Part 5—Thoughts On Preaching, Classic Contributions to Homiletics, James W. Alexander, Reprint 2009, Originally Printed 1864, Solid Ground Christian Books
Marching along with our series on the best books in preaching, we come to the fifth one. Again, these are not necessarily in an order of importance but just books that I have gained some good thoughts from over the years. The fifth book is entitled Thoughts on Preaching, Classic Contributions to Homiletics by James Alexander. This is a book that I purchased when I went to Solid Ground Christian books in Birmingham last fall.
This book is very unique from all the rest of the books on preaching. James Alexander had a desire to put together a book on homiletics but he died before he could write the book. However, someone took it upon themselves to take the private journals of Dr. Alexander and compose them into a working order in the form of a book and have them published. I was greatly enriched reading through the various notes and paragraphs that Dr. Alexander scribbled down in his personal journals of thoughts on preaching.
The first chapter is a called Homiletical Paragraphs. They are numbered individually although some of the numbers may have several paragraphs under the number while others may be just a single sentence. Here are a few examples:
~7. On Composing Sermons.—Notes on Conversation with J. A. A.—My father says a man should not begin with making a plan. Should not wait until he is the vein. Begin, however you feel; and write until you get into the vein—however long it be. ‘Tis thus men do in mining. You may throw away all the beginnings. Men who write with ease think best pen in hand. This applies to sermons, and also to books. It might be well to write a sermon and then begin again and write afresh (not copying, or even looking at the other, but), using all the lights struck out in the former exercise.
~10. On Sermon-writing.—The last Lord’s day of the year has arrived, and, on reviewing your labors, you must feel that you have not stirred up the gift that is in you. Your talent has been too much laid up in the napkin. Especially in the matter of writing you have been delinquent. Many things you have written and even printed but few sermons. You have bestowed your time and labor on secondary and inferior things. One thing is needful.
You have been favored by Providence with a degree of acceptance as a writer which you cannot be too thankful; but the same little attractions might have been cast around the great things of the Kingdom. Consider these hints.
1. If your life be spared, you will never see a time in which better than now, you can lay up a store of sermons. Eyesight, manual, dexterity, memory, and vivacity must necessarily be on the wane.
2. Consider in what manner you have produced those things which have gained little popularity. They have been written offhand and without little thought; especially those which have the most life in them were so written. Not so most of your sermons. Turn over a new leaf. Do not lay out new plans too carefully. Write while you are warm. Do not be avaricious of your best thoughts, nor reserve warm ideas for the last. This is like flooding the stomach of guests with soups before dinner. Much of Jay’s excellence arises from this. Try your father’s recommendation of writing with great rapidity what first occurs to you. This you may methodize afterwards.
3. You study much of Scriptures and sometimes warm over the sacred page. Avail yourself of these moments, and let your discoveries and suggestions flow into the channel of a sermon.
4. Be willing to write even part of a sermon. Perhaps you will do the whole. If not remember how few of these fragments have ever been lost to you; is there one, the time spent on which you regret?
5. You have prayed to have your tastes, feelings, and pursuits more concentrated on divine things; and, for a short time past you have felt as if this grace had some degree been granted to you. Cherish this feeling, and make it available towards pulpit exercises.
6. God has granted you better health. Be tenderly thankful for such a benefit, and keep your harness always bright, that you may be ready as soon as God shall cause the trumpet to sound, to go out into the regular ranks.
7. You have a text-book. Use it. Spend more time on it. Collect your scattered fragments. Mortify that procrastination which keeps so many plans in secret or private.
(You have to love those words that were written in Dr. Alexander’s journal. Personal journals give great insight into the soul of a man!)
~12. Earnest Preaching.—The great reason why we have so little good preaching is that we have so little piety. To be eloquent one must be in earnest; he must not only act as if he were in earnest, or try to be in earnest, but be in earnest, or he cannot be effective. . . We have loud and vehement, we have smooth and graceful, we have splendid and elaborate preaching, but very little is in earnest. One man who so feels for the souls of his hearers as to be ready to weep over them—will assuredly make himself felt. . . We must aim therefore at high degrees of warmth in our religious exercises, if we would produce an impression on the public mind.
~13. New Sermons.—Philip Henry used to love to preach sermons which were “newly studied.” It is a crying sin of mine that I am so ready to go to my old store. . . I ought for my own sake, no less than for theirs, to prepare a plan, and study it out. If I daily had on hand some sermon on an important passage, I should be daily learning more Scripture and more theology.
I can’t keep going on with this single chapter because the blog will turn into a book! However, let me give on more but remember that there are 166 of these in total that will make you want to be a better preacher!
~17. The Power of the Pulpit.—I fear none of us apprehend as we ought to do the value of the preacher’s office. Our young men do not grid themselves for it with the spirit of those who are on the eve of a great conflict; nor do they prepare as those who are to lay their hands on the springs upon the mightiest passions, and stir up to their depths the ocean of human feelings. Where this estimate of the work prevails, men even of inferior training accomplish much. . . .
I am so provoked by these kinds of books that long to pull things out of my own soul as a preacher that are yet untapped. The conversion of sinners, the confrontation of sin among believers, and the edification of the saints are all locked up in the soul of the preacher. Some way the Lord has to work in and on us to pull out what He desires to do with us.
At this point, I want to remind you of the old Charlie “Tremendous” Jones quote. He said, “You are the same today you’ll be in five years except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read.” The best books on preaching are those generally written by the dead guys. I encourage you to take one of these dead guys’ books and compare them to the modern “communication” books and you will be shocked at the difference in them.
After that section Dr. Alexander has written ten letters to young ministers. As the previous section, it is loaded with motivation make you want to dive into the Word and into preaching as never before. In these letters there are a number of references to men who were preachers such as John Wesley, Richard Baxter, John Owen, and Stephen Charnock among many others that can clue a student in on gaining some insight into the writings of these men.
The next section is on “Studies and Discipline of the Preacher.” In that section, Dr. Alexander explores areas such as:
- Forming Habits of Study
- Reading to be properly directed
- The Truths of the Bible
- Danger of Commentaries
- The Duty of Studying the Text for Ourselves
- Manner of Inferior Minds
- A Minister’s Sermons show the Content of His Thinking
The section following is called “The Matter of Preaching” and he goes into various thoughts on the nature and act of preaching. The last three chapters are on “Expository Preaching,” “The Pulpit in Ancient and Modern Times,” and “The Eloquence of the French Pulpit.”
Watch your budget but you will want to add this book to your personal library also. I commend this volume to you as another of the best books on preaching. . .
More to follow. . .
Thanks for reading. . .