceived, the vernacular Bible was not a simple self-help book.

Many standard dictates associated with Reformation—sola fides, sola scriptura, and literal sense in particular—frustrate in part because they suggest a closed interpretive system. In her extensive treatment of Preaching in the First Half Century of New England History, Babette May Levy refers to "an occasional tendency" on the part of Puritan ministers to argue circularly—to maintain, for example, "that a just God by his very nature has certain attributes, and, having these attributes, is therefore a just God; or that man by his sinful nature fell from grace, and, having fallen, was therefore obviously sinful." Despite the fact that the "modern non-believer in Puritanism" will find such reasoning unsatisfactory and unconvincing, Levy assures her reader that "individual points of doctrine and usually individual sermons remain lucid in the sense that there is rarely any doubt about what the minister thought and wished his reader to think." Within the system is interpretive clarity and salvation; outside the system is ambiguity and damnation. In The Arte of Prophecying, William Perkins offers the reader both the substance and evidence of scripture's gospel truth in a single proof:


The Summe of the Scripture is conteined in such a syllogisme
*The Maior,(or forme of reading, as this is which followeth.).*The true
or Proposition.Messias shall be both God and man of the seede of David; he
shall be borne of a Virgin; he shall bring the Gospell forth of
his Fathers bosome; he shall satisfie the Law; he shall offer
up himselfe a sacrifice for the sinnes of the faithfull; he shall
conquer death by dying and rising againe; he shall ascend into
*The Minor,heaven; and in his due time hee shall returne unto judgement.
or Assumption.But * Iesus of Nazaret the Sonne of Mary is such a one;
*The conclusion.He * therefore is the true Messias.

Within the proof by reason is proof by faith. Perkins concedes that although there exist "verie strong proofes, which show that the [scripture] is the word of God," "there is onlie one, namely the inward testimony of the holy Ghost speaking in the Scripture, and not only telling a man within in [sic] his heart, but also effectually perswading him that these bookes of the Scripture are the word of God." So while the proof of Jesus Christ as the true messiah can be demonstrated with formal logic, a previous acceptance of the conclusion and its terms is necessary to make the syllogism work. Then again, Perkins would never expect this or any intellectual syllogism to cause belief. The mistake is to suppose that the various examples of circular reasoning met with in Puritan texts are meant to be convincing on their own. It is the heart, not the intellect, that needs convincing.

To the extent that Puritanism is a closed system, its dictates short-circuit a clear theory or an explanation of language. In his study of the grammatical origins of Reformation theology, Brian Cummings points out that "the phrase 'literal truth' is at best a paradox, perhaps an oxymoron." Etymologically, to say something is literal is to reference its manifestation in letters (or, synecdochally, language). To say, then, that truth does manifest itself in the contingencies of language flies in the face of theories from the Greeks to the early Christians and on down that make much of the difference between res (the thing itself) and verba (words). Furthermore, one of the obstacles to understanding the effectual working of the sermon is the seeming paradox of its theory and practice: disproportionate human technology of branching explication and iterative dissemination of the sermon through print, manuscript, and oral means flies in the face of premises of literal sense, plain style, and the self-authenticating revelation of the Word.

The complicated status of scripture is not a problem that begins with the Puritans. Perkins was simply continuing the objections raised by Tyndale and other early Reformers against what they saw as the corruption of the scriptural integrity by the human interference of fourfold exegesis. The hermeneutics of the fourfold method may have developed into full scholastic elaboration over centuries, but its roots were planted firmly in the writings of Origen, Augustine, and others who were revered by Protestant Reformers as "primitive" church fathers. Recognizing what Augustine called the "dark places" in scripture, Origen categorized and promoted figurative readings of problematic passages that had already been in use for generations. Determining whether the literal meaning of a particular passage was governed by common sense served as the primary litmus test for determining if figurative interpretation was warranted. For Jesus to point to a piece of bread and call it his body, for example, was absurd if taken literally, as were competing verses that placed Christ both on earth and in heaven. In such cases, a more flexible understanding of the letter of the scripture was required. Throughout the history of the Christian church, simple flexibility in textual reading has been insufficient to stave off violent controversy. The surface absurdity of bread as body, to use the same example, has produced not merely competing interpretations but competing claims for orthodoxy and charges of heresy, as well.

