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Hints On Extemporaneous Preaching by Henry Ware

CHAPTER II. Against what has been advanced in the preceding pagesà

Against what has been advanced in the preceding pages, many objections will be urged, and the evils of the practice I recommend be declared more than sufficient to counterbalance its advantages. Of these it is necessary that I should now take notice, and obviate them as well as I may.

It should be first of all remarked, that the force of the objections commonly made, lies against the exclusive use of extempore preaching, and not against its partial and occasional use. It is of consequence that this should be considered. There can be no doubt, that he would preach very wretchedly, who should always be haranguing without the corrective discipline of writing. The habit of writing is essential. Many of the objections which are currently made to this mode of address, fall to the ground when this statement is made.

Other objections have been founded on the idea, that by extemporaneous is meant, unpremeditated. Whereas there is a plain and important distinction between them, the latter word being applied to the thoughts, and the former to the language only. To preach without premeditation, is altogether unjustifiable; although there is no doubt that a man of habitual readiness of mind, may express himself to the greatest advantage on a subject with which he is familiar, after very little meditation.

Many writers on the art of preaching, as well as on eloquence in general, have given a decided judgment unfavorable to extempore speaking. There can be no fairer way of answering their objections, than by examining what they have advanced, and opposing their authority by that of equal names on the other side.

Gerard, in his Treatise on the Pastoral Charge, has the following passage on this subject.

|He will run into trite, common-place topics; his compositions will be loose and unconnected; his language often coarse and confused; and diffidence, or care to recollect his subject, will destroy the management of his voice.| At the same time, however, he admits that |it is very proper that a man should be able to preach in this way, when it is necessary; -- but no man ought always to preach in this way.| To which decision I have certainly nothing to object.

Mason, in his Student and Pastor, says to the same effect, that |the inaccuracy of diction, the inelegance, poverty, and lowness of expression, which is commonly observed in extempore discourses, will not fail to offend every hearer of good taste.|

Dinouart, who is an advocate for recitation from memory, says that |experience decides against extemporaneous preaching, though there are exceptions; but these are very few; and we must not be led astray by the success of a few first rate orators.|

Sur l'Eloquence du Corps, ou l'Action du Predicateur.

Hume, in his Essay upon Eloquence, expresses an opinion that the modern deficiency in this art is to be attributed to |that extreme affectation of extempore speaking, which has led to extreme carelessness of method.|

The writer of an article, on the Greek Orators, in the Edinburgh Review, observes, that |among the sources of the corruption of modern eloquence, may clearly be distinguished as the most fruitful, the habit of extempore speaking, acquired rapidly by persons who frequent popular assemblies, and, beginning at the wrong end, attempt to speak before they have studied the art of oratory, or even duly stored their minds with the treasures of thought and language, which can only be drawn from assiduous intercourse with the ancient and modern classics.|

No. LXXI. p.82.

These are the prominent objections which have been made to the practice in question. Without denying that they have weight, I think it may be made to appear that they have not the unquestionable preponderance, which is assumed for them. They will be found, on examination, to be the objections of a cultivated taste, and to be drawn from the examples of undisciplined men, who ought to be left entirely out of the question.

1. The objection most urged is that which relates to style. It is said, the expression will be poor, inelegant, inaccurate, and offensive to hearers of taste.

To those who urge this it may be replied, that the reason why style is an important consideration in the pulpit, is, not that the taste of the hearers may be gratified, for but a small part of any congregation is capable of taking cognizance of this matter; -- but solely for the purpose of presenting the speaker's thoughts, reasonings, and expostulations distinctly and forcibly to the minds of his hearers. If this be effected, it is all which can reasonably be demanded. And I ask if it be not notorious, that an earnest and appropriate elocution will give this effect to a poor style, and that poor speaking will take it away from the most exact and emphatic style? Is it not also notorious that the peculiar earnestness of spontaneous speech, is, above all others, suited to arrest the attention, and engage the feelings of an audience? and that the mere reading of a piece of fine composition, under the notion that careful thought and finished diction are the only things needful, leaves the majority uninterested in the discourse, and free to think of any thing they please? |It is a poor compliment,| says Blair, |that one is an accurate reasoner, if he be not a persuasive speaker also.| It is a small matter that the style is poor, so long as it answers the great purpose of instructing and affecting men. So that, as I have more fully shown in a former place, the objection lies on an erroneous foundation.

