Sermons of Jonathan Swift - Background

Background

As Dean of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Jonathan Swift spent every fifth Sunday preaching from the pulpit. Although many of his friends suggested that he should publish these sermons, Swift felt that he lacked the talent as a preacher to make his sermons worthy of publication. Instead, Swift spent his time working more on political works, such as Drapier's Letters, and justified this by his lacking in religions areas.

Members of St. Patrick's community would ask, "Pray, does the Doctor preach today?" Swift's sermons had the reputation of being spoken "with an emphasis and fervor which everyone around him saw, and felt." In response to such encouragement to preach, Swift was reported to say that he "could never rise higher than preaching pamphlets." Swift's friend, Dr. John Arbuthnot, claimed, "I can never imagine any man can be uneasy, that has the opportunity of venting himself to a whole congregation once a week." Regardless of what Swift thought of himself, the Cathedral was always crowded during his sermons.

Swift wrote out his sermons before preaching and marked his words in order to provide the correct pronunciation or to emphasize the word ironically. He always practiced reading his sermons, and, as Davis claims, "he would (in his own expression) pick up the lines, and cheat his people, by making them believe he had it all by heart." However, he wanted to express the truth of his words and impart this truth in a down-to-earth manner that could be understood by his listeners.

Swift believed that a preacher had to be understood, and states, "For a divine hath nothing to say to the wisest congregation of any parish in this kingdom, which he may not express in a manner to be understood by the meanest among them." He elaborates further when he says, "The two principal branches of preaching, are first to tell the people what is their duty; and then to convince them that it is so."

Shortly before his death, Swift gave the collection of 35 sermons to Dr. Thomas Sheridan, saying, "You may have them if you please; they maybe of use to you, they never were of any to me." In 1744, George Faulkner, the Dublin publisher of Swift's 1735 Works, printed the sermons entitled "On Mutual Subjection," "On Conscience," and "On the Trinity."

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