A. J. Gossip was born at Glasgow in 1873 and educated at the University of Edinburgh; there he attended Alexander Whyte’s Church and was licensed for the ministry of the Free Church of Scotland in 1898.
He held successively the pastoral charges of St. Columba’s, Liverpool; the West United Free Church in Forfar; St. Matthew’s U.F. Church, Glasgow; and Beechgrove, Aberdeen. In 1928 he was appointed Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Training in Trinity College, Glasgow, where he remained until his retirement in 1945.
To speak of Gossip’s ministry in these four congregations and of the impact he made on his students in Glasgow is to call attention to only a part of the work which he accomplished. By his spoken and written words he became comforter and father in God to thousands who had never seen him and of whom he himself knew nothing.
The prevailing impression made by his preaching was that of a vital personality charged with the communication of an urgent message. That message was clothed in pithy and ardent words which reached the heart and played upon the feelings so as to revive energy and restore hope.
Preaching was for Gossip the heart of worship. He said, “The priest is a useful enough functionary, with a real part to play, and to whom we owe more than we always realize. But it is the preacher who sets men’s hearts burning, and the prophet who brings in a new day of the Lord.”
His preaching was always related to the demands and needs, the testings and trials of the common life, and always he preached the authentic notes of the Christian Gospel as he had tested them and found them true in his own experience. As he once wrote: “Preach to your own heart, and many startled passers-by will stop to listen, feeling you are addressing them. Draw anonymously on the story of your life, and they will sit astonished in the pews, asking, ‘Who has been telling him about me?'”1
Two experiences were of supreme significance for Gossip’s faith and preaching. One was his period of service as a chaplain with the Glasgow Highlanders in the First World War; it gave him a deep knowledge of men as they face the horrors of war.
He once buried a hundred boys he knew in one long grave, but he saw a nobility in the sacrifice which reminded him of the Cross. He learned in the trenches that words spoken from the heart and based on living experience, however lame and stumbling their expression, may make a lasting appeal.
During the Second World War he wrote an article in The British Weekly on “The Duties and Opportunities of Army Chaplains” in which he said: “Never have I found it so easy to preach as at the front: never have I known men so ready to listen. It was always the deep things that they wanted, not knowing what a day or an hour might bring forth. What shall I preach about? I used to ask. ‘Tell us something about Jesus Christ’.”
The second decisive experience of Gossip’s life was the sudden death of his wife in 1927. He faced this loss with tremendous courage. He preached to his own people in Aberdeen and — through the printed word — to a much greater congregation that sermon to which he gave the title, “But when life tumbles in, what then?”
“You people in the sunshine may believe the faith,” he said, “but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else.”2
His sermons were always delivered with a great intensity and there was a freshness in their presentation. His style was as headlong as a Highland torrent. Principal John Mauchline of Trinity College, in a memorial tribute to his colleague in The Expository Times, said: “He often spoke in breathless sentences in which clause was piled on clause, and the bonds of syntax were strained in a way no grammarian would have allowed; and yet each clause added its own quota to fan the fires of eloquence until every heart in a congregation was warmed to a generous glow.
“It may be that for a congregation’s weekly spiritual sustenance Gossip provided too rich fare. It may be that his greatest influence was upon those who heard him from time to time, so that, as it were, they kept with him high festival.”
He had rather a weak voice — which made it somewhat difficult to hear — and a strong accent. His gestures were often ungainly but there was an indefinable something about his preaching which cut through every obstacle to find and grip and hold the hearers to the last word.
His sermons were a revelation of the worth to a preacher of a well-stored mind. His hearers felt themselves in the presence of a mind that did its own thinking, that was never content with the thoughts of other men’s minds but which yet had gathered from many fields a rich harvest.
Gossip not only had the power to see: he knew how, by apt and telling quotation, to interpret and make fast what he had seen. There was in his words a certain dramatic intensity, a certain tingling quality which got home. No one could help but feel the freshness and aptness of the phrasing, the color and music of his words.
He was a master of illustration. With the devotional literature of our language he was intimately acquainted, and he drew upon it with telling effect. Gossip also drew on an astonishingly-wide range of literature: poetry, fiction, biography and letters. In one sermon in his last book, “When Christ and you come face to face what then?” he quotes from Browning, Matthew Arnold, Josiah Royce, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, C. E. Montague, Walter Lippmann, T. S. Eliot, Lammenais, Plato, Jung, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Raymond Lull.3
Gossip published four volumes of sermons in T. & T. Clark’s “The Scholar as Preacher” series. The first appeared in 1924. It was entitled “From the Edge of the Crowd,” and modestly claimed to be the musings of a pagan mind on Jesus Christ. Plainly Gossip had looked on his Master with fresh, keen eyes, and wrote about Him with rare insight, controlled passion and sometimes with overwhelming power.
In 1926 “The Galilean Accent” appeared. These sermons were studies in the Christian life and cast the same spell on many readers. There was usually the striking opening sentence, an approach to the text from an unexpected angle: the sweep of his mind, the torrential outpouring of meaningful and newly-minted language. Gossip had no use for what he called “slatternly, flat-footed English.”
