Sermon Gadding

In the 1600s and 1700s in England, a number of writers and preachers complained vociferously about the terrible practice of “sermon gadding,” and the problems it was causing their parish churches. Parishioners must stay in their own parishes! This business of going about and visiting different churches, or leaving one’s assigned parish to hear a minister reputed to have entertaining sermons was disruptive, disrespectful, and a threat to public order!

I can see a number of clergy alternating between shaking their heads at the folly and musing about the “good old days.”

Although England was relatively tolerant compared to everywhere but Holland (and even Holland had limits), England had and has an Established Church. The monarch is the head of the Church of England* and everyone is a member of the Church of England unless one takes steps to do otherwise. Tax money supports the Church. Before the late 1800s, unless you were a member in good standing, you could not attend Oxford or Cambridge, you could not get a government job, you could not own real property, and you suffered other legal disabilities. This is why the universities in Scotland taught everything but theology, just about, and used a different sort of education system. If you wanted a government (and that included Church) job, you went to Ox-bridge. If you wanted to study medicine or engineering, or you were not C of E, you went to Scotland or Europe.

Even when the Dissenters were in control, 1649-1660 or so, you went to your assigned parish church. Being a clergyman in the C of E was a government job, and you were not “graded” on the quality of your ministry unless you really, really fell from grace. Unlike the Dissenters (Presbyterian, Quakers, Baptists), the spoken word was not the central point of worship, and preaching sometimes showed it. But members of the parish were supposed to ignore that and attend their assigned parish. In rural areas where distances were relatively great between churches, that was generally what happened. In the cities, however…

Some people started “sermon gadding.” Word would get around that the priest at, oh, St. Mary le Bow happened to be especially good, and people would leave their parishes and go listen for themselves. Consider that sermons served as much as entertainment as education and spiritual edification, and you can see how this might start. Other people went from parish to parish, listening to the different ministers and critiquing their performance. This sort of thing was Not Done, according to some ministers, and they thundered from the pulpit and in print about the evils of sermon gadding and disloyalty to one’s assigned parish.

As you can imagine, the very fact that the topic came up over and over for several decades suggests that people voted with their feet.

This was especially true among Dissenting chapels, because a three-hour sermon had better be good. If it did not meet people’s standards for quality, they’d wander off and visit a different chapel. In places where comparison was not possible, it didn’t matter so much, but most Dissenters knew what was supposed to be in a quality sermon. In London, or other big cities where you had multiple options, sermon gadding ensued.

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4 thoughts on “Sermon Gadding

    • I don’t know, if the preacher is preaching different than your beliefs, then I think you probably should switch. I know when I moved here I tried church I liked, but when the pastor died and they brought in another one whom I neither liked nor agreed with; I tried several other churches until I found one I agreed with the teachings of and liked.

  1. Shocking! Let people wander off to preachers they like to hear, and who knows what chaos might ensue? They might even start buying books that haven’t been approved by the self-anointed gatekeepers.

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