According to Mather, Hooker advised young ministers to undertake a long, systematic development of their exegetical prowess, recommending that "at their entrance on their ministry, they would with careful study preach over the whole body of divinity methodically, (even in the Amesian method,) which would acquaint them with all the more intelligible and agreeable texts of Scripture, and prepare them for a further acquaintance with the more difficult, and furnish them with abilities to preach on whole chapters, and all occasional subjects, which by the providence of God they might be directed unto." Hooker's suggestion that this initial preaching cycle might be "even in the Amesian method" (an exceptionally plain and very "use"-oriented style) indicates a gradation of levels of sophistication attainable in the Puritan pulpit. The "Amesian method" here seems to stand for the essential principles required in Puritan preaching but is also aimed at revealing "the more intelligible texts of Scripture." The young minister, in Hooker's scenario, is something like a journeyman, independent of his apprenticeship but not yet ready to be master. Hooker's advice to the young minister essentially serves as a confession that literalness and absolute clarity presumed under sola scriptura are more complicated than it would first appear. If a less trained minister might be advised not to preach on "dark places," how much darker might the same places be to an untrained reader of scripture? God—or, more specifically, the spirit of the Holy Ghost—might inspire any reader to perfect comprehension, but the ordinary means to correct reading seem to involve quite a bit of human learning.

Perkins continues another long tradition by suggesting a specific syllabus of biblical reading by which the human reader might become enabled to understand more clearly the difficult places in scripture. He instructs the would-be minister to "proceede to the reading of the Scriptures in this order": "Vsing a grammaticall, rhetoricall, and logicall analysis, and the helpe of the rest of the arts, reade firste the Epistle of Paul to the Rom. after that the Gospell of Iohn (as being indeed the keyes of the new Testament) and then the other books of the new Testam[en]t will be more easie when they are read. When all this is done, learne first the dogmaticall bookes of the old Testament, especiallie the Psalmes: then the Proheticall, especially Esay [Isaiah]: Lastly the historicall, but chieflie Genesis." Moving roughly backward through the Protestant canon, the syllabus of essential readings suggests that the fullness of revelation requires the enlightened reader to read back and forth and not simply through scripture. Paul's Epistle to the Romans and the Gospel of John work as more than lenses through which the Old Testament books can be read as precursors to New Testament revelations. According to Perkins, the "manner of perswading" is that the elect reader, affected by the presence of the Holy Spirit, discerns, approves, and believes "the voyce of Christ speaking in the scriptures" and is finally "(as it were) sealed with the seale of the Spirit." Perkins qualifies the mysticism of the reading experience with his cautious parenthetical aside that the seal of the spirit intervenes "as it were," deferring the question of what exactly happens when the human reader encounters scripture. The reader who encounters Psalms, Isaiah, and Genesis after Romans and John is, in some real way, different from the reader who takes the same five books in canonical (and purportedly chronological) order. Reading in such a scenario is experiential as much as it is intellectual, simultaneously an act of reception, interpretation, and arrangement. Reading and hearing scripture require deep intertextual engagement.

Perkins's sense of how to open the literal sense of scripture and his sense of reading from Romans back into Genesis suggest a deep commitment to a kind of textual fluidity of revealed Word. Most concretely, this fluidity can be seen in the long sections of The Arte of Prophecying in which Perkins shows how disparate pieces of scripture can be understood in relation to one another. This process of "collation" is in part practical, allowing ministers to reconcile seemingly contradictory passages, to connect different historical (or "literal" moments), and, above all, to demonstrate the divine coherence of the biblical canon. As Gordis has pointed out, collation as a primary technique of sermon composition premised the self-interpretive capacity of scripture while, in practice, the method often pulled passages out of immediate context and made room for the ingress of human invention. Accordingly, "Collation tends to open exegesis outward, provoking disgressive discussions of the collated texts." The traces of preached collation may be seen most readily in sermons (in print, full manuscript, and notes) in the form of concatenations of scriptural citations that punctuate prose blocks and margins. The deep intertextual logic of collation transcends sermon composition, however, revealing itself in all forms of sermon literature. Puritan writers (perhaps especially the lay writers) become adept at collating scriptural texts with biographical incident, contributing to the generic fluidity of sermon literature. We might call this a kind of lived collation. Nor are writers the only ones practicing acts of collation. In the very keeping of notebooks and circulation manuscripts, auditors control and collate their sermon experience. Collation opens up not only textual but material means by which the controlling logic of sermon disseminates across community, genre, and experience.


