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THE PREACHER'S FOOTING
Michael Warner Delivers Annual Opening Lecture

by Marianne DeKoven

 

Opening Lecture

In his well-received lecture, “The Preacher’s Footing,” Professor Michael Warner provided a new analysis of “the social imaginary of various forms of preaching, concentrating on an eighteenth-century moment in which evangelicalism took shape.” Drawing on sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of “footing,” Warner analyzed the complexities of the relative positioning of those who speak and those who hear within a variety of locutionary situations in early eighteenth century Protestant preaching, both in the American colonies and in England. Positing the modernity of evangelicalism’s emphasis on individual revival, awakening, and personal conviction, he suggested that the performative nature of preaching in these itinerant sermons of evangelicals constitutes a form of what historians are now calling “lived religion”: not ecclesiastical doctrines or beliefs, but “intensities” experienced at a remove from institutionalized theology.

Ultimately, Warner’s emphasis fell on the primacy of the publication of sermons that were preached as if extempore, and on the various modes of circulation of these published documents, different in the colonies and in England (the colonies were, in fact, more similar to provincial England than to London in this regard). What would appear to listeners to be the results of the preacher speaking directly from divine inspiration were often in fact memorized, published sermons. This fact led Professor Warner to question the effect of the preaching of published and publicly circulated sermons on “the preacher’s footing.” The first effect is to de-emphasize, in fact to eliminate, “originality” as a desirable quality for a sermon. This “process of oralization” of printed sermons creates for the preacher “the opposite of an expressive identity.” In evangelical preaching of this kind, the preacher is submissive to the printed text, and the listener is rigorously secluded in a personal, private space despite her or his participation in a performance of collective hearing.

Warner argued that the norms and standards of public preaching, based on the circulation of printed sermons in evangelicalism led, paradoxically, to the breakdown of the textual tradition of preaching in the culture of evangelicalism. One way to explain this paradox is to note that the prophetic, conversion-seeking mode of evangelical preaching was initiated by “the normalization of a conversionistic address to strangers.” This normalization arose from itinerant preaching’s disruption of the cohesion of the local parish as community. Thus, he concluded, “far from being a primordial orality,” or deeply individual expressiveness, as evangelical preaching is most often seen to be, this mode of address arises directly from the public-sphere media environment of the circulation of printed sermons.

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Editor’s Note: Over 100 people attended Professor Warner’s lecture at the Alexander Library Teleconference Lecture Hall on September 27, 2006. Next year’s Opening Lecture, scheduled for Wednesday, September 19, 2007, will be delivered by Kate Flint, who will speak on “Modernity and the Native American in Victorian Britain.”

© 2007 Future Traditions Magazine
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Department of English | Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.