George Swinnock on Printing Sermons

This past summer a friend of mine, Stephen Yuille, who is finishing a PhD thesis on the thought of the Puritan George Swinnock (1627-1673), introduced me to the work of this Puritan leader. I really knew little about Swinnock beyond the fact that he was an English Puritan. I relished the thought of learning more about Swinnock since I am always delighted to make the acquaintance of a fellow-traveler on the way to the heavenly kingdom. Of course, in Swinnock’s case he has already arrived! Swinnock’s piety and thinking is well encapsulated in one key thought: his passionate commitment to living life in the fear of God [Stephen Yuille, “The whole duty of man”: The fear of God in the spirituality of George Swinnock”, Eusebeia, 2 (Spring 2004), 43]. In Yuille’s thesis on Swinnock, I came across an intriguing text that fits well with the bookish theme of my last two posts. In his The Christian Man’s Calling [The Works of George Swinnock, M.A. (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1868), I, 57], Swinnock offers this fascinating observation about why “ministers are often more exact in their printing than in their preaching”:

“ print, in a sense, for eternity. Sermons preached, or men’s words, pass away with many like wind—how soon are they buried in the grave of oblivion! but sermons printed are men’s works, live when they are dead, and become an image of eternity: ‘This shall be written for the generation to come.’ ”

Having just preached three times this Lord’s day I sense something of the truth of Swinnock’s observation.

When one compares, for instance, the printed corpus that we have of the sermons of George Whitefield (1714-1770)—pitifully few compared to the stream of preached speech that poured forth from his anointed lips—with that of the New England preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)—a truly massive amount of sermonic text—one can but confess the rectitude of Swinnock’s remarks.