Extemporaneous Preaching - Glenn Conjurske

Extemporaneous Preaching

by Glenn Conjurske

I have always been an advocate of extemporaneous preaching. So soon as I learned that there was such a thing as “homiletics,” when I was a young convert at Bible school, thirty-five years ago, I opposed it. I was obliged to take the courses in homiletics myself, but I never believed a word of it. Homiletics is “the art of preaching,” but we deny that preaching is an art. Homiletics is “the preparation and delivery of sermons,” but we deny that preaching consists of delivering sermons, and hold that the best and truest preaching is that which is done without preparation. By the rules of “homiletics,” the preaching of Christ himself, and of his apostles also, was the most miserable sermonizing ever to disgrace the earth, yet we know that the power of God was in it. The preaching of George Whitefield must be categorically condemned by the dictates of “homiletics,” yet no greater preacher ever walked the earth than George Whitefield. He preached extemporaneously, as did the Lord and the apostles, and his sermons violated all the precepts of the rule-makers, yet his “rambling effusions,” as the critics called them, were unequalled in power and effect.

But we must define what we mean by extemporaneous preaching. The term may mean several different things.

1. In its truest sense, it is preaching without premeditation.

2. The term is also applied to preaching without notes, though we may have premeditated what we are to say.

3. It is applied, in a lower sense, to preaching with both premeditation and notes, but without having determined beforehand the exact substance or wording of the sermon.

In the latter sense, almost all preaching is extemporaneous today, and this is at any rate a grand improvement over the days in which most preachers used to write out their sermons in advance, and read them to the people, or memorize them, and quote them to the people.

We shall allow all three of these definitions to be legitimate, each of them describing a different degree of the extemporaneous element. We think as a general rule, the more nearly the preaching approaches to the purely extemporaneous, the better it will be.

We have reasons for believing this. We may cite in the first place the fact that almost all the greatest preachers in history have preached extemporaneously. On the one extreme we have T. DeWitt Talmage, who wrote out his sermons, memorized them, and rehearsed them in front of a mirror before preaching. This does not deserve to be called preaching at all, and of eloquence Talmage had none. His sermons are mere word paintings, artificial throughout—-”shimmering soap bubbles,” James H. Brookes calls them—-and as destitute of solid substance as they are of real eloquence. At the other extreme we see men like Gipsy Smith, who never preached from notes, usually did not know beforehand what his subject would be, and rarely preached as he intended. Yet his sermons are not only eloquent and moving, but full of solid substance also. George Whitefield—-Charles G. Finney—-Peter Cartwright and all the early Methodists—-preached as did the Gipsy, and with the same power and effect.

We know that there are exceptions. Some men have preached well from notes, and some have written and read their sermons, and yet “preached” with power. Such was Jonathan Edwards. We do not trouble ourselves about such exceptions. Some birds may sing in a cage, though they will sing better under the open sky. David might have used his trusty sling to kill Goliath even in Saul’s armor, though he would have been severely hampered by it.

The facts of history must be reason enough to advocate extemporaneous preaching, but there is a reason for the reason. Extemporaneous preaching is preaching from a full heart. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,” and it is the full heart which flows out in true eloquence in extemporaneous preaching. The dry pump must be primed, while the artesian well flows of its own accord. It is the empty heart which must carry a prepared sermon to the pulpit. The full heart stands in no need of this.

But we must qualify this, for the heart of the preacher is not the only factor. A man must have not only a full heart, but the inspiration of an occasion also. A full heart preaching to hungry hearts needs no priming, but the Lord himself could do no mighty works in some places, and the most eloquent preacher on earth will be shackled on many occasions. John Nelson described his attempt to preach to a certain people as “plowing on a rock.” I preached once in the church in which I grew up, and found the atmosphere so icy that I thought while I preached that if I had shed a tear it would have frozen on my cheek. I could not have wept in such a place to save my life. I was told afterwards (by a woman new to the place) that the sermon was “fantastic,” but she had scarcely heard me preach. An old proverb truly affirms, “Great ships require deep waters,” and a great preacher will rarely do well in a contracted sphere. Those who are obliged to preach continually to the same little flock will lack the inspiration which a larger sphere would provide, and may struggle to preach at all. John Wesley affirmed that if he must preach always to the same people, in three months he would preach himself and all the people fast asleep. This was probably saying too much, but the difficulty is nevertheless a great one.

