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The Art of Preaching

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Date February 12, 2019

The following is abridged from a pamphlet by James Begg (1803-1883), The Art of Preaching, printed in 1863, twenty years after more than 400 ministers had left the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland. While in the context in which Begg wrote there were no doubt peculiar historical circumstances affecting the issue, nevertheless his general reasons for the decline of preaching are surely relevant to all Protestant denominations today.

The power of the pulpit is a matter of the first importance to the whole Christian Church. So many other influences are at present struggling for supremacy that it is more than ever a duty to uphold the living power of God’s great ordinance for the conversion of the world. If Paul would have been ‘all things to all men, if by any means he might gain some,’ surely his successors ought to seek to remove all stumbling blocks out of the way of the reception of their message. Moreover, it is clear that the Church which is blessed with the most acceptable and effective preachers has the best reason to expect influence and permanence in the land and in the world.

The author of the following speech1 ventures to think that the subject to which it relates is specially worthy of the serious consideration of every friend of the Free Church. The course taken by that Church has in some respects disappointed the expectations of her best friends. The people expected not only the best principles, but the best preachers, as a result of the Disruption. So it was at first; and this was to a great extent the very strength of the movement of 1843. So it is to some extent still. But matters are gradually changing. That Church scarcely makes the art of preaching a matter of study, nor is she securing to any considerable extent a class of men to take the places of those who are rapidly passing away.

The Church may shut her eyes to these broad and palpable facts but that will not mend the matter. Nothing but making soundness of doctrine and pulpit-power the grand points to be studied, in humble dependence on the Spirit of Christ, will make the Free Church flourish. It is high time that this matter was engaging the deliberate and prayerful consideration of all our ministers. The past circumstances of the Church may account for the little attention bestowed upon it up to the present date. The whole external apparatus of the Church, with its complement of places of worship, manses, and schools, and its arrangements for upholding a living ministry, have properly engrossed much attention. Our ablest men, moreover, have been appointed professors; whilst much attention has been bestowed on the general question of collegiate arrangements. It ought also to be admitted, that the standard of scholastic attainment has been decidedly elevated. But so far as we know, the Church has neither fully realised the fact that she is now free to choose the best modes of preliminary and other training for theological students nor has she kept her eye steadily fixed on the connexion between the means and the proposed end — viz., the end of training a race of powerful, popular, and influential congre­gational ministers.

The same mistake seems to linger in the Church in regard to ministers, which prevailed so long in regard to teachers. The universal idea at one time was that if a man had only knowledge himself, he could communicate that knowledge to others, and the idea of training men to be teachers had no existence. By and by, this was found to be a great mistake, and now teachers are universally trained to their peculiar work. In like manner, it seems still to be supposed that if a man has a knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, theological and other science he must needs be an efficient minister, although he has never, properly speaking, received a single lesson in the art of communicating that knowledge to others by oral address. The apostle declared that a minister should be ‘apt to teach,’ ‘able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince gainsayers;’ but we satisfy ourselves with merely filling men with knowledge, drilling them in the art of taking in knowledge, without any similar anxiety as to the equally important art of giving it out. In a word, we confine ourselves to the aim of making men scholars and theologians, but leave it almost entirely to circum­stances whether they will ever be effective public teachers and preachers — the grand object, after all, of their whole previous training.

At present there are obvious defects in our whole system of clerical instruction. The following hints will partly illustrate our meaning.

No note is taken before a man enters the Divinity Hall of his gifts, graces, or general fitness for the work of the ministry. To many a peasant’s son in Scotland a manse and the equal dividend may seem riches; and if he can only get through the preliminary ordeal, destitute it may be of the grace of God, he may think that he can then sleep out the rest of his life in inaction. To enter the Queen’s military service implies some preliminary scrutiny as to height, strength, and loyalty, but no preliminary scrutiny in regard to mental or moral fitness is demanded in regard to the higher service of the Church of Christ. A learned man may be totally destitute of grace and common sense, and yet be a Free Church divinity student.

It is sometimes said that this evil cannot be helped, but it is surely enough to destroy any Church of Christ when this is not even attempted; and of all Churches in the world this especially applies to ours, so recently escaped from the blight of Moderatism.

