What Makes a Great Preacher?

What Makes a Great Preacher?
By Austin B. Tucker

As the story goes, on a Sunday night a young pastor was driving home, his wife beside him. It had been a busy weekend at the church. The Sunday night sermon had lasted longer than usual since the preacher felt unusual liberty and unction in the pulpit. They drove in silence for some miles, he with his thoughts and she with hers. Finally, he broke the silence saying, ‘You know, Sweetheart, there are not many truly great preachers in the world today.’

‘True,’ answered the very weary wife, ‘and probably one fewer than you think!’

What makes a great preacher? As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so opinions may differ on what makes a great preacher. To be a famous preacher is not the same as to be a great preacher. We may assume, then, that not everyone who preaches a better sermon than his neighbor finds the world beating a path to his door. We may find in heaven that our idea of greatness misses the measure that really matters. But there seem to be some things that mark a few preachers as head and shoulders above the rest. Some indeed are clearly pulpit giants. What makes the difference?

The question has occupied my attention more than a little bit for more than a few years. I studied the History of Preaching with Dr. H. C. Brown, Jr in 1966 and 1967. Then it was my privilege to teach a course on Great Preachers as guest professor at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest in the spring of 1993. I taught the same course at New Orleans in the fall of the same year. So I have given it some thought. Here is my list of ten character qualities that great preachers tend to have in common. It may be argued that no preacher has all ten of these features. True enough, but these are matters you will most often find in preachers that deserve a place on anyone’s list of great preachers. Read the list and the series and see if you agree. And pray that the exercise will make all of our preachers better servants of the Word.

1. Great preachers are persons of great personal integrity before they are great pulpiteers. Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), an early contributor to the Yale Lectures on Preaching, defined preaching as ‘truth through personality.’ But what did Brooks mean by ‘personality’? Is this what turns an actor into a star? Is this what helps a politician win elections? Is personality what makes a preacher popular? We may think of personality in those terms, but Brooks had in mind something else. By ‘personality’ he meant the combination of qualities that make a preacher what he really is  not just what he appears to be. He was talking about the true person, not just the persona.

Brooks had in mind especially issues of personal character. Some people have argued that the character of a minister is incidental to his work including his pulpit work. Phillips Brooks challenged that view. The personal character of the preacher matters. Indeed, it is a priority.

The preacher’s task involves persuasion of the mind, emotions and will. We are more willing to believe good men. The preacher must be a person of integrity. Truly great preachers, as distinct from famous (or notorious!) preachers are servants of God, with Holy Spirit anointing.

Phillips Brooks would not be a model of expository preaching. He did more topical preaching as do most preachers today. He used a text more as a launching pad for his theme than as the real fabric of the sermon. Still, he was a preacher of great character. Historian Ralph Turnbull in completing Dargan’s third volume in the history of preaching declared Brooks as ‘the living example of his own ideals and counsel regarding preaching. Character is the principal thing in making a preacher.’ Brooks had compassion for the poor of the city as well as the affluent who delighted to hear him preach. Children loved him because they sensed that he loved them. The hymn ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ he wrote for the children of his church while on a trip to the Holy Land.

Brooks took a courageous stand on social and ethical issues of the Civil War era and afterward. In a era when Unitarianism and Darwinism were so strong, especially in New England, he held to all Thirty-Nine Articles of his episcopal church. Theologically, some regarded him as rather liberal, since he emphasized the incarnation of Christ more than the atonement. Others thought he was too conservative, since he held to the doctrine of the Trinity. Brooks had a Unitarian father but was shaped more perhaps by his very evangelical mother of New England Puritan heritage. A fitting monument was erected in his memory in front of Trinity Church in Boston, the scene of his last and greatest pastoral ministry. It is a statue of Brooks standing in his pulpit with his open Bible. Standing behind the preacher (who himself stood six feet, four inches and about three hundred pounds) is a larger-than-life Christ with his hand on the preacher’s shoulder.

