American Literature Sermons
Joe Fulton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0061


For all of the 17th and most of the 18th century, the sermon was the dominant literary form in the American colonies. The sermon played an important role in the Revolution, and, while retreating somewhat in its dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries, remains a significant force in American cultural life. The sermon genre, along with other colonial writing, was often considered less than literary, but scholars began taking sermons seriously as literary works in the 1930s and 1940s. Time has confirmed that opinion, and subsequently a greater diversity in American sermonology has become evident, with scholars examining the theological dynamics of many denominations, particular types of sermons, gender and race issues in sermonology, and the relationship of sermons throughout history to historical and cultural contexts, such as abolition, the Civil War, women’s rights, civil rights, and the impact of technological innovations such as radio, television, and the Internet.

General Overviews

Ahlstrom 2004 offers a comprehensive overview of the history of American religion and of the role of the sermon, making it a fine starting point for both the undergraduate and the more advanced scholar. The essays in Holland 1969 offer the specialist a more specific focus on the sermon at various points in American history. Because of the tremendous influence of Pilgrim and Puritan theology, much of the work of understanding even contemporary American sermons begins with understanding the colonial era, its theology, social beliefs, and sermon form and style. Miller 1953–1954 was formative for appreciating the colonial sermon as both a literary genre and the most important genre of its place and time. Miller’s work has remained relevant, even vital, for later scholars’ works, such as Hatch 1989 or Bercovitch 2012, which make their cases about the 19th and 20th century against the backdrop of colonial practices. Increasingly, however, American sermonology has emerged as more diverse than Pilgrims and Puritans. Davis 1978 focuses on the importance of the sermon in the Southern colonies, arguing for its great diversity and vitality, while Mountford 2003 discusses the use of sermons in American literature, and the essays in Teulié and Lux-Sterritt 2009 discuss the interrelationship of sermons and war in American history.

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. 2d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    Originally appearing in 1972, Ahlstrom’s work is tremendously important as an overview and is an excellent resource for understanding the development of American popular religion, from its origins through the 20th century.

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

    Bercovitch builds upon and critiques Perry Miller’s view of the jeremiad, a sermon chastising the people for their sins and calling them to repentance. Bercovitch connects the use of jeremiad to the conception of America’s mission in the world in the writers Winthrop, Emerson, Melville, Twain, and many others. This work has been important since its first publication in 1978.

  • Davis, Richard Beale. Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585–1763. 3 vols. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978.

    Volume 1 has a general introduction of value, but still more significant is the second volume’s chapter 6, “The Sermon and the Religious Tract.” This chapter, occupying one hundred pages, charts the development of sermonic form, delivery, and publication throughout the colonial history of the South.

  • Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

    Hatch’s influential work argues for the increasing pluralism of American Christianity. For the study of sermons, the most valuable section is the third, “Audience,” discussing camp meetings, circuit riders, and figures such as Lorenzo Dow. The section contains a useful discussion of the rise of vernacular preaching in American Christianity.

  • Holland, Dewitte, ed. Preaching in American History: Selected Issues in the American Pulpit, 1630–1967. New York: Abingdon, 1969.

    This is a collection of academic essays that is unusually consistent in approach and treatment, stemming from editorial guidelines requiring definition, description, analysis of sermons, and interpretation of implications. The result is an exceptionally useful book covering the entire history of American sermonology.

  • Miller, Perry. The New England Mind. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953–1954.

    Miller’s work (first published in 1939) looms large in the study of American sermonology. While focusing on the colonial era in these two volumes, separately titled The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century and The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, Miller’s work has implications for understanding sermonology in any era in American literature. It is essential on the subject of American sermons. His work has been criticized by Bercovitch 2012 and is routinely referred to by scholars generally.

  • Mountford, Roxanne. The Gendered Pulpit: Preaching in American Protestant Spaces. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.

    Mountford discusses the role of sermons in American novels such as Melville’s Moby-Dick, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, with specific reference to the “gendered” pulpit—that is, the distinctive ways that males and females use the pulpit to create social identities. Although the book does discuss some 19th-century figures such as Austin Phelps, it does not provide a chronological survey; the last three chapters discuss contemporary sermonology.

  • Teulié, Gilles, and Laurence Lux-Sterritt, eds. War Sermons. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2009.

    This book features four chapters discussing American war sermons: Rémy Duthille’s article discussing British sermons against the Revolutionary War (pp. 130–148); discussions of Civil War–era sermons by Massimo Rubboli (pp. 149–172) and Marie Beauchamp-Sow (pp. 173–187); and Anne Debray’s analysis of Catholic sermons during the war in Iraq (pp. 243–260). The volume has a substantive introduction discussing the concept of the “just war” and its application throughout historical sermonology.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.