In his book Walking with the Giants, Warren Wiersbe wondered what it would be like if some “homiletically inclined archangel” offered to let him choose another time and place in which to live. If given that “wish,” Wiersbe wrote that he would set the coordinates for Victorian Great Britain to hear firsthand the greatest preaching in the history of the English language. He further speculated that if he had already heard Charles Haddon Spurgeon on a particular Lord’s Day, he would “hasten to the City Temple and there sit at the feet of Joseph Parker.”
Joseph Parker was a powerful pulpit voice in a day when great preachers impacted popular culture in a way seldom seen before or since. His ministry has endured into the 21st century largely through the massive record of an ambitious expository project. He set out to preach through the entire Bible in seven years and published the results; it is still available today, most recently published as Preaching Through the Bible (in 14 volumes).
His messages remain powerful from the opening prayers (published verbatim-and inspiring on their own!) and continuing through each carefully crafted and delivered sentence. The messages are largely transcriptions of his preaching-yet, they bear the marks of a serious wordsmith. Parker’s preaching represents the best of what Phillips Brooks must have meant when he described preaching as “the truth of God mediated through the human personality.”
It is virtually impossible to understand Parker and his times without looking also at his legendary London contemporary, Spurgeon. Like Spurgeon, Parker was basically an autodidact. He was converted to personal faith in Christ as a 12-year-old-boy, later recalling: “I remember Sunday night when, walking with my father and a most intelligent Sunday School teacher, I declared my love to Christ, and asked Him to take my child-heart into His own gracious keeping.” Six years later he sensed God’s call on his life and began preaching as opportunities came his way. An older pastor soon took an interest in the young preacher. He mentored him and “force-fed him theology and exegesis” for nearly a year.
Joseph Parker’s early pastoral ministry, in places such as Banbury in Oxfordshire and Manchester, earned him a reputation as a dedicated pastor and uniquely gifted preacher. He lived, moved and served in the Congregational Church system. This was a vital part of English Non-Conformity during the 19th century and a fertile breeding ground for evangelism and revival (unlike what had become of its American counterpart by that time).
His gifts seemed to demand a venue like the great city of London. His actual journey there took the form of a call to a once-great church (another Spurgeon similarity) that had seen better days-the Poultry Chapel. Five years into a 33-year ministry, he led the congregation through a building program and name change as his church became known as City Temple.
Criticism followed Parker throughout his ministry. The most common complaint was that he was an egotist, but Wiersbe prefers to think of him as a “dramatist.” One contemporary referred to him as “…boisterous, sometimes perhaps bombastic, but he had drama, he had passion, he had genius, he had great flashes of inspiration which made other preachers seem dull in comparison.” Strong personalities are often larger than life; and as such they produce varied, sometimes even violent, reactions. But if they stay faithful to principle and faith, they are remembered and studied by later generations because they are the ones who impact their times and make a lasting difference.
As to the actual relationship between Parker and Spurgeon, there were the “ups and downs” all too familiar to preachers and their peers. Sometimes they were fast friends; at other times they were on opposite sides of an issue, but generally there was a respect that tempered things.
These two giants shared pulpits and worked together on many causes over the years, but there were moments of stress in their relationship. The fact that they were both passionate leaders in their own right was a factor. In 1887 Parker and Spurgeon exchanged a series of letters in what became an increasingly personal and public spat.
Yet when Spurgeon died five years later, Parker paid him tribute in The London Times, saying that “the only pulpit name of the 19th century that will be remembered is no longer the name of a living man. His simplicity, his constancy, his stand-stillness, won for him, through many difficulties, a unique and invincible position in Christian England.” Theirs was clearly a complicated relationship. Eagles don’t flock.
When Karl Wallenda, the legendary tight-rope walker, would talk about his passion he would say: “Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting!” Joseph Parker clearly felt that way about preaching. It’s really all he ever wanted to do, be or be known for. He once said that “Sunday is my festival day. I love Sunday. All the days of the week lead up to it, and I hold high festival with my God and my people every Sabbath.” So, when Ed Young Jr., tells his mammoth Grapevine, Texas, congregation, “It’s all about the weekend!”-he’s following a powerful precedent.
Anyone who asked Parker about what his hobby was received the crisp reply: “Preaching!” Joseph Parker worked hard at his preaching. He built his schedule around it, and the fruit of this kind of passionate commitment was evident throughout his ministry. He wrote about what this meant in practical terms in his book Studies in Texts:
“I have lived for my work. That is all. If I had talked all the week, I could not have preached on Sunday. If I had attended committee meetings, immersed myself in politics and undertaken the general care of the Empire, my strength would have been consumed. That is all. Mystery there is none. I have made my preaching work my delight, the very festival of my soul. That is all. Young brother, go thou and do likewise, and God bless thee!”
He was, as seems universally true of all great preachers, well read. He would begin around 7:30 in the morning, reading several newspapers. Meditation on the text (a lost art) was a crucial part of his spiritual and mental preparation. He took long walks and contemplated the passage at hand.
Parker was an extemporaneous, as opposed to manuscript, preacher. But this should never be confused with “impromptu” speaking. One cannot imagine him (or any other serious man of God) “winging it” with unprepared “stream of consciousness” preaching. In fact, his method required much more preparation than that involved in the careful crafting of a masterpiece manuscript. He would use a few notes and then preach using “the language of the moment,” remarking once that “every man can best follow his own method; I have followed mine.” Good advice for any preacher.
He used roughly the same amount of notes as did Mr. Spurgeon (about a half-page), but Parker’s sermons have less structure than his esteemed London neighbor. They read more as rhetorical commentary and variations on a theme; but they are packed with insight, meat, application and enduring power. We might call this today an “animated conversation.” Parker preferred the term “dignified conversation.”
He drew and held a vast and faithful following throughout his ministry. He preached twice on Sundays to crowds of more than three thousand, and each Thursday during the noon hour to at least a thousand. One observer described Parker in his pulpit prime as a captivating communicator:
“His massive figure and leonine head at once fixed the attention and his voice, rich as an organ, held his audience spell-bound. It rose and fell in sonorous periods as he poured out his perfectly-phrased sentences. He was a superb actor and he delivered his thoughts with a dramatic force that kindled each sentence…the gleaming eyes, the vigorous gesture, the constantly challenging inflection of his voice, now soft as whisper, then challenging as a trumpet.”
Another interesting Parker-Spurgeon parallel is how they dealt with their own emotions. Biographers have documented in great detail Spurgeon’s battles with chronic depression (often paralyzing him for lengthy periods of time). Less is known, though, of Parker’s emotional “demons.” There is compelling evidence that he battled feelings of inferiority throughout his career, probably rooted in his lack of formal education (though clearly he was a brilliant man).
Joseph Parker was a giant in his generation, a man consumed with a mission-to preach the Word. A study of his life raises questions about the place of ambition in ministry. Paul told Timothy that “desiring the office of a bishop” was a good thing indeed. But, in the same passage, he warned the preacher about the perils of pride. In Parker we might just see a bit of ourselves as we wrestle with issues of ego, personality and distraction. It’s like that with “earthen vessels.” As we look at such men we can’t ignore the human element and challenges, but we can look beyond them somewhat to catch glimpses of what is possible when God’s call and Word are taken seriously.

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About The Author


David R. Stokes has been in pastoral ministry for nearly 40 years and has served as the Senior Pastor of Expectation Church in Fairfax, Virginia since 1998. His 10th book is a thriller set against the backdrop of Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965.

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