But granting the inspiration of an occasion, it is the full heart which makes a preacher. Martin Luther affirmed that if a man could not preach on one word of Scripture, he could never be a preacher. To preach on one word, a man must have a full heart, while any empty head may fill up an hour with rambling through a chapter. We fear this is one reason that “expository preaching” is so popular today. Any man can do this, who really cannot preach at all. I once endured a man’s preaching for an hour and a half on Jacob’s blessing of the tribes, and I spent most of that time praying that he would quit. If I had been D. L. Moody, I would have stopped him myself. He had nothing to say, and had no business behind a pulpit, yet he thought he was a preacher. His performance was extemporaneous, but it was not preaching, but only the empty rambling of a man who thought a good deal too highly of himself.

David Marks, one of the greatest preachers the Free-Will Baptists ever possessed, would often ask the crowd for a text, and preach on whatever they gave him. On one such occasion a heckler cried, “Nothing,” and Marks preached on the word—-with good substance, too. Charles Wesley often opened his Bible and preached on the first words that presented themselves, thinking thus to be directed of God in the choice of his sermons—-and there is no doubt that some very remarkable texts were given him in that manner. But whatever may be thought of that, no man could preach so without a full heart.

Bill Rice once related an experience which he had when he was young, at some camp or conference conducted by J. Frank Norris. Norris was disgusted at the conduct of the young would-be preachers, many of whom did not get up for breakfast. He announced, therefore, a special meeting at five o’clock in the morning, when he would teach them how to preach at any time with five minutes’ preparation. They all got up early that morning, and came to the meeting, to learn how to get something for nothing. Norris scolded them for their laziness, and then told them that if they would but study eight hours a day for the next thirty years, they could then preach at any time with five minutes’ preparation. Norris was on the right track, but the wrong train. Thirty years of study may give a man a full mind, but leave his heart as empty as ever. Norris’s power did not derive from study, but spiritual experience. Thirty years of hardships will certainly make a better preacher than thirty years of study. The man who neglects study can hardly be fit to preach, but study can never be a substitute for experience and meditation. An old man once commenced to feel the head of Gipsy Smith. The gipsy asked him what he was about, and was told he was looking for the secret of his power. Gipsy told him he was feeling too high, and told him that his power lay here, indicating the position of his heart. Nor is it only the full heart which makes the preacher, but the earnest and the burning heart also. Yet when we speak of preaching extemporaneously, the full heart is the matter of first importance. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,” and the man who cannot preach extemporaneously is really no preacher at all, and ought to stay out of the pulpit.

For the above my readers will have to go without references, for I have written from my own heart and memory, without consulting my books. In what follows, however, I intend to give them some examples from my books of the power and superiority of extemporaneous preaching.

I begin by putting the whole matter on the foundation of Scripture. The Lord says in Mark 13:11, “But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.” This scripture, both the command and the promise, are almost totally ignored in modern preaching, and though some plausible pleas may be presented to justify this, we fear the real reason is unbelief. Yet that this scripture can be fulfilled in our day will be evident from the following:

At the Ottawa Convention of Baptists in 1919, T. T. Shields spoke for an hour and a half in defense of the inspiration of the Scriptures. “During that hour and a half,” he says, “the promise, ‘It shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak,’ was abundantly verified. Scriptures passed in procession before my mind like moving electric signs, ablaze with glory; and those who were present on that great occasion, who read this account, will remember how often during the course of that afternoon the word of the Lord was as a hammer breaking the rock in pieces.”

Another instance comes from the sick-bed of a newly converted Jewess, of the name of Maria, who was under the care of her grandmother. “On the Friday following, an opportunity occurred of explaining the striking fulfilment of prophecy in Christ Jesus. When giving a detail of the conversation to Miss P., Maria said, ‘I prayed a long time before I had courage to speak; but when I began, words seemed put into my mouth, and thoughts into my mind. For nearly two hours I spoke so earnestly, that I seemed to tell her more than I knew:’ and E., who was present, added, ‘My mistress [Maria’s grandmother] sat looking at Miss Maria with great astonishment, but never once interrupted her.”’

In my own preaching I have often taught the people “more than I knew,” for new light has come to me while I preached, and things which I understood but vaguely and indistinctly have become as clear as crystal.

But here I must turn aside to guard against the abuse of all this. One of the most common objections to extemporaneous preaching is that it promotes laziness. We grant that it does, in men who are not fit to preach at all. But I trust none will accuse me of laziness. For the past thirty-five years I have spent more money for books, and more time reading them, than most of my readers will ever dream of. Most of my life is taken up with study and meditation, and I am often engaged in this while my readers are fast asleep. Indeed, I have burned the midnight oil in the writing of much of the present article. And at the present moment I am engaged in making a selection from about two hundred references to extemporaneous preaching on my note cards. I possess those references, of course, as the result of many hundreds of hours of study. We have no sympathy with the lazy, and neither the command nor the promise of God can be thought to give them any countenance.

“Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate.” “Take no thought” is an archaic expression which means “Be not careful.” “Neither do ye pre-meditate”—-that is, not as to what you shall speak on that occasion. But surely the text cannot mean “Neither do ye meditate,” as a general habit. As for the promise that it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak, we do not believe this promises any new revelation, nor any new communication of truth, but only the bringing to our remembrance of what we know, and arranging it to the best advantage. Those texts of Scripture which marched before T. T. Shields as neon signs were not scriptures of which till then he knew nothing, but those which dwelt richly in his heart. The Spirit of God comes to a man’s aid in preaching as a cook to a kitchen. If the cupboards are full, he may set forth a good meal, but if he finds the larder empty, there will be no supper. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things.” The aid and the power of the Holy Ghost in preaching are no substitute for this. The extemporaneous preaching of a lazy man, who has no store of treasures in his heart, will be as empty as he is, and may well be the worst preaching on earth.

Thus much to guard against the abuse of the promise. I proceed to further examples. I proceed to the records of some who both read or spoke from notes and preached extemporaneously, for in every such case that I know of their extemporaneous preaching is pronounced superior.

John Guyse preached from notes all his life, till the following occurred. “’The late Dr. Guyse,’ says Toplady, ‘totally lost his eye-sight, which had been gradually decaying, while he was one Sabbath engaged in public prayer before sermon. Having finished the prayer, he was obliged to preach without his usual notes. As he was led out of the meeting, after service was over, he could not help lamenting his total blindness. A good old gentlewoman who heard him deplore his loss, answered him, “God be praised that your sight is gone: I never heard you preach so powerful a sermon before. I wish for my part that the Lord had taken away your eye-sight twenty-eight years ago, for your ministry would have been more useful by twenty degrees.””’

On this we need only remark that the difference in his preaching must have been very great, for the woman to seriously express such a wish in the face of such a personal calamity.

Gilbert Tennent was the American Whitefield, stirred up by Whitefield’s example and admonitions to itinerant and extemporaneous preaching, and little inferior to Whitefield in the power of his address. He was one of the primary instruments of the Great Awakening in America. “A lady asked him, at the close of his life, concerning his mode of preaching while in New England, during the Revival.. He replied, he hardly knew what he preached; he had no time to study. The many years he had spent in diligent preparation, and his prevailing absorption in divine things, nobly qualified him to preach without effort. The droppings of his lips were as choice silver.” This, we suppose, was true preaching. Alas, he abandoned it when he took a city pastorate. “He ceased his former method of uttering his discourses, and read them. … His ministry in Philadelphia was in the main unattended with encouraging success,” while one of his opposers wrote, “Tennent lets me alone, and is generally moderate; but many of his followers grow weary of him, and wish for Whitefield’s return.” “From this time he seems to have gone along as quietly as other ministers around him. We thus judge, because we have never heard of any remarkable effects of his preaching after his settlement in Philadelphia. … when settled in a great city, he thought it necessary, for the sake of correctness, to write his sermons, and read them from the pulpit. … The writer once conversed with a plain and pious man, who in early life being apprenticed to a trade in Philadelphia, attended Mr. Tennent’s ministry. We asked him respecting his manner of preaching. He answered simply, ‘that Mr. Tennent was never worth anything after he came to Philadelphia;”for,’ said he, ‘he took to reading his sermons, and lost all his animation.”’

Jonathan Edwards was Tennent’s contemporary, and another of the primary instruments of the Great Awakening in America. He wrote and read his sermons, yet his biographer gives us the following tell-tale testimony. “He wrote his sermons; and in so fine and so illegible a hand, that they could be read only by being brought near to the eye. ‘He carried his notes with him into the desk, and read most that he wrote: still, he was not confined to them; and, if some thoughts were suggested to him while he was preaching, which did not occur to him when writing, and appeared pertinent, he would deliver them with as great propriety and fluency, and often with greater pathos, and attended with a more sensibly good effect on his hearers, than what he had written.”’