Besides, if it were not so, it will be found quite as strong against the writing of sermons. For how large a proportion of sermon writers have these very same faults of style! what a great want of force, neatness, compactness, is there in the composition of most preachers! what weakness, inelegance, and inconclusiveness; and how small improvement do they make, even after the practice of years! How happens this? It is because they do not make this an object of attention and study; and some might be unable to attain it if they did. But that watchfulness and care which secure a correct and neat style in writing, would also secure it in speaking. It does not naturally belong to the one, more than to the other, and may be as certainly attained in each by the proper pains. Indeed so far as my observation has extended, I am not certain that there is not as large a proportion of extempore speakers, whose diction is exact and unexceptionable, as of writers -- always taking into view their education, which equally affects the one and the other. And it is a consideration of great weight, that the faults in question are far less offensive in speakers than in writers.

It is apparent that objectors of this sort are guilty of a double mistake; first, in laying too great stress upon mere defects of style, and then in taking for granted, that these are unavoidable. They might as well insist that defects of written style are unavoidable. Whereas they are the consequence of the negligent mode in which the art has been studied, and its having been given up, for the most part, to ignorant and fanatical pretenders. Let it be diligently cultivated by educated men, and we shall find no more cause to expel it from the pulpit than from the forum or the parliament. |Poverty, inelegance, and poorness of diction,| will be no longer so |generally observed,| and even hearers of taste will cease to be offended.

2. A want of order, a rambling, unconnected, desultory manner, is commonly objected; as Hume styles it, |extreme carelessness of method;| and this is so often observed, as to be justly an object of dread. But this is occasioned by that indolence and want of discipline to which we have just alluded. It is not a necessary evil. If a man have never studied the art of speaking, nor passed through a course of preparatory discipline; if he have so rash and unjustifiable a confidence in himself, that he will undertake to speak, without having considered what he shall say, what object he shall aim at, or by what steps he shall attain it; the inevitable consequence will be confusion, inconclusiveness, and wandering. Who recommends such a course? But he who has first trained himself to the work, and whenever he would speak, has surveyed his ground, and become familiar with the points to be dwelt upon, and the course of reasoning and track of thought to be followed; will go on from one step to another, in an easy and natural order, and give no occasion to the complaint of confusion or disarrangement.

|Some preachers,| says Dinouart, |have the folly to think that they can make sermons impromptu. And what a piece of work they make! They bolt out every thing which comes into their head. They take for granted, what ought to be proved, or perhaps they state half the argument, and forget the rest. Their appearance corresponds to the state of their mind, which is occupied in hunting after some way of finishing the sentence they have begun. They repeat themselves; they wander off in digression. They stand stiff without moving; or if they are of a lively temperament, they are full of the most turbulent action; their eyes and hands are flying about in every direction, and their words choke in their throats. They are like men swimming, who have got frightened, and throw about their hands and feet at random, to save themselves from drowning.|

There is doubtless great truth in this humorous description. But what is the legitimate inference? that extemporaneous speaking is altogether ridiculous and mischievous? or only that it is an art which requires study and diligence, and which no man should presume to practice, until he has fitted himself for it?

3. In the same way I should dispose of the objection, that this habit leads to barrenness in preaching, and the everlasting repetition of the same sentiments and topics. If a man make his facility of speech an excuse for the neglect of all study, then doubtless this will be the result. He who cannot resist his indolent propensities, had best avoid this occasion of temptation. He must be able to command himself to think, and industriously prepare himself by meditation, if he would be safe in this hazardous experiment. He who does this, and continues to learn and reflect while he preaches, will be no more empty and monotonous than if he carefully wrote every word.

4. But this temptation to indolence in the preparation for the desk, is urged as in itself a decisive objection. A man finds, that after a little practice, it is an exceedingly easy thing to fill up his half-hour with declamation which shall pass off very well, and hence he grows negligent in previous meditation; and insensibly degenerates into an empty exhorter, without choice of language, or variety of ideas. This is undoubtedly the great and alarming danger of this practice. This must be triumphed over, or it is ruinous. We see examples of it wherever we look among those whose preaching is exclusively extempore. In these cases, the evil rises to its magnitude in consequence of their total neglect of the pen. The habit of writing a certain proportion of the time would, in some measure, counteract this dangerous tendency.

But it is still insisted, that man's natural love of ease is not to be trusted; that he will not long continue the drudgery of writing in part; that when he has once gained confidence to speak without study, he will find it so flattering to his indolence, that he will involuntarily give himself up to it, and relinquish the pen altogether; that consequently there is no security, except in never beginning.

