"Come Before Winter"

"Come Before Winter"— The Sermon with a History

An illustration of the effective use of motive appeals.

Arnold Kurtz, Ph.D., is professor of church organization at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

ONE of the harbingers of the approaching winter that October evening in Pittsburgh in 1955 was a sermon preached in a crowded church. For the fortieth and last time Clarence E. Macartney was to preach his most famous sermon, "Come Before Winter." As always, but with even deeper pathos, he spoke the words of that unforgettable conclusion:

"Once again, then, I repeat these words of the apostle, 'Come before winter'; and as I pronounce them, common sense, experience, conscience, Scripture, the Holy Spirit, the souls of just men made perfect, and the Lord Jesus Christ all repeat with me. 'Come before winter!' Come before the haze of Indian summer has faded from the fields! Come before the November wind strips the leaves from the trees and sends them whirling over the fields! Come before the snow lies on the uplands and the meadow brook is turned to ice! Come before life is over and your probation ended, and you stand before God to give an account of the use you have made of the opportunities, which in His grace He has granted to you! Come before winter!

"Come to thy God in time, Youth, manhood, old age past; , Come to thy God at last." 1

From the time of its first presentation in 1915 in the Arch Street Presbyterian church in Philadelphia until 1955, when it was preached for the last time at the First Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, where Macartney served as pastor from the year 1926, this address was given annually usually in the month of October. Published by Abingdon-Cokesbury Press in 1945 in a special brochure en titled "The Sermon With a History," the address received wide exposure. This sermon merits attention today not only because of its unique history but as a case study in persuasion.

In the second year of his pastorate in Philadelphia, Macartney, impressed by the number of students from nearby Temple, Medico-Chirurgical, and Jefferson medical colleges present in his congregation, conceived the idea of an annual service for the students.

A personal letter was addressed to the students of each of the classes of the medical schools, inviting them to attend this special service. One of the students who was present at this meeting when "Come Before Winter" made its debut, twenty-five years later wrote:

"Piqued perhaps by curiosity at first, a churchful of students settled them selves against red-cushioned pews and spiritual blandishment at that first September Sunday evening service ever held especially for them in Philadelphia. But Clarence Edward Macartney won first their attention, their interest, their respect, later their loyalty. And those who came to scoff remained, if not to pray, at least to come again and again to his church, packed each Sunday evening from pews to galleries to confound the congregational eyebrow lifters and head waggers and kindred of little faith in the enterprise." 2

The author of the foregoing stopped on his way to college the next morning to mail a post card upon which he had written his praise of the sermon.3 An other student was so impressed that he went to his room and penned a letter to his mother. Soon after, a telegram summoned him home. His mother was dying. Under her pillow he found the sermon-inspired letter. It was this kind of reaction to Macartney's address that led to its annual presentation: "The messages which I received gave me hope that a sermon on this theme preached every autumn would not be in vain." 4

When Abingdon-Cokesbury Press published the sermon in special brochure form in 1945, a professional journal on preaching commented: "When a sermon can be repeated in the same pulpit once every year for thirty consecutive years, and when that one sermon is considered worthy of printing by itself, by one of the outstandingly strong publishers of religious books, that is a sermon. ... It ["Come Before Winter"] has been thought of as the 'Acres of Diamonds' of our time. It has been preached from one end of the land to the other and frequently before college and university students." 5

Reaction to the preaching of "Come Before Winter" was often expressed by letter to Dr. Macartney, who kept a file of these responses. Several sheets of excerpts from these letters were filed with the sermon typescript for possible use in the sermon. Two examples of these selected notes reveal listener response to the address:6

"Words cannot express my appreciation for the touching sermon preached this evening, the subject, 'Come Before Winter.' Please allow me to confide in you this fact, just to acquaint you with one whose heart was deeply affected. There is an estrangement between a sister and myself, having existed over ten years. After hearing your 'blessed sermon,' I, with great difficulty, promised God to write this night, which I shall do after concluding this letter.