And as was his experience, so was his opinion also. “’Though, as has been observed,’ says Dr. Hopkins, ‘he was wont to read so considerable a part of what he delivered, yet he was far from thinking this the best way of preaching in general; and looked upon using his notes, so much as he did, [as] a deficiency and infirmity, and in the latter part of his life, he was inclined to think it had been better, if he had never been accustomed to use his notes at all. It appeared to him, that preaching wholly without notes, agreeably to the custom in most Protestant countries, and in what seems evidently to have been the manner of the Apostles and primitive ministers of the Gospel, was by far the most natural way, and had the greatest tendency, on the whole, to answer the end of preaching.”’

Thomas Chalmers has been widely esteemed as the greatest man ever produced by Scotland, and has been called also the prince of Scottish preachers. He read his sermons, and with such earnestness and power that he has usually been regarded as an exceptional case. Nevertheless, even of him we read, “The editor of the British Standard recently published a series of letters in favor of preaching extemporaneously, which he considered the only simple, natural, and truly-effective style of pulpit oratory. He thus disposes of the greatest apparent exception to his rule, the prince of Scottish preachers:

“’I have heard all the greatest pulpit readers of my time, and not one of them has formed an exception to the rule. Even Chalmers, their chief and head, whose mighty ministrations I have very frequently attended, matchless reader though he was, came most fully within the rule. That distinguished man, indeed, made no attempt to look at his audience such as is made by a multitude of readers; the finger of either hand was never for a moment removed from the MS.; there was nothing beyond a passing flash of the eye as he occasionally darted his head upward. Once fairly in motion, he rushed along like a locomotive of the highest power at full speed, heedless of every thing before, behind, or around him, with a sort of blind, though inspired fury. He could, I verily believe, have performed the magnificent feat equally well in Westminster Abbey alone, and with the doors shut! The fires which, on these occasions, raged so strongly within him, were wholly independent of the external circumstances. As a consequence of this, power, all-subduing power, was the prime characteristic of the achievement. He was generally altogether wanting in pathos, that ethereal something which, proceeding from a melted heart, has the power of melting all around it. The effect of his sublime effusion was a feeling of intense excitement, ofttimes of overwhelming admiration, from which the auditor was often strongly tempted to clap his hands and shout applause; but he was rarely visited with compunction or moved to tears. Even in his death-scenes he awakened in the assembly scarcely any emotions other than those of awe or horror; the most sympathetic even of the gentler sex seldom wept.”’

Thus it appears that even his power was cold, and the above description is the perfect contrast to the preaching of George Whitefield or Gipsy Smith. But anon the editor gives us a glimpse of Chalmers’ occasional extemporary endeavors: “How great soever, in a certain way, Chalmers might be with MS., he would have been incomparably greater with free speech; he was so in his partial attempts at extemporizing. Nothing I ever listened to might be likened to his off-hand flights, whether in the pulpit or the class-room, the social meeting or the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The style was then much more natural and idiomatic, much less figurative, and the matter much more simple, condensed, and business-like, and the intonation in keeping with it. It was nature perfected.”

The name of Henry Bascom is legendary as one of the greatest preachers of all time. His lengthy sermons seemed short to the hearers, and the hard seats on which they sat seemed soft. He believed “that to thoroughly understand and feel a subject is the best preparation for speaking on that subject effectively,” and he preached, like all the early Methodists, extemporaneously, without notes. In his later years, however, he took to writing his sermons, and of this we read, “This was one of his first efforts at reading an address in public; and though the composition and delivery were greatly extolled, I felt the disadvantage of the course to be so much against him, that in the delivery I could scarcely recognize the presence of Bascom, and earnestly hoped it might be his last experiment in that line.”

But Bascom had a reason for continuing in that course. “The fact was, that in his palmy days he never preached either from memory or manuscript, but from careful and laborious study of his subjects; but when he became the subject of bronchial affection, which required moderation in his pulpit labors, he resorted to reading as the most effectual way of putting a necessary restraint on his excessive pulpit efforts. The expedient was effectual, to be sure, in imposing restraint on his vehemence of delivery, but equally effectual in quenching the fire and weakening the power of his eloquence.”

