Henson’s sermons

Julia Stapleton and Philip Williamson

Henson was a popular and prolific preacher, much influenced by the famous nineteenth-century preacher ‘Robertson of Brighton’.[1] He devoted himself to the revival of the pulpit within the Church following what he perceived as a marked shift of clerical attention away from preaching. He attributed this to a number of factors, including the Oxford movement and ritualism, with its ‘depreciation’ of the sermon as a Protestant practice; the increase of parochial duties, in his view not always necessary; and the rise of religious publishing, seeming to offer greater rewards on the investment of clerical time.[2] He defined his own influence as a clergyman by his ‘ministry of preaching’.[3] He took great pains with his sermons, which he composed on carefully considered principles. Except when it was difficult to ignore ‘extraordinary events’ or pressing Church issues, he preferred to avoid allusions to contemporary occurrences. He usually took the scriptural text on which the sermons was based from the Old and New Testament lessons that were appointed for each day in the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer. He considered the exposition of the Bible to be ‘a primary duty of the ordained minister of the Word’, although the ‘general character’ of his preaching was ‘ethical rather than theological’. Throughout most of his career, he wrote out his full sermon or at least the most important passages before delivery.[4] On the occasions when he felt obliged to preach extemporaneously, he was acutely discomfited.[5] This seems to have been the preferred mode of preaching in Hereford when he became bishop of the diocese, but to which he was never reconciled, even though his time for preparing sermons was now limited.[6] In composing his sermons, he prided himself on the inspiration he drew from across denominational divides, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Nonconformist.[7] His style of delivery was austere, with the focus very much on the quality and clarity of the exposition and the argument:

Bishop Henson had no orator’s tricks. He stood in the pulpit with no other movement than occasionally fingering his glasses. His voice had considerable carrying power but could not really be called pleasing. Anything which might distract the attention of his audience, even for a moment, annoyed him intensely… Though he had learning and brilliant gifts he never preached to exhibit either. His ideal was a pastoral ministry and he continually sought to impress this upon his clergy.[8]

To a greater extent than any of his contemporaries, Henson was often concerned to disseminate his sermons beyond the pulpit. He published some in the serial publications which he controlled in his successive positions: The St Margaret’s Parish Magazine, The Hereford Diocesan Messenger and, in Durham, The Bishoprick. He collected some sermons in editions, as well as those he published selectively in pamphlet form; in some cases, the body he had been invited to address arranged the publication.[9] At Westminster, especially, he also handed the text of his sermons to waiting reporters, or took them to newspaper offices nearby if no reporters were present. Some appeared, or were reported, in national or local newspapers. Others were published in the religious press, for example, Christian World Pulpit, Christian Family Newspaper, and the Church newspaper The Guardian, although in these he competed for space with many other clergymen – both within and outside the Church of England, depending on the newspaper.[10]

Nevertheless, of his voluminous output of sermons (well over a thousand), only a small fraction survives. Many remained unpublished – from which he drew the sermons he repeated[11] – and it is likely that a substantial number published in newspapers or as pamphlets have not been found. Accordingly, the list of published sermons given in the attached sheets makes no claims to completeness, although it will lengthen as further research is conducted.

Details of the biblical text(s) which he used as the prompts for his sermons are given in most cases (in the standardised style used in this edition). These indicate the extent of Henson’s scriptural range, and enable two sermons with the same title to be distinguished. Other details include the venue and occasion of the sermon, together with the congregation or society to whom it was preached, illustrating his widespread influence.

Where sermons delivered on a particular day are known to have been published in more than one place, the details of these separate publications are gathered into one entry. Where sermons preached on different dates have the same title with the same biblical text, this suggests some re-usage. But it is not assumed that these are identical, and it is useful to see how Henson occasionally returned to the same material.

See the growing list of sermons compiled by Hilary Ingram.

This includes all Henson’s sermons published in full that have been traced; it excludes reports of his sermons published in newspapers.

[1] Frederick William Robertson (1816-53; ODNB) was a Church of England clergyman and outstanding preacher; his sermons as the incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, from 1847 to his death drew large crowds from across the social spectrum. On the centenary of Robertson’s birth in 1916 Henson gave a public lecture in Brighton, published as Robertson of Brighton, 1816-1853 (1916); in 1926, he preached on Robertson again to mark the centenary of Holy Trinity Church, Brighton: ‘Robertson of Brighton’, in Church and parson in England (1927). He expressed his indebtedness to, and strong sense of affinity with Robertson in Retrospect, I, 133, 192.
[2] Henson, Apostolic christianity (1898), pp. x-xii.
[3] Retrospect, I, 189.
[4] Retrospect, I, 133-4; C. J. Stranks, introduction to Herbert Hensley Henson, Theology and life (London, 1957), 7-8.
[5] Journal, 29 Sep. 1912.
[6] Journal, 21 Apr. 1918; 26 May 1918; 20 Oct. 1918; 16 Apr. 1919.
[6] Journal, 21 Apr. 1918; 26 May 1918; 9 June 1918
[7] Henson, ‘An appeal for unity’ (1901), in Godly union and concord: sermons preached mainly in Westminster Abbey in the interest of Christian fraternity (1902), 139-40.
[8] Stranks, in Theology and life, p. 9. Warden Anson of All Souls had given Henson three pieces of advice about public speaking at the outset of his career: to stand still, stand straight, and take his hands out of his pockets – Journal, 30 June 1886.
[9] See introduction on this website to ‘Henson’s books and pamphlets’.
[10] He assured one prospective publisher that his sermons were not published in newspapers on a regular basis: Henson to William Dawson & Sons Ltd, 8 Mar. 1911, NLS, MSS 355/79.
[11] See, for example, Journal, 1 Sep. 1918, 15 Sep. 1918, and 13 Oct. 1918.