On Various Matters Connected with the Business of Preaching and
BROTHER EVANGELLUS: —
Many years ago, while as yet your age in reality corresponded
with the title of this letter, I conceived the plan of addressing you a series
of letters something in the form of the works of Orton, Miller and others, on
matters and things pertaining to the ministerial employment. For this purpose I
prepared a sort of commonplace book, in which I made entries from time to time
from my own experience and from my observations of the doings of the ministerial
brotherhood, whose performances I frequently witnessed, some of which, according
to my judgment, in some respects might have been altered for the better.
Since that time both of us have considerably advanced in
years. The same may be said of my memorandum book, although it contains notices
of a very recent date, among the last of which I find one against long prayers
either in the pulpit, the conference room, or elsewhere; and another against
spinning out the religious services to a tedious length at communion seasons, so
as to be merely ready to commence the sacramental office, when the whole
assembly ought to be dismissed. But since so much of the contents of my sketch
book has been incorporated in my chapters which refer to ministerial labors,
that the plan above named has been almost wholly superseded, I shall now, in
this single letter, merely insert a few remarks of a miscellaneous character, in
addition to those which I have already made.
On the Preaching Service
The great end of speaking is to be heard, and the more
natural the speaker is the more agreeable will be his performance to his
hearers; and so far as he is inaudible his labor will be lost, and he will sink
below par. Good speakers with good voices will always be heard with
satisfaction, and men who are thus favored by nature have but little more to do
but to let nature have its course, so far as their delivery is concerned. Such
as are not gifted with native eloquence will need to make special efforts to
overcome their defects. But whatever may be a preacher's grade as to his
speaking talents, away with all flips, and twists and twirls, and twangs, and
all guttural, sepulchral, and even ministerial tones; and, finally, avoid a
boisterous vehemence on the one hand, and a whispering cadence on the other. The
variations of a speaker's voice are always proper, but to depress it to an
almost or altogether inaudible point, is not only against all the dictates of
reason and rhetoric, but it is besides, extremely disagreeable to remote
auditors and such as are dull of hearing. Why, say they, mentally at least, the
man is talking to himself and to those near him; if he has any choice thoughts
and important ideas, why don't he out with them boldly and save us the need of
speaking trumpets? Dr. Wayland, in his late work on Baptist affairs, has
intimated that the poorest specimens of public speaking are generally found in
This statement I suppose was intended for men of all parties;
as for the Baptists, the great mass of their preachers make but small
pretensions to being finished pulpit orators, since their training has been very
deficient in this line; but still, by John Leland's rule, namely, "he is
accounted the best fisherman who catches the most fish," many of them stand high
as efficient laborers in their Master's cause.
Among our educated preachers, especially in this region, the
number is much too large who are much wanting in that earnestness and vivacity
for which good speakers are always distinguished. Many of them are very logical
and precise, but at the same time, in their best performances they exhibit the
quintessence of dullness, and the fixedness of a statue.
I once said to a professor in one of our theological
seminaries, your students ought to go West for a while to add to their solidity
and precision, flexibility, sonorousness and animation, so as to bring out more
fully their native powers of elocution.
A preacher of the monotonous class, as the story goes, once
inquired of a leader in public amusements how it was that the speaking on the
stage was so much more attractive than that from the pulpit. "That is very
easily accounted for," said the earnest actor. "We treat fictions as if they
were realities, while you treat realities as if they were fictions, Our main
object," continued the player, "is to secure the earnest attention of our
hearers, a thing which most of your pulpit actors seem to care but little
Hearers may have full confidence in the sincerity of this
dull class of preachers, but this feeling is inspired more from their knowledge
of their general characters, than from any thing they discover in their manner
of addressing them.
Against pulpit speakers being confined to their
written preparations, of whatever amount, I will take the liberty here, as I do
in all cases, of expressing myself in very strong and explicit terms. I will go
for confining them to reading and study at home, very closely, even with
penitentiary strictness, if needful; but when they stand up before the people on
the great business of salvation, to address them on the important themes of sin
and redemption, let them be free as God made them, in the use of their eyes and
arms, I mean both arms, like an orator, and all their bodily functions.
Men of this class, other things being equal, always were, and
always will be, the most acceptable preachers with the great mass of mankind.
Indeed, there is such a radical difference between preaching and reading, that
the one can never be made a genuine substitute for the other, either in the
pulpit or elsewhere.
"Suppose a lawyer at the bar should read his plea, or the
speaker at a political meeting should read his speech, just as ministers read
their sermons, would they be at all endured? Or, suppose that, in an ordinary
meeting of friends, any one should attempt to converse in the precise tones of
voice which men use in the pulpit, would not the whole company stand amazed?