This initial neglect in the way of selecting suitable men is appropriately followed up by the general want of any strict and affectionate supervision of students during their course of study. One of the most objectionable things which the Free Church ever did, in my opinion, was the rejection of the proposed bequest of £3000 by Lady Effingham as the foundation of an endowment for a students’ pastor. Without such provision, except when they are actually in the classes, many of the students are left literally like sheep without a shepherd. I speak chiefly of the Lowland students; for my friend Mr. M’Lauchlan watches, with careful and kind interest, over those from the Highlands who are studying for the Free Church ministry; and the result is already apparent in the growing prosperity of our Church in the Highland districts.

William Jay, of Bath, who was one of the best preachers of modern times, gives an account in his Life of Cornelius Winter, of his training for the ministry under that excellent man, previously the friend and companion of Whitefield. No class of young men more need, or are more entitled to, the kind and paternal charge of the Church than our theological students. Taken chiefly from the lower ranks, they are apt to be shy and bashful, or otherwise rough and unpolished. Much was done towards remedying these defects under the old system by the appointment of young men as tutors in families, although the plan was productive of other evils. It is well known that the whole temper and spirit is greatly moulded by wise and friendly intercourse.

In the case of Jay, he lived with Winter, who presided over a sort of small theological college in his house, and Jay was under his constant charge, along with some other young men, ‘as a son with the father,’ whilst the result seems to have been most salutary. He says of the students: ‘They sometimes joined him in his preaching excursions. There are few things in my life that I can remember with so much melting pleasure as my going with him – walking by the side of his little horse, and occasionally riding on a fine summer’s evening into a neighbouring village, and returning again the same night, or very early in the morning. In these instances I was required to take sometimes a part, and sometimes the whole of the service, but it was a privilege, rather than a task, to do anything before him. He heard our discourses and prayers with the greatest tenderness, and beamed with pleasure at every passage of improvement2. . . He engaged his students to preach very early after they were with him. This arose partly from the state of the neighbourhood, which wanted help. Souls were perishing for lack of knowledge, and they who could not as yet hope for acceptance in large and polite audiences were able to shew the way of salvation to those who were generally more deficient than themselves. But, I believe, it also resulted from his conviction of the propriety of the measure, independent of this necessity. He imagined the sooner the young men began, the more facility and confidence they would acquire.’ Jay adds emphatically: ‘Upon the whole, and after mature reflection, I should prefer the method he adopted to any other. It tended to keep the heart in the things of God, and to preserve the savour of religion on the mind; which, it is well known, is easily destroyed where all the studies are purely intellectual, and several young men of vivacity and emulation are blended together.”3

When Jay, at a subsequent period, addressed the students at Bristol, he gave a very significant illustration of his sense of the value of a thoroughly practical training for the work of the ministry. He had travelled from Bath to Bristol on the outside of the coach, and as they passed along, a man sitting beside him was continually annoying the driver with questions: ‘Whose house is that?’ ‘Where does that road lead to?’ and so forth; to all of which the driver gave one uniform answer, ‘I don’t know.’ At length the man got nettled, and said, in a pettish way, ‘Do you know anything?’ ‘Yes,’ said the driver, sharply, like a true Englishman, ‘I know how to drive the coach.’ Jehu was thoroughly up to the practical part of his own work, although he was very indifferent about other people’s affairs. The application of the story by Jay was, that however many other things the students might learn, they should at least make sure that they learned their peculiar work as preachers of the gospel. A great principle seems to us involved in all this, fully recognised in training men for other professions, but almost entirely overlooked in preparing them for the all-important work of the holy ministry.

No systematic instruction at all is given to the students in some of the most vital things connected with their profession. The mastery of the English Bible so as to be able to quote it with ease and fluency is very much neglected — a mistake as great as if a man were trained to be a lawyer without the least knowledge of the public statutes. Nay, it is a mistake far greater, because the English Bible is the main book which the Christian common people know and relish, and the Word of God is the very ‘sword of the Spirit.’

It does not seem very difficult to secure such training, although it is a work of labour. Students of theology should certainly be required to commit to memory large portions of Scripture, so as to repeat them with fluent accuracy; and an excellent class exercise would be to take from day to day a doctrine or topic, perhaps in the order of the Catechism or the Confession of Faith, and call upon the students to prove, illustrate, and apply the lesson by actual quotations from Scripture, so as to make them thoroughly and accurately acquainted with the whole body of Divine truth. This would supply the most ample and varied materials for preaching, and for the whole work of the ministry.

