Sermons by Jane Austen’s Family

By Brenda S. Cox

“The first & most important of all considerations to a human Being is Religion, or the belief of a God & our consequent duty to him, our Neighbour, & ourselves”—Rev. George Austen, Memorandum to his son Francis Austen

Jane Austen’s father, George Austen, and two of her brothers, James and Henry Austen, were Church of England clergymen. They no doubt preached many sermons during their lifetimes.

Like other clergymen of their day, they probably sometimes read sermons written by other clergymen, or modified those sermons for their congregations. But they also wrote their own sermons, which they might preach repeatedly over the years.

It would be interesting if we had some of those sermons, in order to better understand the beliefs Austen was raised with. Unfortunately, I have only been able to track down one, a sermon by Henry. Let’s explore what we do have from each of these clergymen. (Sources are listed at end of post, if you want to read further.)

George Austen: A Letter and a List

Jane Austen’s father was apparently an orthodox, mainstream Anglican. He was rector of the parishes of Steventon and Deane, and served his parishioners conscientiously.

While we don’t have any of his sermons, we do still have a letter he wrote to his son Frank, which encourages Frank to be consistent in his duties to God, other people, and himself (see quote above), and to pray every morning and evening. 

We also know that George Austen reused sermons he wrote:

“George Austen, Jane’s father, preached the sermon he wrote on Psalm 5 fifteen times over the years: eight times at Steventon and seven times at Deane. He probably preached it when that Psalm was part of the day’s readings.”–Fashionable Goodness, chapter 11

Irene Collins says this sermon was the only one to survive George’s death, and that the dates in the margins showed when it was preached at each church. The text was “For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue”  (Psalm 5:9, KJV). I assume the sermon attacked lying and flattery; it does not sound like a text for a gentle or vague sermon! I have found no evidence that the sermon still exists. 

Jane Austen’s father, George Austen, was a conscientious clergyman who believed religion was the most important “consideration” for everyone.

“James Edward Austen-Leigh owned a sermon list including the texts (Bible passages) for 26 of George Austen’s sermons from the gospels and Acts (though we no longer have the sermons). Of those, 17 were marked with letters which seem to indicate they were adapted from other clergymen’s sermons.”–Fashionable Goodness, chapter 11

According to the list, James-Edward (George’s grandson) owned those sermons (which would contradict Irene Collins’s statement that only one survived George’s death), but the article says that now “there is no trace of the sermons themselves.” 

The Bible verses the sermons were based on are listed below. Their topics include repentance, forgiveness, mercy, following and obeying Jesus, loving others, choosing your soul rather than the world, and not coveting. One is from a passage on being born again, and two are on the end times and final judgment. We don’t know what George Austen said about these topics, but to me, these choices imply that he was preaching solid Christian messages.

James Austen: A Sermon Scrap and a Speech

James Austen served several churches and took over as rector of Steventon after his father’s death. We only have a sentence from one of his sermons:

“Jane Austen’s nephew preserved a scrap of paper where Jane wrote out a quote from one of her brother’s sermons, in 1814. James Austen said, “Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding,—certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force & meaning.”–Fashionable Goodness, ch. 9

Jane Austen’s House, which owns the scrap, explains that it was attached to a letter to one of Jane Austen’s fans (a clergyman). James-Edward Austen-Leigh, James Austen’s son, said the quote was from one of his father’s sermons.

Henry Crawford’s reading Shakespeare opens a conversation between Edmund and Henry on reading prayers and sermons, in Mansfield Park.

The post at Jane Austen’s House makes this connection:

“The scrap echoes a discussion in Mansfield Park, Chapter 34, on the ‘art of reading’ and its importance to the modern clergyman. Mansfield Park, an intensely serious novel in which religion serves a public/political interest, was published in May 1814.

“The scrap demonstrates the cross-fertilization between Jane Austen’s creative writing and the wider life of her family, raising the possibility that her novel inspired James’s sermon.  Certainly, topics of such high seriousness were under discussion among the Austens in 1814, as witnessed by Jane’s letter of 2 September, where she writes to Martha Lloyd that ‘I place my hope of better things on a claim to the protection of Heaven, as a Religious Nation, a Nation inspite of much Evil improving in Religion.’”

In the discussion in Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford discuss the reading of prayers and sermons in worship services. Edmund is concerned about how best to communicate truth, while Henry is concerned about how best to impress a congregation (which he thinks of as an audience).

I have not found any mentions of extant sermons by James Austen. However, a speech James made for the establishment of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in Basingstoke, August, 1813, is very interesting. In it, he supports the idea of distributing Bibles to those who can’t afford them, along with religious tracts explaining the Bible, from the Church of England’s perspective. (George Austen would likely have agreed. In his letter to Frank, he encouraged Frank to read from the Church of England Catechism and sermon extracts in Elegant Extracts to better understand religious truth.)