To this it may be replied, that they who have not principle and self-government enough to keep them industrious, will not be kept so by being compelled to write sermons. I think we have abundant proof, that a man may write with as little pains and thinking, as he can speak. It by no means follows, that because it is on paper, it is therefore the result of study. And if it be not, it will be greatly inferior, in point of effect, to an unpremeditated declamation; for in the latter case, there will probably be at least a temporary excitement of feeling, and consequent vivacity of manner, while in the former the indolence of the writer will be made doubly intolerable by his heaviness in reading.

It cannot be doubted, however, that if any one find his facility of extemporaneous invention, likely to prove destructive to his habits of diligent and careful application; it were advisable that he refrain from the practice. It could not be worth while for him to lose his habits of study and thinking for the sake of an ability to speak, which would avail him but little, after his ability to think has been weakened or destroyed.

As for those whose indolence habitually prevails over principle, and who make no preparation for duty excepting the mechanical one of covering over a certain number of pages, -- they have no concern in the ministry, and should be driven to seek some other employment, where their mechanical labor may provide them a livelihood, without injuring their own souls, or those of other men.

If the objection in question be applied to conscientious men, whose hearts are in their profession, and who have a sincere desire to do good, it certainly has very little weight. The minds of such men are kept active with reflection, and stored with knowledge, and warm with religious feeling. They are therefore always ready to speak to the purpose, as well as write to the purpose; and their habitual sense of the importance of their office, and their anxiety to fulfil it in the best manner, will forbid that indolence which is so disastrous. The objection implies, that the consequence pointed out is one which cannot be avoided. Experience teaches us the contrary. It is the tendency -- but a tendency which may be, for it has been, counteracted. Many have preached in this mode for years, and yet have never relaxed their diligence in study, nor declined in the variety, vigor, and interest of their discourses; -- sometimes dull, undoubtedly; but this may be said with equal truth of the most faithful and laborious writers.

5. Many suppose that there is a certain natural talent, essential to success in extempore speaking, no less than in poetry; and that it is absurd to recommend the art to those who have not this peculiar talent, and vain for them to attempt its practice.

In regard to that ready flow of words, which seems to be the natural gift of some men, it is of little consequence whether it be really such, or be owing to the education and habits of early life, and vain self-confidence. It is certain that the want of habit, and diffidence are great hindrances to fluency of speech; and it is equally certain, that this natural fluency is a very questionable advantage to him who would be an impressive speaker. It is quite observable that those who at first talk easiest, do not always talk best. Their very facility is a snare to them. It serves to keep them content; they make no effort to improve, and are likely to fall into slovenly habits of elocution. So that this unacquired fluency is so far from essential, that it is not even a benefit, and it may be an injury. It keeps from final eminence by the very greatness of its early promise. On the other hand, he who possesses originally no remarkable command of language, and whom an unfortunate bashfulness prevents from well using what he has; is obliged to subject himself to severe discipline, to submit to rules and tasks, to go through a tedious process of training, to acquire by much labor the needful sway over his thoughts and words, so that they shall come at his bidding, and not be driven away by his own diffidence, or the presence of other men. To do all this, is a long and disheartening labor. He is exposed to frequent mortifications, and must endure many grievous failures, before he attain that confidence which is indispensable to success. But then in this discipline, his powers, mental and moral, are strained up to the highest intenseness of action; after persevering practice, they become habitually subject to his control, and work with a precision, exactness, and energy, which can never be the possession of him, who has depended on his native, undisciplined gift. Of the truth of this, examples are by no means wanting, and I could name, if it were proper, more than one striking instance within my own observation. It was probably this to which Newton referred, when he said, that he never spoke well till he felt that he could not speak at all. Let no one therefore think it an obstacle in his way that he has no readiness of words. If he have good sense and no deficiency of talent, and is willing to labor for this as all great acquisitions must be labored for, he needs not fear but that in time he will attain it.

We must be careful, however, not to mistake the object to be attained. It is not a high rank in oratory, consummate eloquence. If it were, then indeed a young man might pause till he had ascertained whether he possessed all those extraordinary endowments of intellect, imagination, sensibility, countenance, voice, and person, which belong to few men in a century, and without which the great orator does not exist. He is one of those splendid formations of nature, which she exhibits but rarely; and it is not necessary to the object of his pursuit that the minister be such. The aim and purpose of his office are less ambitious, to impart instruction and do good; and it is by no means certain that the greatest eloquence is best adapted to these purposes in the pulpit. But any man, with powers which fit him for the ministry at all, -- unless there be a few extraordinary exceptions -- is capable of learning to express himself clearly, correctly, and with method; and this is precisely what is wanted, and no more than this. I do not say eloquently; for as it is not thought indispensable that every writer of sermons should be eloquent, it cannot be thought essential that every speaker should be so. But the same powers which have enabled him to write, will, with sufficient discipline, enable him to speak; with every probability that when he comes to speak with the same ease and collectedness, he will do it with a nearer approach to eloquence. Without such discipline he has no right to hope for success; let him not say that success is impossible, until he has submitted to it.

