The Preacher and his Preaching

The quality of preaching depends invariably on the quality of the preacher's experience with his Lord.

Ellen G. White was one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She wrote extensively.


On June 5, 1886, Ellen White wrote a letter from Basel, Switzerland; to a leading evangelist counseling him in better methods of conducting his work and of preaching. Because the instruction given then is still of value to preachers today, portions of that letter have been reprinted here.

My dear Brother A:

In order to make a success in this work you must do one thing at a time, concentrate your powers upon that one work. Your judgment in this direction is at fault. When you begin to give a series of discourses, make these discourses the main business. Do not begin to write letters and articles for the papers; for you divide your strength in doing this. Elder B and Elder C were corrected in this matter. The Lord showed me that the important work of presenting the truth was being marred in their hands; not one-half the strength was brought into their work, because of their devoting so much time to letter writing. The visiting is the important part of the labor; but the time of these brethren was occupied in almost constant writing which wearied them, occupied their time and did not help the present work but hindered it. The people were robbed of the clear, convincing exposition of scripture, and the devotional part of the work was neglected.

Their manner of presenting the truth was far from being perfect. They rambled too much in their dis courses bringing in too large an amount of matter. They were well satisfied with their work themselves, they did not discern their mistakes, and see that their work was far from being what it might and should have been with their capabilities. Now the reason: out of the desk they employed much of their time in writing excusing themselves from visiting because they were so busy and so tired. As the result they were brain weary when they came into the desk; they were not prepared to do a work that God could set His seal upon. They made nothing clear. Yet if they worked themselves up to a high pitch of excitement they thought their discourses were powerful.

They touched here and there bringing a large mass of matter which they regarded as convincing and overwhelming evidence, but in fact they buried the truth under a mass of matter poured out upon the hearers so that the points never could be found. Everything they presented was muddled. So many subjects were brought into one dis course that no point stood proved and clear in the minds of those unacquainted with the truth. That which was perfectly clear to them they thought must be clear to others when they had presented a mass of matter which the mind could not handle. One subject, a few points made plain and clear, would be of more value to the hearer than this mass of matter which you may call evidence, and think your point substantiated. But it is this which the people do not comprehend, and it cannot benefit them.

Your mistake has been this: Just as soon as you enter upon an effort, you begin to do much writing. Now if your part of the work is to write, if God has said to you as He did to John, Write these things, then give yourself to that, and do not attempt more. If you are to give discourses, your mind is not vigorous enough, although intensely active, to sustain the strain of speaking and visiting and writing. You should let your mind rest in a great degree when you engage in an effort to present new and startling truths to the people, the reception of which involves a cross. You need to carefully select your subject, make your discourses short, and important points of doctrine very plain. Take up one point at a time in a discourse, make it strong and clear and plain, with reasons drawn from the Word of God that all may understand. Your discourses should be short. When you preach at great length the mind of the hearer cannot grasp one quarter of what you say. . . .

Now you are to engage in an important work and let the Lord come into your counsels. Preach short, govern your voice, put all the pathos and melody into it you can, and this terrible exhaustion that is liable to come through long protracted preaching will be avoided. Re member that the whole counsel of God is not to be brought out in one discourse. Let the people have the heavenly food in such measure that they can retain it and carry it away with them and digest it; so that their minds can comprehend the truth, and their souls be impressed with it. It should be uttered in the most pleasant manner that they may want to hear again. The gospel seed is to be sown and take root and bear fruit. The truth is precious, of more value than gold; therefore its delivery should be carefully considered that the message may be presented in such a manner that it will be to the hearer as the voice of God.

Much of the effect of discourses is lost because of the manner in which they are delivered. The speaker frequently forgets that he is God's messenger, and that Christ and angels are in his audience as listeners. His voice should not be raised to a high key, shouting out the truth as through a trumpet; for this is more nervous power than the calm spirit and power of the Holy Ghost. Jesus, the greatest teacher the world ever knew was calm, earnest, and impressive in His discourses. He is our example in all things.

It is of little consequence how much we either hear or read from the Word of God, or how much we write upon the truth, unless we make the message our own, bring it into our life practice. We ourselves are to be sanctified through the truth. The message of salvation, the tidings we proclaim, concern our individual life and character and practice. We are to read the Word as written expressly for us, and practice the teachings of Christ for our own individual salvation. Then we shall be strong in the strength of the Mighty One.

The people need to be educated. This cannot be done if all the preacher's powers are given to sermonizing or to brain work and writing; for this unfits for the real work at the right time, and it has to be neglected for want of strength. The vitality, both physical and mental, has been expended needlessly, and the work has not been done with efficiency to present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. The mere hearing of sermons Sabbath after Sabbath or the reading of the Bible through and through, or the explanation of it verse by verse will not benefit us or those who hear us unless we bring these precious truths into our own individual experience. In short, my brother, you must take time to be a Christian, not tax brain and nerve to such an extent that you cannot be Christlike under difficulties. It is only by living a life in harmony with that of the Saviour that we meet the requirement of God to be not only hearers but doers of the Word.