At that time, some supported the SPCK and some supported the Bible Society, seeing them as in competition. But James Austen called for unity, recommending that people support both organizations if they wished. He asked that both sides assume the best possible motives for those on the other side.

Jane’s first cousin, Edward Cooper, published seven volumes of his Practical and Familiar Sermons. She read at least volume 1, though most were published after her death.
Edward Cooper, Jane’s Cousin: Books of Sermons

Jane Austen’s first cousin, Evangelical clergyman Edward Cooper, promoted the Bible Society. Austen thought he had “too much zeal for the Bible Society.” She read books of Cooper’s sermons, as well as books of sermons by other clergymen. Cooper and other sermon-writers she mentions are explored in chapter 11 of Fashionable Goodness.

Henry Austen: A Guest Sermon on Pride and Prejudice (the concepts, not the novel)

Finally, we come to a member of Jane Austen’s immediate family who left a sermon for us to read.

Henry went through several other occupations before becoming a clergyman. After his bank failed in 1816, at the age of 45, he decided to get ordained. He took this seriously, reviewing the Greek New Testament, and was disappointed that the bishop did not ask him questions about it. He served at several churches in the later years of his life.

His niece, Anna Lefroy, wrote that Henry was “a zealous Preacher of the Gospel, according to the religious views of the Calvinistic portion of the Evangelical Clergy, and so consistently remained to his life’s end.”  

In 1829, Henry preached a sermon, as a guest preacher, “at the parish church of Clifton, near Bristol.” The sermon was “Published at the Request of many of the Congregation.” Henry is listed as “perpetual curate of Bentley, Hants (Hampshire), and domestic chaplain to the Right Hon., the Earl of Morley.” The title quotes Luke 9:55, “Ye Know Not What Manner of Spirit Ye Are of.” The title page also says, “Preaching Peace by Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all.”

One published sermons by Henry Austen is still available, from 1829.

The sermon is easy to read. It gives a clear exposition of the Bible passage, connecting it to similar passages and events. Some Samaritan villagers refused to receive Jesus because he was headed to Jerusalem, which for them was not the true center of worship. Jesus’s disciples wanted to call down fire to consume the village, but Jesus rebuked them, saying he came to save people, not destroy them.

As I read Henry’s sermon, I observed several things:

Though Henry didn’t use the phrase, much of the sermon is about pride and prejudice! Not his sister’s book, but the concepts.

The disciples, like most Jews of their time, were strongly prejudiced against Samaritans. As Henry points out, Jesus did not share this prejudice. When he healed ten lepers, Jesus noted that the only one who returned to thank him was a Samaritan. When he told the story of a traveler beaten and left for dead on the road, the hero of the story, who took care of the traveler, was not a priest or Levite, but a Samaritan. And Jesus revealed great truths to the woman at the well—a Samaritan woman.

The disciples should have learned from Jesus’s love for their traditional enemies, but instead they had a spirit of prejudice. Henry said,

“Such also has continued to be the blindness of thousands throughout all generations. The hatred, the malice, the uncharitableness which spring up from religious difference, not only irresistibly take away the words of Christ out of our hearts, but treacherously convert the suggestions of Satan into the dictates of an angel of light.”

In other words, the disciples thought they were doing right, but they were blinded by religious prejudices.

Henry also said the disciples were motivated “by a spirit of pride, presumption, and religious dissimulation” (pretending to be religious). They were proud of their religious heritage, and proud of being Jesus’s special, chosen disciples. Their pride led to cruelty. (Similarly, Darcy’s pride led to his cruel words to Elizabeth at the ball and in his first proposal, though of course Henry doesn’t say that in his sermon!) The disciples’ pride and pretense led to a spirit of vengeance, contrary to Jesus’s teaching.

So—the disciples were proud and prejudiced, and Jesus said they had the wrong kind of spirit.

Henry’s message was somewhat similar to James’s message in the SPCK speech. Like James, Henry called for unity among Christians. Even as a Calvinistic Evangelical, Henry said we shouldn’t assume we’re always right and everyone else is wrong. He wrote,

“There is . . . more humility in suspecting the bias of our own prejudices, than in staking tremendous consequences on the infallibility, not of our cause, but of our own view of that cause. . . . It is a very dangerous indulgence of the imagination, to consider ourselves, either individually or nationally, the selected instruments of God, to perform some tremendous work. . . . So soon as we elevate ourselves to the rank of select instruments, there is the greatest danger of our supposing our thoughts God’s thoughts, our ways Gods ways; and finally marring the perfection of his will, by the imperfection of our work.”–Henry Austen

He looked back to the English Revolution of the 1600s, where the Puritans, convinced of their righteousness, overthrew the king, with disastrous results.

Henry recommended that believers follow Paul’s advice to, as far as possible, “live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). He said each person should examine their own heart, to see if they are motivated by pride, prejudice, or a desire for their own selfish advantage. He says not to provoke others to anger unnecessarily.

