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It has been usually reported that Swift, though originally studious of his character as a preacher, was never satisfied with his own sermons. He preached, however, regularly as his turn of duty recurred, and always to a crowded congregation. Some years before his death, he gave thirty-five sermons to Dr Sheridan, saying, slightly, “ There are a bundle of my old sermons ; you may have them if you please, they may be of use to you, they never were of any to me."
." There are several reasons, which, without disparagement to the real value of these discourses, may bave induced the author to think of them with indifference. They contain obvious marks of haste and carelessness; were the objects, says Lord Orrery, of necessity, not of choice, and it is not usual for writers to rate compositions highly on which they have bestowed neither time nor labour. But they are, besides, as sermons, inferior to many written by Swift's contemporaries, and he was too much accustomed to pre-eminence to view with complacency compositions, which tended to place him in a secondary and subordinate situation. They are deficient also in those qualities of oratory which must ever be most valued by the preacher, since, through them, he is to produce his effect upon the congregation at the moment when he himself is addressing them. The sermons of Swift have none of that thunder which appals, or that resistless and winning softness, which melts the hearts of an audience. He can never have enjoyed the triumph of uniting hundreds in one ardent sentiment of love, of terror, or of devotion. His reasoning, however powerful, and indeed unanswerable, convinces the understanding, but is never addressed to the heart; and, indeed, from bis instructions to a young clergyman, he seems hardly to have considered pathos as a legitimate ingredient in an English sermon. Occasionally, too, Swift's misanthropic habits break out even from the pulpit; nor is he altogether able to suppress his disdain of those fellow mortals, on whose behalf was accomplished the great work of redemption. With such unamiable feelings towards his bearers, the preacher might indeed command their respect, but could never excite their sympathy. It may be feared that his sermons were less popular from another cause,
imputable more to the congregation than to the pastor. Swift spared not the vices of rich or poor; and, disdaining to amuse the imaginations of his audience with discussion of dark points of divinity, or warm them by a flow of sentimental devotion, he rushes at once to the point of moral depravity, and upbraids them with their favourite and predominant vices in a tone of stern reproof, bordering upon reproach. In short, he tears the bandages from their wounds, like the hasty surgeon of a crowded hospital, and applies the incision knife and caustic with salutary, but rough and untamed severity. But, alas! the mind must be already victorious over the worst of its evil propensities, that can profit by this rough medicine. There is a principle of opposition in our natures which mans itself with obstinacy, even against avowed truth, when it approaches our feelings in a harsh and insulting
And Swift was probably sensible, that his discourses, owing to these various causes, did not produce the powerful and pathetic effects most grateful to the feelings of the preacher, be. cause they reflect back to him those of the audience.
But although the sermons of Swift are deficient in eloquence, and were lightly esteemed by their author, they must not be undervalued by the modern reader. They exhibit, in an eminent degree, that powerful grasp of intellect which distinguished the author above all his contemporaries. In no religious discourses can be found more sound good sense, more happy and forcible views of the immediate subject. The reasoning is not only irresistible, but managed in a mode so simple and clear, that its force is obvious to the most ordinary capacity. Upon all subjects of morality, the preacher maintains the character of a rigid and inflexible monitor ; neither admitting apology for that which is wrong, nor softening the difficulty of adhering to that which is right; a stern stoicism of doctrine, that may fail in finding many converts, but leads to excellence in the few manly minds who dare to embrace it.
In treating the doctrinal points of belief, (as in his sermon upon the Trinity,) Swift systematically refuses to quit the high and pre-eminent ground which the defender of Christianity is entitled to occupy, or to submit to the test of human reason, mysteries which are placed, by their very nature, far beyond our finite capacities. Swift considered, that, in religion, as in profane science, there must be certain ultimate laws which are to be received as fundamental truths, although we are incapable of defining or analysing their nature; and he censures those divines, who, in presumptuous confidence of their own logical powers, enter into controversy upon such mysteries of faith, without considering that they give thereby the most undue advantage to the infidel. Our author wisely and consistently declared reason an incompetent judge of doctrines, of which God had declared the fact, concealing from man the manner. He contended, that he who, upon the whole, receives the Christian religion as of divine inspiration, must be contented to depend upon God's truth, and his holy word, and receive with humble faith the mysteries which are too high for comprehension. Above all, Swift points out, with his usual forcible precision, the mischievous tendency of those investigations which, while they assail one fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion, shake and endanger the whole fabric, destroy the settled faith of thousands, pervert and mislead the genius of the learned and acute, destroy and confound the religious principles of the simple and ignorant.
It cannot be denied, that Swift's political propensities break forth more keenly in many of these discourses, than, perhaps, suited the sacred place where they were originally delivered. The sermons on the Martyrdom of Charles, on the Condition of Ireland, and on Doing Good, approach too nearly to the character of political essays. In those on Brotherly Love, on False Witness, and some others, traces of the same party violence are to be found. The Dean's peculiar strain of humour sometimes too displays itself without rigid attention to decorum, of which the singular sermon on Sleeping in Church is a curious instance.
But, on the whole, the admirers of Swift may claim for his sermons a liberal share of the approbation due to his other produce tions. Twelve only have been recovered by the industry of Mr Nichols, and preceding editors.
The following Form of Prayer, which Dr Swift constantly used in the pulpit before his sermon, is copied from his own hand-writing:
Almighty and most merciful God! forgive us all our sins. Give us grace heartily to repent them, and to lead new lives. Graft in our hearts a true love and veneration for thy holy name and word. Make thy pastors burning and shining lights, able to convince gainsayers, and to save others and themselves. Bless this congregation here met together in thy name; grant them to hear and receive thy holy word, to the salvation of their own souls. Lastly, we desire to return thee praise and thanksgiving for all thy mercies bestowed upon us; but chiefly for the Fountain of them all, Jesus Christ our Lord, in whose name and words we further call upon thee, saying, Our Father,' &c."