Jesus came preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit as did John before him and the apostles and others after him. Stephen, Peter, Paul, and Philip preached in the power of that Spirit. The pulpit power of a preacher has much to do with his character. Great preachers in history have learned this lesson.

2. Great preachers tend to feel deeply, and they are not likely to be bashful about expressing those feelings. They are passionate souls. Their love is focused in two directions — toward their fellow man and Godward. Especially do they have a devout love of Christ.

Take Bernard of Clairvaux for example. He was a monk, a theologian, and a mystic who lived 1091-1153 A.D. By preaching, he enlisted thousands to go on the second (and ill-fated)crusade to free the Holy Land. This assignment took him throughout his native France and through Italy and Germany. He had to preach through an interpreter in Germany, yet people were moved to tears even before the translation. Someone has said, ‘Painted fire never burns.’ With Bernard it was real passion.

He was also a hymn writer who gave the church hymns of deep pathos still in our hymnals nearly a thousand years later. Churches which have not abandoned the hymnal in favor of frothy choruses still sing:

‘Jesus the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills my breast,
But sweeter far Thy face to see
And in thy presence rest.

No voice can sing, no heart can frame,
Nor can the memory find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest name,
O Savior of mankind.’

Baptists and other evangelicals could learn a thing or two from this eloquent Roman Catholic about devotion to Christ and about passionate preaching. We would not want to follow him in his minute allegorical treatment of texts, of course, but Bernard was an excellent preacher.

Richard Baxter (1615-1691 A.D.) often described his own pulpit ministry as that of one who ‘preached as never sure to preach again and as a dying man to dying men.’ He was in poor health nearly all his life, but he considered his physical frailty an advantage. It more easily brought his soul to seriousness. He urged his fellow pastors to give priority to evangelistic preaching and personal soul winning. ‘The first and greatest work of ministers of Christ’ wrote Baxter, ‘is acquainting men with the God who made them. . . . Focus on the great work of evangelism whatever else you do or leave undone.’

Baxter earned the right to be heard on Sunday by ceaseless daily labors in the care of his flock. He insisted that a pastor link pulpit work to a personal pastoral ministry. At Kidderminster he spent two days each week, seven hours each day, instructing families in his flock. He devoted one hour per family to their spiritual needs. Part of the hour he gave to one-on-one interviews with each member of the family. Then he taught them the doctrines of the church.

They knew he loved them. He wrote in The Reformed Pastor:

‘He that will blow coals must not wonder if some sparks do fly in his face; and that to persecute men and then call them to charity is like whipping children to make them give over crying . . . .I saw that he that will be loved, must love; and he that rather chooseth to be more feared than loved, must expect to be hated, or loved diminutively. And that he that will have children must be a father; and he that will be a tyrant must be contented with slaves.’

Great preachers love God and they love people. They weep for lost souls. They are sensitive to hurting hearts around them, and as Christ’s under-shepherds they love the sheep of His pasture.

3. Great Preachers Have a Passion to Preach. They tend to have in common the desire to set others ablaze with the fire that burns in their own souls. Thirty years ago, Donald Demaray published his study, Pulpit Giants: What Made Them Great? He named Paul Rees as ‘one who preaches on the fire of the Spirit (and) is himself a man on fire.’ Then he drew an important conclusion: ‘This seems to be the one underlying characteristic of all great preachers: they burn with a holy passion to communicate.’

Some pastors are content to be administrators and organizers. Other ministers would gladly spend all their time in visiting or counseling or other one-on-one ministry. They might wish preaching were never part of their duty. They know nothing of Paul’s burden: ‘. . .I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I preach not the gospel!’ (1 Cor. 9:16 NIV) Great preachers must preach or die.