“The Hero in Thy Soul” came in 1928 — an attempt to face life gallantly. This book is lightened and colored by the preacher’s faith and courage and his resolute grappling with the problems of life in a puzzling world.
Finally, in 1944 came “Experience Worketh Hope,” consisting of thoughts for a troubled day. They were sermons for wartime but not for that only. They deal with the abiding things. They have mellowness, poise, shining courage, and Christian confidence, with the flashing phrase, the fervor and the vision of sunnier days.
Gossip’s qualities as a preacher are plain. Chief among them is a sense of the reality of the Christ of the Gospels, who lives eternally. He talks with men as one who has first talked with Christ. It has been said that his extempore prayers were as moving as his sermons, and often the latter pass into conversation with the Lord.
Never has preaching been more full of Christ — His words, His deeds, His silences, above all His death which lays bare the heart of God. He makes doctrine vivid and experimental through Christ.
Gossip is a preacher of genius and therefore inimitable. His work would not serve as a model for a young preacher. He always starts with a text (which is often from Moffatt’s translation) but does not pay much attention to its meaning.
The sermons lack structure. It is impossible to reproduce them by point-headings. The texts are sometimes short — as in a sermon on public worship which has for a text, “Set the trumpet to thy lips”; and sometimes long — as in the sermon preached after his wife’s death based on the words of Jeremiah: “If thou hast run with the footmen and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? And if in the land of peace, wherein thou trustest, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?”
The texts are sometimes familiar, as in a sermon “A Message for Tense Days” on the words of Isaiah, “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength,” and sometimes strange, as in a sermon on “Rusting Grace” on the text, “Ramoth in Gilead is ours, and we be still and take it not.”
Gossip exercised great skill in phrasing his sermon topics, as we can judge from the titles of his books. Here are a few of his subjects, “What religion does for one who really tries it,” “How to face life with steady eyes,” “The spiritual danger of being unimportant,” “What Christ hates most,” and “God’s side of things, and ours.”
His sermons are chiefly pastoral. They are direct in address, seeking to bring comfort and strength, as well as hope and cheer, out of the Scriptures. His references to the contemporary scene are remarkably few. He seems to have agreed with Burke that “politics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement. Surely the church is a place where one day’s truce ought to be allowed to the dissensions and the animosities of mankind.”4
In 1925 Gossip gave the Warrack Lectures on Preaching, “In Christ’s Stead.” He was disappointed that the publisher did not reprint this book, for his soul was in it. It is now an eagerly sought item at secondhand booksellers. One can never read a chapter in it without searching of heart and quickening of pulse.
Gossip shares the passion and the problems of the ministry with his brethren and its exultations and quiet joys. The lectures are full of illustrations from his own experience as a parish minister and chaplain.
In the first lecture, which deals with the preacher in the modern world, he asserts the primacy of preaching. “Always it has been through preaching that revivals have come and always by preaching that the Spirit has made the tired Church young again.”5
He seeks to set before the ministerial students he is addressing the greatness of the office of the ministry and the glory of the Master and the splendor of their task.
In the second lecture on the bases of preaching Gossip begins thus: “Preaching resembles music in this respect: that for real success three things are required — a theme worth hearing, a sufficient instrument, and a master whose deft touch can draw from both what his soul finds in them.”6
The secret of successful preaching lies in the personality of the preacher. “We are meant to move among our people unconscious proofs of all we say, clear and final evidence of the enormous difference Christ makes. One flash of temper may undo more than a hundred sermons have slowly accomplished.”7
If the preacher is to keep from running dry, and from only having a few subjects about which to preach, reading is essential. The most rewarding work for the preacher is that spent on the Bible, for there is no interpreter of Scripture like Scripture itself. Nevertheless, Gossip urges the preacher to read all kinds of things, for almost nothing comes amiss: all is grist to the homiletic mill. The more the preacher knows, the more points of contact he has with other people.
The problem of how to retain what is read is a real one. Gossip confesses that he had tried an Interleaved Bible — on which Alexander Whyte set such store — along with notebooks and commonplace books but found his untidy mind could not work like that. He believed in underlining his books and said he found it much easier to train himself to remember where a thing was than to carry it bodily away.
The third lecture deals with the object of the sermon. Gossip declared that preaching ought to be more expository, more directly founded upon and soaked in Scripture, especially in days when the Bible is not so much read or so well known as formerly. He advises against strange, out-of-the-way texts, and urges the use of big central texts and themes.
Preaching fails unless it leads to action. The note of appeal, the call for decision must be sounded. Only once, says Gossip, was a sermon of his completely successful, and that only to one hearer. He was preaching in a small village church, and he noticed a distinguished-looking man, obviously an American, with a curiously rapt look on his face during the sermon.
