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Ralph W. Sockman: 20th Century Circuit Rider

By John Bishop
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.

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