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Leslie Weatherhead: Surgeon of the Soul
He was born in London on October 14, 1893. When he first began to preach, at the age of 17, he was so nervous that he twisted off the cord around the cushion on the pulpit desk. His text was: "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
His second sermon was on the text: "And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name." The first sermon was an expression of the poetic side of his nature, while the second illustrated his conviction that religion is an adventure.
Leslie Weatherhead's ambition was to be a missionary. In 1916 he was sent to the Georgetown Church in Madras, the oldest Wesleyan Church in India. Then he became a chaplain in the Indian Army and for two years served in Mesopotamia.
In 1922 Weatherhead returned to England. After three years at Oxford Road Church in Manchester, he went to Brunswick Church in Leeds, and there began a happy and successful ministry which lasted for 11 years.
For more than a decade the church remained full, and Weatherhead became well-known and in great demand as a preacher. He published ten books in that period, all of which became best-sellers.
In 1936 he became minister of the City Temple in London, a Congregational Church which had many famous ministers, including Joseph Parker, R. J. Campbell and Joseph Fort Newton. On April 17, 1941, the Church was destroyed by bombs, and the congregation had to worship in eight different buildings until the new City Temple was opened in 1958. He retired in 1960.
Weatherhead was a preacher of the first order. His sermons have sound homiletical form, logical progression of thought, and illuminating illustrations. He had a remarkable gift for taking familiar incidents of Scripture and putting them in a new light. He was an expert in the art of communicating the Gospel.
His personality was winsome and magnetic. His voice was quiet, except when he was aroused by great feeling. His eyes fascinated the hearer and his facile hands played a great part in his delivery.
For Weatherhead, the pulpit always came first. He described his pulpit work in an article, "Behind the Scenes," which appeared in The City Temple Tidings:
"When people gather to worship and listen, a minister must have a message fresh, timely, and, if topical, yet also part of the eternal truth about God. He must balance theological teaching, evangelical appeal, and biblical exposition, and also try to interpret modern events in the light of God's purposes. He must know what is being said and done in the world. He must read the important books and keep in touch with the movement of religious thought.
"Above all, he must try to live so close to God that having brooded on what men are saying and doing, he can go to his people and say, 'Thus saith the Lord'.
"Some who think preaching is easy will not understand me when I say that the preparation of two sermons a Sunday might well be a full-time occupation. I can only tell them that before one Sunday is over I begin to prepare for the next. The Sunday services are of great importance to me. I long to make them so beautiful and significant that no one can fail to be brought nearer to God by them."
Weatherhead had a remarkable ability to hide himself while he was preaching so that God might speak to the people. He was fond of quoting the words which John Wesley often wrote: "I offered Christ to the people." He believed that nothing else should concern the preacher. If he is forgotten and Christ is magnified the preacher has done his work well.
In his Beecher Lectures on preaching at Yale, he said: "Be relevant, be simple and be loving. The most beautiful thing I ever heard about a preacher was this: 'Why is it that he has such power over people and why do they come so far to hear him?' The answer was: He puts his arms around the whole congregation and no one feels left out." The same was true of Weatherhead.
His great friend W. E. Sangster said of him: "If I were asked to put the secret of his power into one word, I should use the word 'caring.' He cares for people honestly, personally, and in a most costly way."
His long years of personal dealing with people in his psychological clinic with the assistance of doctors and psychiatrists, gave him an understanding of human nature which was of the utmost value in his preaching. Weatherhead never entered the pulpit without remembering that every congregation contains some broken hearts, and his own battles with sickness deepened his sympathies.
His careful study of the Bible and his painstaking preparation of sermons was all to one end: to help people and to introduce them to Jesus. His hope was that through such a transforming friendship they might be made new creatures.
In a 1943 ordination charge he told the young minister how he must get his message across.
"I have myself written out my sermons five or six times and then preached them, and then gone home and written them again because I felt that the matter could be put even more clearly. My own ambition is so to preach that everybody in the congregation over 15 years of age and of average intellect shall be able, not only to understand what I am talking about, but to receive the message."
Weatherhead had the ability to communicate profound subjects through clear, simple language. Dr. Horton Davies said that Weatherhead was "unrivalled as a twentieth-century physician of souls and preacher of the integration of personality through Christ".
The three books of his sermons which Dr. Weatherhead considered his best are That Immortal Sea, Over His Own Signature and The Key Next Door.
The first demonstrates his versatility of theme and treatment. Four sermons were concerned with practical problems: acquisitiveness, worry, true and untrue selves, and the confidence necessary to face old age. The evangelical sermons deal with the unconventional love of Christ, the power of the crucified and risen Christ and the contrast between human callousness and Christ's total concern for humanity. Other sermons like "This Haunted World" are mystical and devotional. Some very able apologetical sermons are included like "The Advantages of Atheism" and "Whose Voice Shall I Trust?"
Weatherhead's craft in sermon-writing might be missed by the reader, so naturally is the interest caught and held.
The second volume was exclusively devoted to devotional studies of the "I am" sayings of Jesus in the fourth Gospel. The third book gives a selection of 26 sermons preached at the close of his 24-years ministry at the City Temple, including sermons for special occasions. There are 11 doctrinal sermons, 6 apologetic sermons, 4 devotional, 4 psychological and 2 ethical.
In assessing the contribution of Leslie Weatherhead to modern Methodism, Rupert Davies mentions "a style of preaching that was extraordinarily vivid and personal, an application of his great knowledge of psychology to spiritual problems, and a theology that took full account of modern questioning about the meaning of life."
One of his two sons, Kingsley, published in 1975 Leslie Weatherhead -- a Personal Portrait, which is well worth reading. During the four years I was serving a Methodist Church in London I had the opportunity of meeting with a group of fellow-Methodist ministers once a month in his study. On three occasions he invited me to supply his pulpit during the summer, typical of his brotherliness and his encouragement of others. He attracted great crowds wherever he went and yet he remained humble and unassuming to the end.
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