There is a well-defined prejudice against the importation of anything |theatrical| into the pulpit. The art of the actor is fundamentally different from the work of the preacher. At best the actor but represents, imitates, pretends, acts. The actor seems; the preacher is.
It is to be feared, however, that this prejudice has narrowed many preachers down to a pulpit style almost devoid of warmth and action. In their endeavor to avoid the dramatic and sensational, they have refined and subdued many of their most natural and effective means of expression. The function of preaching is not only to impart, but to persuade; and persuasion demands something more than an easy conversational style, an intellectual statement of facts, or the reading of a written message. The speaker must show in face, in eye, in arm, in the whole animated man, that he, himself, is moved, before he can hope successfully to persuade and inspire others.
The modified movements of ordinary conversation do not fulfil all the requirements of the preacher. These are necessary and adequate for the groundwork of the sermon, but for the supreme heights of passionate appeal, when the soul of the preacher would, as it were, leap from its body in the endeavor to reach men, there must be intensified life and action -- dramatic action.
It is difficult to conceive of a greater tribute to a public advocate than that paid to Wendell Phillips by George William Curtis:
|The divine energy of his conviction utterly possest him, and his
'Pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in his cheek, and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say his body thought.'|
Poise is power, and reserve and repression are parts of the dignified office of the preacher, but carried too far may degenerate into weak and unproductive effort. Perfection of English style, rhetorical floridness, and profundity of thought will never wholly make up for lack of appropriate action in the work of persuading men.
The power of action alone is vividly illustrated in the touch of the finger to the lips to invoke silence, or the pointing to the door to command one to leave the room. The preacher might often find it profitable to stand before a mirror and deliver his sermon exclusively in pantomime to test its power and efficacy.
The body must be disciplined and cultivated as assiduously as the other instruments of the speaker. There is eloquence of attitude and action no less than eloquence of voice and feeling. A preacher drawing himself up to his full height, with a significant gesture of the head, or with flashing eye pointing the finger of warning at his hearers, may rouse them from indifference when all other means fail.
Sixty years ago the Reverend William Russell emphasized the importance of visible expression. He said of the preacher:
|His outward manner, in attitude and action, will be as various as his voice: he will evince the inspiration of appropriate feeling in the very posture of his frame; in uttering the language of adoration, the slow-moving, uplifted hand will bespeak the awe and solemnity which pervade his soul; in addressing his fellow men in the spirit of an ambassador of Christ, the gentle yet earnest spirit of persuasive action will be evinced in the pleading hand and aspect; he will know, also, how to pass to the stern and authoritative mien of the reproved of sin; he will, on due occasions, indicate, in his kindling look, the rousing gesture, the mood of him who is empowered and commanded to summon forth all the energies of the human soul; his subdued and chastened address will carry the sympathy of his spirit into the bosom of the mourner; his moistening eye and his gentle action will manifest his tenderness for the suffering: his whole soul will, in a word, become legible in his features, in his attitude, in the expressive eloquence of his hand; his whole style will be felt to be that of heart communing with heart.|
Dramatic action gives picturesqueness to the spoken word. It makes things vivid to slow imaginations, and by contrast invests the speaker's message with new meaning and vitality. It discloses, too, the speaker's sympathy and identification with his subject. His thought and feeling, communicating themselves to voice and face, to hand and arm, to posture and walk, satisfy and impress the hearer by a sense of adequacy and completeness.
Henry Ward Beecher, a conspicuous example of the dramatic style in preaching, was drilled for three years, while at college, in voice-culture, gesture, and action. His daily practise in the woods, during which he exploded all the vowels from the bottom to the top of his voice, gave him not only a wonderfully responsive and flexible instrument, but a freedom of bodily movement that made him one of the most vigorous and virile of American preachers. He was in the highest sense a persuasive pulpit orator.
A sensible preacher will avoid the grotesque and the extremes of mere animal vivacity. Incessant gesture and action, undue emphasizing with hand and head, and all suggestion of self-sufficiency in attitude or manner should be guarded against. All the various instruments of expression should be made ready and responsive for immediate use, but are to be employed with that taste and tact that characterize the well-balanced man. Too much action and long-continued emotional effort lose force, and unless the law of action and reaction is applied to the preaching of the sermon the attention of the congregation may snap and the desired effect be utterly destroyed.
The face as the mirror of the emotions is an important part of expression. The lips will betray determination, grief, sympathy, affection, or other feeling on the part of the speaker. The eyes, the most direct medium of psychic power, will flash in indignation, glisten in joy, or grow dim in sorrow. The brow will be elevated in surprise, or lowered in determination and perplexity.
The effectiveness of the whisper in preaching should not be overlooked. If discreetly used it may serve to impress the hearer with the profundity and seriousness of the preacher's message, or to arrest and bring back to the point of contact the wandering minds of a congregation.
To acquire emotional power and dramatic action the preacher should study the great dramatists. He should read them aloud with appropriate voice and movement. He should study children, and men, and nature. He should, perhaps, see the best actors, not to copy them, but in order that they may stimulate his taste and imagination.