This fall I read American Sermons, a 939-page anthology in the prestigious Library of America series. Although the collection includes sermons from Unitarians and Jews, 45 of the 53 preachers are avowed Christians, including D. L. Moody, J. Gresham Machen, Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, and R. A. Torrey, as well as a strong contingent of Puritans.
I can't fathom how a compiler would omit George Whitefield, Charles Finney, and Billy Graham. Could a history of baseball overlook Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Bobby Bonds? But in general the editor, Michael Warner, did an admirable service for anyone interested in preaching.
Modern preachers owe a great debt to the Puritans, who elevated the sermon to a place of honor. The Anglican Church had downgraded sermons to quarterly events, and Catholics had likewise de-emphasized the homily. English Puritans risked arrest by meeting illicitly to hear sermons, and those who immigrated to America made the most of their freedom. Increase Mather, for example, spent 16 hours a day in his study, and recited his hour-long sermons from memory.
More than a century later, slave preachers were fashioning a new style of preaching, based not on linear reasoning but rather on soaring figures of speech. "Like a chained eagle my soul rises toward her native heben, but she can only fly just so high," cried Brother Carper. "But de fetters ob flesh shall fall off soon."
Southern revivalism confronted white audiences with a strong emotional appeal. Sam P. Jones, a former drunk, stood atop an old piano box and railed against the dangers of meanness, whiskey, and Democrats. Billy Sunday, a professional baseball player and son of a Union Army soldier, declared that "there has never been a time when it is harder ...1