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Ralph W. Sockman: 20th Century Circuit Rider
For forty-four years Ralph Washington Sockman stood as a towering pulpit beacon in the city of New York, serving as senior pastor of Christ Church Methodist on Park Avenue.
At the time of his retirement in 1961, he was acknowledged by Time Magazine as the best Protestant preacher in the United States. G. Paul Butler called him "the preacher's preacher." "To hear him preach is a spiritual event," said Butler. "Dr. Sockman is one of the great preachers of our day."
During more than four decades of ministry with an affluent membership of five thousand, he found time to publish twenty-three books, write numerous articles for periodicals; maintain a weekly radio program, The National Radio Pulpit; serve as associate professor of practical theology at Union Seminary; preach during the week in many cities; and in 1941 deliver the Beecher Lectures in Preaching at Yale. No wonder he was called the twentieth century circuit rider.
Public speaking was his specialty. At Ohio Wesleyan University he took thirty-six hours of speech classwork. He divided his classes between Columbia University and Union Seminary. He was greatly influenced by Henry Sloane Coffin, Hugh Black, Johnston Ross and Harry Emerson Fosdick. The last-named says in his autobiography, The Living of These Days, "Preaching for me has never been easy and at the start it was exceedingly painful. In later years I used to envy some of my students at the seminary who from the start seemed to know instinctively how to prepare a sermon. Sockman in his first student sermon exhibited such mature ability and skill that I told the class that he acted as though he had twenty years of experience behind him and I doubted whether even a homiletics professor could spoil him."
Upon his graduation from Columbia University in 1916 he was employed as the associate minister at Christ Church. A year later he became the senior pastor and remained in that one church until retirement. In explaining why he chose to remain a pastor, a radio preacher and a seminary lecturer, Sockman said: "For many years I have been convinced that the greatest need of the contemporary church is the strengthening of the local pulpit."
In 1952 he contributed a sermon to a book edited by Donald Macleod -- This is my Method -- and prefaced his sermon by a statement of his method of sermon preparation. The ideas of his sermons were sown in the summer. During his vacation he read widely in biography, books of devotion and some fiction. When he returned he had as many as a hundred sermon themes in his mind. Many of them never came to fruition but he often went over them to see which ones seemed to be sprouting.
Because of the National Radio Pulpit, the first part of each week was given to preparing a sermon for radio which he had already preached in his own pulpit. He wrote in longhand the sermon he intended to give in the pulpit, then a tape recording was made of the sermon he did give. Putting the two together he prepared for the radio what he thought he should give. After finishing the radio sermon he spent the last three days of the week on his Sunday morning sermon, putting eighteen hours of work on it.
"My habit is not to read books through and catalogue their contents, but to scan over each new book and note its general contents. Thus when I start to prepare a sermon, I happen to remember that various books have passages bearing on the theme. Hence I may consult a dozen different books in the course of developing each sermon. I put down one-line notations of the idea, the book, and the page. When I have compiled perhaps a hundred or more of these ideas and references I then start to organize my outline. This is usually done by Friday night, leaving me all day Saturday for writing the sermon.
"I find that the act of writing starts ideas to flow. My usual custom is not to start with a text, although I value variety. If a text is a striking one, or can be used as a refrain running through the sermon, then I believe in starting with a text. More usually I begin with a question or a life-situation and lead up to the text at the end of my introduction.
Before going to sleep on Saturday night I read through the sermon to get a sense of its wholeness and continuity. Then I wake at seven and think through my sermon for an hour-and-a-half, to get the contents in my mind. I do not take the manuscript into the pulpit. I do take with me quotations to give a sense of exactitude. I try to deliver my sermon as if I were thinking along with the congregation."
Like his tutor, Fosdick, Sockman believed that sermons should be both intensely interesting and vitally therapeutic. He saw each preaching occasion as an opportunity for group counseling. He had an engaging presence with a sympathetic voice of cultured accents and pleasing flexibility. He had a finely-trained and well-educated mind.
His Beecher lectures were published in 1942, entitled The Highway of God. He used as a background and setting the ministry of John the Baptist: I. A Voice in the Wilderness; II. A Reed in the Wind; III. A Prophet; IV. More than a Prophet; V. The Least in the Kingdom; VI. The Children of Wisdom versus the Children of the Marketplace.
In the fourth lecture he said: "My personal policy is to preach very few special sermons devoted solely to public issues, such as peace, missions, literature, corrupt politics and the like. Rather it is my aim to take basic principles and try to swing their searchlights so that they fall upon the various phases of our social, economic and political environment. In a church at the heart of a great city I consider it advisable to center the sermon on some life principle or life situation and then let the radiations reflect on the current problems. In this way I try to preserve the personal element in each sermon and also bring the public problems to their attention."