The archive is filled with curious examples of intertextual engagement through scriptural explication that complicate simple notions of authorship, readership, and the plain style, often in the form of notes, annotations, and other manuscript genres. The very idiosyncrasy of these material-textual artifacts can be particularly instructive, as divergent instances help us to plot out a kind of topography of possible variations of common practice. Unusual examples of lay notetaking, for example, help delineate typical auditing habits while simultaneously contesting the notion of normative practice. One example of a manuscript artifact that challenges the stability of authorship and genre in New England sermon literature can be seen in a curious handmade book by the otherwise unknown John Templestone. In the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society, his handmade book of folded paper bears a handwritten title page that proclaims himself as owner and creator (John Templestone) and a date (February 14th, 1687) that probably indicates either the inception or the completion of the volume. A hand-drawn border surrounds the text.

In fact, this title page is just one of several in the little book. (See figures 1-3.) The core of Templestone's handmade volume is a manuscript copy of part of an execution sermon—originally preached by Joshua Moodey in March 1686 for the execution of James Morgan. On the pages before and after a handwritten copy of Moodey's sermon excerpt is a careful transcription of notes on a sermon delivered by John Cotton Jr. in November 1687 on a text from Hebrews for a Thursday lecture. Due to the quirks of Templestone's transcription process, the notes on Cotton's sermon literally envelop the Moodey sermon. The resulting artifact produces something of the effect of a Russian doll, with Moodey's text enclosed within Cotton's sermon and bound up by three consecutive title pages—the innermost for the Cotton Jr. sermon notes, the middle for Moodey's execution sermon excerpt, and the outermost for Templestone's own title page. The odd physical configuration of the handmade volume is no doubt a series of negotiations of various practical considerations (Templestone's initial interests in preserving particular texts, the relative scarcity of paper, and the difficulty in making handwritten pages run to a predetermined page length), but these resulting idiosyncrasies confound our sense of the separable roles of author, bookmaker, owner, transcriber, and reader.

The Massachusetts Historical Society records originally identified Moodey as the "Author" of the manuscript book, presumably because his was the one contribution that could be traced to a print version and because his text makes up the majority of the leaves. In a later recataloging of the item, Templestone became the "Author," suggesting a bibliographical reassessment by which the materiality of the manuscript appears more important than the connection of that manuscript copy to a print source. Templestone functions as more than just the material creator of the manuscript, however. He also exerts judgment and discretion in his selection process, implicitly imprinting his own interpretive understanding of the two enclosed texts. The creator of manuscript sermon artifacts acts as an editor or a kind of collaborator alongside the named authors who provide the initial oral or print sermon. Templestone's acts of juxtaposition are also interpretive acts as he physically links the two texts, enfolding them within the single volume.

