On Long Sermons and Family Feuds

As is generally known, the Reformation entailed a recovery of preaching as a central feature of worship, a recovery which was rooted in the recognition that Scripture names proclamation of God's law and gospel as the means of creating and sustaining faith in those divinely ordered to eternal life. The recovery of preaching was reflected in the central role that pulpits came to occupy in sixteenth-century Protestant churches, and in Protestant confessions of the period. So, for instance, the Second Helvetic Confession, one of the most widely embraced doctrinal standards among early modern Reformed churches, acknowledges that "the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God." And thus: "when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven."

Generally overlooked, however, is that this early modern renewed emphasis on preaching introduced a problem which the medieval church, with its lack of sermons and adherence to established liturgies for church services, did not face: how long should the preacher preach?

Scholars agree that sermons in Puritan England and Presbyterian(ish) Scotland regularly passed the benchmark of an hour, a fact causing at least one writer to quip that Reformed pastors were apparently trying to make up for a millenium-long dearth of preaching prior to the Reformation. Determining an appropriate length for sermons was (thankfully?) an issue which, at least in Scotland, Kirk sessions and presbyteries were keen not to leave to any minister's sole discretion. As noted by Margo Todd in her wildly entertaining book The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland, such sessions and presbyteries eventually began to impose monetary fines upon their ministers for exceeding some determined, appropriate time limit for preaching. So, for instance, Edinburgh's presbytery ruled in 1587 that preachers exceeding an hour in their sermons be fined 18 pence. Elgin's Kirk session went even further by threatening long-winded preachers with a fine of six shillings and eight pence -- slightly more than the equivalent of day's wage for your average laborer in Scotland's capital at that time.

Of course, insistence upon time limits for sermons in early modernity raises an obvious question: how could sermon-length be realistically monitored in the absence of wrist-watches or mechanical clocks internal to church buildings? The solution to this problem came in the form of hour-glasses (or "sand-glasses") affixed to pulpits. Quite a few early modern pulpits-with-hour-glasses have survived to the present-day, both in England and in Scotland. Visitors to St. Salvator's chapel in St. Andrews can view the rather fantastic sixteenth-century pulpit (complete with functioning hour-glass) that once occupied Holy Trinity church in the center of town.

One of the most intriguing facts about pulpit hour-glasses is that they were visible to the congregation as well as the minister, thus preventing any attempt on the minister's part to fudge on whether or not his hour was up. Of course, more clever ministers could find ways to cheat the system. The same Scottish session that imposed rather steep fines upon their ministers for excessively long preaching had to reprimand one David Philp in 1622 for apparently "forgetting" to turn the hour-glass when he mounted the pulpit (see Todd, p. 48-49, n. 95). The folk in Elgin apparently liked their Sunday lunch on time. (The folk in nearby Gardenstown, where my wife grew up, still do, at least in my experience).

A rather unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of lengthy sermons (coupled with compulsory attendance at church) presented itself on the Isle of Skye in 1578. On a misty Sunday morning, members of the clan MacDonald ran their ships ashore in Ardmore Bay and walked up to the nearby church, where members of the clan MacLeod, long-time enemies of the MacDonalds, were worshiping. The lengthy sermon being received inside provided the MacDonalds ample time to bar the doors from the outside and set fire to the building. Only one individual survived the flames and managed to raise the alarm. The MacDonalds paid for their crime (which, to be fair, was itself retaliation for earlier injuries received) -- not to mention their lack of foresight -- when they returned to the bay and found their boats stranded on the beach by a receding tide and a mob of angry MacLeods approaching.

There's nothing like the church's past to put present-day ecclesiastical problems in perspective.