It will be said, however, that these comparisons do not quite meet the case, for the practice of reading sermons, or delivering them from memory, has been universally abandoned among Evangelicals. This is true, and yet most Evangelicals today occupy a middle position between reading or quoting and true extemporaneous preaching. Their actual speech is extemporaneous, but the sermon itself—-its matter and arrangement—-is thoroughly prepared beforehand, committed to paper, and carried into the pulpit. I was taught this method of preaching at Bible school, in a course in “homiletics.” The sermon was to be prepared beforehand, with planned introduction and conclusion, three main points, alliterated if possible, with an illustration under each point. This I was taught, but I never learned it, for I always regarded such a method as nothing better than Saul’s armor, and such preaching as weak and artificial, and certainly altogether diverse from any preaching we see in the Bible. It proceeds largely in disregard of the circumstances or the occasion and the persons present, and altogether heedless of the promise of Scripture that it “shall be given you in that hour” what ye shall speak. The apostles preached the gospel “with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven,” but how can the man do this who is tied to his manuscript? How can it be given him in that hour what he shall speak? My homiletics teacher at Bible school, conscious of this difficulty, informed us that the Spirit of God could lead us in the study as well as in the pulpit, and so he may, yet he does not promise to aid us in preparing speeches beforehand, but to give us what to speak in that hour—-to give us what is dictated by the occasion, and suited to it.

But there is a greater difficulty. These modern sermon-makers do not labor, as Bascom did, to understand and feel the subject, but only to make sermons. The man who understands and feels the subject can of course preach upon it, and suit his preaching to the state of his hearers also, and that without any particular preparation for the occasion, but he who lacks this must make a sermon, and preach the sermon he has made. This is as shallow as it is artificial. Gipsy Smith studied Acts 16:31 for fifteen years before he dared to preach on it, but a few hours will suffice for these sermon-makers. The Gipsy labored to understand the subject, not merely to put together a sermon, to preach at any rate, whether he understood the matter or not—-to mouth second-hand the notions of others, and to illustrate the second-hand matter with borrowed illustrations, gleaned from some collection of them made for the purpose, as though their own eyes have been closed while they have passed through the world. We really cannot guess why these sermon-makers suppose themselves called of God to preach. They are no more preachers than she is a cook, who can only open cans of stew from the grocery store. The true preacher has an artesian well within, and speaks out of the abundance of the heart. Those who must prime the pump ere they can speak have mistaken their calling.

There is one real danger in preparing sermons which mere bland talkers may be altogether unaware of. We may spend our emotions in the preparation, and so be left cold and dry in the preaching. Bascom’s biographer says, “Nothing is more common, perhaps, with public speakers, than to study intensely their subjects up to the moment of appearing in public; the natural effect of which is to weaken, if not prostrate, the mental energies and exhaust excitabililty, before coming to the point where these must be called fully into action, or the speaker fail. Bascom understood the philosophy of the mind and feelings too well to expend in the drill the strength essential to success in the battle.” I vividly recall an occasion when I wept profusely, walking along a quiet country road on Saturday, premeditating what I would speak on Sunday, but when the time for preaching came, my emotions were spent, and I preached without shedding a tear. Such a thing may little trouble those cold, dry preachers who seem to be unaware that emotions exist, or that they have any value, whose whole aim in preaching seems to be merely to inform the intellect, but such an experience must be felt as a grievous failure by a true prophet of God.

But allow me to make all the excuse I can in favor of preparing for the pulpit. Sometimes we know in advance who will be present, and what the occasion calls for. This is particularly true of those who must preach over a long period to the same congregation. Being in that situation myself, I frequently choose my subjects in advance, though I often do not. When I do, I sometimes make a few notes. These are usually very brief, consisting mostly of a few Scripture references to which I wish to turn, or a few items I wish to mention, and do not wish to forget. I do no studying to prepare a sermon, for it is none of my business to preach other men’s thoughts, nor to preach my own raw and undigested thoughts as soon as I first think them, but to preach those things which have long dwelt in my heart. Even when I choose a subject beforehand, I most often merely choose the subject, with no thought as to how I shall develop it. I do not think through the details of what I will say, much less commit them to paper. Why should I, when I have thought them through numerous times in my own meditations, or discussed them with others, for my own understanding of the theme? That being done, it would be the merest busy-work to prepare a sermon. I speak from the abundance of the heart. I preach my sermons as I wrote my book on Good Preaching. I wrote that book in a week, but it embodies the meditations of fifteen years. So it is with much of the content of this magazine. I often delay for years the writing of an article, or the preaching of a sermon, while I meditate upon the theme, and seek the light which will clear up any difficulties which remain in my own mind.

I offer my readers a few examples of my sermon notes, that they may understand of what sort they are.