The counsels are of God, and His Word was not given in a few days, on a high-pressure plan. It took a long space of time to bring out the Bible history. Under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, a chapter was written, a psalm was composed, a proverb penned, a vision from God recorded, and so down through the ages the will and purposes of God were brought out. About fifteen hundred years were occupied from the time Moses began to write the book of Genesis down to the completion of the Revelation by the Be loved John. God would not have us so excitable, in such a hurry; and yet there are some who need to be taught diligence.

God help the teachers of His Word that they may give due attention to their discourses. I know that you do not do this. I know that you write too many letters that tire the mind and have an exciting influence upon the nervous system. You need less of the ways and impulses of A and more, far more, of the oil of grace which will make the machinery run without so great heat and friction.

Quality and Length of Sermons

There are sermons that are so filled with heavenly dew and fatness that the people never get weary of listening. But where this is the most lacking there is an endeavor to make up in length for want of the Spirit of God. But when the people are impressed that the message they hear has first been brought home to the soul of the speaker, that he has proved the preciousness of the truth, that his heart enlarged by the love of God is reaching out for others, that they may be blessed as he has been, that they may be partakers of the same consolation arid receive the same joy—then souls will be stirred. They will come into sympathy with the speaker.

"I do not like to go much beyond the half hour," said a faithful and earnest preacher, who certainly never gave to his hearers that which cost him nothing in the preparation. "I know that the spiritual digestion of some is but weak, and I should be sorry for my hearers to spend the second half hour in forgetting what I had said in the first, or in wishing that I would cease when I had given them as much as they could carry away."

The discourses given upon present truth are full of important matter and if these discourses are carefully considered before being presented to the people, if they are condensed, and do not cover too much ground, if the spirit of the Master goes with the utterances, no one will be left in darkness, no one will have cause to complain of being unfed. The preparation both in preacher and hearer, has very much to do with the result.

I will here quote a few words that have come under my notice just now: "I always know by the length of Cannon's sermon whether he has been much from home during the week," said one of his flock. "When carefully studied, his discourses are of a moderate length, but it is almost impossible for his hearers to forget the teachings conveyed in them. When he has had no time for preparation, his sermons are unreasonably long, and it is equally impossible to get anything out of them which will stick to the memory."

Another able minister was asked how long he was accustomed to preach. "When I prepare thoroughly, half an hour. When only partially, an hour. But when I enter the pulpit without previous preparation, I go on for any length of time you like; in fact I never know when to stop."

Here is another forcible statement: "A good shepherd," says a writer, "should have always abundance of bread in his scrip, and his dog under command. The dog is his zeal, which he must lead, order, and moderate. His scrip full of bread is his mind full of useful knowledge and he should ever be in readiness to give nourishment to his flock."

We have important, solemn truth to give to the people. Thank God, my dear brother, that you can act as a co-laborer with Christ; but do not, I beg you, groan under a yoke that Christ has never placed upon your neck. Do not bend under a burden which He has not made it your duty to lift. That which has greatly lessened the effect of your discourses in an important effort is that with that effort you keep up almost incessant writing, so that the vital elements and the condensed arguments are not matters of thoughtful consideration with you. You keep on hand no reserve force. You preach too many discourses, and too long, on a high key. When you cannot speak without being obliged to cough quite frequently do not try to speak; for you so enlist the sympathies of the hearers that they take no true sense of what you are saying. These points are worthy of consideration. You imperil your own health, and make it painful, exceedingly painful, for the hearers, so that anything you may present to them will not have much effect on their hearts or principles. . . .

The Sacred Work of Preaching the Truth


Show that you believe in God. Self-will indulged will drive to infidelity. Self subdued will lead to the submission of thought, word, and action to Christ. The Word of God, not impulses, not impressions must be your guide. A solemn, sacred work is this, to preach the truth for these last times to perishing souls. Take the things God has revealed in warnings, reproofs, corrections, encouragements. But if we have eyes that see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that feel not, then it is in vain that the declaration from God has ever come to us.

God has come very nigh to us; He has honored us by making us the depositories of His truth, and this places us under the most sacred obligations to be keepers and diffusers of the light that must illuminate those who are in darkness. Has God made a mistake in us? Are we His chosen vessels? Are we the agents whom He has selected to carry out and send forth the last message of mercy to the world? Oh if we only had Jesus in our works, if His Spirit controlled our actions, if it was the rule and law of our life what a power for good we should be in the world.

We must remember that others have pleaded and preached for souls; persons more learned and talented than we have pleaded in vain. But the humble devoted worker feeling his own weakness and depending only upon God will realize the strength and sufficiency of the Mighty Helper.

We must pray more, have more faith. We only partially believe God's Word. We shall reveal all the faith we have. We want to take in the greatness of the work, believing every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. We must show our faith by our works.

Let not one of you seek for the supremacy. Let each regard his brother laborer as a worker for God. Let all plans be opened before the council, and not one labor to be the greatest. Alas, we are blind to our own deficiencies. We are not easily impressed with our weakness and the necessity of seeing as far as possible our errors, not to discourage our efforts, but to bring us to reform and thorough reformation. The minister must stand perfect in Christ, wanting in nothing if he would present every man perfect in Christ Jesus, coming behind in no grace.

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Ellen G. White was one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She wrote extensively.

August 1978

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