January 21: Samuel Miller on Plagarism in the Pulpit

It was on this day, January 21st, in 1843 that The Charleston Observer published a letter from the Rev. Nathan Hoyt, in which he took care to defend the views of Dr. Samuel Miller, stating that Miller was quite clearly opposed to plagiarism and anything which might be construed as such. In proof of his point, Hoyt provided a letter from the Princeton professor, in which he sets for his high standard and consistent expectation for the ministry.

[For the Charleston Observer]

Charleston, S.C., January 21, 1843.

Brother Gildersleeve,—During the sessions of the Hopewell Presbytery, recently convened in Greensboro’, it was asserted, no doubt through mistake, that the Rev. Dr. Miller of Princeton, did not disapprove of one Minister’s making use of the plans or skeletons of another in his public performances. I addressed a letter to Dr. Miller, touching this point, and also requesting him to give me his views relative to Plagiarism, as I had been requested by some members of Presbytery to write and publish an article upon that subject. I send with this a copy of almost the entire letter of Dr. M., and would request you to publish it in the Observer, as I have his permission to make what use of it I think proper. It is due to this venerable Father in the Ministry that thosee portions of his letter which I herewith transmit, should be published, ast least, throughout the bounds of Hopewell Presbytery.

Whoever reads the Doctor’s letter will perceive that he is the last man upon earth to sanction any approach to Plagiarism. I regard this letter, (which the Doctor says was written in haste,) as richly worthy of being preserved. Yours, &c.

N. Hoyt.

Athens, Jan. 10, 1842.

(Copy,) “Princeton, Dec. 29, 1842.


miller_Samuel_1812Rev.
and Dear Brother,—Your letter of the 21st instant, reached me last evening; and, though somewhat pressed with engagements, I seize the first opportunity to reply. It has always been my aim, in my Lectures on Sermonizing, to express the strongest disapprobation of Plagiarism in every form, as basely deceptive and mean, as really immoral in its character, and as calculated to injure the man who practices it, and ultimately, if he be a Minister, those who attend on his ministrations. When I have been asked what Plagiarism is? I have uniformly answered, that it is not easy, in all cases to draw the line. On all the great leading subjects of pulpit instruction, there is a large mass of common-place ideas which have been repeated by successive writers, for hundreds of years past. He who, in preaching on Faith and Repentance—on Justification and Sanctification—on Christian hope and Eternal Blessedness—should resolve to say nothing but what was strictly original with himself; nothing that had ever been expressed, even in substance, by any one before, would certainly never be able to preach at all. In this sense, no man, however great his talents or his learning, can hope to be regarded as an original at the present day.

[pictured above right, Dr. Samuel Miller, as portrayed by the artist Thomas Sully, in 1812]

If a preacher, at the present day, were about to prepare a sermon on the doctrine of Original Sin, or on the doctrine of Atonement—and, as a preparation for the work, were carefully to read over President Edwards‘ Treatise on the former subject, and Mr. Symington’s on the latter—and even then to compose his Sermons on those subjects respectively in strict conformity with the Treatises just mentioned—but in his own language throughout—I should not charge him with Plagiarism; the substance would, in this case be borrowed, but the style, the form, would be all his own. I do not know that there is, in either of those books, a single truth which had not been substantially set forth by preceding writers; but there is in each of them a clearness, a force, and an amplitude of illustration, which render their works, respectively, of great value. But I have always denounced as Plagiarism, in the true and proper sense of that word, any of the following practices, viz.:—

I. When a writer or speaker delivers, as his own, the whole, or the greater part of the work of another, in the language of the original writer. This is the most gross and shameful form of the offence.

II. When a writer or speaker copies the whole plan of another—adopting his divisions, his subdivisions, and, in the main, his whole arrangement—making only some trivial alteration here and there in the style and minuter details, for the sake of avoiding the charge of being a servile copyist; such a person deserves to be called a Plagiarist. He is nothing but an humble retailer of the thoughts and language of others.

III. He who allows himself to copy verbatim even a single paragraph, without acknowledgment, exposes himself to the charge of Plagiarism. One who means to be strictly delicate and accurate on this subject will never copy the very words of another, without advertising his hearers or readers of the fact, by saying, as he passes along–”to use the language of another,” or “in the language of an elegant writer,” &c. I would certainly advise that this be done, even if the quotation extend only to a single sentence.

IV. If a thought be very striking and original, I would not allow myself to adopt it, without acknowledgment, even if it were expressed in my own language. It were easy to select some remarkably beautiful thoughts from Bacon, from Milton, or other great masters, of sentiment and diction, which so exclusively belong to them, and that it were great injustice to repeat any of them without tracing the property to its right owner, either by directly naming him, or acknowledging, in some way, that they do not belong to him who quotes them.

I have sometimes advised my pupils, whenever they hear sermons which exhibit a very striking or happy plan, to make a record of it, and have suggested to them, that although copying the plan or plans, thus recorded on the same texts, or even when treating the same subjects, would be Plagiarism; yet, that to a watchful, active mind, looking out for analogies and relations, a happy plan on one subject may suggest a still more happy one on an allied subject—or even on one very remote at first view.

I have never given any advice or counsel different from what I have above stated. If Mr. _____” makes any different representations, he misunderstood and misrepresents me. Yet I can easily imagine how he might have mis-apprehended my suggestion—stated in the preceding paragraph—respecting striking plans of sermons. By a little inadvertence, he might have supposed me to mean, that such plans might, with propriety be used, when preaching afterwards on the same texts.

I am, my dear Sir, with much respect, your friend and brother in Christ,

SAMUEL MILLER.”

[excerpted from The Charleston Observer, III.17 (21 January 1843): 9, where it first appeared in print. The letter was subsequently included in volume 2 of The Life of Samuel Miller, pp. 450-452.]

Image source: The Princeton University Library Chronicle, volume XIV, Number 3 (Winter 1953)

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