I make such notes for this reason, that though I usually know what the Scriptures say, I rarely know the references of particular texts, having never made any point to learn or remember them. I yield to the modern practice of having the people turn in their Bibles to the scriptures under consideration, and to do this I must have the references. I sometimes make more detailed notes, as an aid to my faulty memory, to note those points I wish to mention, but when I make such notes, I do not always follow them. The abstracts of my sermons which appear in this magazine are written from memory, after the sermon is preached. The actual substance of my preaching consists of those things which dwell in my heart, and which occur to my mind while I speak—-and I most often have too much matter on my hands, rather than too little. And I often preach without knowing what my subject will be a minute before I begin—-often stand behind the pulpit in a strait between two or three texts or subjects—-and often preach better thus than when I have chosen my subject in advance. We do not condemn choosing a subject beforehand. There may be good reasons for this. Yet choosing a subject is another thing altogether from preparing a sermon. We think the man who must prepare a sermon in order to have something to say has no business to preach. We do not say this of every man who does prepare sermons, but of the man who must. Many have submitted to be clothed in Saul’s armor, who would certainly fare better without it. We have read of a preacher who visited a lumber camp in the early days of the twentieth century, and was pressed by the men to preach. He told them he could not, as he had no sermons with him—-none on paper, that is. They told him that surely a real preacher must have at least one sermon in his heart, and thus persuaded him to make the attempt. He did well enough without his paper, and so, no doubt, would many others. It is those who have nothing in their hearts that require their notes.

Spurgeon preached to the same people for many years, and besides that printed his sermons every week, and thus laid himself under some obligation to avoid repeating the same things too often. He therefore prepared his sermons in advance, yet I believe much after the same manner in which I do so myself. Though his subjects were determined in advance, his speech was for the most part extemporaneous and unpremeditated. But further, he deliberately made it a frequent practice to preach without any premeditation at all. He says, “Ever since I have been in London, in order to get into the habit of speaking extemporaneously, I have never studied or prepared anything for the Monday evening prayer-meeting. I have all along selected that occasion as the opportunity for off-hand exhortation; but I do not on such occasions select difficult expository topics, or abstruse themes, but restrict myself to simple, homely talk about the elements of our faith. When standing up, on such occasions, my mind makes a review, and enquires, ‘What subject has already occupied my thought during the day? What have I met with in my reading during the past week? What is most laid upon my heart at this hour? What is suggested by the hymns or the prayers?’ It is of no use to rise before an assembly, and hope to be inspired upon subjects of which one knows nothing; if anyone is so unwise, the result will be that, as he knows nothing, he will probably say it, and the people will not be edified. But I do not see why a man cannot speak extemporaneously upon a subject which he fully understands. … The thought of a man who finds himself upon his legs, dilating upon a theme with which he is familiar, may be very far from being his first thought; it may be the cream of his meditations warmed by the glow of his heart. He having studied the subject well before, though not at the moment, may deliver himself most powerfully; whereas another man, sitting down to write, may only be penning his first ideas, which may be vague and vapid.”

The last observations are the very truth, and well spoken, though the matter may be even worse than Spurgeon represents it, for the man who sits down to prepare a sermon may not be penning his own thoughts at all, but only the thoughts of others, gleaned second-hand from “sermon helps” and other books. And however valuable such thoughts may be in themselves, they are of little worth in his mouth, for they must necessarily be given forth destitute of the main element of power in preaching, namely, the pathos of a heart which is aglow with the emotions inspired by truth which is personally known and felt.

Spurgeon records, at too great length to be quoted here, a time when he entered the pulpit with a “carefully planned” discourse, but when he opened the Bible to his text, “on the opposite page another passage of Scripture sprang upon me like a lion from a thicket, with vastly more power than I had felt when considering the text which I had chosen.” He was in a strait betwixt the two, but chose the new text, and says, “I passed through the first head with considerable liberty, speaking perfectly extemporaneously both as to thought and word. The second point was dwelt upon with a consciousness of unusual quiet efficient power, but I had no idea what the third would or could be.” Not that a sermon must have three points. Nevertheless, just at that time, the lights went out, which circumstance gave the preacher the matter he needed to finish the sermon. He concludes his relation of the event thus: “If you have solemnly done your best to get a text, and the subject does not start up before you, go up into the pulpit firmly convinced that you will receive a message when the time comes, even though you have not a word at that moment.”

Yes, and so too if you have not solemnly done your best to “get a text,” for there is not a word of Scripture which requires us, or even advises us, to have a sermon ready in advance. Though Spurgeon obviously aims at discouraging laziness and presumption, yet there is such a thing as faith also, which looks to God for a message in the hour of need. This is quite in keeping with the declaration of Scripture that it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak. Spurgeon relates another example of this, as follows: “In the life of Samuel Drew, a famous Methodist preacher, we read, ‘Whilst stopping at a friend’s house, in Cornwall, after preaching, a person who had attended the service, observing to him, that he had, on that occasion, surpassed his usual ability; and other individuals concurring in the opinion, Mr. Drew said, “If it be true, it is the more singular, because my sermon was entirely unpremeditated. I went into the pulpit designing to address you from another text, but looking upon the Bible, which lay open, that passage from which you heard me speak just now, ‘Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel,’ arrested my attention so forcibly as to put to flight my former ideas; and though I had never considered the passage before, I resolved instantly to make it the subject of my discourse.””’