The art of making and delivering sermons is also greatly neglected.

The written and spoken style are totally different, and the lucid arrange­ment of a sermon is a matter of the last importance; but it is a matter of skill and study. Committing discourses to memory is also an affair of much labour at first, but the greatest orators of the world have practised it. No power of good speaking will ever be acquired in any other way. The great blunder which many young men make is in imagining that it is easily done. My father was in the habit of saying that he took ten days to commit his first sermon to memory. Dr. Thomson wrote and committed to memory to the last the finest passages of his speeches, and our eloquent preacher, Dr. Guthrie, does the same.4 But no instruction is given in this, and previous to licence there is no scrutiny worthy of the name, as to whether a man is fit, either by grace or gifts, to do the duty of a congregational minister. After being overlaid by lectures, and sent the mechanical round of an overvaunted ‘curriculum,’ he is turned adrift to sink or swim, as the result may happen.

There is nothing approaching to the absurdity of the course adopted in the training of Protestant ministers in any other profession in the world. If they turn out good preachers, it is little short of a miracle. It is perfectly marvellous what pains the ancient heathens took to cultivate the power of public speaking. Let any man read such a book as Quintilian’s Institutes of Eloquence, and he will be astonished at the contrast between the modern Church and the ancient forum. Having premised that orators must be good and wise, with a natural capacity of voice and health, he would begin with the very nursery. He says, ‘First of all, nurses ought to be free from all impediment and im­propriety of speech.’ ‘Meanwhile,’ he speedily adds, ‘if it should happen that such nurses, companions, and tutors as I have recommended are not to be had, yet some one who has some knowledge of language ought to be always about the young gentleman. This person is instantly to set him right when others make use of any impropriety of language in his hearing.’ Again, ‘Memory being an indispensable property in an orator, it is chiefly strengthened and nourished by practice, and the age of which I am now treating (boyhood) being incapable of striking out anything of itself, it is almost the only faculty that can then be improved by the care of the teachers.’ ‘In children the chief symptom of capacity is memory.’ Further on he says, ‘There can be no manner of doubt that an orator ought to lay up a magazine of stores, which he is to employ as occasion shall offer; and this magazine must consist of materials, or things and words.’ But besides this, he says, ‘We are to give to writing all the application and all the time we can spare. For as the earth the deeper you dig it is the better fitted to receive and cherish the seeds committed to its bosom; in like manner, a mind that is not superficially cultivated is the most liberal of the fruits of study, and the most faithful in retaining them. For without a thorough practice and a conscientious discharge of our duty, even the case of speaking extempore becomes no more than empty loquacity and random words.’ ‘We are to proceed by moderate degrees, and so carefully that the mind must not perceive it is burdened, but gather strength by exercise, and fortify itself by continual habit. In all which memory, it is true, bears the greatest share.’ ‘Nothing is so good a help to the memory as to learn by heart a discourse from the paper on which you write it.’ ‘If I am not straitened in point of time, I should be unwilling to lose a single syllable of what I wrote; otherwise it would be needless for me to write at all.’ In a word, the oratory of the ancients was the fruit of their most elaborate study. They regarded the power of speech as one of the leading glories of man, and the art of speaking well as one great source of influence; and they spared no pains to command this influence.

An attempt has been made to palm off the idea that committing sermons to memory ‘has all the defects of all the methods’ of speaking, but the experience of ages is a sufficient refutation of this idea, probably suggested for the purpose of ridiculing any attempt to reform the present slovenly system. That portion of the press, moreover, which hates the power of evangelical religion has eagerly chimed in with this idea. A powerful pulpit is not much to their taste, but it is strange that Churches instinct with life, and really aiming at influence on the side of God should have the slightest doubt in regard to their duty to teach their students to preach as powerfully as possible. That this can only be done by determined and elaborate training in the art of speaking is too clear to admit of doubt.