Templestone's particular choices of what to include and what to exclude require textual, contextual, and material consideration to understand. Increase Mather preached the sermon on Thursday, March 11, 1686—the day of James Morgan's execution. But the condemned man had also specifically requested that Cotton Mather and Joshua Moodey "address his case in sermons to be delivered on the Sunday preceding his execution." John Dunton, "an astute nonconformist bookseller from London" apparently recognized the great "commercial possibilities in the highly publicized hanging" and soon published the entirety of the two Mather sermons along with a lengthy extract from Moodey's sermon. Inaugurating a popular new genre of Puritan sermon publication, Dunton's execution sermon collection also launched Cotton Mather's print career. Key to the dynamic energy of the print sermon compilation was the weaving together of various genres of spoken and written texts within the volume. Increase Mather's sermon, for example, included the insertion of "a written communication from James Morgan" and ended with Morgan's purported last words at the gallows, "O Lord receive my spirit, I come unto thee O Lord, I come unto thee O Lord, I come, I come, I come." In the second edition, Dunton added more reported "last words" from the condemned man: "It seems that Cotton Mather had engaged Morgan in a last conversation as they walked together from Boston's South Church to the gallows. Mather later produced a transcript of his dialogue with Morgan, apparently for personal use or private circulation. [The printer Richard] Pierce then took the liberty of procuring a copy of the transcript, ostensibly without Mather's knowledge, for inclusion in the second edition of the collected volume." In a neat reversal of the lay auditor preserving the minister's words for future circulation, here the lay speaker is recorded, edited, and assimilated into the printed sermon three different times. The entire printed collection of execution sermons is, in fact, a patchwork of reported speeches and subjective transcriptions. The single event of Morgan's execution triggers a proliferation of texts—oral (during the week of the event), print (in Dunton's best-selling sermon compilation), and manuscript (thanks to the efforts of Templestone as well as many unnamed recorders along the way).

Templestone's decision to copy out only Moodey's excerpt (and not the sermons by the two Mathers) requires some conjecture on our part. According to Moodey, the portion of the sermon that he prepares for the first print edition is that section fulfilling two requests from the condemned man himself: "viz. That I would take some notice of him in my Sermon, and that I would give [w]arning to those of his Fellow-sinners that had been guilty of the like Evils, lest they also became like Monuments of Divine Justice." Moodey's extract is characterized by the drama of direct address and is punctuated with vivid descriptions of the murderer's crime and his fitting punishment in the hereafter. It is entirely possible that vicarious thrill attracts Templestone to Moodey's sermon excerpt, yet portions of the two Mather sermons are just as lurid, if not more so, than Moodey's. As is typical in execution sermons, Moodey explicates the event as a "monument of divine justice," evoking specifics of James Morgan's case but also showing how the particulars are ultimately an emblem of man's fallen state generally. Moodey inveighs directly against all those in his audience who swear and curse, who are drunkards or break the Sabbath, and those who might harbor their own undiscovered, murderous secrets. Beyond those nameable crimes, however, is the even more recalcitrant case of the ordinary sinner who is unaffected by godly preaching, whose lack of fear of divine judgment implies apostasy despite the evidence of any outward morality or attendance upon ordinary means of preaching. True to its genre, Moodey's execution sermon strikes the balance between the specific case of the condemned and the inevitable guilt of the ostensibly innocent witness at the gallows. The section of Moodey's sermon directly addressing James Morgan therefore implicates John Templestone, too, just as it implicates any sinner who hears the sermon or reads the words preserved by print, manuscript, or common report.

By essentially enveloping the Moodey sermon excerpt within the notes of a sermon by Cotton Jr., Templestone further drives home the universal applicability of Morgan's case. Cotton's sermon is not occasioned by a sensational event. Rather, it is a simple discourse comparing and contrasting man's spiritual journey with a brief allusion to a footrace in Heb. 12:1 ("And let us Run with Patience ye Race / THat is set before us US."). Cotton's sermon was delivered on a Thursday, a day typically reserved for lecture sermons (the systematic coverage of theology and doctrine rather than the pastoral emphasis on personal salvation typical of Sunday preaching). The Cotton sermon does not appear to be composed for a special occasion (such as an execution, election, or a fast day) but is simply one sermon out of his ordinary course of scriptural explication. The later selection and transcription of the notes on the sermon, on the other hand, imbues Cotton's ordinary, everyday preaching with the special status of a text that has particularly touched at least one auditor: John Templestone. Accordingly, Cotton's preaching is preserved by a series of private acts of recording, organizing, and duplication. By literally enveloping Moodey's direct address to the murderer James Morgan within the universality of Cotton's sermon, Templestone inscribes both texts with his own subjective experience. In doing so, he also brings fulfillment to Morgan's original desire that the ordinary sinner should heed the "monuments of divine justice" as preached by Moodey. Templestone inscribes his personal response into the meaning of the two sermon texts by creating his own book and authoring the textual relationship between the preaching therein.

