Taken from the British Monthly, December, 1903.
Written by Claudius Clear
The minister of a leading church delivered a sermon not his own, and was detected. He was popular with his congregation, and some of them defend him in an eccentric way. Thus a leading member says, “As long as he gives us such sermons as that we do not care where he gets them.” Another member speaks of “our able, and we might well say ‘inspired, pastor.’ The preacher himself explains that he has an extraordinary memory, and that when he gave the sermon he was persuaded that he had composed it himself.
He confesses himself “technically to blame,” and affirms that “in a broad way he is not,” because of his mysterious memory. It turns out, however, that in former years he did the same thing –repeated as his own a discourse by Lyman Abbott. The upshot will probably be that the majority of his congregation will sustain him. But the incident will be remembered against him to the last,and whenever he says something unusually good people will wonder where he found it.
There are doubtless some difficulties about the whole question of plagiarism. The charge is sometimes brought with reckless cruelty and injustice. It is quite possible unconsciously to use sentences and phrases that are not one’s own. They linger in the mind, and are not transformed in the period of habitation, as such things usually are. Again and again honest men have preached and printed without quotation marks sentences, and perhaps even paragraphs, which they owe to another, but which they believe belong to themselves.
More often the mind, working upon the materials with which memory supplies it, brings them out in another form, and then all is well. Again, it is difficult to say whether it may not be legitimate to use outlines. I think it is, if the filling up is the preachers own. An ordinary man may, and should, owe much to his reading; but if he has exerted himself in putting the results of that reading into his own style, there is no fault to find. It is in this way that original minds help others which are not original. The very worst preachers one has ever heard could never be accused of plagiarism, for the simple reason that all they said was common property and not worth saying again. Let the preacher read carefully, and apply his mind to the results of his reading, and there will be no trouble.
Generally speaking, a preacher should be as original as a writer. A student of leading articles will see that the weaker derive much from the stronger; but so long as a man may fearlessly put his work in print, he is not to be accused of plagiarism. I will add that those who may detect the young preacher using too much the labours of others will be wise if they hold their tongues. It is very conceivable that, without any conscious dishonesty, the young man may be following too slavishly a model he extravagantly admires. Perhaps it might be friendly to give a gentle hint” and if ever there is justification for anonymous letter writing it is in such a case; but to carry the discovery out into the streets, and thereby put a certain indelible mark on a whole career, is cruel and wicked. Yet I have known it done. I have known the discoverer rub his hands with glee and gloat over the sufferings of his victim.
Those who are tempted to plagiarism should not, perhaps, read much in modern sermons. The sermons that suit the fashion and temper of the hour are seductive to the mind that aspires after originality without the power of attaining it. Thus Phillips Brooks’s sermons have been the undoing of some preachers. They appeal so emphatically to the temper of the hour, alike in their affirmations and their silences; they seem so simple,so natural,and so clear, while yet they follow a path of their own, and are full of surprises of the best kind, that it is hard not to covet them.
On the other hand, from very old writers it is impossible to plagiarise, no matter how extensively they may be employed. So it is good counsel for the young preacher to read great old books of divinity. He will never put the thoughts he finds there into the words of the writer. The mere process of translation makes these thoughts his own. Thus one has made many sermons out of James Hervey’s “Theron and Aspasio.” The keeping of a book for extracts and illustrations, which may be woven into a sermon afterwards, is also perfectly legitimate. There are very few original minds, very few that can kindle their own fires, and there is a vital difference between the plagiarist and the man who is plainly indebted at every turn to the suggestions of others.
The practice of plagiarism is more extensive than may generally be supposed. I have known a canon of the Church of England preach in a great cathedral a sermon written and published by a famous Nonconformist. The sermon was reported, and got into print, and it was through the intervention of the author that the fraud was not exposed. The audacity with which some preachers in prominent pulpits reproduce the most startling and unforgettable thoughts and expressions of other preachers is truly astounding. In one case out of a thousand the matter comes to light. In many cases the thief is detected, but nothing is said in public. Very often there is no discovery.
But even when exposure does not come, there is a moral injury inflicted on the nature that stoops habitually to unworthiness.
Says an American writer: “There are three villanies of actual plagiarism –yea, four: the plagiarist is a living lie; the people are imposed upon; honest men are kept down by plagiarists who are preferred before them; and the man from whom the plagiarist steals, should he repeat his sermon later, is liable to be charged with plagiarizing his own work from the thief.”
A minister in New England used to preach very ordinary sermons, but once every two months or so he would deliver discourses of astonishing power. People used to wait for his great times, and he told them that when he was absorbed by a high theme, it was with him day and night till it culminated, when he preached upon it. During the period of spiritual incubation he had to do the best he could with such themes as he took up from week to week. This was accepted as truth. When the man came to die, an awful darkness was upon his mind. He said that he had lived a hypocritical life; he had stolen the sermons which had brought him so much fame. “I found an old English book that nobody seemed ever to have heard of, and in a time of weakness I committed one of the discourses to memory and preached it. The effect was so great that I seemed to be dragged on to preach another. I made myself believe that I was telling a half-truth when I told the people that I was possessed of a great theme, and it took several weeks to think it out. It did take me that length of time to commit these great sermons to memory. But this was blameworthy self-deception; I cannot die in peace unless you will promise to say at my funeral service that at last I saw myself as I was.” Dr. Buckley, of the Christian Advocate, tells us that at his funeral the circumstances were briefly and sadly stated.
Let every preacher remember that he is far more effective in delivering his own matter, the matter he has got by hard study and by the experience of life, than by delivering sermons which do not fit him.
No doubt an effect may be produced by reading or reciting what has been stolen from others, but it is not the right effect. There is a standing incongruity between the man and his matter. A sermon is strong in proportion as it is the living expression of a true soul. In writing about pulpit plagiarism there is always a danger of being uncharitable, and a very real danger of discouraging the wise and diligent use of books. It may be a far greater sin to take no pains in preparation than to use somewhat too easily the work of other men.
But the preacher, in the end, will be morally and spiritually influential in proportion to his own moral and spiritual health, and the unsophisticated conscience protests in unmistakable voice against pretension and robbery.
I am, sir,yours, etc.,