Mr. Spurgeon adds, “Under certain circumstances you will be absolutely compelled to cast away the well-studied discourse, and rely upon the present help of the Holy Spirit, using purely extempore speech.” But if so, why should we enter the pulpit with any prepared sermons at all? Perhaps those well-studied discourses more often than not stand in the way of the present operations of the Holy Ghost.

We may add a similar example from the life of John Fletcher. “One Sunday,” he says, “when I had done reading prayers at Madeley, I went up into the pulpit, intending to preach a sermon, which I had prepared for that purpose. But my mind was so confused, that I could not recollect either my text or any part of my sermon. [He obviously had no notes.]

I was afraid I should be obliged to come down without saying any thing. But having recollected myself a little, I thought I would say something on the First Lesson, which was the third chapter of Daniel, containing the account of the three children cast into the fiery furnace: I found in doing it such an extraordinary assistance from God, and such a peculiar enlargement of heart, that I supposed there must be some peculiar cause of it. I therefore desired, if any of the congregation found any thing particular, they would acquaint me with it in the ensuing week.”

Now it so happened that there was a woman present whose husband had threatened to throw her into the oven if she went to another religious meeting. She heard Flether’s sermon, which was given to him in that hour, the whole of which was exactly suited to her case, and returned home rejoicing, expecting her husband to carry out his threat. “When I got almost to our own door,” she says, “I saw the flames issuing out of the mouth of the oven. And I expected nothing else, but that I should be thrown into it immediately. I felt my heart rejoice, that if it were so, the will of the Lord would be done. I opened the door, and, to my utter astonishment, saw my husband upon his knees, wrestling with God in prayer for the forgiveness of his sins. He caught me in his arms, earnestly begged my pardon, and has continued diligently seeking God ever since.” The hand of God is too obvious to be denied in this. And for those who contend that God may lead us in the study as well as in the pulpit, I need only say that it is evident in the case before us, he did not do so. This was not his way. Though he certainly knew beforehand that this woman would be present, with such a threat hanging over her head, yet he gave the preacher his message “in that hour,” taking from him what he had prepared before.

George Whitefield, universally acknowledged to be one of the most powerful preachers in history, always preached extemporaneously, and his “rambling effusions” had no more homiletic arrangement—-—-–than the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Samuel Davies, trained himself in the artificial methods of homiletics, writes of one of Whitefield’s sermons, “Though the discourse was incoherent, it seemed to me better calculated to do good to mankind than all the accurate, languid discourses I had ever heard” —-for Davies had spiritual sense enough to know that the power of preaching does not lie in accurate statements of theology, however methodically arranged and aptly illustrated. This may leave the hearers as cold and dead as a corpse. It is the preacher’s passion which moves them, and there is little likely to be any passion at all in second-hand thoughts gleaned from commentaries and illustration books. Let the preacher first make it his own, a part of his own heart and mind, by his own meditation, and in his own walk with God, and then he will be fit to preach it, and that without preparing any sermons on the subject. Ask a woodsman how to fell a tree, and see if he must study books and prepare notes ere he can tell you. What I tell you is simply this, that this constant preparation of sermons is the most telling indication that the sermon-makers ought not to be preaching at all. They study sermons like students cram for tests, to put a little something into the head—-or the notebook—-for the immediate occasion, but it is nothing which dwells in the heart, and therefore nothing which is felt in the heart.

All of the greatest preachers preached extemporaneously, and their power may be attributed to the fact that they had something to say, a message from God burning in their hearts, fire in their bones, and all they needed was an occasion to speak. Why should such a man study to prepare a sermon? Who would pour water by the bucket into the Niagara river, to insure a good flow at the falls? Must the seasoned boatsman prepare a discourse with three heads, in order to warn the greenhorn of the dangers of the rapids? We really think these studiers of sermons know nothing of the power of true preaching. A prominent Reformed Baptist preacher whom I know used to inform the people that he spent forty hours a week preparing his sermon. He really ought to have been ashamed to admit it. George Whitefield used to say, “The best preparation for preaching on Sundays, is to preach every day in the week.” Whitefield belonged to a very small handful of the most powerful preachers of all time. He “knew nothing of such a kind of exercise as the planning of a sermon.” He writes to a critic, “Do not condemn me for preaching extempore, and for saying I am helped immediately in that exercise; when thousands can prove, as well as myself, that it has been so. Neither should you censure me as one that would lay aside reading. I am of Bishop Sanderson’s mind, ‘Study without prayer is atheism; prayer without study, presumption.”’

