from A History of Preaching
by F. R. Webber
The five centuries previous to the Reformation include the great age of church building. Many old Saxon churches existed, but most of these were demolished and larger buildings took their place, at first in the Norman style and then in the Gothic. As new communities were established, these called for yet more new churches. When one considers the dates of the great Norman and the Gothic abbeys, priories and cathedrals, as well as the multitude of parish churches, large and small, the vastness of the undertaking becomes apparent. Edward the Confessor’s abbey at Westminster was begun in 1050 and finished at the end of 1065, shortly before his death. The following decade saw the beginning of Lanfranc’s Canterbury, of Lincoln, St. Alban’s and many smaller churches. During the next decade great churches were begun at York, Hereford, Winchester, Lastingham, Ely, Shrewsbury and Worcester, to mention but a few of the more familiar examples. During the following ten years Tewkesbury Gloucester, Chichester, Chester, Durham, Norwich and Carlisle were under construction. All of these were begun within the short span of 35 years, and we have mentioned but a few examples. . . .
With churches under construction everywhere, and the clergy acting as architects or at least as master builders, one will hardly expect to find a great age of preaching. Men who spend much of their time at their drawings, or else on the high scaffolding surrounding a new abbey church, are hardly likely to give adequate time to the preparation of sermons. Thus it is that we do not often find evidences of careful exegetical study, or of doctrinal preaching of the best type. Sermons became fanciful, and there was much allegorizing. Incidents in both Old and New Testaments were “spiritualized,” there was much play upon words, and lengthy incidents from the lives of the Church Fathers and the saints took the place of careful exposition. Here and there we find faithful men who sought, to the best of their light, to preach careful sermons, for no age has been wholly without witnesses. During the thirteenth century there was a marked renewal of interest in preaching, although it was too often true that the Church was looked upon as the sure source of salvation, rather than the Cross; and the authority of the Church Fathers, in too many cases, was substituted for the authority of the inspired Word of God. Many a sermon became a mere lecture upon religious history, rather than an exposition of Law and Gospel; and even learned men were content to declare in great detail the incidents in the life of the saints, and to devote scant attention to the important facts of sin and salvation.
To say that preaching did not exist is but an evidence of superficial thinking. There were preachers of learning and influence; but these qualities are not always indications of true evangelical zeal. The Dominicans and the Franciscans were primarily preaching orders. The Dominicans, or Blackfriars, came to England in 1221, the year of their founder’s death, established themselves in Oxford and in other university towns, and within 80 years they had set up some 50 communities. Their original purpose was to preach against heresy, but it was not long until some of their leading men became professors of theology and of canon law in the great universities. The Dominicans were the conservatives and the intellectual of their day. The Franciscans, or Greyfriars, came to England during the lifetime of their founder, established themselves in Oxford in 1224, and later in Cambridge and other centers of learning. Their original task was to preach to the neglected poor, but they soon established missions in heathen lands, and it was not long until they occupied important chairs in the leading universities. If the Dominicans were the conservative preachers of their day, the Franciscans were the emotionalists of the thirteenth century.
The Dominicans and Franciscans produced many gifted preachers, and these men attracted great congregations. They itinerated, and one reads of great gatherings of people that anticipate the vast outdoor congregations that assembled five centuries later to hear such men as George Whitefield and Christmas Evans. While many of the better men in the centuries prior to the Reformation preached fearlessly against sin, called upon their hearers to repent, and directed them to the merits of Jesus Christ, yet even at best there was a lamentable confusion of the purposes of Law and Gospel, an unrestrained love for allegorical preaching, often a forcing of exegesis and an illogical manner of applying revealed truth to the needs of their hearers. The evangelical note was not lacking, but it was mingled with the supreme authority of the Church, the value of penances, and legends of the saints; and thus an authoritative synergism destroyed the force of whatever Pauline truth the sermon may have contained. Even the Franciscans, who gave the world Roger Bacon, known as the Doctor Mirabilis, were unable to distinguish clearly between saving grace, which is an essential, and churchly ordinances, which are externals. They laid stress in their preaching upon such admirable qualities as honest labor and missionary zeal, and they urged their hearers to be content to live in humility rather than to covet riches and power, yet they neglected to say that these things are but the praiseworthy fruits of faith, and not causes that contribute to it. Dr. Dargan, a Southern Baptist conservative, and a recognized authority on the history of preaching, believes that the preaching friars produced men who were able to call many to repentance and point them to the Cross of Calvary, and while he mentions with regret the shortcomings of much of the preaching in Mediaeval times, yet he believes that enough truth was preached to lead many people to their Saviour. If this be correct, then it is but additional proof that in no age has the Lord been without witnesses. Much chaff was mingled with the wheat, but the wheat was not altogether lacking. . . .
Books of homilies occupied an important place in the library of the Mediaeval clergy. These homilies were simple, practical expositions of Scripture, usually in the form of a running commentary rather than a sermon of formal outline. Some books of homilies were suited to the needs of congregations, while others were intended to be used in monasteries, where they were read by one of the brothers to his companions as they sat at the table, probably at the close of a meal. As early as 529 A.D. the Council of Vaux ordered every priest to preach every Sunday, directing him to deliver a sermon of his own composition, or at least to read a sermon prepared by someone other than himself. In case the priest were ill or absent, a deacon was expected to read a homily. Charlemagne ordered sermons to be delivered on all Sundays and festival days, and he urged the clergy to warn the wicked of the eternal torments, and the believers of the glories of Heaven. . . .
Perhaps one cannot judge the ancient homilists by the standards of today, for plagiarism was taken as a matter of course, and the Church Fathers and other religious writers were looked upon as a legitimate quarry from which to take homiletical building stones. Whole paragraphs of exposition, applications and fanciful allegorization were taken bodily from the older writers, and often without so much as a footnote or marginal annotation to indicate their source. As soon as a homilarium was issued, it became public property. Such collections were intended for use by the priests and monks, and they made free use of the material, not only in their public preaching, but in their own collections of homilies.