Did you know that James Murray… was a prolific preacher of sermons?
2015 marks the centenary of the death of James Murray, the first Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Murray’s work as a lexicographer is well known, but there was a great deal more to him than lexicography. We are therefore marking the anniversary with an occasional series of articles highlighting other aspects of his life and achievements.
Throughout his life Murray was a devout member of the Congregational Church: not only devout, but also very active. Already in his teens he was a Sunday school teacher in his home town of Denholm, and he was soon also giving addresses and sermons. After he took up a teaching post at Mill Hill School—a well-known school for the sons of Nonconformists—in 1870, he gave many sermons in the school chapel. Former Mill Hill boys recalled the vividness of his preaching and reading; one recalled his reading of the biblical passage about the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (which was in fact one of his favourite readings: ‘I never tire of reading it’, he later said). ‘How he scorched them. Why, I am sure many boys of that period felt convinced that Elijah sure had a red beard and wore a scarlet hood.’
In Oxford Murray became a prominent member of the Congregational Church (now demolished) in George Street; he was made a deacon there, and his preaching continued. Sometimes he would even conduct services in the absence of the minister. The manuscript texts of a dozen of his sermons are preserved in the OED’s archives; it is clear from a glance through these that he could be an enthralling preacher. Here, from one of these sermons, is his description of that great confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal:
Carmel is reached, & there is the expectant multitude. The King & the Court are there—lords spiritual & temporal—priests & princes—and yonder is the strange wild man who predicted these days of dire dismay. See how fearless he moves before that courtly throng, see how the king himself and the priests of Baal quail their glances before his flashing eye! The spirit of the Lord is upon him to-day, he feels it—they feel it—he is master today. See he is about to speak—hush! let silence sink on that serried crowd—hear him as in tones in which earnestness, pleading & indignation meet “How long do ye remain halting between two opinions: if Jehovah be God, follow him: but if Baal follow him!
In another sermon which he preached in the Lake District, he took the opening of Psalm 121 (‘I will lift up mine eyes to the hills…’) as his text, and, ever the teacher, waxed lyrical about the geology of one particular peak he had climbed:
The geologist tells me that I stand on the oldest monument of the region, that that basalt is the congealed core of the ancient volcano from whose throat were ejected the materials of all the mountains around; that from its lavas & its ashes stratified at the bottom of a far past sea were formed the Borrowdale slates which compose Great Gable & Scawfell.
Here, too, his favourite prophet makes a rather unexpected appearance:
I suspect if Elijah had happened to flee to Skiddaw instead of Mt Horeb, he would have been discovered by some kind brother, and received a hint that his help would be most acceptable to supply the pulpit one Sunday!
One final extract, from a sermon preached as one particular year (it is not clear which) came to an end, provides a reminder of his strong sense of divine vocation, which sustained him through his many years of work on the OED, a task which he sincerely believed was his God-given task:
May then the fact that another year has gone, teach us, one and all, so to number our days as to apply our hearts unto knowledge. We have all a life-work to accomplish—a great and solemn duty to be crowded into the years of this earthly existence. Of that great duty a portion, a division, an important share, fell to be done during the past year. Has it been done? God gave us no time to waste, no moment to pass unhonoured, unimproved.