When men preach without notes, it is not commonly as bad, but here there is
frequently some bad habit which detracts from the effectiveness of the
discourse. * * *
"The great defect of all our speaking, is the want of
naturalness. When we become confined to written discourse, this is almost
inevitable. Men can not read as they speak. The excitement of thought in
extemporary speaking awakens the natural tones of emotion, and it is these
natural tones which send the sentiment home to the heart of the hearer. Any one
must be impressed with this fact who attends a meeting of clergymen during an
interesting debate. There is no lack of speakers on such occasions, and no one
complains that he can not speak without notes. It is also remarkable, that they
all speak well, for they speak in earnest and they speak naturally. We have
sometimes thought if these very brethren would speak in the same manner from the
pulpit, how much more effective preachers they would become." *
Miscellaneous Remarks on the Pulpit Service
Respecting the length of sermons, in early life I read, in
Watts, or some old writer, that it is much better to leave off before the people
think you have done, than to keep on a good while after they wish
you had done.
Against long prayers how much has been said and written; and
yet, how many a minister, in the pulpit, in the conference room, at funerals,
and elsewhere, keeps on praying, till the people pray for nothing but for him to
---------------------------------------- * Wayland's Notes, etc., pp. 324, 325.
Do not exhaust your spirits by engaging in exciting
conversation just before you are to preach, was the advice of old writers, on
the proper preparation for the pulpit. This advice I have always found very
Again, do not commence preaching in too rapid a manner. I
once knew a young minister who usually started, as one said, as if he had run
On special occasions make special preparations, and if you
have any great ideas pertaining to the subject of your discourse, then bring
them out in a prominent and intelligible manner.
At all times, in your stated performances, whether you write
little or much, or none at all, endeavor to see the end from the beginning.
Always, on communion seasons, let your text and your
discourse have a special reference to the death and the sacrifice of Jesus
Christ. What can be more incongruous, in a minister of the cross of Christ,
than, with the emblems of the agonies of that cross spread out before him and
all the people, to so preach and so manage his whole preparatory service, that
none of the assembly would be led to suspect it was communion day, were it not
for what they see on the communion table.
Not a long time since, I attended a ministers' meeting, as a
visitor. According to custom, each one gave the outlines of the last sermon he
had preached. After all had spoken, the chairman called upon me for some
remarks; when I observed, that I would only say that I had listened to the texts
and to the plans of twenty sermons, delivered on a communion day, and but one of
them had reference to the sufferings and the death of Jesus Christ! This laconic
discourse made something of a stir among the score of preachers and pastors, and
I would fain hope that they all remembered the main point of it the next
communion season, and on all succeeding ones, to the end of their lives. In the
Scriptures, both old and new, are found passages in abundance, which are
appropriate for discourses on the theme here recommended, to an indefinite
We hear too little of the doctrine of the cross at all times,
and from preachers of all creeds; and how much have I lamented that our
preachers, who glory in this doctrine, should ever fail to proclaim it in the
manner above described.
On the use of the Bible, I would say, let it be your
hand-book continually; use much of its language in the pulpit, in the conference
room and in your religious conversation.
No language is equal to it for fitness, and for force.
It was said by the persecutors of the old Waldenses, by way
of reproach, that they always had the Bible on their lips. Let no minister or
Christian ever be ashamed of this distinction.
Always read a portion of the sacred volume, not only at the
commencement of all your pulpit services, but also in the opening of all
meetings of the church, whether for devotion or business. Let no injurious
excitements, on the most vexed matters in church dealings, hinder the regular
exercise of reading, prayer and praise. There is nothing better to soothe the
irritated minds of men.
Scripture reading may sometimes suggest more edifying
thoughts in the people, than they afterwards hear from those who speak, whether
it be ministers or laymen. And from the inspired word all are sure to hear the
truth: without any mixture of sentiments of a doubtful or dangerous character.
"If you do not hear the gospel in the pulpit," I once heard
the late Bishop Griswold say, on an ordination occasion, "you will be sure to
hear it there," pointing to the place where the church lessons are read.
These lessons, it is well known by those who are familiar with them, are mostly
in Scripture language.
Before the art of printing was discovered, which was not till
about the middle of the fifteenth century, the cost of Bibles in MSS., placed
them beyond the reach of the common people. Then it was highly important that
there should be a great amount of Scripture reading before the people; and at an
early period, each church had a man expressly appointed for this purpose, who
was called The Reader. This important officer held rank among the clergy,
and sometimes officiated in other departments. "I will let you have my reader,"
said one Father to another, for a special service of another kind.