"Your sermon tonight fell like a bomb shell. . . . Never has anything so soul-rending struck me.... I must act quickly before the steel is cold. Winter has already closed in on some opportunities over the past years, but you have given me my greatest opportunity tonight. Five years from today, if I have proved myself to have changed the course of my existence from this night on, I will send you my signature. This is written tonight in deep appreciation of a powerful mes sage, the sort that may shape the course of a young man's life."

A Case Study in Persuasion

This sermon, which has been called "an intellectual's revival call," 7 is based on the words of Paul's letter writ ten from the Roman prison to his young friend Timothy, requesting his presence in Rome and urging him to "come before winter" (2 Tim. 4:21).

When Macartney discovered that in those ancient days the season for navigation in the Mediterranean closed in the autumn and did not open again until spring, he saw in this fact the possibility of a sermon on the passing of opportunity "the things we can do, and ought to do, now, but which later on we shall not be able to do." 8 The thrust of the sermon was that "just as Timothy must go to Paul at Rome before winter, or wait until the spring because of ancient navigation conditions, so there are things that must be done now or never. If Timothy had waited until spring, he would have waited too long, for Paul was executed before that time."

The sermon seeks a threefold response on: (1) the amendment and reformation of character, (2) action regarding love's duties to friends and loved ones, and (3) acceptance of Christ for salvation.

Space does not permit a detailed analysis of this sermon; however, an examination of certain obvious elements of persuasion should prove useful namely, the intensity of feeling conveyed, and specific psychological factors involved.

Intensity of Feeling. Fire creates fire; feeling begets feeling. There is an in tensity and fervor, an impression of deep earnestness and concern communicated in the content and delivery of this sermon. This is evident in the taped recording of the sermon (Reigner Recording Library, Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia) as well as in the published version. In its published form approximately thirty exclamations are indicated. Deep feeling was registered in expressions such as the following:

"Every recurring autumn has filled me with a desire to say something not only something that shall move men to ward God to do what they ought to do but move them to do it now! tonight! be fore winter!

"Oh, if the history of this church could be told, if these columns should cry out of the wall and the beam out of the timber should answer, what a story they could tell of those who were not far from the kingdom of God but tonight are far from it because when God said, 'today,' they said, 'tomorrow.' "

This element of persuasion, prominent in many of Macartney's sermons, is particularly noticeable in this address.

Psychological Appeals. In a search for clues as to the effectiveness of this annually repeated sermon one cannot overlook certain psychological factors that were involved. The publicity build-up for each presentation, the tying in of its theme "the passing of opportunity" with the somewhat melancholy mood of the autumn season ("a parable of all that fades"), must have charged the atmosphere of each such occasion with a sense of expectancy as well as of urgency.

The psychological factors of the sermon itself, however, are perhaps one explanation of its long popularity. Attention and interest factors, critical in the persuasive process, are prominent throughout the sermon. Word imagery, concrete example, narrative and other forms of illustration sensory material of an emotion-evoking nature are present in liberal measure.

Metaphors such as the following are liberally sprinkled throughout the dis course: "hammer of adversity," "graves of your opportunities," "tides of fortune and destiny," "gates of opportunity," "life's metal," "pool of life," "chains of besetting sin," "what shadows we are!"

Several forms of simile appear: "stars like silver-headed nails driven into the vault of heaven by the hammer of an archangel," "writhing and twisting like tortured spirits," "the spider's most attenuated web is like a cable of steel com pared with your hold on life."

While structural assertions and generalizations are adequate for the development and progression of this theme, Macartney does not linger long at any time on the level of generalities. There is a constant procession of people and scenes and emotions to engage the inter est and produce experience in the listener.

