EESE 8/99

The Preacher's Helper:
A Computerised Version of Letsome's Preacher's Assistant

Françoise Deconinck-Brossard (Université de Paris X)

In 1753, an almost obscure compiler, Sampson Letsome, published a catalogue of all the sermons printed since the Restoration, entitled The Preacher's Assistant, for the benefit of those preachers who might like to find inspiration in their predecessors' work. This 13,734 entry bibliography, which was originally designed as a preacher's helper indeed (as the title implies), gives invaluable information to modern historians who have become increasingly aware of the historical interest of sermon literature. However, the rigidity of the printed document makes it difficult to use, even though its division into two parts already attempted to address the issue of sorting out information according to different criteria. Since a sermon always began with a quotation from Scripture, as Tristram Shandy well knew, Letsome first arranged his data in order of Biblical texts, from Genesis to Revelation. The second part listed slightly different information, "an Historical Register of all the Authors in the Series, containing, A Succinct View of their Several Works," in alphabetical order of author.

The computerised database of the first part of Sampson Letsome's catalogue was originally created and sorted under SPSS-X on PRIME 9950 at the University of Sheffield in 1985. At the time, only a mainframe could muster enough computing power to store such an amount of information. The database was later transferred onto dBaseIII+(tm) format for analysis on microcomputers. It can easily be imported into Paradox(tm) or Access(tm). Data capture is therefore completed. As soon as a final revision of the data has been carried out, and a TEI header added, the database will be made available through the Oxford Text Archive, and therefore indirectly via the Internet to which it has long been promised, with access restricted to scholars, on a non-commercial basis. This paper will first deal with the creation of the structure of the database, and its applications, then discuss how it compares with other computerised tools, such as "Spaulding's Cooke" and the ESTC.


The information begins with the reference to the Biblical quotation: book, chapter and verse. In order to squeeze as much information into as little disk-space as possible, which was a major preoccupation at the time when the database was created, I used the standard French abbreviations of Biblical books,1 with a maximum width of 3 characters. The numeric fields for the references to chapter and verse(s) also had a maximum width of 3 characters.

Field nameTypeLength

Then, the major biographical data include the preachers' names, degrees and titles. Two alphanumeric fields were therefore designed for this purpose. There is also a very crude denominational indicator, nonconformists being singled out by italics. It is worth noting incidentally that, as the Wesleyan schism had not yet officially taken place, most of the preachers considered, either by their contemporaries or by later generations, as "methodists," were, strictly speaking, ministers of the established Church. Their names are therefore printed in Roman type, like those of their anglican colleagues. Thus, the information provided in this field merely answers the question of whether or not the author belonged to the Church of England. It could therefore be simply encoded as 1 or 2, Y or N, T or F, ideally in a Boolean or logical type of field.

Letsome then specified the year of publication of the edition that he consulted for his compilation, not necessarily the first edition. There is no need for a date field here; indeed a 4-character alphanumeric field is enough. Consequently, such information should not be affected by the millennium bug!

Last, but not least, Letsome often summarised briefly, or abbreviated, the subject matter or occasion of the sermon under review. A process of trial and error reckoned that a 30-character alphanumeric field would provide reasonable scope for a transcription of that information. It should be borne in mind that one of the aims of the database, at the time of its creation, when disk-space was still a relatively scarce commodity, and it was not easy to modify the structure of a table of data, was that ideally each record should be able to be printed out on one line. Accordingly, the sum total of characters had to be either 80 or 132 characters, depending on whether one opted for a vertical, "portrait" or a horizontal, "landscape" format. So, the original structure of the database included 10 fields, adding up to a total of 71 characters.