In my early day, the ministers of the old order of
Pedobaptists, in some cases, did not read the Bible at all, in the pulpit.
Instead of that, the little black book, with the text, sermon and all, was laid
on the desk, in the place of the sacred volume.
On PLainess in Preaching
Luther said he wished to preach so that the Vandals could
understand him. These people were the poor, illiterate peasants of the country.
"Ralph," said the uncle of the late Dr. Wardlaw, of Scotland,
after hearing him preach one of his first sermons, "did you notice that poor
woman in a duffel cloak that sat under the pulpit when you were preaching
to-day?" "Yes, sir," answered the young preacher. "Well, my man," resumed his
uncle, "remember that people like her have souls as well as their betters; and
that a minister’s business is to feed the poor and the illiterate as well as the
rich and the educated.
Your sermon to-day was a very ingenious and well composed discourse, and in that
respect did you credit; but there wasn't one word in it for the poor old woman
in the duffel cloak."*
After a sermon by the late President Young, a plain man
expressed to a fellow-hearer his disappointment and surprise: "I thought," said
he, "that Dr. Young was a learned man." On being asked what evidence to the
contrary he found in the sermon just delivered, he replied, "I never heard a man
in my life that I could understand so easily."+
This was akin to Dr. Miller's story of a pious old woman, who
said of an eminent minister, "He's not a bit of a gentleman," because he
made himself so much at home in her humble dwelling. x
Against Long Introductions
"In preparing a sermon, we should beware of too long an
introduction. A minister sometimes fears that he shall not be able to find
material for a sermon of ordinary length, and hence he prolongs the first part
by long discussions on the context, or any other
------------------------------- * An address before the American Baptist Historical Society,
in Boston, in 1857, by Silas Bailey, D.D., President Franklin College, Franklin,
Indiana, pp. 28, 29. + Bailey's Historical Discourse, p. 29. x Miller's Clerical Manners, p. 43.
miscellaneous matter which happens to occur to him. This is dry and
uninteresting to his audience, and they become weary before he really begins his
work. A preacher of this kind was once asked by Dr. Stillman to preach for him.
The brother declined on account of his inability to meet the expectations of Dr.
Stillman's congregation. 'O,' said the Doctor, 'you will do well enough if you
are only willing to say your best things first.' He took the advice and
This talking against time, to fill up time, ought always to be
Against Apologies in the Pulpit
Never deal in apologies before, or after preaching.+
Never decline reasonable calls to preach, although they may
be unexpected. In season, and out of season, always ready, should be a
Never falter in your course, for any trips or slips, but go
straight forward in your discourse to the end; leave off when you have done, and
don’t talk about it, in the pulpit, or out of it. You have made your mark for
that time, which no apologies can alter.
---------------------------------- * Wayland's Principles and Practices, etc., p. 319 + Never deal in rum, tobacco, nor apologies, was the advice of a
Methodist bishop to his clergy.
According to my judgment and experience, it is always well to
close the last Sabbath service with one of these earnest and appropriate
supplications; and the same may be said of social meetings, especially when they
have been protracted to an unusually late period. In such a case, a doxology is
preferable to a prayer.
My own Experience in Preaching, and in Preparations for
In my early day, a great deal of preaching was expected of
the ministers of our order. Much of it, however, was merely talking to the
people, in a plain and familiar manner, and generally in the extempore mode.
But, from the beginning, I resolved not to be tied to any form, and accordingly
I used notes when I thought proper, and for a number of years I often practiced
the memoriter plan, with a temporary commitment, as recommended by Bishop
I finally settled down on the skeleton system, more or less
full, as a general custom, but writing out in full on special occasions.
I found great advantage in retirement and meditation, after
my preparation was made, in whatever form, in ruminating over the whole matter
of my discourse, and in getting my mind deeply imbued with all that pertained to
In collecting texts for future use, I, by degrees, slid into
a method of my own — at least, I had not then seen it mentioned by any writer.
The way was this: I had blank books of my own making, in succession, in which I
put down whatever texts occurred to me, at any time, as suitable to preach from,
and also any thoughts upon any part of them. In this way I always had a store of
texts on hand, and some partly expounded, to select from.
On the subject of clerical manners, I need say nothing to
you; but to all ministers who have not enjoyed your advantages, I would say,
in the language of Dr. Miller, "In all your visits, as far as possible, avoid
giving trouble." "This is done, by making as few demands on the time and
attention of your friends as may be; and remember that those who find you a very
troublesome guest, will be glad of your departure, and that they will not be
very anxious for you to repeat your visits."