In 1770 Boston, a 17-year-old prodigy and autodidact who’d taught herself Greek, Latin and the principles of prosody wrote an elegy for the most famous preacher in the colonies, an Anglican minister in the growing Methodist tradition named George Whitfield.
The poet’s homage to Whitfield, whom she may have heard speak in Boston as he made his tour throughout the colonies from Northern New England to Savannah, Georgia, and deep into the Western frontier, was “exceptionally popular” as the literary critic Henry Louis Gates writes, “published as a broadside in Boston, then again in Newport, four more times in Boston, and a dozen more in New York, Philadelphia, and Newport.”
Whitfield’s preaching was of a famously “hot” variety, commensurate with the evangelical fervor of the series of revivals that have come to be known as the First Great Awakening, and his sermons were immensely popular, receiving praise from even that old deistic rascal Benjamin Franklin.
Concerning the departed minister, the poet sang of the “music of thy tongue, / Thy wonted auditories cease to throng,” and of his “strains of eloquence [which] refin’d, / Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind.”
When valorizing Whitfield’s rhetorical aptitude, it would have been just as appropriate for someone to have celebrated that of the poem’s author, for nobody in the colonies was as talented a versifier as her.
The 17-year-old author of the poem was so brilliant in composition that, two years after her lyric for Whitfield, a committee of Harvard scholars was convened to interrogate the woman and to deliberate as to whether she was the author of the verse (they concluded that she was).
Their unfounded suspicions were characteristic of the bigotry of the time, for the woman’s last name was “Wheatley” from the Massachusetts family that owned her, and her first name was “Phillis” after the slave ship which stole her from Africa.
Gates calls the example of Phillis Wheatley the “primal scene of African-American letters.” For Gates and other scholars, Wheatley marks the nascent stirrings of the unique, powerful, full-throated American vernacular of black literature, whose voice has indelibly marked not just our writing, but our preaching, our creating, our laughing and our singing.
In her homage to a white English cleric, Wheatley wrote that “Towards America — couldst thou do more / Than leave they native home, the British shore, / To cross the great Atlantic’s wat’ry road.”
On Saturday May 19, 2018, a very different minister made the reverse crossing as Whitfield, bringing with him the fruits of the tradition which Wheatley embodied and which he was the inheritor of.
Delivering the invocation at the marriage of Prince Harry to African-American actress Meghan Markle (who is now the Duchess of Sussex) was the head of the American Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Bruce Curry. A leader in racial reconciliation, gender equality and LGBTQ rights, Bishop Curry is a representative of liberal Christianity, as well as a particular exponent of a preaching style grounded in the black church and experience.
Speaking for 13 minutes about “the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love” for which we can “discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world,” Bishop Curry evoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Jesuit mystic and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, medieval poetry, and the Negro spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead.”
Delivered with the rhetorical flourishes of the African-American preaching tradition, including liberal use of anaphora, repetition, Hebraic parallelism, call-and-response and improvisation (as the official record of the sermon differs from the video), it was a homily both impassioned and erudite. Based on the faces of the assembled British royals, aristocrats and celebrities, it was also clearly something that hadn’t quite been heard at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle before.
One imagines that Queen Elizabeth II or Prince Phillip or Prince Charles have rarely listened to an injunction that “Jesus began the most revolutionary movement ... mandating people to live that love ... to change not only their lives, but the very life of the world itself.”
Many have commented on the symbolic import of Markle, the descendant of American slaves, marrying into the royal family — and that is true.
But equally powerful is hearing Bishop Curry evoking the memory of “some old slaves in America’s antebellum South who explained the dynamic power of love and why it has the power to transform,” spoken here among nobility descended by those who inaugurated the slave trade, who grew rich on imported Southern cotton, who contemplated supplying aid to the Confederacy.
Such a sermon is a victory of justice, but also of love.
What those congregants heard was arguably the greatest sermon of the 21st century, not just because of the apparent novelty of seeing this particular preaching style enacted in this stuffy place, but because Bishop Curry’s message demonstrated the still regenerative and creative power in liberal Christianity, and in the mainline Protestantism of which we so often predict the impending demise.
The Anglican Church was not as incongruous a place to hear this message as some pundits might assume; the via media — or middle way — of the 16th-century Elizabethan religious sentiment which set the contours of the denomination allowed for diverse experiences of the faith, even more so the latitudinarianism of 17th-century Episcopalianism, which was tolerant of a multitude of religious expressions.
Contrary to jabs about Anglicans being God’s “frozen people,” Whitfield was known for the passion of his preaching and he was a minister in the Church of England. In many ways, Bishop Curry works within that particular tradition, bringing some of that fire back home.
But if the claim that this is the greatest sermon of the century hits the ear oddly, it may be because, unlike women and men of Whitfield and Wheatley’s day, we no longer expect to hear much artistry in preaching. So divided is the gulf between denominations and between the secular and the faithful, that it’s scarcely even possible to name another contemporary sermon which may speak to both the faithful and the faithless.
For past generations, the sermon was a genre of ultimate concern. Ours is a long way from the culture described by religion scholar Jon Butler, where “Ministers read long sermons lasting from forty-five minutes to two hours.” As such, artistry was paramount, and, in the Anglophone tradition alone, one could point to the baroque artistry of Lancelot Andrewes or the metaphysical speculations of John Donne in the 17th century, the plain style minimalism of American Puritans like John Winthrop, Samuel Danforth and Increase Mather in that same century, even the hell-fire gothicisms of Jonathan Edwards in the 18th.
In the last century there is not just the powerful preaching of those in more evangelical traditions, but also unequivocal examples of liberal religious sermonizing from Paul Tillich to Reinhold Niebuhr, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to Father Fulton Sheen. And, of course, there was Martin Luther King Jr.
But while even comparatively secular people would have been familiar with those figures in the past century, religion in general and Christianity in particular have unfairly come to be seen by many secular progressives as only the provenance of the reactionary.
Which is why there is the profound import of Bishop Curry’s sermon, for when I say that his is the greatest of the 21st century, it is a claim made with an asterisk by it, for I am fully aware that, every day, there are beautiful encapsulations of progressive faith made by ministers throughout the world.
The Rev. William Barber II has probably given half-a-dozen sermons this week which would qualify as the most powerful of this century. Rather, what makes Bishop Curry’s homily so exemplary is the sheer scope of his audience. Millions around the world, many either areligious or perhaps conservative Christians, who heard such a profound example of liberal Christianity.
One of the canons of classical rhetoric is delivery; that being the case, Bishop Curry (excuse the language) had a hell of a platform.
Because in asking his audience, and us, to envision a “world where love is the way” and to imagine “governments and nations ... business and commerce when love is the way” and to “Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive,” Bishop Curry proved that there is still something to liberal Christianity — that the mainline Protestant denominations still have prophetic power.
Bishop Curry, of course, knows that — he lives it. But for the rest of us, watching this happily meddlesome priest within the very halls of power, it was a sublime oration. Especially since ours is a world and a moment where, with perilous rarity, do we hear about love on the international stage. Bishop Curry’s sermon served as a much-needed, beautiful reminder of that love.