Templestone leaves further clues to his rationale for putting the two sermons together by his design of their respective title pages. Around Cotton Jr.'s and Moodey's respective title pages, Templestone inks in a thick black border, similar to the border that frames his own name on the front cover. The border has been drawn so thickly that the chemical makeup of the ink together with the physical pressure of pen against paper has caused the line to eat away the paper. At the open edge of the page, the paper has all but disappeared under Templestone's emphasis of the border. No mere ornamental effect, the thick black line appears to be a deliberate inscription of what would be known as a "mourning border," a design element found almost exclusively on printed funeral sermons of the period. Although the published collection of sermons on Morgan's execution deals with death, the more precise theme is the applicability of the condemned's fatal sinfulness to any given sinner's spiritual estate. Accordingly, no mourning border appears on the title page of the print version. Templestone attaches the significance of the funeral to the Moodey excerpt, just as he does to the Cotton Jr. sermon notes, and even to his own name on the front cover, as if inscribing textual experience with an echoing frame of memento mori.

As modern readers in the archive, we can only try to reconstruct conjecturally the implication of proliferating mourning borders in Templestone's odd manuscript volume, but the simple design element is the most explicit key to the subjective textual connection between the two enclosed sermons. To the extent that the genre of the funeral sermon implicates the individual hearer or reader with its universal applicability, Templestone quite literally inscribes the disparate works of Cotton Jr. and of Moodey with the same reminder of the universality of death. Perhaps rooted in his own subjective reading of published and preached sermons, Templestone retools the textual meaning of Moodey's execution sermon and Cotton's ordinary Thursday lecture. This realignment of textual meaning occurs in the material act of creating a book artifact and accordingly adds to the cumulative material textuality of James Morgan's crime and subsequent execution, of the popular sermon collection occasioned by the execution, and of the otherwise ephemeral preaching of John Cotton Jr. in November 1687. It is no wonder that John Templestone's book has too many title pages; the proliferation of covers mirrors the centrifugal potential of communal exegesis in Puritan New England as individual hearers, readers, and writers craft textual meaning according to their lived experience. Templestone's creation of this complicated little manuscript book is not merely an act of compilation but an authorial act of creation and genre manipulation. In considering Templestone's curious artifact, we are reminded that all books are physical acts of creating meaning, whether in print or manuscript or hybrid form. These physical acts of creating meaning leave traces that are simultaneously stable (in their materiality) and unstable (in their portability, their openness to readerly interpretation and reinscription, their vulnerability to further acts of dissemination). Templestone compiles texts written by others, and in doing so he collates his own lived exegetical perspective with those texts and with the various phenomenal events that occasion them, whether that be the execution of James Morgan or the general need of Cotton's congregation for spiritual instruction on any given Thursday.


The seeming exegetical excess of sermon literature leaves material traces in notes on sermons and in the incredible complexity of print sermon bibliography because of the vagaries of early modern publication generally and because of the local practices of notetaking and manuscript circulation specifically. The material means of disseminating sermon literature were available throughout the gathered communities of New England as the laity heard, recorded, read, and shared the explication of their ministers. Acts of hearing, notetaking, and applying the sermon implicate the auditor in the work of the pulpit. Conversely, ministers responded to the responsive dissemination of their texts, creating not simply a circular loop from minister through laity and back again, but a discursive interpretive community. The laity's central role in the material preservation of sermon literature made them agents in the formation of texts and textual meaning.