George Whitefield was mightily used of the Lord in bringing the Great Awakening to England and colonial America. He preached year after year over five hundred times a year. In addition, he started a great orphanage ministry in Georgia and promoted it everywhere he went. But he was a preacher first of all. He preached some eighteen thousand sermons of record. These were one-hour and two-hour sermons mostly to vast crowds gathered in the open air. If we count the unscheduled ‘exhortations’ which crowds begged of him, that number would probably double.

Sarah Edwards, wife of Jonathan Edwards, in a letter to her brother, described Whitefield’s preaching: ‘He speaks from a heart all aglow with love, and pours out a torrent of eloquence which is almost irresistible.’

Whitefield’s consuming passion was for souls. Some sermons dealt with pastoral and ethical concerns, but every sermon was evangelistic. He seldom preached without tears. Critics despised the display of emotion; the multitudes knew it was from a deep heart longing for their salvation. Great preachers, like Jeremiah, have fire in their bones, and they are driven by the desire to set others ablaze with that fire.

In 1770, in Whitefield’s last tour of New England, he preached at Boston, at Portsmouth, and at Exeter. When he reached Newbury Port, he was too tired to get out of the boat. With help, he made it to the parsonage of Old South Church. As evening came he regained a measure of strength and took supper with his host family. A crowd began to gather at the door. Some of them pushed on into the house in hope of hearing his voice again.

“I am too tired,’ Whitefield said ‘and must go to bed.’ He took a lighted candle and started climbing the stairs. But the sight of the patient people gathered in the street and crowding into the house was too much to refuse. He paused on the staircase to say a few words. Soon he was ‘exhorting’ them to trust the savior. He grew stronger, then weaker, then stronger again. He preached until the candle burned down to the socket and flickered out. Then one of the greatest of all preachers and evangelists went up to bed and died.

4. Great Preachers are anchored to the Bible. John Wycliff, ‘the Morning Star of the Reformation,’ burned with a passion to get the Bible into the hands of every man in his native tongue. Translating the Latin Vulgate into fourteenth century English, he became the first to give the whole Bible to his generation in their native tongue. A granite pillar in his honor fittingly stands in Lutterworth, England where he did most of his preaching. On it is the text, ‘Search the Scriptures.’ Great preachers are usually readers of many books, but they are anchored to the Bible supremely.

John Bunyan (1628-1688) spent twelve years in Bedford jail. He was guilty only of preaching God’s Word without the license of the established church. He was not idle in jail. He had a wife and four children to support; one child was blind. He made long lace tags for them to sell. He served as counselor to a great many people who sought his wisdom. He wrote undying literature, most notably Pilgrim’s Progress. Most of all he searched the Scriptures and preached through the bars to crowds who gathered outside his cell window.

He was a great preacher and a great writer, but he was not a writer of great sermons. His sermons that have come down to us tend to be ponderous and lacking in the clarity and drama of his narratives. Yet the crowds gathered to hear him explain and apply the Word of God.

An occasional Billy Sunday or D. L. Moody became great evangelists without much theological education. They were exceptions to the rule. Sunday and Moody both knew their great limitations and sought to help others have the advantage of education not afforded them. G.Campbell Morgan, Alexander Maclaren, and John A. Broadus were great nineteenth century expositors. Skill in Bible exposition made them great. Therefore they, though dead, still speak. Broadus, unfortunately, did not leave us many sermons, but his treatise On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons may still be the all-time greatest textbook on Preaching.

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) was a Baptist without the high view of Scripture that most Southern Baptists hold. We would call Fosdick a liberal. He preferred the label ‘Modernist.’ But here is a strange thing: he was usually faithful to his text in a way that many who loudly defend the Bible miserably fail to be. Preaching about the Bible is not the same as preaching God’s Word. Great preaching is not scrounging for a text to buttress the preacher’s preconceived beliefs. Great preachers let the text shape the sermon, as homilitician Wayne McDill likes to say.

