THE Sunday chapel services, when I was a boy in a preparatory school not far from New York, were conducted by a succession of visiting clergymen. There must have been around a hundred of them whom we heard from year to year, varying widely in age and eminence, some of them known to us from previous appearances. One was a bishop who came annually, and we were impressed by the fact that he wore a draft cap and brought his own Bible, accompanied by a junior cleric who carried it for him. This was distinctly out of the ordinary, and anything out of the ordinary in the 5 P.M. Sunday service was remarked with the liveliest interest by all of us. The small chapel had only a center aisle, dividing the school into two sections which sat facing each other across it, an arrangement which gave each half a full view of how the other was reacting, especially to anything at all out of the ordinary.
It was well understood among us, from unmistakable experience, that most of the visitors were giving us what we called their “road sermon” — the tested showpiece, the all purpose harangue, the magnum opus of their repertory. With this in itself we had no quarrel. If the subject matter was not always attuned to our condition, these men were nevertheless offering the very best they had. We became connoisseurs of oratorical techniques: the flashing gesture, the lowering of the voice to a dramatic whisper and the sudden clinching of the point in a full-power, triumphant shout that would have echoed, in those unamplified days, to the topmost gallery of Madison Square Garden. Almost any boy in the school could raise a stern forefinger, in his small talk, and, gesticulating and counting with the fingers on his left hand, declare, “There are five points on which I beseech you to take thought. One . . .” One of our visitors kept punctuating his remarks with the words “roughly speaking,” and this became the standard preface, with suitable horseplay, in all conversations among us for months.
The great risk, of course, in the road sermon is the possibility that the visitor may spring it inadvertently a second time on the same audience in a later engagement. There were remarkably few repeaters of this sort, and one supposes that a simple card file of subjects and engagements protected almost all our visitors from any such folly. But the handful who did return the next year with identical language, who found sudden inspiration in precisely the same phrase that had inspired them on previous occasions, whose power-note rose and fell in exactly the same cadence as before— these were quite marvelously out of the ordinary. They were all memorable for some outstanding quirk in the first place, and it would be hard to exaggerate the sense of delight transmitted from one group of boys to the other across the center aisle, as the realization grew that we were about to get a letter-perfect repetition, complete with gestures, of last year’s sermon.
Of all the repeaters, the most egregious was a hoarse-voiced divine whose line of argument, whatever it may have been, was lost altogether in oratory and histrionics of a truly spectacular order. Quite the loudest ever addressed to us — a hundredodd boys in an extremely small chapel — his output was also by far the most ornate, and in each of the identical sermons which he delivered in two successive years there occurred an unforgettable sentence. Beginning in harsh, tense, low tones and exploding into a bellow with the final two concluding words, the sentence was: “It well-nigh makes my buhlood TO BOIL!!”
The first sermon alone was sufficient to establish the line in the common parlance of the school. Its reception when it was heard again — in full vigor and intact — the following year was even more favorable. It became part of all negative statements and complaints. “ Holden gave me five marks for being late to breakfast,” a boy would say and then, striking an attitude: “It wellnigh makes my buh-lood TO BOIL!”
I cannot believe that this same cleric is still making himself heard, some decades later, but sermons astonishingly close to his, in style and content, freight the air waves every Sunday morning, and the listeners in the neighborhood of Boston, and presumably almost anywhere else, are offered a half dozen at a time. Many are “transcribed,” which can mean, one suspects, that the “little church” from which the tirade originates is in fact Studio 4 in some radio station, and that the hymns in which an accomplished choir raises its voices from time to time are good library properties supplied by the studio engineer. The effect is nonetheless nostalgic, for these speakers are hoarse-voiced and angry, and they sound like men whose blood is permanently close to the boil. They confront all too dark a world, sometimes in sorrow, more often in wrath.
One of them was lamenting recently the plight, though he never did say what it was, of “the men in the armed forces throughout the land — lone, homesick, [dropping to his low register] heartsick!” The listeners — men and women alike — fare no better than the armed forces, and a speaker will work himself into a towering studio rage over what “you men” and “you women” are up to. The indictments against the male listener, flung at him in the second-person approach, cover just about everything in the course of a week or two. As to the women — you women — they give themselves to nothing but bridge and canasta and to gossiping over the telephone, although one of the louder Sunday morning sermons of recent weeks disclosed what the speaker seemed to feel was a new culpability of theirs, hitherto unperceived. It was the whole apparatus of fashion, cosmetics, jewelry, and luxury that so incensed him. Why, why indeed, he demanded rhetorically, why should women “seek to deck themselves out” as they do? The answer, and a mighty poor reason he considered it, was: “They are hoping merely to at-tuh-ract the attention of SOME MAN!”
The world seems to have worsened steadily since I was a schoolboy. But some of the preachers are just as good as ever.