The first part of this book offers a challenge to conventional notions of clerical authorship and the traditional bibliographical faith in a singular authenticity of stable printed texts, suggesting the ways in which sermons circulate in print, manuscript, and hybrid forms. In this respect, my work dovetails with wider trends in book history, especially with regard to the overlap of print, manuscript, and oral culture in early modern England. Close analysis of manuscript sermon notebooks demonstrates the range of techniques by which acts of listening were recorded, preserved, and disseminated by lay auditors, illuminating the way New England Puritan laity shaped the meaning of sermon experience through hearing and recording the pulpit endeavors of the ministers. Later chapters turn to core questions of what, precisely, Puritans thought human language could accomplish in the work of redemption. The materiality and contingencies of vernacular translation, proliferating explications of scripture, and the practices of early modern sermon culture provide a background for the theoretical exploration of the relationship between divine and human language. Throughout, the alternately competing and complementary authority of print, manuscript, and oral expression continues to be in conversation, showing ultimately the coherence within textual variation in Puritan literature. The sermon-ridden literature of Puritan New England develops out of these uniquely discursive material practices in response to linguistic implications of theological belief and lived experience.

I begin in Chapter 1 by raising fundamental challenges to the notion of single authorship and sermon literature. Anxiety over unauthorized publication (on the part of the ministers) and textual authenticity (primarily on the part of modern scholars) has largely dominated modern approaches to the print sermon. By first tracing out the erratic peregrinations of sermons into print in light of notetaking, manuscript circulation, and the hybrid materiality of books in the early modern period, I show how determination of textual authenticity is perhaps futile and, ultimately, diversionary. In part, this reconceptualizing of the production of sermon literature as a discursive process confirms existing book history scholarship. My ultimate concern, however, is to reorient the questions we ask of sermons away from content (what was said and written by individual ministers) and toward the experience of sermon as it circulated through New England communities and beyond. The sermon did not end in the ephemeral speech act of delivery any more than it became fixed via the printing press. The permeable modes of material transmission (oral, print, manuscript) give us concrete methods for understanding the sermon as a text of discursive composition and eclectic circulation.

Chapter 2 demonstrates approaches to reading and analyzing sermon notes, a genre of writing largely inaccessible both for practical reasons (they exist in a handful of archives, cataloged with unpredictable descriptors) and through a lack of familiarity (even once handwriting is deciphered, the often skeletal records of preaching seem perhaps even less compelling than the more fully fleshed-out print sermons). My aim, therefore, is not only to make available some illuminating examples of notetaking but to provide a means of comprehending this idiosyncratic genre. The concrete evidence of typical notetaking practices and the more ambiguous traces of subjective responses in the notes both illuminate the aural experience of preaching. Discrete acts of listening recorded in notebooks are more suggestive than definitive, as auditors rarely commented on their immediate reactions to preaching in notes. Nevertheless, distinctive patterns of auditing notetaking styles emerge across a range of recorders. Accordingly, I suggest three basic tendencies found in notetaking: structural auditing, in which relational meanings among the different parts of the sermon are emphasized; content auditing, in which discrete units of meaning are of paramount importance; and aural auditing, in which the sound and fullness of the minister's language are privileged. Lay sermon notebooks are material as well as textual, so I consider the ways in which the physical artifact affects the textual experience of writing and remembering. Although auditor recording styles varied greatly, each notetaker clearly envisioned the material notebook as a unique, personal creation. Each sermon notebook exists as an autonomous creation by an individual auditor with his or her own idiosyncratic aesthetic, organizational, and textual logic. Each notetaker, that is, clearly authors his or her own aural experience within the larger conventions of sermon culture.

With a perceived disparity between the spoken and the written word, on the one hand, and the evident idiosyncrasies of aural experience, on the other, the printed word required special accommodation if it was to retain the vital efficacy and multivalent registers of New England sermon culture. Chapter 3 outlines common strategies employed to bridge oral, aural, and written permutations of sermon culture. Set within the basic framework of formulaic plain-style sermon rhetoric, strategic imperfections in structure and style conveyed oral spontaneity and aural subjectivity. Accordingly, the reading experience of the print sermon could remain distinctly subjective despite the formulaic aspect of the genre. Moreover, a reconsideration of print sermons—especially unwieldy sermon cycles—in light of sermon aurality suggests ways in which the structural formulae of plain structure can be understood as an expressive form. Ramist branching structures constantly build outward, apparently disseminating the explication of individual verses. The technique of collation similarly allows exegetes (the minister, the auditor, the reader) to open the Word associatively. Although the theological and rhetorical premises of plain-style explication of the literal sense suggest a closed system of meaning held in place by the structural technology of the sermon, the experience of the sermon is largely centrifugal, as interpretation and application move out from central text and doctrine. Especially visible in structural auditors, the capacity of form to regulate and shape centrifugal textual exploration marks the aural and written sermon experience.

