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a. an address of religious instruction or exhortation, often based on a passage from the Bible, esp one delivered during a church service
b. a written version of such an address



an oratorical type of didactic work presenting ethical demands (usually with religious coloring) and compelling the listener to emotionally accept these demands.

Initially, the sermon was a product of the great spiritual movements of the ninth to fifth centuries B.C. These movements permeated the cultures of Europe and Asia—Buddhism and Jainism in India, Zoroastrianism in Iran, the prophets in Israel, the Orphic and Ionian philosophies and Pythagoreanism in Greece, and Confucius and Lao-Tzu in China. This was a period when the automatic nature of clan consciousness so weakened for the first time that it became possible for man to conceive of his position in life from a theoretical point of view. All the movements created their own particular type of sermon. The speeches of the prophets in the Old Testament, for example, differ from those of Zarathustra in the Avesta, from Buddhist literature, and from the sermonizing tones of Heraclitus and Empedocles.

Christianity borrowed the preaching techniques of the late Greco-Roman moralists, such as Seneca and Epictetus, as well as of the Eastern, primarily Jewish, religious propagandists. During the fourth century the genre of the church sermon came of age, ornamented by Hellenistic tradition. (It is characteristic that ecclesiastical usage adopted the late Greco-Roman philosophical term “homily.”) Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa were church orators in the classical vein. At the turn of the fifth century, Greek ecclesiastical oratory reached its highest point in John Chrysostom (born between 344 and 354; died 407), who revived the Demosthenian vigor on a new basis.

The foundations of church preaching in the West owed much to Cicero, as can be seen in the sermons of Ambrose of Milan (333 or 340–397) and St. Augustine (354–430). The theoretical principles of Christian preaching were formulated for the first time in the fourth book of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. Throughout the Middle Ages the sermon remained one of the central genres. It functioned as a standard for other forms—all medieval religious literature is preaching to one degree or another. Beginning with Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), motifs of an intimate self-absorption permeated Western sermons. This tendency had increased by the 13th century, the period of Francis of Assisi (died 1226) and Anthony of Padua (died 1231).

The Reformation provided powerful stimuli for the development of the sermon. Luther proclaimed that the sermon was the center of church life, placing it on a higher plane than liturgy. During the 17th century in France the general cultural upswing and the need to polemicize against the Huguenots and freethinkers brought about the flourishing of a refined, literary kind of sermon, employing the stylistic potentials of the baroque (for example, J. B. Bossuet and L. Bourdaloue). Old Russian literature contributed such masters of the sermon as Metropolitan Ilarion, Kirill Turovskii, Serapion Vladimirskii, and subsequently Metropolitan Daniil. Russian ecclesiastical orators of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Feofan Prokopovich, Stefan lavorskii, and Platon Levshin, achieved a synthesis of the preaching traditions prior to Peter I and the techniques of the baroque sermon.


Barsov, N. I. Istoriia pervobytnoi khristianskoi propovedi St. Petersburg, 1885.
Barsov, N. I. Ocherki po istorii khristianskoi propovedi. Issue 3: Predstaviteli oratorsko-prakticheskogo tipa propovedi v IV v. na Vostoke. Kharkov, 1895.
Likhachev, D. S. Poetika drevnerusskoi literatury, 2nd ed. 1971.
Norden, E. Agnostos theos: Untersuchungen zur Formengeschichte religiöser Rede. Leipzig, 1929.