The practical result, however, of our system is just what might have been anticipated. We have a few good preachers, but the mass are most imperfectly trained. For a time the disappointment and clamour of the people in the Free Church was kept down by the confident prediction of an approaching crop of first-rate ministers. The cry was ‘They come! they come!’ but ‘hope deferred maketh the heart sick.’ Twenty years have almost passed since the Disruption, and instead of getting better, matters seem to be gradually getting worse; and they must get worse, unless the attention of the Church is strongly directed to the subject, and the whole existing system is improved. It is no part of our leading aim to make first-rate public speakers, but without earnest and acceptable preachers the Free Church cannot make progress. We hear of Free churches here and there becoming thin, although with a noble liberality which has astonished the world, the people of the Free Church have as a whole maintained and increased their contributions. The Church is strong as ever in public estimation, although the difficulty of finding men to fill our city charges is at length becoming serious. In cases of perplexity we still fall back on Disruption ministers. Country brethren sometimes try to persuade themselves that removals and emigration are the only causes of their loss of hearers; whereas, if their eyes and ears were open, they might discover that their mode of preaching is sometimes affecting their popularity and emptying their churches. All this is often greatly aggravated by an offensive system of clerical patronage which has sprung up in the Free Church, and by a practical disregard of their distinctive principles on the part of some of our ministers. In many cases, also, the extent to which their time is sometimes engrossed by the secular business of their congregations is very injurious. Believing that every minister should thoroughly under­stand and take his fair share in the ‘outward business of the house of God,’ the pulpit should be his throne, and the main centre of his influence, and to it he ought to give the chief strength and energy of his mind.

I regret to say that I do not see much hope of having the present state of things remedied, unless the ministers and elders who are alive to the evil, and speak of it freely in private, can be induced to take more decided ground in public.5 To our thinking, the very existence of the Free Church, after all the struggles of ages, as a great power in the land for good, is at stake; for if ever she sinks from her high position as the leading representative of the great principles of the Scottish Reformation, and the Church around which the most powerful sympathies of the Scottish people cluster, the great objects of the Disruption will be defeated; and this result again is inevitable, without the blessing of God on a race of powerful and impressive preachers. The Free Church may as well think to change human nature itself as to succeed otherwise, especially amongst the most energetic people in the world — a people who rise like cream to the surface in every nation to which they emigrate, and who delight in proverbs, and other pithy and vigorous forms of speech. After walking miles to church, they have no idea of being sent to sleep by a dull essay, monotonously read. This reminds them too painfully, moreover, of the miserable state of things from which they broke loose at the Disruption, and the result is, either that they are driven to other churches, or tempted to take their nap, if it must be so, at home. Our young preachers may exclaim against all this as unreasonable, but they may as well fight with the wind as attempt to alter it. Even David Hume could say in regard to all public speaking, ‘The people are the only judges of eloquence, and from their verdict there is no appeal;’ whilst the celebrated Dr. Wotherspoon made a statement in regard to the intrusion of ministers which is just as applicable to the matter before us. Argue as you will, the case at the end of the day will be found, said he, to amount simply to this, ‘A minister can do little good if the people don’t like him, and no good at all if they won’t hear him.’

The present state of matters with our young preachers when they first mount the pulpit is very much like that of the man who was asked if he could play the violin, and who answered, ‘I don’t know, for I have never tried it.’ If a man were to hang out his sign even as a shoemaker, and yet never had actually joined leather together, but simply had heard lectures on the qualities of leather, and on the art of making shoes, he would be reckoned an impostor, and might expect to have very few customers. Were a man to start as a physician who had never administered a dose of medicine, or applied his lancet to a human arm, he might expect, at an early stage of his operations to be indicted for culpable homicide. And why is it that ministers will insist that, in their high profession, instead of being more careful to prepare, they should be entitled to set all ordinary rules and experience at defiance? But ‘the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.’ It is not from the Bible that the idea referred to has been obtained. ‘The preacher’ could not alter the message, but he ‘chose acceptable words.’ The very form of discourse adopted by our blessed Lord was most fascinating, and we are told that ‘He spake as never man spake.’ The apostles were divinely inspired to speak ‘in demonstration of the Spirit, and with power.’ Their words were ‘mighty, to the pulling down of strongholds;’ and whilst entirely depending on the Spirit of God for success, every minister now should exert all his gifts for the purpose of arresting attention, and impressing the truth upon his hearers, and to this he should be specially trained. Nothing else will do, or ought to do, in the Free Church. We may say of this, as Dr. Thomson said of Mr. Nelson of Little Dunkeld, and his want of Gaelic: ‘He may be as great,’ said he, ‘as his great namesake, Lord Nelson, the thunder of whose achievements sounded from the Baltic to the Nile, but he is useless here, for he has no Gaelic.’ So of the Free Church. She may raise up any number of mere students, scholars, or philosophers in vain, so long as her ministers cannot preach. It is men of energy, action, and eloquence that are needed.