I apprehend that these remarks will be found not only correct in theory, but agreeable to experience. With the exceeding little systematic cultivation of the art which there is amongst us, and no actual instruction, we find that a great majority of the lawyers in our courts, and not a small portion of the members of our legislatures, are able to argue and debate. In some of the most popular and quite numerous religious sects, we find preachers enough, who are able to communicate their thoughts and harangue their congregations, and exert very powerful and permanent influence over large bodies of the people. Some of these are men of as small natural talents and as limited education, as any that enter the sacred office. It should seem therefore that no one needs to despair.

In the ancient republics of Greece and Rome, this accomplishment was a necessary branch of a finished education. A much smaller proportion of the citizens were educated than amongst us; but of these a much larger number became orators. No man could hope for distinction or influence, and yet slight this art. The commanders of their armies were orators as well as soldiers, and ruled as well by their rhetorical as by their military skill. There was no trusting with them as with us, to a natural facility, or the acquisition of an accidental fluency by actual practice. But they served an apprenticeship to the art. They passed through a regular course of instruction in schools. They submitted to long and laborious discipline. They exercised themselves frequently, both before equals and in the presence of teachers, who criticised, reproved, rebuked, excited emulation, and left nothing undone which art and perseverance could accomplish. The greatest orators of antiquity, so far from being favored by natural tendencies, except indeed in their high intellectual endowments, had to struggle against natural obstacles; and instead of growing up spontaneously to their unrivalled eminence, they forced themselves forward by the most discouraging artificial process. Demosthenes combated an impediment in speech and ungainliness of gesture, which at first drove him from the forum in disgrace. Cicero failed at first through weakness of lungs, and an excessive vehemence of manner, which wearied the hearers and defeated his own purpose. These defects were conquered by study and discipline. Cicero exiled himself from home, and during his absence in various lands passed not a day without a rhetorical exercise; seeking the masters who were most severe in criticism, as the surest means of leading him to the perfection at which he aimed. Such too was the education of their other great men. They were all, according to their ability and station, orators; orators, not by nature or accident, but by education; formed in a strict process of rhetorical training; admired and followed even while Demosthenes and Cicero were living, and unknown now, only because it is not possible that any but the first should survive the ordeal of ages.

It is often said that extemporaneous speaking is the distinction of modern eloquence. But the whole language of Cicero's rhetorical works, as well as particular terms in common use, and anecdotes recorded of different speakers, prove the contrary; not to mention Quinctilian's express instructions on the subject. Hume, also, tells us from Suidas, that the writing of speeches was unknown until the time of Pericles.

The inference to be drawn from these observations, is, that if so many of those who received an accomplished education became accomplished orators, because to become so was one purpose of their study; then it is in the power of a much larger proportion amongst us, to form themselves into creditable and accurate speakers. The inference should not be denied until proved false by experiment. Let this art be made an object of attention, and young men train themselves to it faithfully and long; and if any of competent talents and tolerable science be found at last incapable of expressing themselves in continued and connected discourse, so as to answer the ends of the christian ministry; then, and not till then, let it be said that a peculiar talent or natural aptitude is requisite, the want of which must render effort vain; then, and not till then, let us acquiesce in this indolent and timorous notion, which contradicts the whole testimony of antiquity, and all the experience of the world. Doubtless, after the most that can be done, there will be found the greatest variety of attainment; |men will differ,| as Burnet remarks, |quite as much as in their written compositions;| and some will do but poorly what others will do excellently. But this is likewise true of every other art in which men engage, and not least so of writing sermons; concerning which no one will say, that as poor are not written, as it would be possible for any one to speak. In truth, men of small talents and great sluggishness, of a feeble sense of duty and no zeal, will of course make poor sermons, by whatever process they may do it, let them write or let them speak. It is doubtful concerning some whether they would even steal good ones.