Clarence Macartney (1879-1957) could preach a masterful sermon on three words in a single verse. Hundreds of times he preached his sermon on Paul’s plea, ‘Come Before Winter’ (2 Tim. 4:21). Before the sermon is over, those three words are a sparkling diamond in a skillfully crafted setting of the whole chapter. Masterful application to the hearer’s personal life enliven the text as well. In his autobiography, The Making of a Minister, Macartney could say factually, ‘My preaching has been based entirely on the Bible.’

5. Great Preachers are Relevant. A minister retired after spending more than forty years in one pastorate. A reporter interviewed him for a feature article and asked the secret of his long tenure. He answered: ‘In forty years I have never preached on a controversial subject.’ Personally, I should not like to be in that brother’s sandals at the Judgement Seat of Christ! Great preachers speak to the burning issues of their time.

Clyde Fant and Bill Pinson, came to one over-arching conclusion at the end of their monumental study of ninety preachers that issued in the ten-volume set Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching: ‘Great Preaching is relevant preaching. . . .The preachers who made the greatest impact upon the world were men who spoke to the issues of their day’ (Vol. I, p. v.).

Martin Luther was scandalized by the teaching of his church that a sinner might purchase for himself or for a departed loved one the indulgence of the Almighty with money. On October 31, 1517 he tacked to the chapel door at Wittenberg Castle his Ninety-Five Theses Against Indulgences. It was in Latin, of course, as was the custom of clerics proposing topics for scholarly debate. Someone translated it, however, and it was soon spread all over Europe. Luther found himself the center of a reform movement. He did not set out to lead a breakaway party from Rome. He wanted to correct the abuses he found in it. A preacher who has something to say about the burning issues of his day will likely find himself leading the way to change.

One time the reform movement at Wittenberg was in danger of being taken over by extremists. They were demanding more radical and rapid change. Against the advise of his protectors, Luther left the security of Wartburg Castle where he was occupied with the vital task of translating the Scriptures into the language of his people. He returned to Wittenberg, and in a series of eight sermons in one week, he curbed the influence of the radicals and settled the anxiety of his friends. The Reformation was back on track.

Reinhold Neibuhr said the function of a sermon is ‘to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.’ Read the New Testament record: Stephen’s preaching disturbed people. So did Paul’s sometimes. So did John’s, and so did the preaching of Jesus! They did not come to deliver a few pious platitudes to give people a nice warm feeling down in their souls. All great preachers come with a ‘Thus saith the Lord’ for the need of the hour.

Some preachers today studiously avoid disturbing the status quo. They never preach sermons that deal with ethical issues like race relations, gambling, world hunger, alcohol and tobacco addiction. They justify their silence by saying ‘People don’t want to come to church and hear about pornography and promiscuity and every problem of society.’ They may be right, but they risk being irrelevant. Great preachers in the history of the church from New Testament times to last Sunday are prophets who shirk not to thunder the Word of the Lord on the issues that matter today.

6. Great Preachers are Overcomers. An interesting thing that appears commonly in the lives of great preachers is that many of them tasted failure or rejection early in life and suffered great hardships but rose above it all. They are overcomers.

Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was twenty-three years old when he became pastor of rural Kilmany church in Scotland in 1793. Scotland already had a rich heritage of great preachers, but in these early years Chalmers was neither a good preacher nor a good pastor. He was powerless in the pulpit, among the flock, and in the community. His first pastorate was a disaster. He began in Kilmany with no care for his flock and little interest in Christianity. This went on for seven years while he nearly emptied the church. Then the dry and dusty domine discovered the cause of his spiritual poverty. A series of personal crises led him to realize that he was lost! He came to the Savior and immediately began to preach with a new spiritual power. His consuming hobby of mathematics and other distractions fell away as he fixed his heart on the excellencies of the Father in heaven. His conversion dramatically transformed his life and ministry. He fell in love with the Bible, his pastoral duties, and the preacher’s task. The next four years, the people flocked to hear him preach.