In manuscript and in print, New England Puritans sometimes seemed to amplify rather than resolve the problematic relationship between the perfection of the divine Word and the contingent fallibility of human words. In Chapter 4, I suggest ways in which the self-conscious treatment of theological-linguistic conundrums allowed human literary endeavor to transcend its own impairment. The premises of postlapsarian intellect mirror the debility of the postlapsarian soul, so Puritan readers and writers turn the very limitations of their linguistic endeavors to achieve a kind of enabled debility, finding in the gap between divine and human language accommodation for gracious textual engagement. I begin by tracing out the Reformation tradition of vernacular translation and the dictates of sola scriptura that dovetail with Calvinist notions of intellectual depravity. Characteristic features of Puritan preaching—such as an insistence on literal meanings, excessive explication of minute units of scripture texts, structural disproportion—are simultaneously an admission of human limitation and evidence of enabled capacity. As the individual experienced a sermon (whether by speaking, hearing, writing, or reading), he or she could participate in a range of practices such as scriptural collation, figurative reasoning, and even the excessive verbal analysis pejoratively termed "text crumbling" in order to bring contingent, lived meaning in line with unified, doctrinal revelation. This deep intertextual habit of expression and interpretation constitutes perhaps the most distinctive marker of sermon literature.

Conversion narratives forge a discursive relationship between individual lived experience and the doctrinal teachings of the sermon. An examination of conversion accounts in direct relation to preaching suggests that this peculiar style of Puritan life writing might more usefully be considered as a subgenre of sermon literature rather than an anticipation of latter-day autobiography. Chapter 5 shows that the Puritan laity not only used scripture in the narration of spiritual experience as "prooftext" but also adapted the methods of sermon composition. Through innovative narrative strategies, the laity sought to create persuasive conversion narratives that would not sacrifice the story of the soul to the story of the self. At a basic level, conversion narrative reveals another angle on the lived experience of sermon culture, as individuals narrate the story of their spiritual progress alongside a trajectory of recalled sermon aurality. At a deeper level, conversion narrative suggests ways in which the habits of exegetical thought developed through attendance upon the ordinary means of sermons across media and across genre. More than reflecting the efficacy of the pulpit, Puritan conversion narrative adapts the methodology of the sermon in order to narrate the unnarratable.

The example of conversion narrative invites us to return once more to the notion of a "sermon-ridden" literature. The universe of sermon literature necessarily expands greatly when we consider the proliferation of preaching via print, orality, and manuscript, while the notion of stable authorship declines in inverse proportion to the widened field of dissemination, especially through lay notetaking. The logic of literal sense and the methodology of plain-style explication are visible throughout Puritan writing. Literary endeavors are continually informed by the contradictory premise (or is it promise?) of enabled debility, and compositional techniques from collation to disproportion to self-conscious rhetorical artifice appear in every genre produced in seventeenth-century New England. The Puritan commitment to the plain-style explication of the literal sense of scripture transcends the generic boundaries of the sermon, and a certain malleable notion of genre dovetails provocatively with overlapping categories of material-textual creation. The symbiotic relationship between a commitment to the presumed legibility of scripture and the recurrence of interpretive doubt therefore reveals itself in a full range of sermon literatures. Evidence of this phenomenon can be found throughout the accepted canon of seventeenth-century New England writing as well as in the material archive of noncanonical and anonymous texts. Everywhere influenced by the logic of the sermon, Puritan literature seeks to achieve a balance between confidence in the legible truth of Logos and the proper degree of uncertainty of that final truth. Broadly considered, the Puritan sermon is not simply the dominant genre of this time and place but provides the controlling logic of all Puritan literature. The theory, form, practice, and application of the sermon is not restricted to the meetinghouse but rather permeates all forms and material genres of writing, making every member of the gathered community a participant in a shared literary endeavor.