The survey we have now taken, renders it evident, that the evils, which are principally objected against as attending this mode of preaching, are not necessary evils, but are owing to insufficient study and preparation before the practice is commenced, and indolence afterward. This is implied in the very expressions of the objectors themselves, who attribute the evil to |beginning at the wrong end, attempting to speak before studying the art of oratory, or even storing the mind with treasures of thought and language.| It is, also, implied in this language, that study and preparation are capable of removing the objections. I do not therefore advocate the art, without insisting on the necessity of severe discipline and training. No man should be encouraged or permitted to adopt it, who will not take the necessary pains, and proceed with the necessary perseverance.

This should be the more earnestly insisted upon, because it is from our loose and lazy notions on the subject, that eloquence in every department is suffering so much, and that the pulpit especially has become so powerless, where the most important things that receive utterance upon earth, are read like schoolboys' tasks, without even the poor pains to lay emphasis on the right words, and to pause in the right places. And this, because we fancy that, if nature have not designed us for orators, it is vain to make effort, and if she have, we shall be such without effort. True, that the noble gifts of mind are from nature; but not language, or knowledge, or accent, or tone, or gesture; these are to be learned, and it is with these that the speaker is concerned. These are all matters of acquisition, and of difficult acquisition; possible to be attained, and well worth the exertion that must be made.

The history of the world is full of testimony to prove how much depends upon industry; not an eminent orator has lived, but is an example of it. Yet in contradiction to all this, the almost universal feeling appears to be, that industry can effect nothing, that eminence is the result of accident, and that every one must be content to remain just what he may happen to be. Thus multitudes, who come forward as teachers and guides, suffer themselves to be satisfied with the most indifferent attainments, and a miserable mediocrity, without so much as inquiring how they might rise higher, much less making any attempt to rise. For any other art they would have served an apprenticeship, and would be ashamed to practise it in public before they had learned it. If any one would sing, he attends a master, and is drilled in the very elementary principles; and only after the most laborious process dares to exercise his voice in public. This he does, though he has scarce any thing to learn but the mechanical execution of what lies in sensible forms before his eye. But the extempore speaker, who is to invent as well as to utter, to carry on an operation of the mind as well as to produce sound, enters upon the work without preparatory discipline, and then wonders that he fails! If he were learning to play on the flute for public exhibition, what hours and days would he spend in giving facility to his fingers, and attaining the power of the sweetest and most impressive execution. If he were devoting himself to the organ, what months and years would he labor, that he might know its compass, and be master of its keys, and be able to draw out, at will, all its various combinations of harmonious sound, and its full richness and delicacy of expression. And yet he will fancy that the grandest, the most various, the most expressive of all instruments, which the infinite Creator has fashioned by the union of an intellectual soul with the powers of speech, may be played upon without study or practice; he comes to it, a mere uninstructed tyro, and thinks to manage all its stops, and command the whole compass of its varied and comprehensive power! He finds himself a bungler in the attempt, is mortified at his failure, and settles it in his mind forever that the attempt is vain.

Success in every art, whatever may be the natural talent, is always the reward of industry and pains. But the instances are many of men of the finest natural genius, whose beginning has promised much, but who have degenerated wretchedly as they advanced, because they trusted to their gifts, and made no effort to improve. That there have never been other men of equal endowments with Demosthenes and Cicero, none would venture to suppose; but who have so devoted themselves to their art, or become equal in excellence? If those great men had been content, like others, to continue as they began, and had never made their persevering efforts for improvement, what would their countries have benefited from their genius, or the world have known of their fame? They would have been lost in the undistinguished crowd, that sunk to oblivion around them. Of how many more will the same remark prove true! What encouragement is thus given to the industrious! With such encouragement, how inexcusable is the negligence which suffers the most interesting and important truths, to seem heavy and dull, and fall ineffectual to the ground, through mere sluggishness in their delivery! How unworthy of one who performs the high function of a religious instructer, upon whom depend, in a great measure, the religious knowledge and devotional sentiment and final character of many fellow beings, -- to imagine that he can worthily discharge this great concern by occasionally talking for an hour, he knows not how, and in a manner which he has taken no pains to render correct, impressive, or attractive; and which, simply through want of that command over himself which study would give, is immethodical, verbose, inaccurate, feeble, trifling. It has been said of the good preacher, that |truths divine come mended from his tongue.| Alas, they come ruined and worthless from such a man as this. They lose that holy energy by which they are to convert the soul and purify man for heaven, and sink, in interest and efficacy, below the level of those principles which govern the ordinary affairs of this lower world.

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