Reverend John Camm’s message to his 18th-century flock bears surprising relevance for today. Historic Interpreter Stephen Moore shares some delightful tidbits from his program, “A Sermon for the Season.”
Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today Christmas is a celebration anchored by the table, the tree and the church. Historians on this program have taught us that an 18th-century Christmas was a more austere affair, centered on the sermon. What did those early ministers preach to the faithful?
Our guest today knows exactly what you would have heard when you went to church on Christmas Day in colonial America. Joining us now is Stephen Moore, who portrays the Reverend John Camm in the Colonial Williamsburg program "A Sermon for the Season." Stephen, thank you for being here today.
Stephen: Thank you for inviting me.
Harmony: Well we don’t usually think of hearing a church sermon as something that’s fun, or playful or a treat, but I think that this sermon, hearing the actual words from the 18th century and the message in it is so kind of surprising and really delightful. I’m so glad to have you here on the show today to talk about this sermon that was preached in the 18th century. Tell us a little bit about the program and what people are going to hear when they come see it.
Stephen: Well the program is called "A Sermon for the Season," and it basically outlines what the 18th-century religious mind would view as what you should do during the Christmas season. Now, this changed from colony to colony. Up in Massachusetts at times, the Christmas observance was outlawed. It was against the law. And there’s a heavy Presbyterian presence in the colonies, and the Presbyterians were staunch Calvinists at this time, who believe that Christmas was just like any other day. You shouldn’t observe it. You shouldn't make a big thing out of it.
But the Anglican Church and their sermons tended to express a different idea. Not that you should go out and dance and sing and drink and play cards, but that you should observe the Christmas season, that it was a special day. The sermon has some interesting views on that aspect of why we should observe it and how we should observe it. This sermon is by a great preacher of the 18th century. He began what was called the Great Awakening. His name was the Reverend George Whitfield.
Harmony: He’s kind of a rock star among preachers.
Stephen: Oh, yes. He was the rock star of the 18th century. Women would swoon, they say, when he would say the word, “Mesopotamia.” That never worked for me, but it worked for him. And people, sometimes crowds of 10,000 -20,000 would come to hear him preach. And they say all could hear him from the front row all the way back to 20,000th person they could hear him. Which, before the age of microphones, is a phenomenal feat and he did it repeatedly day in and day out for most of his life.
Harmony: And his sermons were serialized. They were printed and circulated.
Stephen: Yes, well, he wasn’t going to print his sermons and one printer in London took shorthand of his sermons and printed 18 of them. When he saw them he was aghast because he said, “That’s not my sermon, that’s not what I said.” And so he took it upon himself to supervise the publication of 81 of his sermons and they’re easy to find. Actually they’re on the internet today. You can read all 81 of them if you have a mind to, but they’re good sermons. He was a great preacher.
Harmony: And they find their way all the way to Williamsburg. In the program that you present, "A Sermon for the Season," which is performed Mondays through December. You’re presenting it in character as John Camm who was a minister here in Williamsburg. Tell us a little bit about Camm and the sermon that he’s delivering.
Stephen: Well Reverend Mr. John Camm was president of the College of William & Mary. He started there under President William Dawson in 1749 as Professor of Divinity. In ’71, President Horrocks pleaded illness and went back to England with his wife and John Camm stepped into his position as acting president. Six months later, the Board of Visitors at the College appointed him the president and he was president of the College until 1777 when they asked him to step down because of his loyalist tendencies. He was a staunch loyalist and in a colony of patriots. It caused a bit of friction.
Harmony: I think that’s so fun to remember. We think of Williamsburg as a town of patriots, but there were loyalists, and prominent ones at that.
Stephen: And he was outspoken too. It’s amazing that he was also a good administrator, and a matter fact out of the nine colleges existing in colonial America, only one college ever had a full university faculty and that was the College of William & Mary under the administration of John Camm.
Stephen: And so after the Declaration was signed, he was still president of the College for a whole year even though he was one of the staunchest loyalists you could find in the colony. He was still president of the College, a whole year after the Declaration was signed. They didn’t want to lose him, but time goes on and you have to…you just can’t have a loyalist in that position with what was going on during the war and everything.
