Feb 16, 2010

Dr. Graves’ book gives insight to impromptu preaching

by Betsy Abraham

Communication professor Dr. Michael Graves has authored a book that takes a look at the impromptu preaching styles among Quakers during the end of the 17th century.

Graves published his book, “Preaching the Inward Light,” in November 2009 with Baylor University Press for a new religion and rhetoric series the publishing company was developing. The book seeks to counter the idea that Quakers were silent, theological liberals during the end of the 17th century. According to Graves, Quakers were both vocal and very conservative.

“They wouldn’t have called themselves evangelical, because nobody used that term. They met on the basis of silence, but were rarely silent. They had a vibrant impromptu preaching tradition so that people would come to the meeting and if the spirit moved them, they would stand and speak,” Graves said.

Graves wrote the book for a scholarly audience interested in Quaker history, the history and theory of preaching and rhetoric and the development of the study of rhetoric. The book covers four sermons in detail, including one of them by William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania and was an important political figure at the time.

Graves, a Quaker himself, first became interested in 17th century impromptu preaching after he started reading the journal of Quaker Founder George Fox. When Graves entered a graduate program, he started research papers on the Quakers’ written documents and began to wonder if any of the Quakers’ oral sermons had been preserved. As he entered into his doctoral program, he decided to choose Quaker sermons as his dissertation topic.

“This book (published in Nov.) is at least three decades old, it began as my doctoral dissertation and that is still the core of the book, but all of that has been revised and expanded,” Graves said.

His research began with discovering sermons in libraries located in Philadelphia and England. Graves was not sure what to expect and was surprised to find that he found so many sermons.

“I didn’t know that these sermons existed. Nobody ever mentioned them,” Graves said. “The subject was not looked at and nobody ever collected the sermons or tried to study them.”

During his research, he faced the obstacle of discovering the different types of terminology used by the Quakers of the 17th century and how they listed content.

“Once I figured out the vocabulary it became easier,” Graves said. “I discovered that Quaker libraries don’t necessarily catalogue sermons under ‘sermons’ or preaching under ‘preaching’. They use other terms like exhortations or similar sorts of language. If I just looked for sermons or preaching, I wouldn’t find very many, so I had to find alternate names, and suddenly I found out that they were sermons.”

Graves was able to find 79 sermons but then faced the difficult part — finishing the book. Other responsibilities, including teaching, often interrupted the writing process.

“It was a great expenditure of labor and time and energy. There’s only so much time you can devote to something like this,” Graves said.

Even though the project took more than 30 years, Graves said he is glad to have finally published the book. It was a life work that taught him a lot, he said.

“When you’re dealing with this type of research, it’s both intellectually stimulating but it also feeds the soul. Here are people who delivered these sermons in the 17th century and their words still speak to you today. That’s the benefit to doing any kind of theologically-centered study,” Graves said.

Graves hopes the book reveals a lot about Quakers and their impromptu preaching tradition.

“I hope readers have a rearrangement of their understanding about Quakers,” Graves said. “Secondly, I hope that they have an appreciation for what it took these people to decide that they weren’t going to allow prepared sermons.”

Contact Betsy Abraham at

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