‘Sermons’ are intriguing documents and we have many hundreds if not thousands tucked away in our collections. Dating back to 1835 they come in many and varied formats and states of preservation. There are those eaten by silverfish, rust has left its mark on many from pins, paperclips and staples. The majority however, reflect the significance placed on them by the preacher and their families where they have been carefully sorted and stored until such time it was believed they could be safely passed on for posterity and to offer edification to a new set of ‘hearers’. The donors of sermons generally pass them over with much reverence. They reflect the essence of their preachers’ ministry which is not surprising in a reformed tradition where the sermon is central to worship.
Sermons and their preaching thereof is a unique performance. Generally speaking the preacher aimed to unite and edify his congregation through his sermons, but occasionally the sermon created division and conflict.
I have always been fascinated with how the congregation heard the sermon. Did women hear a different message to men? For that matter, I have wondered whether the preacher thought much about the make up of the congregation as he (and the preacher was generally a he until the early1970s in NZ Presbyterianism) prepared the sermon. How much of the ‘failure’ of ministry was due to not recognising the uniqueness of those who faithfully sat in front of them Sunday after Sunday?
But what is the significance and the purpose of retaining sermons in an Archives today? What do they convey about who we were and are? Is there anything in them that throws light on the way we lived, how we interacted with one another, our values? How did the sermons transmit ideas and practices within the listening community? Do sermons convey anything about the relationship between preacher and parishioner? Are sermons really that useful to researchers? How can they best be used?
These questions would require considerable hours of research and probably numerous books to come up with some of the answers. But I can say that over the years a trickle of researchers have requested sermons on various topics. One I recall was anything to do with ‘dirt’. We found a couple that related to the attempts to clean up the slums of Dunedin. Requests for social issues and ‘the greater good’ such as the affects of alcohol, divisions caused through war, and preachers responses to politics and elections have been popular. Attitudes to birth and death and how they have changed over time created a fascinating search of our collections, as did a request on the rights of women and their changing place in society. The earliest sermon we could locate on women is one preached by the Rev. George Brown of Onehunga in 1867.
Sermons are an untapped resource and patient research will reveal vast and rich treasures. How are they best used? In another blog I will offer a few suggestions that may open some new avenues for research.