Harmony: Well we’ve danced around this sermon a bit. I’d like for you to share a couple excerpts of it with us. We want people, of course, to see the program and hear the whole sermon, but if you can share with us today just a couple excerpts, I think it would be a wonderful way to bring in the Christmas season.
Stephen: yes, it’s based on Matthew's Gospel Chapter 1 Verse 21 “And she shall bring forth a son and then shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins.” And upon that text he has addressed the issue of celebrating Christmas and addressing those who don’t celebrate Christmas. He speaks of all the things Christ has done for us and how he was born of a virgin and laid in a manger. Oxen were his companions, it says.But then he says, “After all this, why do some say we shouldn’t celebrate, after all he has given us?” It says, “Surely, this calls for some return of thanks on our part to our dear redeemer for his love and kindness to our souls. For it was love, mere love that brought the Lord Jesus Christ into our world about 1700 years ago. What, shall we not remember the birth of our Jesus? Shall we yearly celebrate the birth of our temporal king, and shall that of the king of kings be quite forgotten? God forbid.”
That says it all in a nutshell. Here we do, every time the king has a birth date we light up the windows of our houses in a grand illumination, fireworks go off, there’s dances and balls, and then when Christmas comes along they say, “Well, let’s not worry about Christmas.” And yet he, according to Whitfield, was the king of all kings and yet we just forget about him. And he says, “This is wrong, God forbid,” were his very words.
Harmony: Its perfect logic. How are we to observe the day?
Stephen: Well, he gives three parts to the sermon. Three things you shouldn’t do, and three things you should do. He starts with the things you shouldn’t do and I think Camm would agree with this. From my readings of Camm, he wasn’t a drinking man or a gaming man, things like that. He was pretty austere as preachers go, in the Anglican Church that is.
It says, “First, you do not celebrate this aright when you spend most of your time in cards, dice or gaming of any sort.” And this is very relevant, because when you talk to most people today, they wait for Christmas to roll around so they can watch all the football games. They go from church and turn that TV dial on because they want to see the football games. It’s still with us. Relevance is something that is very important to me in sermons that I do. Whenever I find a sermon I try to find relevance to our times and these are very relevant topics.
Another relevance is the huge dinners we have. Secondly, Whitefield says, “They cannot be said truly to celebrate this time who spend their time eating and drinking to excess.” And with the plague of obesity in America that’s a good idea.
And thirdly, “Nor can they, my brethren, be said to keep arightly observe this commemoration of the birth of our redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ who neglect their callings to follow pleasures and diversions.” In other words, he said, you know, it’s good to celebrate, it’s good to, you know, he’s not against pleasures and diversions, he’s not against gaming, he’s not against eating and drinking.
It’s just that, during Christmas, we tend to ignore our families, ignore our jobs, you know, instead of following our worldly callings and doing what we’re called to do by our creator. One of the 18th-century definitions of sin is to turn your back on what God created you to be. And he says when we turn our back on our worldly callings, our jobs, our business, our family, then we’re not celebrating this time aright.
So then he goes into saying, “How do we celebrate this time? He says, “Those that spend their time aright, and truly observe this festival are those who spend their hours in reading, praying and religious conversation.” I’d like to quote a longer quote for this because I think these are the words that I like best in the sermon. It says, “What can we do to employ our time to a more noble purpose than reading of what our dear redeemer has done and suffered? To read that the king of kings and the lord of lords came from his thrown and took upon him the form of the meanest of his servants and what great things he underwent. This, this is a history worth reading.”
And I love that line. If I could title the sermon it wouldn’t be "Sermon for the Season," it would be "A History Worth Reading," because that’s what we do here. We’re history here in Williamsburg, and when we mix history with religious history we begin to understand more of the conscience and the soul of these people who declared liberty.
Harmony: It really is such a pleasure to have you here on the show today and hear about the beliefs and the practices of the 18th century. And I think it’s a wonderful philosophy as you’ve said even for today. No matter what faith background you come from, it's such a nice, sound philosophy. I think anybody can appreciate it and enjoy it. It tells us so much about the 18th century and about today as well. Stephen, I hope so many people come out and catch your program "A Sermon for the Season." And again, if people want to find that program you can find it in the calendar link from history.org. Thank you so much for being our guest today.
Stephen: Well thank you so much for having me.
Harmony: And Merry Christmas.
Stephen: Merry Christmas to you.