Once the data had been captured, I discovered unexpectedly, as a result of my first query, that the database had recorded no fewer than 4,865 distinct subjects! The astonishment was all the greater since Letsome himself had provided an introductory list of approximately 300 different abbreviations. Admittedly, even that list displayed Letsome's inconsistent use of abbreviations. For instance, charity sermons preached on behalf of hospitals or infirmaries were marked up as either "Ho", "Hos"2 Inf.s." or "Infirm.s". Perhaps the compiler's mind worked more analytically than synthetically. Furthermore, the computer will enhance any typing inconsistency, so that "Infirm. s."will be treated as different from "Infirm.s." with no space between the abbreviated forms. Now the long process of data capture, a fastidious task that took me several months to complete, makes such variations almost inevitable, all the more so as a member of the data preparation department of the computing service at the University of Sheffield, to whom I shall ever be grateful, was helping me type in the data.3

Be that as it may, almost 5,000 items would have been very difficult to handle. In the absence of synthetic information about the subjects of sermons listed in the catalogue, I had to introduce my own critical judgment. So new fields had to be created. In a numeric "object" field with a width of a single character, Letsome's distinct subjects were arranged into 9 categories, encoded from 1 to 9: "practical", doctrinal, political, Biblical, liturgical, funeral, "Bef. L.M. &c", miscellaneous, and blank. This experience is a good example of the way in which the scientist's critical judgment may have to interfere with the creation of a database. However, in this particular instance, years of familiarity with eighteenth-century sermons had made me acquire such intimate knowledge of the genre that my assessment would, hopefully, be as unbiased as possible. However, not always easy to decide where to classify double-headed subjects. Should, for instance, "Def(ence) of Lit(urgy)" be regarded as polemical or liturgical? What about a phenomenon of a mise en abyme in a sermon about the duty of listening to sermons? One only hopes that disputable arrangements cancel each other out.

Since every single record had to be re-encoded, with the inclusion of this new field, another, more objective field was inserted, almost automatically. A simple macro instructed the computer to associate, in a single-character numeric field, each Biblical book with one of the nine standard exegetical categories, namely the Pentateuch, history books, wisdom literature, the Prophets, the gospels, the book of Acts, the Pauline epistles, general epistles, and the book of Revelation. The definitive structure of the database therefore now included 12 major fields, totalling 74 characters, which left enough space for a tiny memo field.


As I have shown elsewhere,4 such encoding has allowed me to proceed with many applications. The simplest query that comes to mind consists in reckoning the ratio of non-conformist to Anglican sermons. Not surprisingly, the Church of England's hegemony appears at first sight. One might like to add a chronological criterion, in order to see whether the so-called Acts of Uniformity and of Toleration affected the output of printed sermons among Dissenters.

Indeed, the beauty of a database is the flexibility with which several criteria can be applied simultaneously to the retrieval of information by combining search terms. To quote but a few examples, one may wonder whether there was a marked difference between Anglican preachers and their nonconformist counterparts in their use of the Bible, or whether there was a difference of emphasis in the themes that they dealt with. A short answer is the amazing similarity in the use of the Bible, though some thematic variations may be underlined. If one examines general trends, one may say that anglican and dissenting preachers found their inspiration in the same Biblical quotations, as if they had been guided by the same political and religious blueprints. On the other hand, one may also highlight the specificity of individual authors, like Sterne and Wesley, or subgenres, like charity or assize sermons.

Comparison with other databases

The nagging question is the degree of accuracy of the data compiled by Letsome. The immediate point of comparison, of course, lies in the computerised version of Letsome's successor, John Cooke's Preacher's Assistant (1783), completed in 1988 by the late Professor Spaulding, from the University of Vancouver, B.C., and therefore known as "Spaulding's Cooke." Not only did Cooke extend the period of coverage by thirty years. He also increased fourfold the amount of references for the earlier period. Indeed, he marked up those references that had been omitted by Letsome with a star. Accordingly, the total number of items recorded in "Spaulding's Cooke" amounts to 24,295.

I had the privilege to be sent the data on loan in 1992, when I was spending part of my sabbatical leave at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. Otherwise, printouts may be consulted at the Huntington Library. The structure of "Spaulding's Cooke", originally laid out in the OBCDC format, is similar enough, though not identical, with that of Letsome's database to allow for comparisons. On the whole, similar queries retrieve similar information. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the catalogue compiled by Letsome is a representative sample of the sermon literature compiled by Cooke.

