Secrets of great preachers

What keeps great preachers preaching? The lives of some of history's greatest reveal the common thread of a strong devotional life. The secret of their strength lay in their constant devotion to prayer and Bible study.

Harold Calkins writes from Stanborough Park, Watford, Hertshire, England, where he serves as president of the British Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He is the author of the book Master Preachers: Their Study and Devotional Habits.

At 15 years of age George Whitefield (1714-1770), a tavern keeper's son, began to work behind a public bar. When the bar closed he would go upstairs to his room and read his Bible by the light of a stolen candle. So began the devotional life of a man who later kindled religious revivals throughout Britain and North America and who prompted the founding of some fifty colleges and universities in the United States.

Whitefield's later association with the Wesleys' Holy Club deepened his spiritual life.

Of his devotions he said, "I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. . . .

"Oh, what sweet communion had I daily . . . with God in prayer. . . . How assuredly have 1 felt that Christ dwelt in me, and I in Him! and how did I daily walk in the comforts of the Holy Ghost, and was edified and refreshed in the multitude of peace! Not that I was always upon the mount; sometimes a cloud would overshadow me; but the Sun of righteousness quickly arose and dispelled it, and I knew it was Jesus Christ that revealed Himself to my soul.

"I always observed, as my inward strength increased, so my outward sphere of action increased proportionately. . . . For many months have I been almost always upon my knees, to study and pray. . . . The Holy Spirit, from time to time, has led me into a knowledge of divine things, and I have been directed, by watching and reading the Scripture in this manner, even in the minutest of circumstances, as plainly as the Jews were, when consulting the Urim and Thummim at the high priest's breast."1

When London's churches were closed to him, Whitefield took as his congregation the miners of Bristol. Soon he was preaching outdoors to twenty thousand people, who stood with "tears cutting white furrows through the coal dust on their faces." Frequently his sermons extended to four and even six hours, his audience at times standing in the rain to hear his message.

Prayer and Bible study combined to give power to the eighteen thousand sermons he preached on two continents. 2

Alexander Madaren (1826-1910) began his ministry in a quiet, obscure little place where he could spend time with his Bible. By rising at dawn and studying for nine or ten hours per day, he was able to devote an average of sixty hours to each sermon.

He spent much of his study time patiently meditating on a passage of Scripture while communing with its Author. He called this "incubation of the text." His prayer life ignited the fuel gathered in his hours of study. He has been quoted as saying, "I have always found . . . that my own . . . efficiency in preaching [has] been in direct proportion to the frequency and depth of my daily communion with God." 3

At a time when many of his contemporaries were accepting the new higher critical and skeptical ideas about the Bible, he continued to believe firmly in its divine inspiration and that it was its own best expositor. He warned, "These opinions do not grow, are not shaped by patient labor, but are imported into the new owner's mind, ready-made in Ger many or elsewhere, but not in his own workshop. We have need to remember . . . the woes pronounced on two classes of prophets; 'those who stole the word, every man from his neighbor, and those who prophesied out of their own hearts, having seen nothing and heard no voice from on high.' We have to be sure that we stand on our own feet and see with our own eyes; and on the other hand we have to see that the Word, which is in that sense our own, is in a deeper sense not our own but God's. We have to deal at first hand with Him and to suppress self that He may speak." 4

We sometimes are skeptical of those who "rise early and work late." Maclaren frankly confessed that an hour of sleep every afternoon was an important part of his daily routine. He also devoted a couple of hours each day to calling on the sick and special visitation. But throughout his forty-five-year ministry at Union Chapel in Manchester, England, he turned aside from social engagements and repeated invitations for other speaking appointments. Nothing could deter him from preparing his Bible expositions for the two thousand who pressed in to hear the gospel.

As "the preachers' preacher" of England, Maclaren is known for his Expositions of the Holy Scriptures. "My work," he said, "has been ... to preach Jesus Christ as the King of England and the Lord of all our communities, and the Saviour and Friend of the individual soul." 5

John Nevins Andrews (1829-1883), pioneer Seventh-day Adventist scholar, author, and the first American Adventist minister sent overseas, very early developed deep religious convictions. For health reasons he was forced to leave school at 11 years of age. As he worked on his father's farm, he always carried a book in his pocket and took advantage of even a few minutes for reading. He found the Saviour when he was 13 years old and gave his energies to the Advent Awakening that swept the world in the 1830s and 1840s.

Andrews made it a practice to rise at four o'clock in the morning and to spend two or three hours before breakfast studying the Bible and praying. His love for the Bible led him to center his intellectual pursuits on it. On his own, one by one, he mastered Greek, Latin, and Hebrew so that he could study God's Word in the original languages.

By the time he was 17 he was considered such a scholar that his uncle, a member of Congress, offered to see him through law at Harvard, Dartmouth, or Yale. "I'll arrange your acceptance, pay every bill, and buy your clothing," his uncle promised. "You could have a brilliant career. If you are a preacher of the Sabbath, no one will ever hear of you." The uncle hoped that Andrews would be his successor in Congress. John, however, had committed his life to the higher calling of proclaiming God's truth. 6 He entered the Adventist ministry at the age of 21.