Months later he learned that the worshipper had a strange experience. When the sermon began, he saw Christ standing behind the preacher, and as it proceeded, the latter faded out, and for him there was no one there except Jesus and he was looking straight at Him. If we knew our business, says Gossip, and did it thoroughly, that is what ought to happen every time we preach.8
It is in the fourth lecture on the making of the sermon that Gossip lets us into his study and reveals his own methods of preparation. He found little difficulty in choosing texts; indeed, he had so many clamoring for attention that it was hard to choose between them. Often in reading the Bible at a service, texts for the next week would leap out of the pages.
His ordinary reading furnished him with abundant ideas. Sometimes something that gripped him would leap at a kindred or an opposing text, and at once his sermon began to form itself. Ideas for sermons or texts that appeal should be written down in a book, he said, with some indication of the line the preacher means to follow. This will help in lean days when the preacher’s mind is a blank.
Having found his subject, Gossip would start on it at once, early in the week. On Tuesday he would make a rough outline of the road he meant to take and work at it in the mornings in his study. He kept thinking about it as he went visiting. To delay beginning work on the sermon until late in the week, says Gossip, makes for an unhealthy life and feverish work.
The Bible should always be treated honestly and reverently. “Preach not doctrines but Christ. Let them see that wonderful Figure, and as you talk of Him, they will grasp what you think about Him, and if you are successful, will agree with you. Whereas, if you preach doctrinally, in the sense of handing out cold slabs of abstract theorizing, they will cease to listen, or get lost.”
On the matter of sermon heads, Gossip confesses himself to be a heretic. It is a mere pulpit illusion, he says, that by the natural law of things all truth, like all Gaul, falls into three parts. It is very convenient when it does.
One kind of sermon has simply one dominant idea, speeding straight to its goal like an arrow in its flight and this needs no heads. Another takes a central theme and muses on it, turning it round and round and always at the end of every section pressing it home and on the hearers. Another method — which appealed most of all to Gossip when he sat in the pew — was like a full mind unrolling itself, throwing in heaps of things but always moving on to a definite goal, leading the hearer further and deeper until God came very near. This is an exact description of his own way of preaching.
As a rule heads are needed, but they ought to be kept out of sight as much as possible. To announce them seemed to him poor psychology. Still, the preacher should have his own heads in his mind, to preserve proportion and balance.
When Gossip preached he often gave the impression that his preaching was wholly spontaneous, the inspired utterance of the occasion as the Spirit led him on, for he preached without any notes. The truth was that he had taken the advice which he gives in these lectures, “that the wisest method in sermon-making is that a man should first write in order that things should not be vague or unwieldy and disorderly, and then mainly, not verbally, get it by heart.”
He adds shrewdly, “if a discourse is too elaborate and subtle to be delivered without manuscript, it is certainly too subtle and elaborate to be followed without a paper before the hearers too.”9
Gossip is one of the very few writers on preaching who commends the memoriter method of preaching. For the first seven years of his ministry he wrote and rewrote his sermons with a carefulness for which he was thankful later but he discovered that if he had written carefully he could reproduce what he had written, with ease and exactness, by walking up and down and reading it over, passage by passage, three times.
Then came the War, when it was impossible to use even the briefest of notes as a chaplain on the front line. “For years now,” he explains, “I have never written a sermon, or more than the briefest of headings, till the Monday after it has been delivered, if even then.” This means hard work and absorbed concentration.
If memorizing makes the preacher mechanical or strained, Gossip suggests that he should abandon that method. He advises his student hearers to begin by writing with the utmost care and to keep all they write.
Style is power, and time spent upon it is not wasted, says Gossip. A phrase, an image, an apt adjective, may bring home the truth to some needy soul and bring God very near.
With the majority of people, it is through the imagination (far more than their reason) that the heart and will can be reached. If they are to understand, they must be able to see, almost as if with the bodily eye.
Gossip himself possessed a wise and schooled imagination, as he proved not only in his sermons but by the children’s addresses that he gave in his churches (and which were published regularly in The Expository Times).
In the final lecture Gossip speaks of some signposts and danger signals. He deals with the preacher’s use of his voice and the value of apt and vivid illustration, which is what people remember. A good quotation helps if it is really appropriate and the name of the author should be given, lest some hearer may wonder who it was that is quoted and so lose the rest of the sermon.
One note was always present in Gossip’s preaching: the unchanging validity of the Christian message. Time after time he emphasized the wonder of the works of God in creation, providence, and redemption. He never tired of preaching of the comfort of God to those who sincerely seek Him.
Gossip agreed wholeheartedly with the saying of James Denny that “you cannot in preaching produce at the same time an impression of your own cleverness and that Christ is wonderful.”
1. In Christ’s Stead, p. 128
2. The Hero in thy Soul, p. 111.
3. Experience Worketh Hope, p. 85-93
4. In Christ’s Stead, p. 35
5. Op. cit. p. 54
6. In Christ’s Stead, p. 82
7. Op. cit. p. 82
8. Op. cit. p. 149
9. Op. cit. p. 181

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