It will be helpful to us when we aspire to more effective preaching to consider those factors in Sockman's preaching that contributed to his fame as a preacher. They were organization, content, style and delivery.
It was these factors that enabled him successfully to capture the ears, head and heart of those who heard him in his pulpit or on the air.
The first factor was organization. From a fertile background of speech training, Sockman's sermons were models of logical structure. His sermons had a goal and moved steadily to their target, providing interest and clarity along the way. He believed that structure aided the listener, not only in following the message but in recalling its content.
His usual formula was introduction, thesis, statement, body, and conclusion. His introductions varied in length -- sometimes only three or four sentences but more often occupying one-fifth of the sermon. They were designed to capture attention, build rapport with the audience and reveal his topic.
Sockman preferred topical sermons, so topical divisions often appeared in the body of the sermon. Here is an example. In a sermon entitled "Televising the Soul," his three headings were: 1. The eyes of our hearts need to be enlightened in order to see ourselves; 2. After we have opened the eyes of our hearts to see ourselves, we more easily open our eyes to see our neighbors; 3. As the eyes of our hearts are opened to see ourselves and our neighbors, they may see our heavenly Father.
His conclusions usually consisted of a climax to his final division -- a quotation, an illustration, or a poem which emphasized the central idea of the sermon, and a final restatement of the theme. He produced series of sermons on The Lord's Prayer, on the Beatitudes (called The Higher Happiness), The Paradoxes of Jesus, The Whole Armor of God, a detailed study of Ephesians 6:10-19. A book published after his retirement, Whom Christ Commended, contained eleven character studies of those who won praise from Christ -- Nathaniel, the Roman centurion, Zaccheaus, John the Baptist and others.
Sockman's sermon content was arresting and lucid, contributing to the support of his main thesis. Superficial mediocrity was not tolerated by Sockman, who believed that a minister must not only be a holy man but an informed man as well. He said: "You have got to put something into people's heads, rather than just give them a shot in the arm."
He contended that strong audiences never gather round weak pulpits. He said in one of his preaching classes at Union Seminary: "Moralists have made the mistake of substituting militancy for intelligence. Preachers have too often been intent on flogging the wills of the parishioners rather than on feeding their minds." From a fertile mind filled with reading and the study of people, he spoke to the needs and concerns of his hearers.
He attached only minimal importance to the emotional in his preaching, deriving his support from the Bible, example, illustration, testimony and personal experience. Take as an example his sermon on "Blessed are the meek" in his book The Higher Happiness. His introduction deals with the common misunderstandings of the word "meek," such as meek as a mouse, meek as a lamb, and Dickens' Uriah Heep. The headings are: 1. The beginning of meekness; 2. Who are the meek?; 3. Strength at its strongest; 4. What do the meek get? He quotes Milton, Henry Ward Beecher, Luther, A. N. Whitehead, Ruskin, Gerald Heard and uses illustrations from Michelangelo, Scott's Ivanhoe, Queen Elizabeth and Sir Philip Sidney.
A third factor in Sockman's preaching is his masterful use of style. If style can be defined as "the manner of expressing thought in language, giving such skilled expression as invests the idea with dignity and distinction," Sockman seemed to have mastered this art on the anvil of long hours of preparation. His use of word imagery produced a vividness of force that transformed the abstract into the concrete. Each sentence and paragraph exhibited the skill of a master craftsman.
His sentences were varied in length and type; they were free from technical jargon, confusing pronouns or antecedents, and words that had more than one meaning. Avoiding cliches and monotony, his sermons breathed with freshness, thought and vitality. Vibrant figures of speech added force and vigor to his thought.
Antithesis frequently energized his sermons, as may be seen from one he preached during the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. "Christianity cannot be tried by the jury method, but by the laboratory method. The truth of the Bible is not proved by courts but by lives. Man is convinced of his divine origin not by arguments but by the evidence of things not seen which are within his own life when he follows the footsteps of his Lord."
Sockman believed that a preacher must turn the ears of his listeners into eyes. He could describe a cold and listless church member by saying: "Some persons are like houses with their doors open in the wintertime. They hold no warming convictions." On another occasion he said: "We are designed to be spans in the bridge of purposes stretching across the generations." In a sermon on "The Arm of the Lord" he says, "The Tightness of a thing rests on God's law and not on popular thinking. Our diplomats and politicians and our plain citizens must listen for the voice of God rather than the latest Gallup poll."
The fourth factor that contributed to the effectiveness of Sockman's preaching was his delivery. He possessed a warm and free delivery that gave him the unusual ability, as one reporter said, "to awaken in people a new appreciation of the whole realm of religious thinking and acting."
Although he wrote out his sermons in full, in the pulpit he spoke extemporaneously. His voice was conversational, possessing a wide range and pitch. His movements were meaningful but not excessive and his gestures were spontaneous. He always left the distinct impression of being completely relaxed, which in turn relaxed his audience.
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