To illustrate: the general assertion of the first division, "Your character can be changed but not at any time," is sup ported by at least five concrete particulars: (1) boyhood memories of watching the men at the wire mill (his Pittsburgh audience, familiar with steel mills.blast furnaces, would have seized on this picture with immediate interest), (2) the scene at the Pool of Bethesda, (3) the dramatic incident of the tempted man in his hotel room, (4) reference to Senator Ingalls, and (5) a bonfire. While no more than six minutes would have elapsed during this procession of verbal images, each particular instance has been applied to the original assertion, and all have been tied together to create an over all unity of impression.

Use of Motive Appeals

This sermon is an excellent illustration of the appropriate and effective use of what students of public address denote as motive appeals human needs, desires, or tensions the satisfaction or removal of which, it is believed, motivates our behavior.

Macartney has based his strongest motive appeals on sentiment and what the homileticians have called godly fear; and while other appeals are based on such motives as the desire for self-es teem and self-realization, and the need for love, the weight of his appeal rests on fear and sentiment.

A recurring note of appeal is sounded on the possibility that valuable opportunities and privileges now available may suddenly pass beyond reach:

"The winter will come and pass, and spring will come and deck the earth with its flowers and also the graves of some of your opportunities. (It may be the grave of a dearest friend.) There are golden gates of opportunity that are standing wide open tonight. A year from tonight those gates will be closed. . . . There are voices earnest, wistful, affectionate speaking to you tonight. A year from to night those voices will be forever silent."

Macartney's appeal for the amendment and reformation of character, how ever, is not grounded on the fear of passing opportunity alone. He appeals to man's desire for self-esteem and self-realization as well.

Sentiments and affections are engaged as motive appeals particularly in the second division of the sermon where he seeks a response of the listener with regard to love's obligations to friends and family. The relationship of husband and wife, parents and children, and friend with friend are invested with emotional content by the examples cited.

The intermingling of the element of fear with these appeals to sentiment would undoubtedly have deepened the impact. Appropriating Christ's words, "Ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always," Macartney said:

"I can't see it now, but here tonight and in your homes, and in your family circles ... there are those across whose brow are written those words, 'the poor ye have always with you, but me ye have not always.' "

An analysis of Dr. Macartney's best-known and annually presented sermon, "Come Before Winter," would lead one to believe that a combination of factors, however, was undoubtedly the key to the sermon's appeal. An expectant audience assembled under the influence of the psychological build-up of the annual presentation, the sermon theme (the evanescence of life and opportunity) tied to the seasonal motif, the strong emotional appeal of sentiment and fear buttressed by vivid incidents and illustrations presented in equally vivid language, apparently combined to produce a memorable preaching event.


NOTE: The sermon "Come Before Winter," of course, is out of print and it does not appear in Macartney's regular sermon volumes. Those who wish to obtain a copy may do so by addressing a request to the writer, Andrews University, Seminary Hall, Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104. Enclose $1 for duplicating and mailing costs.

1 C. E. Macartney, Foreword, Come Before Winter (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1945). Brochure containing the sermon, with foreword by Dr. Macartney.

2 Hilton A. Wick, M.D., letter to the editor, The Bulletin Index, CXXII (Oct. 24, 1940), pp. 14, 18.

3 The writer spent some time studying the Macartney papers and manuscripts in the Macartney Memorial Library at Geneva College (Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania) in a special research proj ect. The original card is in his files; it read, "Dear Sir: Your Sunday evening sermon was without doubt the finest sermon preached in Philadelphia on that date. Sincerely, (signed) Hilton A. Wick." (Postal card marked October 4, 1915.)

4 Come Before Winter, p. 3.

5 "Come Before Winter," The Expositor, XLIX (January, 1947), p. 26.

6 Examples taken from the Macartney Files.

7 "Biography," The Bulletin Index, CXXVIII (Feb. 16, 1946), p. 15.

8 Come Before Winter, p. 5.

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Arnold Kurtz, Ph.D., is professor of church organization at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

September 1976

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