Analysis of Jabez Branderham's Sermon in Wuthering Heights
When Religious People Go Astray
Perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of Wuthering Heights is that throughout the novel, religious people act abominably. In spite of their religious training, they are callous, cruel, and violent, behaving in a fashion that is truly unacceptable and alarming.
Interestingly enough, the author, Emily Bronte, skillfully wove in a scene in chapter three, wherein Heathcliff's tenant, Mr. Lockwood, dreams he has attended a religious service at the chapel at Gimmerdon Sough. The Reverend Jabez Branderham gives a pious discourse: Seventy Times Seven, and the First of the Seventy-First.
This sermon, and how Jabez Branderham and his congregation act, is significant and it reinforces the thought that religion and good behavior do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Religion doesn't always make the man. This is important to the novel because it demonstrates that Heathcliff's behavior, by comparison, is perhaps more understandable and may not be considered as bad. He has been horribly maltreated and hasn't had all the advantages of breeding and education, and while he did receive some early religious instruction, he is later treated like a servant, is forced to work out-of-doors, and is denied any further advantages.
Mr. Lockwood's Dream
Lockwood has to spend a night at Wuthering Heights and after perusing some old volumes, he falls asleep and begins to dream. In his dream, he is on the way home the next morning, with Joseph as a guide, but instead, he and Joseph journey to the chapel to hear the famous Jabez Branderham preach and Lockwood learns that someone is to be publicly exposed and excommunicated.
Lockwood is a dishonest character, not only with himself but with others, so public exposure would be something he would fear. In my article, Lockwood's Cruelty in Wuthering Heights, I explore his weakness of character and the excuses he makes for his bad behavior.
Seventy Times Seven and the First of the Seventy-First
Understanding the Sermon Title
Understanding the meaning behind the title of the sermon, helps us to understand what it is all about. The sermon is taken from Matthew 18: 21, 22. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”" and Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." That gives us the first part of the sermon title.
Since Wuthering Heights is full of sin, it is no surprise that the sermon discusses sin, to the tune of 490 sermons within a sermon (seventy times seven).
And the first of the seventy-first goes past the figure Jesus gave and could be considered the unpardonable sin that transcends ordinary wrongs. This gives us the second part of the sermon title.
Good God! what a sermon; divided into four hundred and ninety parts, each fully equal to an ordinary address from the pulpit, and each discussing a separate sin!— Mr. Lockwood
A Long-Winded Sermon
The preacher gives an incredibly long sermon and this part of the dream is truly comical. Readers learn how Lockwood squirms and fidgets and stands, each time hoping the sermon is over. Anyone who has sat through a lengthy, boring discourse, will relate to this and it's made even funnier by the fact that it is more like an unending sermon that is comprised of 490 sermons, as the preacher drones on and on.
Oh, how weary I grew. How I writhed, and yawned, and nodded, and revived! How I pinched and pricked myself, and rubbed my eyes, and stood up, and sat down again— Mr. Lockwood
Lockwood and Jabez Accuse Each Other of the Unforgiveable Sin
The stage is set. Two men who are versed in scripture, miss what Jesus was getting at about repeated forgiveness.
Mr. Lockwood denounces the preacher as having committed the unpardonable sin. He says that he has endured and forgiven the four hundred and ninety heads of Jabez' discourse but that "The four hundred and ninety-first is too much." Lockwood is aware that the preacher has gone past the seventy times seven or 490 that Jesus set as the marker for how often to forgive sin.
And curiously enough, the preacher feels that he has forgiven Lockwood's obvious distress and his contorted visage at each stage of the sermon, but he feels Lockwood has now committed the unforgivable sin by objecting to anymore sermonizing. He deflects the accusation that he is the person who has committed the unforgiveable sin, by saying of Lockwood, "Thou art the man."
Each man is unwilling to extend mercy beyond the seventy times seven or the 490 times. Oblivious and spiritually blind, they miss the greater truth about repeated forgiveness that Jesus taught and that Jabez preached about in his sermon.
Each Man Claims the Other Has Committed the Unpardonable Sin
No Lessons Learned and Violence Erupts as the Congregation Breaks Out into a Brawl
The theme of religious hypocrisy and violence is underscored in what happens next.
After denouncing Jabez Branderham as the sinner of the sin that no Christian need pardon, Mr. Lockwood tells the congregants to drag down the preacher and crush him to atoms. In other words, he tells them to kill Branderham.
And how does the preacher respond? Branderham returns like for like when he instructs his flock to turn against Lockwood, "Brethren, execute upon him the judgement written."
For two religious men to incite violence and killing is downright shocking.
And the congregants are no better. They raise their staves and use them as weapons to strike at Mr. Lockwood and each other, and soon, the whole assembly is in turmoil, each man's hand against his neighbor. A peaceful sermon has turned into a full-out brawl.
This dream paints a compelling picture as to how violence can lurk just under the surface, even in those who are supposed to be religiously inclined, and how mercy and forgiveness can be readily forgotten.
Religious Hypocrites and Violent Characters in Lockwood's Dream
He is sanctimonious and self-righteous but carries a cudgel and uses it to assualt Lockwood.
He's a church-goer but instructs the other church-goers to murder the preacher.
He instructs his congregants to harm Mr. Lockwood.
The congregants strike their fellow congregants.
Even though this is just a dream, it provides telling glimpses of the human psyche and the workings of human inclination. It's as if the author was under no illusion about humans' capability for cruelty and violence and how the veneer of the Christlike personality can be very thin.
We come away with the thought that goodness or badness is shaped by more than religious instruction, it is innate, and that what's in the subconscious and in the heart will surface sooner or later.
In the sermon, we learn that "every man's hand was against his neighbor," and this foreshadows what unfolds in the novel as vengeance is undertaken and exacted.
Themes That Permeate the Novel
In a sense, the sermon sets the stage for the rest of the novel, as we see how different characters refuse to show forgiveness and take revenge on their perceived enemies. Sadly, violence and vengeance are the weapons of those who know better, who should act differently, and who don't. Revenge is one of the predominant themes of Wuthering Heights.
Failure to Forgive
A Great Author Speaks to Greater Truths in a Tale That Has Become Timeless
What makes Wuthering Heights such an interesting read is the peeling back of the layers and the discovering of the hidden gems in this story. Little appears to have been random and it's apparent great thought went into the entire novel.
Do you feel you have a greater understanding of the sermon and its significance to the rest of the story?
© 2017 Athlyn Green