Lewis as Preacher – A 75th Anniversary Reflection

2013 was the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death, but did you know that this year is the 75th anniversary of his first sermon? During his life he preached more than seven sermons. Most of them were adapted into articles and published in his lifetime. The following summarizes what is known.

Lewis’s debut as a preacher came on October 22, 1939. It was delivered at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. This and nearly all of his preaching later became available as an article published during his lifetime. In fact those present for his premier message actually received a copy of the sermon! At the time it was entitled “None Other Gods: Culture in War-Time.” However, it was reprinted as “The Christian in Danger” before the end of that year by the Student Christian Movement. This first message was so well liked that it even became a part of Famous English Sermons that was published the following year. Today it is found in The Weight of Glory and better known as “Learning in War-Time.”

Among the shorter works by Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” is many people’s most beloved essay. Some are unaware that it was first given behind the pulpit. Those who are mindful of this are amazed to learn it was only the second time he preached. The message was given at the same location as the first, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford on June 8, 1941.

Fifteen months later Lewis preached again, this time it was at the St. Jude on the Hill Church. “Miracles” was delivered on September 27, 1942. It was then published in St. Jude’s Gazette in their October, 1942 issue. A shorter essay version of the sermon was published in the October 2, 1942 issue of The Guardian. This message predates the book Miracles: A Preliminary Study. However, if you’ve read book then you know that the opening chapter from it and large portions of the 7th, 15th and 16th chapters are material from this sermon. The essay version is available in God in the Dock.

In 1944 Lewis gave a message that is known by those who heard it as one that he almost didn’t finish. “Transposition” was given on May 28th that year on the Feast of Pentecost at the Congregational Mansfield College chapel. Around the middle of the sermon Lewis paused, said “I’m sorry” and left the stage. He did return after those present sang a hymn and finished his message. Initially the essay version was the namesake piece in the U.K. in 1949 in Transposition and Other Addresses. In the U.S. that book was published as The Weight of Glory. Prior to his death an expanded version of this shorter work was published in They Asked for a Paper. These days you can located best in The Weight of Glory.

The next sermon Lewis gave was at St. Jude on the Hill Church in London. “The Grand Miracle” was preached on April 15, 1945 and published in The Guardian in their April 27th issue the same year. It’s no surprise when you consider the title that material from this sermon was adapted into the 1947 book Miracles that was mentioned in relation to the 1942 message. As the previous sermon was, the essay version is also available in God in the Dock.

Lewis stood behind the pulpit twice in 1946 and he delivered the same message both times. On March 31st he spoke at the Headington Quarry Church and then the following Sunday (on April 7th) he preached at St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton. At the second location it was the inaugural message in a series that continued with four more lay preachers. All those messages where then published the same year by St. Matthew’s Church in a book entitled Five Sermons by Laymen. In Lewis’s lifetime there was no title associated with his message, it was simply known as “Sermon.” We know it today as “Miserable Offenders,” because that is the title Walter Hooper gave it when he first published it with slight alterations in God in the Dock.

The last known message that Lewis preached occurred on January 29, 1956. It is the shortest of all his sermons and was given at chapel at Magdalene College. Before he died an abbreviated version was published in the January, 1963 issue of The Lion as “Thoughts of a Cambridge Don.” When posthumously reprinted in 1980’s The Weight of Glory as “A Slip of the Tongue” it was an expanded version.

While that is a decent amount of times for Lewis to have filled the pulpit, there are actually other occasions he took the role. According to Greg M. Anderson in “The Sermons of C.S. Lewis” found in the third volume of C. S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy there were at least four other times Lewis preached but the transcripts never survived. We actually have the dates for those messages (all in the 1940’s) and have some clues for two of them as to the topic.

The first was given on March 29, 1942 at the Headington Quarry Church where Lewis signed its registry gave the title as “Religion…” According to Anderson the most likely candidate is “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” an essay published the year before in World Dominion and reprinted in Christian Reflections.

The other is a message we know at least had “Forgiveness” in the title. It was given at the same church on April 4, 1943. As Anderson noted there are two possible pieces that could be connected with this sermon. The first is the fifth talk from the Christian Behaviour BBC series from October 18, 1942. It became the seventh chapter when published and is simply called “Forgiveness.” The other is an essay published after Lewis’s death known as “On Forgiveness” that is best found in the revised (1980) edition of The Weight of Glory). According to Walter Hooper it is a piece requested by Father Patrick Kevin Irwin and mailed to him on August 28, 1947. Lewis could have written the article prior to this year and so it’s within the realm of possibility that it contains at least some content from the 1943 message.

The final two times that we know Lewis preached were at Mansfield College and the Quarry Church according to Anderson. In February, 1944 he was at the former and March 9, 1947 for the latter. No other details are known about them.

Read more by William O’Flaherty at www.EssentialCSLewis.com