Great men are always given to reading, and to meditation also, and this it is, precisely, which makes it unnecessary for them to study to prepare a sermon. Their soul is well furnished with good things, and they are in fact the perfect contrast to those poor preachers who go the cupboard to get their poor congregation a bone, and find it bare. They must throw in a few bones ere they can draw any out, and it is pretty certain after all that the people will get nothing but bones. We feel what has long dwelt in the soul, what has long been the theme of our deepest thoughts, and it is feeling which makes preaching. An old adage tells us, “What comes from the heart goes to the heart,” and here lies the secret of powerful preaching. But what must be poured in during the preceding week, and carried to the pulpit on a piece of paper, certainly does not come from the heart.

Paul says, “Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. … Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” None of this has anything to do with preparing sermons. This is living. This is being. This is walking with God. Yet mark its effect. Your profiting will appear to all, and you will save yourself and those that hear you. Reading and meditation will make something of you, and make your preaching powerful and effectual. Studying to prepare sermons is a poor substitute for this.

Charles G. Finney was another of that handful of the most powerful preachers of all time. He writes, “When I first began to preach, and for some twelve years of my earliest ministry, I wrote not a word; and was most commonly obliged to preach without any preparation whatever, except what I got in prayer. Oftentimes I went into the pulpit without knowing upon what text I should speak, or a word that I should say. I depended on the occasion and the Holy Spirit to suggest the text, and to open up the whole subject to my mind; and certainly in no part of my ministry have I preached with greater success and power. If I did not preach from inspiration, I don’t know how I did preach. It was a common experience with me, and has been during all my ministerial life, that the subject would open up to my mind in a manner that was surprising to myself. It seemed that I could see with intuitive clearness just what I ought to say, and whole platoons of thoughts, words, and illustrations, came to me as fast as I could deliver them. …

“Some of the most telling sermons that I have ever preached in Oberlin, I have thus received after the bell had rung for church; and I was obliged to go and pour them off from my full heart, without jotting down more than the briefest possible skeleton, and that sometimes not covering half the ground that I covered in my sermon.

“I tell this not boastfully, but because it is a fact, and to give the praise to God, and not to any talents of my own. Let no man think that those sermons which have been called so powerful, were productions of my own brain, or of my own heart, unassisted by the Holy Ghost. They were not mine, but from the Holy Spirit in me.

“And let no man say that this is claiming a higher inspiration than is promised to ministers, or than ministers have a right to expect. For I believe that all ministers, called by Christ to preach the Gospel, ought to be, and may be, in such a sense inspired, as to ‘preach the Gospel with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.”’

This, we may safely say, is preaching—-and what a far cry from “The Preparation and Delivery of Sermons”! This is the title of a pre-eminently popular book on the subject, by John Broadus, and as William R. Newell pointed out many years ago, the name of the Holy Spirit is not in the book—-though pagans and modernists are freely quoted. We can grant that Finney’s statement is unguarded, and we would be very sorry to learn that it gave any encouragement to the lazy or the ignorant. We do not believe it is the business of the Holy Ghost to infuse truth into the mind, which might be learned by our own study and meditation. Nor do we believe it his business to make preachers of those who are not prophets of God. We do not believe, in short, that the Holy Ghost should be expected to do anything at all which lies in the realm of our own power and our own responsibility. He works by us, not instead of us, using all of our own powers, our own thoughts and knowledge, our own emotions and tears. All these we must have, and yet how dull and ineffectual do they often prove, in the absence of the unction of the Holy One. Surely every man who has ever preached at all—-in the true sense of the word—-knows right well when he has the liberty and unction of the Holy Ghost, and when he lacks it, yet I dare say there is not a man alive who can tell what it consists of. We do not pretend to say how the Holy Ghost uses our human powers, nor what the exact relationship may be between his powers and ours. We only believe that both are necessary, and that no man who lacks either the one or the other can be a preacher. As to those powers which lie within ourselves, these must be acquired by toil and tears and prayer and meditation—-not to prepare sermons, but to be prophets of God. As to the unction of the Holy Ghost, whatever it may consist of, it is perfectly evident that this must be given us in that hour.

Glenn Conjurske

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