The variety of America's rich religious experience

AMERICAN SERMONS Edited by Michael Warner The Library of America 943 pp., $40

The Puritans had no use for fiction - with its corrupt exaggerations of real life. But they drove collections of sermons up the bestseller list.

Stephen King has nothing to worry about, but this recent addition to The American Library demonstrates again just how fascinating sermons can be.

Appropriately, the collection of 58 pieces begins with the earliest American sermon known to be extant, Robert Cushman's careful admonition to help one another, delivered to the desperate Plymouth settlers in 1621.

Misrepresented for so long as the purveyors of hell and brimstone, the Puritans get their just defense in this helpful collection, which accurately conveys their extraordinarily precise and legalistic explanations of God's law.

Later centuries are represented by a good balance of familiar and unfamiliar selections. Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," is here, but so is an ironic anonymous piece called "In Praise of Swearing."

Sermons from the 19th and 20th centuries - from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Billy Sunday to Martin Luther King Jr. - demonstrate the extraordinary range of challenges pulling on American consciousness.

The paucity of women in this collection is unfortunate (whither the founder of this newspaper, for instance?), but that bias reflects the chauvinism of American religious history.

Michael Warner's biographical notes are extremely helpful. His essay on the early sermon form is a model of clarity, but also, unfortunately, of brevity. One wishes he had extended his illuminating remarks to sermons in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nevertheless, this volume, No. 108, is another invaluable addition to the country's most comprehensive literary series.

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