His most famous sermon speaks of ‘The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” It could be a personal testimony of how his new love for Jesus made his former fascinations fade away.The seed thought for that sermon came as he was riding a stage coach. He noticed the driver begin to crack the whip for no apparent reason. When the preacher asked him about it, the driver told of one horse in the brace who was once terrified by something at that particular bend in the road. Ever after, the steed would shy and bolt in drawing near to that place. So the driver gave him something else to occupy his mind until the critical place was past. It set the preacher to thinking of how God graciously redirects our minds from the things that would drag us down and turns us to higher and nobler pursuits. Chalmers preached in a city famous for great preachers and in the century that many consider the greatest era in the history of preaching. He has been called the greatest preacher Glascow ever heard.

Peter Marshall (1902-1949) struggled desperately in Scotland growing up without a father. Then he came to America for seminary training. After he married Catherine, tuberculosis broke her health. Caring for her and their small son as well as his pastorate was almost more than he could bear. In time God healed Catherine, but Peter developed the heart disease that shortened his life. He was not yet forty-seven when he died, but this dynamic pastor and greatly respected chaplain of the U. S. Senate had said, ‘The measure of life, after all, is not its duration, but its donation.’

7. Great preachers are given to thinking and meditation. Not all great preachers in the history of the church thought alike, but all truly great preacher alike are thinkers. They tend to have minds given to reflection, to innovation and to originality. Some, like Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin were theoretical and abstract thinkers. Others, like Thomas Chalmers and F. W. Robertson were creative thinkers. Their sermons were marked by fresh insights and lucid language.

Take Fredrick W. Robertson(1816-1853)as a case study. Many preachers suppose every sermon has to have three points regardless of the natural divisions of the text. Robertson liked texts that suggest two points. They might be contrasting ideas or comparisons; the second idea might complete the first. For example, a sermon is based on John 16:31-32. ‘Behold the hour cometh, yea is now come that ye shall be scattered. . .and shall leave me alone, and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.’ Robertson’s title is ‘The Loneliness of Christ.’ The twin themes in the text as he preached it are first, the loneliness of Christ, (‘ye. . .shall leave me alone’), and second, the spirit or temper of that solitude, (‘and yet I am not alone, etc.’). It is, of course, a sermon also about our struggle with loneliness and isolation.

Robertson grew up on a military post and wanted a military career. His father, however, urged him to consider the gospel ministry. Shortly after he entered Oxford at age twenty-nine, an offer of an officer’s commission came to him. He had made his choice, though, and did not look back. At thirty-two he was ordained and began a rigorous agenda that might break anyone’s health. Up at dawn, skip breakfast, spend all morning in Bible study. All afternoon rush from hovel to hovel in the slums of London. Spend the evenings in discussions with your supervisor. No leisure, no social life, no rest until his health broke and his doctor sent him to Switzerland to recover.

When he came back a year later, he began his pastorate at Trinity Chapel, Brighton. Though he was thoroughly evangelical in theology and evangelistic in ministry, many of his fellow pastors were suspicious of his concern for social reform. After all, the ‘social gospel’ was making inroads into many churches. While Robertson was ministering in the slums of London, Karl Marx was in that city’s library writing his Communist Manifesto. Robertson preached the true gospel of Christ, however.

Robertson died at thirty-seven years of age counting himself a failure. In fact, acclaim as a great preacher came but only after he died. Though his life was cut short, he had memorized the whole New Testament in English and much of it in Greek. He always preached
extemporaneous sermons after thorough study and reflection on his text. Then on Sunday night after he preached, he wrote out his sermon manuscript. After his death, these sermons began to be published. They are still widely read and praised today.

8. Great preachers have the shepherd heart. They have compassion for the lost sheep and a loving concern for the whole flock. Some preachers, like Charles G. Finney and John Wesley were great preachers as missionary evangelists. They were itinerant preachers more than local church pastors, but they kept in touch with the common man. Their great passion was for winning the lost. Other preachers focus more on tending the sheep already gathered into the fold. A pastor ought to do both. Great preachers who are pastors will go after the one lost sheep and not fail to feed the ninety and nine.