The one noticeable difference is to be found in the proportion of non-conformist sermons, which looks very high in Cooke, particularly in the later years, not covered by Letsome, as if Dissenters had been most productive towards the end of the century. "Spaulding's Cooke" thus seems to belie the much-publicised "decline of dissent." Otherwise, both Cooke and Letsome highlight similar trends, such as the preachers' major concern for "practical" issues, the three main sub-genres of ethical, political and doctrinal discourse, the Dissenters' idiosyncratic attention to funeral orations and to "regular" rather than "occasional sermons".

Admittedly, however, the databases designed, by coincidence, almost at the same time on similar material by the late professor Spaulding and myself were originally suited to individual research purposes. This explains why the fields in Letsome's database were originally given French names, for instance. By contrast, eighteenth-century studies scholars now have access to the multi-purpose ESTC database, holding "bibliographic records for all types of printed material ... published throughout the world in the eighteenth century."5 Obviously, there is no comparing the limited scope of a small individual project focusing on a single genre with the wide range of new avenues opened up by a specialist database. As far as sermon literature is concerned, however, experience has shown that working with the ESTC on CD-ROM does not always provide the kind of information that our two projects can retrieve. For instance, sorting out records chronologically has proved impossible, though it must be a very simple search in the fee-paying online version.6 Furthermore, although ESTC now stands for "English STC" rather than "Eighteenth-century STC", holding records for material published from 1473 to 1800, its coverage of seventeenth-century sermon literature after the Restoration is much less extensive than that of Letsome or Cooke. as may be demonstrated from the specific example of sermons preached on the 30th of January. Besides, a search, on the ESTC CD-ROM, of sermons published in Britain after 1660 has retrieved only 18,607 items altogether, and only 11,256 entries for the period covered by Letsome. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the catalogues compiled by Cooke and Letsome survey the output of printed sermons in eighteenth-century Britain with a similar, or even perhaps better, degree of accuracy than the ESTC. Again, the online version of ESTC, being updated monthly, may soon improve on this issue, but the CD-ROM published in 1998 is probably the version that is more readily available in our research libraries. Last, but not least, a structural difference between the databases makes it very difficult to sort out ESTC records of sermons by Biblical quotation. Indeed, when a Scriptural reference does exist, it is included within the title field, and cannot be isolated as a distinct parameter. In its limited and very specialised way, Letsome therefore still has at least one advantage over the ESTC database.

To conclude, the answer to the question that has often come to mind must therefore be that yes, indeed, this labour of love was worth all the effort. One hopes it may be of some use to the scholarly community.

Paper given at the Tenth International Conference on the Enlightenment, Dublin, July 1999.

1 To be more precise, I have used the list of abbreviations provided by the TOB or Traduction oecumenique de la Bible.

2 Incidentally, there is not one single occurrence of these two abbreviations in the database.

3 While I was a "visiting lecturer" at the University of Sheffield in 1985, I was most helpfully assisted by the staff of their computing centre, especially by Richard Brown, programmer, and Jean Orme in the data preparation department.

4 See "L'apologétique dans la prédication anglaise," Apologétique 1680-1740 : sauvetage ou naufrage de la théologie? (Genève : Labor &Fides, "publications de la faculté de théologie de l'université de Genève," no. 15, 1991) 73-99; "Bible et sermon en Angleterre au dix-huitième siècle," La Bible dans le monde anglo-américain aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles: Actes du colloque tenu à Paris les 26 & 27 octobre 1984 (Université de Paris X, 1986), 109-22; "L'Ecriture dans la prédication anglaise," Le Siècle des Lumières et la Bible (Paris: Beauchesne, collection "Bible de tous les temps", 1986), 523-43; "Eighteenth-Century Sermons and the Age," Crown and Mitre: Religion and Society in Northern Europe since the Reformation, eds. W.M. Jacob & Nigel Yates (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1993), 105-21.

5 On the British Library Web page, click on Online, then on Blaise-line Databases:

6 For a comparison of such electronic media, see Du CD-ROM à Internet, eds. Marie-Madeleine Martinet et Liliane Gallet-Blanchard (Paris: Presses de l'université de Paris-Sorbonne).