It is truly painful to look back and see how the great Reformations of the past have been overthrown in Scotland. Knox was soon called to his grave after his gigantic and successful struggle was accomplished; and although Melville succeeded him, and fought a good fight, the cause of the Reformation was soon marred by adverse influences. There was a powerful resurrection in the days of Henderson, but the struggle of truth was again succeeded by the blight of persecution. The Revolution under Carstairs was also soon overthrown by the Moderatism of Robertson; and for the first time, after a weary struggle of three centuries, the Presbyterian Church emerged in strength, and with all her distinctive principles, under Chalmers. Now, here is the important point. The previous blights were all the result of violence from without. Are we now to witness the far more deplorable spectacle of the overthrow or declension of our third Reformation, from helpless incapacity within? And yet, take away the Disruption ministers, and a very few more, and what would be the result to our Church at the present moment? It is painful to think that thousands are watching for our halting, and would rejoice with fiendish satisfaction at the most disastrous issue. But the weakening of the Free Church would be a mighty blow to the Christianity of Scotland and the world. Our own land is thirsting in all its borders for efficient ministers; our colonies, which are worlds in infancy, are crying to us for men; England, amidst her own perplexities, is looking with deep interest upon the solution by us of the problem of a self-sustaining and thoroughly efficient Church. The mighty powers of Romanism and infidelity are coming in like a flood, and combining, with renewed energy, against the truth. Is our splendid position as a bulwark of vital religion, and a vast aggressive missionary institute, to be sacrificed to the indolence and incapacity of men who will not take the trouble of learning to preach, and to an unreasonable adherence on the part of our Church to mere worn-out and ineffective routine?

The subject is worthy of the earnest prayers of all our Christian people; indeed, a concert for prayer on this subject seems to be loudly called for. God seems to be threatening, in consequence of our sins, to withdraw our supplies of men, and thus to humble us before the world; and it becomes us, in a spirit of humble confession and earnest importunity, to pray that the ‘Lord of the harvest’ would give wisdom to the rulers of our Church, and send forth more labourers (not loiterers, as Mr. Oliphant of Dumbarton said) into his harvest; that he would save our beloved Church from the curse of unsanctified dullness, as well as of unsanctified learning, and teach us to take full advantage of all the fresh and earnest zeal of young converts, with which our land is at present blessed. At all events, I have borne my testimony, and I leave the issue in the hand of God.

This article was first published in the March 1965 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.


  1. Appended to the article in the original pamphlet was a speech by Begg delivered to Edinburgh Presbytery, on the necessity of training students to preach without reading their sermons.
  2. The plan of sending students to missionary stations without any super­vision, and where they not only stereotype their own defects, but learn the fatal secret of ‘talking’ without anything to say, has been most mischievous to many young preachers. The case would be totally altered if the same exercises were conducted under the careful inspection and faithful criticism of a wise minister or professor, who would privately point out all their faults, and insist on thorough preparation.
  3. Memoirs of Rev. Cornelius Winter, William Jay, London, 1812, pp. 253-256.
  4. To this rule C. H. Spurgeon may be regarded as a striking exception. He speaks without writing at any length, and has always done so. In this respect he is no more to be imitated by ordinary, commonplace men than Dr. Chalmers was, who adopted the opposite method, although, as demonstrating the power of simple truth and scriptural unadorned worship, and as a model of powerful and effective preaching, Spurgeon should be heard by all theological students. At the same time it is to be observed that, in addition to earnest piety and extraordinary natural talents for public speaking, Spurgeon being the son and grandson of a minister was brought up from his infancy in the very atmosphere of sound Calvinistic theology. His capacious memory is stored with Scripture, sacred poetry, images and anecdotes of all kinds fitted to illustrate Divine truth. He is thoroughly conversant with the best Puritan theology, whilst he has great self-possession, and an unmatched voice for flexibility and power.
  5. I have heard lately of a most objectionable practice followed by some of our preachers – viz., delivering their discourses without reading when they are candidates, and beginning to read immediately afterwards. This is sending in the stock different from the sample, and would be reckoned swindling in the market-place. In our opinion it should be regarded as ecclesiastical dishonesty and severely punished. If a man intends to read, he ought in all fairness openly to do it when a candidate, and not destroy the moral strength of his preaching by getting into his church by means of a fraud.

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