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Leslie D. Weatherhead: The Sermon As Psychotherapy

By David L. Larsen
This preacher is of interest to all students of the craft if only because he was one of the most widely heard English preachers in the post-World War II years. In his masterly chronicle entitled A History of Pastoral Care in America, E. Brooks Holifield describes the direction in this discipline in the book's subtitle: From Salvation to Self-Realization. A corresponding movement within preaching saw the increasing horizontalization and psychologization of the sermon with Leslie Weatherhead beating the loudest drum in the British Isles. In North America the attractive and engaging preaching of the liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick along with the "life-situation preaching" of Charles F. Kemp (as in The Preaching Pastor) turned the focus of pulpit discourse increasingly manward.

The ascendency of audience-centered, problem-solving preaching in our time finds its roots in these earlier advocates of preaching as psychotherapy. While we would not give way for a moment to those extremists who rant and rave incessantly against psychology (after all there is psychology and there is pop psychology), psychological insight can never be a substitute for Scriptural Revelation. Sound insights from this discipline are relevant for the preacher, the counsellor, the exegete, the historian, but psychology is not theology and is severely limited in what it can yield to us. Since "nature abhors a vacuum," we see in Weatherhead a tragic instance in which psychical research replaced "sound doctrine."

Leslie D. Weatherhead was born into a Wesleyan home near London in 1893. He early felt the nudge to overseas ministry and matriculated at Cliff College and Richmond College, Methodist training schools. In 1916 he went to Madras to serve the Georgetown Church where in response to his public invitations, many stood to be counted for Christ. In his younger son's memoir (Leslie Weatherhead: A Personal Portrait), we trace his growing faith in human nature and his capitulation to liberal theology. He served briefly as a military chaplain in Basra in Iraq in World War I, and then after marrying in India, returned in 1922 to England.

Weatherhead served two substantial Methodist churches, in Manchester and the famous Brunswick Church in Leeds where his successor was W.E. Sangster, a true gospel-preaching Methodist. Weatherhead drew crowds wherever he preached. He did this even with a rather unattractive highly-pitched voice. What was his secret? He always appealed strongly to the emotions — he was a "feeling" preacher and would use the proverbial tearjerker. He loved language and could turn a phrase but was always forthright if not blunt. He had a great sense of humor and after his preaching at St. Giles in Edinburgh it was said that it was "the first time they had laughed in St. Giles." His language was quite free and had to be edited for publication. He delighted in the loud laconic whisper. But above all, he genuinely cared for people. He could embrace a crowd of people.

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