Some great preachers turned their passion for people toward redeeming society as well as souls. The name Walter Rausenbusch (1861-1918) is indelibly printed on the pages of history as the Father of the Social Gospel. True enough, he did preach to change society. He sought to bring the transforming Christ into the institutions of society, especially business and government. Yet Rausenbusch, in fact, was one Baptist who preached the need for a personal, transforming conversion experience with Christ. That is foundational to reforming society.

George W. Truett (1867-1934) is a worthy model for a pastoral preacher. He was a true shepherd who went out after the lost sheep in personal evangelism and in evangelistic preaching. Then, like the Good Shepherd, he did more than dip ’em and drop ’em as soon as they were counted. Truett was a shepherd who fed the flock Sunday after Sunday.

When he was a young man, he wanted to be a lawyer. His church in Whitewright, Texas, however, over his vigorous protests, voted to ordain him. In 1890, B. H. Carroll enlisted him to raise funds to save Baylor. He did save the school and a seminary that soon moved to Fort Worth and became Southwestern. Soon after he graduated from Baylor, they elected him president. This time, he did not let others set his course; he declined the honor saying that God had given him the shepherd heart.

If you have not read the sermons of Truett, you should, whether you are layman or preacher. Scan the titles and hear the heartbeat of a pastor. Especially in the dark days of World War II did he offer encouraging sermons like ‘Christ and Human Suffering,’ ‘Why Be Discouraged?’ and ‘The Conquest of Fear.’ This last one takes Rev. 1:17-18 as a text. ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive forevermore; Amen, and have the keys of hell and of death.’ The outline is in three divisions. First, do not be afraid of life. Jesus said ‘I am he that liveth.’ Secondly, do not be afraid of death; Jesus said ‘. . .and was dead.’ And thirdly, do not be afraid of eternity; Jesus said ‘. . .and behold, I am alive forevermore, etc.’

Not all great preachers are pastors. This is true today as in the whole history of the Church. There have been great missionary preachers, itinerants, evangelists, and revivalists. But even these, if they deserve recognition for greatness, have taken personally the Words of Jesus to Peter, ‘Feed my lambs. . . .Take care of my sheep. . .Feed my sheep’ (John 21:17 NIV).

9. Great preachers walk with the Lord. Some of them we might call mystics. Some had this walk from childhood; some turned to the Lord in a sudden and dramatic conversion. Others were changed later in life by a ‘deeper experience.’

Augustine (A.D. 354-430) was one who turned to the Lord in a dramatic conversion. Before that, he led a wild life including a long-term affair with a mistress who bore him a son. But he came under deep conviction. In his Confessions he told of one day hearing a child’s voice over the garden wall saying ‘ Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.’ He could think of only one Book that he needed to read. Finding a Bible, he opened it and soon came to forsake all for Christ. Shortly after his conversion, he saw his former lover coming toward him on the street. He turned and ran away. She called after him: ‘Augustine, It is I!’ Without stopping, he called back over his shoulder, ‘I know it is you, but I am no longer the same Augustine!’

John Tauler (1300-1361) was ordained at age thirty-five, but years later a layman brought heavy conviction on him, saying: ‘You must die, Dr. Tauler! Before you can do your greatest work. . .you must die to yourself, your gifts, your popularity, and even your own goodness.’ He quit preaching for two years. When he returned to the pulpit, it was with a power and zeal to exalt Christ. His writings were a strong influence on many including Martin Luther.