His scholarship brought him into editorial work, as well as preaching, both in Europe and America. At one point he published 170,000 words in a three-year period! When he found time to write is difficult to know, since he traveled by day and preached at night. It is small wonder that he wore himself out prematurely.

His devotional life made him a man mighty in prayer--and others came to recognize this. When James White, then president of the General Conference, became seriously ill, he asked Andrews to come and pray for him. Andrews came and, with other ministers, prayed for and anointed White. Their prayers were answered; White recovered.

Near the end of his life, rumors circulated that he had memorized the entire Bible. A friend ventured, "I hear you can repeat the whole Bible from memory."

He smiled. "So far as the New Testament is concerned, if it were obliterated, I could reproduce it word for word; but I could not say as much for the Old Testament." His stature as a scholar, writer, and minister may be largely attributed to his hard study, earnest prayer, and deep commitment to Christ.

Alexander Whyte (1836-1921), of Free St. George's Church, Edinburgh, outstanding Scottish preacher of his generation, used his interleaved Bible as his filing system, commentary, and reference book. Lacking the prodigious memory of men such as Charles Spurgeon or Henry Ward Beecher, he needed these notes at hand in the Book he used most.

In "A Minister's Compensations," a paper he wrote while in his 70s, he asserts that the privilege of giving oneself to the Word is the greatest reward of a minister's work. "What is occasional with another is or may be continual with me," he said. "Morning, noon and night my Bible must be in my hands."7 Daily he devoted four to six hours to his study.

He did not limit his study to his Bible, however. His two-to three-month summer vacations were closely packed with reading, meditation, and writing; and during them he prepared detailed plans for every regular service through the year ahead. He brought custom-built book shelves on these working holidays and used them to organize his biographies for Bible Characters and other books, classes, and sermons.

Speaking of his favorite books, he said: "If I am to ... prepare myself finally before I die, I know the great master pieces of salvation that I shall have set on the shelf nearest my bed. Shall I tell you some of them? My New Testament; my 'Paradise'; my 'Bunyan';. . . my 'Saint's Rest';... my 'Rutherford';. . . Olney and Wesley." 8 "Read the very best books, and only the very best, and ever better and better the older you grow. . . . Nothing less noble. Nothing less worthy of yourself. Nothing at all but just those true classics of the eternal world over and over again, till your whole soul is in a flame with them." 9

G. Campbell Morgan (1863-1945), famous pastor of Westminster Chapel, London, was the son of a Baptist preacher. He took teacher training and came under the gloomy shadow of Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer. "There came a moment when I was sure of nothing," 10 he said. He floundered and debated in the "secularist halls" for three years.

At the age of 20, in desperation, he locked up all other books, bought a Bible, and made it his chief study. From that study he developed a preaching-teaching style and content that attracted thousands each week. His reputation as an outstanding expositor of the Bible led to his being called back for a second pastorate at Westminster Chapel.

Entering his study at five or six in the morning, he focused his keen mind on the Bible and would not allow himself to be disturbed during the morning hours.

He spoke of reading the book of Exodus through at a sitting forty times before putting pen to paper to write his expository notes for The Analyzed Bible. From his study came seventy volumes of exposition, the greatest being The Crisis of Christ.

Unlike Maclaren, G. Campbell Morgan traveled much both in England and America. While traveling he constantly read his Bible in the train.

Being a teacher at heart, and with his soul aglow from the study of the Word, he launched his famous Friday evening Bible classes, which drew fourteen hundred or more members of Parliament, doctors, nurses, soldiers, sailors, and servants. Many caught a bus or a straphanger's underground ride to the chapel at the end of a hard day's work, not to be entertained but to find solid spiritual nourishment from God's Word.

H.M.S. Richards (1894-1985), founder of the international Voice of Prophecy radio broadcast, was a Biblical preacher. His father was a preacher in America, his grandfather a Methodist lay preacher in Cornwall, and one of his ancestors was an itinerant lay preacher with John Wesley.

"The greatest Bible school I ever attended was my father's explanations of the Bible at family worship," he recalls, adding, "Mother taught me to memorize Scripture before I learned to read." In spite of an eye injury in his early teens (serious enough to prevent his ever driving), Richards read avidly, giving the most attention to the Bible. Often he could be seen reading as he walked the mile from his home to his office.

Ellen G. White and John Wesley were his favorite authors, and history and biography his favorite subjects. Wide reading enriched his sermons with literary allusions, historical events, and recent discoveries, which served to hold the interest of a variety of hearers.

He described his daily program thus: "When I open my eyes in the morning ... I pray--right there in bed before I get up--about the day and about my work. Then I take my Testament and read. . . . After breakfast I go out to work in my garage library of about five thousand volumes. . . . My creative time is in the morning. I must do my hardest work then. In the afternoon I can read, I can write letters, I can talk to people. But to create--to write poetry, to write radio talks--the time is in the morning." 11

I try to make the Word the last thing I think about at night. ... I ... read some out of it just before I go to sleep." 12

Each New Year his first priority was to lay aside everything else and read the Bible through completely--sometimes in a few days, more often in a few weeks. After that he read it more selectively through the rest of the year. He considered each new translation an opportunity to find fresh nuances of meaning in God's Word.