The last page of the sermon is unfortunately missing, but the overall tone of Henry’s sermon says: Jesus came to humbly love and serve others, not to self-righteously call down judgment on them. Do we follow Jesus’s example? A good message for today. You can read it online if you wish.

You will find much more on preaching in Austen’s day, and on Jane Austen’s family and faith, in Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England, chapters 2 and 11.

If you have found any other sermons by Austen’s immediate family, or even bits from sermons, please share with the rest of us in the comment section below!

What do you find most powerful from the selections we have of Austen sermons?

How do you think Jane’s father and brothers’ preaching might have affected her writing?

[Errata: In part, this post corrects a minor error that appeared in my book, Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England, if you got a copy produced in September or October, 2022. At the beginning of chapter nine, p. 60, a sermon scrap is credited to George Austen, which was actually written by James Austen. This has since been corrected. My apologies.]

For Further Exploration

George Austen’s letter to his son Frank: The full letter is reproduced in Fashionable Goodness, and this post at Jane Austen’s World explores Rev. Austen’s spiritual advice to his son.

On the George Austen sermon preached repeatedly: Irene Collins, Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter, p. 53; her source is Emma Austen Leigh, Jane Austen and Steventon, 2nd ed. London, 1937, pp. 2-3; I have not been able to access that book as yet.

On James-Edward’s list of George Austen’s sermons: David Selwyn, “Some Sermons of Mr. Austen,” Report for 2001, The Jane Austen Society: 37–38. Passages listed: Matt. 4:1 (Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness); 6:12 (forgiveness); 6:31-32 (trusting God); 6:33 (seek first God’s kingdom); 7:12 (treat others as you want to be treated); 9:13 (mercy); 16:26 (if you gain the world but lose your soul, you’ve lost); 25:14-19 (faithfulness with what we have, parable of the talents; 2 sermons); Mark 8:34 (take up your cross and follow Jesus); Luke 8:15 (parable of the sower, hear the Word and do it); 10:29 (Good Samaritan; Who is my neighbour?); 10:37 (Good Samaritan; the one who showed mercy was the man’s neighbour: do likewise); 12:15 (beware of covetousness, life does not consist of abundance of possessions); 12:57 (judge for yourselves what is right, settle with your adversary out of court); 13:8,9 (parable of vine and vinedresser, give it time to bear fruit); 14:11 (humility); 15:7 (joy in heaven over the sinner who repents); 15:17 (Prodigal Son; the hired servants have enough bread); 16:30-31 (repentance); 21:19 (God’s protection in the end times); John 3:5 (need to be born of water and the Spirit to enter God’s kingdom); 9:4 (“I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.” 2 sermons); 18:36 (Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world); Acts 17:31 (Christ’s resurrection and the final judgment).

James Austen’s livings: Jane Austen’s brother James served as “Curate of Stoke Charity, 1788-90, Overton 1790-92, Deane 1792-1801 [as curate for his father, who was the rector]; Vicar of Sherborne St. John, 1791-1819; and of Cubbington, 1792-1819; Rector of Steventon, 1805-19” [succeeding his father after his father’s death] (Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy, p. 7, brackets added). You can read online about James Austen’s church at Sherborne St. John. The author’s ideas about James’s sermons are purely speculative, but the description of the church and services is interesting. Deirdre Le Faye says that James Austen was quite conscientious in serving the Sherborne St. John church, riding over nearly every Sunday to lead services (Jane Austen: A Family Record, 71, 85).

Sermon scrap by James Austen: Jane Austen’s House holds this scrap. “Memoir and Sermon Scrap,” Jane Austen’s House.

James Austen’s speech for the SPCK is available online in Irene Collins, “‘Too Much Zeal for the Bible Society’: Jane Austen, Her Family, and the Religious Quarrels of Her Time,” Jane Austen Society Reports, Collected Reports, Vol. 6 (2001–2005): 21–38. See also chapter 35 in Fashionable Goodness.

Edward Cooper: You can find out more about Jane’s cousin Edward Cooper in chapters 11 and 35 of Fashionable Goodness, as well as in my post on Jane Austen’s World. Many of Cooper’s sermons are available online; see links in that post.

Henry Austen’s work as clergyman: Henry was ordained as a deacon in December, 1816, then as a priest in Feb., 1817. He was appointed assistant curate at Chawton, in the church near Jane’s home. (She died five months later.) He served in Chawton only briefly, then in nearby Alton the winter of 1816-1817, then was chaplain at the British Embassy in Berlin for some months. He served temporarily as rector of Steventon, 1820, soon after James’s death, until 1823, when his nephew William Knight was old enough to become rector. He was curate and schoolmaster of Farnham from 1822-1827, and perpetual curate of Bentley, near Alton, from 1824-39. (Perpetual curate meant he could not be easily removed from the living, but the stipend was still probably not high.)

Henry Austen’s sermon: “Ye Know Not What Manner of Spirit Ye Are of.” 


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