John Bunyan’s (1628-1688) adult conversion experience is well known. He was a traveling tinker, making and selling pots and pans. One day he overheard three women sitting on their respective door stoops, talking about the joys of knowing Christ. He went through a long incubation of conviction on the way to conversion. At that time he could not read or write. Before he finished his pilgrimage, he wrote a hundred books. His Pilgrim’s Progress is still counted as one of the greatest books in English literature.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was reared by parents and grandparents who were devout Congregationalists and ministers. At age ten he wrote a tract on ‘The Nature of the Soul.’ Then one day, in the year he graduated from Yale at age seventeen, he was reading the Bible when suddenly he became aware of the presence of God. He was captured then and there with the thought of the union of the soul with God. That experience became the defining moment of his life and ministry. We probably remember him most for his famous sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’ We should remember also that he was mightily used of God in the Great Awakening in colonial America.

F. B. Meyer (1847-1929), was a British Baptist greatly used of God in the Keswick movement as well as in notable pastorates. He confesses that it was many years after he took Christ as Savior and several years after he entered the ministry that he took Christ as his Judge, Lawgiver, and King. He said, ‘It was a very memorable night in my life when I knelt before Christ and gave myself definitely to Him, and committed the keys of my heart and life to His hands. . . .and though I had no joy, no emotion, no ecstacy, I had a blessed feeling in my heart that I had but one Lord, one will, one purpose in all my life and for all coming time. . .Jesus. . .for whom henceforth my life was to be spent.’

10. Great preachers work hard. In the history of preaching, those who excelled at their task were all hard workers, busy preachers, never idle, never slackers. How a Calvin or Wesley or Whitefield could preach every day and sometimes several times a day, and still find time to study and write and organize and promote a mighty movement of men and nations, boggles the mind! Whatever other gifts or talents they had, they worked hard!

Consider Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). Besides preaching and serving as pastor of a great church, he established a pastor’s college and lectured to the young men regularly. He established an orphanage and ministered to the children. He published a monthly magazine called The Sword and the Trowel that included in every issue his exposition of a psalm or some other text. It enjoyed wide circulation all over the English-speaking world. Wilbur Smith calculated that Spurgeon’s writings would approximate twenty-seven volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He founded a literature distribution society and arranged for colporteurs to distribute wholesome Christian reading material in a society woefully in need of it.

Spurgeon himself read tons of books. Though he was without theological schooling, he was certainly not without theological education. Many of the twelve thousand volumes of his personal library have his handwritten notes in the margins, evidence of thousands of hours spent in study. A common misconception about Spurgeon’s sermon preparation is that he spent only a couple of hours on Saturday evening after supper on his Sunday morning sermon. Not true! He spent many hours of the week working on several texts. Then at the end of the week he selected the one most ready to preach and sketched out his final sermon plan.

When John Henry Jowett (1863-1923) was a new pastor, he was awakened early in the morning by the clomping of work shoes going past his window. The mills started work at six o’clock. He aid, ‘The sound of clogs fetched me out of bed and took me to my work.’ In his Yale Lectures on Preaching (among the very best in that illustrious series named for Lyman Beecher), Jowett advised young pastors to enter their study at an early hour. He recommended that hour be as early as the earliest of their business men goes to his office. Jowett occupied some of the most illustrious pulpits in England including Westminster Chapel in London following G.Campbell Morgan. In 1911, he moved to New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Pastors today are tempted to wring their hands and bemoan the plethora of promotional and organizational work that demands their time. We think he could prepare great sermons if we just didn’t have so much else to do. Of course, preachers in earlier generations didn’t have to spend ten or fifteen hours a week watching television, and I don’t know of a single one who had to spend one day every week on the golf course. The task of a preacher is too great and too glorious to command less than total commitment. Christ deserves no less than our best.

An abridgment of this lengthy meditation by Austin B. Tucker was published in serial form in The Baptist Message (Louisiana Baptist Convention), 2004.

About The Author

Most of my life has been as a pastor of Southern Baptist churches. Preaching, teaching and writing have been the major emphases of my ministry. It has long been my prayer that my mature years might be given more to teaching and writing. Especially do I want to help young pastors in sharpening their preaching and other ministry skills.