His prayer life buttressed his commitment to the Spirit-filled life. I will always remember the tap of his long walking stick on the pavement as he passed our house, climbing the hill to his place of prayer. He said, "I pray before I work at all. I have a special time of prayer when I open my Bible. , . . I pray about each one of the talks I write. ... I need ... to be always in the attitude of prayer ... to practice the presence of God." 13

A plaque in his boyhood home read, "Christ is the head of this house, the unseen Guest at every meal, the silent Listener to every conversation." The Divine Presence became real to him as he imagined where Christ stood and how He could be guiding him.

He sought constantly to realize his grandfather's dying charge, "You're going to be a preacher. I leave with you something from 1 Corinthians 2: Spiritual things are spiritually discerned. If you are a minister, you've got to be a spiritual man. You can never understand the Bible unless you are spiritual. "

One verse of what he called his "unfinished poem" represents the emphasis of his ministry:

Have faith in God—

Seek truth—do not delay;

Have faith in God—

The Scriptures search today;

Have faith in God—His Holy Word obey.

Have faith, dear friend, in God. 14

Jesus' example

What do the Sacred Writings say about Jesus' devotional lifestyle that could serve as a model for us? Of His prayer life we read that He arose early to pray (Mark 1:35), even, at times, spending entire nights in prayer (Luke 6:12); that He felt its importance strongly enough to retreat from His direct ministry to people and find a quiet place to pray (Luke 5:16); that the Scriptures relate the Spirit's power in His life directly to His prayer life (Luke 3:21, 22); and that in the minds of His disciples His prayer life supported His claim of spiritual leadership (Luke 9:18- 20). It was during His prayer struggle in Gethsemane that He won the victory that prepared Him for the cross (Matt. 26:36-46). If every minister used his place of prayer as frequently as Jesus did, we would see greater power in the pulpit.

What of His study habits? He was not formally trained. The pragmatism of His preaching and the profound simplicity of the truths He taught led the Sanhedrin professors to ask, "How can he know so much when he's never been to our schools?" (John 7:15, T.L.B.).

We are not to conclude that formal study will lead a preacher astray, but the Saviour's example indicates that He had another valuable source of theological preparation for preaching. How do we tap that source of knowledge? How can we as preachers today clothe truth in fresh, penetrating, understandable verbal garb? What is the meditative process, the devotional methodology, that was so effective for Jesus?

Since direct answers are not available, let us venture these assumptions: Jesus could read—and did, probably from scrolls similar to those discovered at Qumran. Since it is unlikely that He carried scrolls with Him during His itinerant ministry, His frequent quotations from the Old Testament indicated that He memorized considerable portions of Scripture. Much of this learning probably was done during the "hidden years" in Nazareth, prior to His baptism. His prayer life was meditation, communication with His Father, and application of the promises more than reciting a want list of things.

If these assumptions have validity, current preaching could be enriched with praying the promises in contemplative, quiet times and places; presenting fundamental Bible teachings in today's language to meet present needs; increasing study, memorizing, and quoting of the Scriptures; and helping members to do the same.

Much current preaching is the "boor-straps" variety that can better be done by a psychologist than a minister of the gospel. Such sermons rarely live beyond their time. Great Biblical preaching, however, lives on—based, as it usually is, on devotional habits similar to those practiced by great preachers of the past. 

1 George Whitefield, A Short Account (1740),
in Harold L. Calkins, Master Preachers: Their Study
and Devotional Habits (Washington, D. C.: Review
and Herald Pub. Assn., 1960), pp. 14, 15.

2 Calkins, op. cit., pp. 13, 14.

3 In A. H. Currier, Nine Great Preachers,
quoted in Calkins, op. cit. , p. 38.

4 Ibid., p. 40.

5 In F. R, Webber, A History of Preaching in
America, quoted in Calkins, op. cit. , p. 40.

6 Virgil Robinson, John Nevins Andrews: Flame
for the Lord (Washington, D.C.: Review and
Herald Pub. Assn., 1975), pp. 18, 19.

7 In Calkins, op. cit., p. 52.

8 In Webber, op. cit., quoted in Calkins, op.
cit., p. 52.

9 Whyte, The Apostle Paul, in W. M. Smith,
Chats From a Minister's Library, quoted in Calkins,
op. cit., p. 53.

10 In Calkins, op. cit., p. 59.

11 H. M. S. Richards, "Habits That Help Me,"
in Calkins, op. cit., p. 9.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., pp. 9, 10.

14 Kenneth W. Wilson, ed., Walking Through
Your Bible with H. M. S. Richards (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1983), p. 12.

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Harold Calkins writes from Stanborough Park, Watford, Hertshire, England, where he serves as president of the British Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He is the author of the book Master Preachers: Their Study and Devotional Habits.

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