When Alexander Maclaren retired from his pastorate, Robertson Nicoll said that he had altered the whole manner of British preaching.
“It may be doubted whether any preacher of the last fifty years has had a more profound and penetrating and transforming power.”
Maclaren was born in Glasgow on February 11, 1826, and died in Manchester on May 5, 1910. He had been for almost sixty-five years a minister, entirely devoted to his calling.
He lived more than almost any of the great preachers of his time between his study, his pulpit, his pen.
“You have just about hit it,” was his reply to the suggestion that what he would like to be was to be invisible from the time he left his study till he was in the pulpit. He subdued action to thought, thought to utterance and utterance to the Gospel. His life was his ministry; his ministry was his life.
In 1842 he was enrolled as a candidate for the Baptist ministry at Stepney College, London. He was tall, shy, silent and looked no older than his sixteen years. But his vocation, as he himself (a consistent Calvinist) might have said, was divinely decreed.
“I cannot ever recall any hesitation as to being a minister,” he said. “It just had to be.”
In the College he was thoroughly grounded in Greek and Hebrew. He was taught to study the Bible in the original and so the foundation was laid for his distinctive work as an expositor and for the biblical content of his preaching.
Before Maclaren had finished his course of study he was invited to Portland Chapel in Southampton for three months; those three months became twelve years. He began his ministry there on June 28, 1846. His name and fame grew.
His ministry fell into a quiet routine for which he was always grateful: two sermons on Sunday, a Monday prayer meeting and a Thursday service and lecture. His parishioners thought his sermons to them were the best he ever preached.
In April 1858 he was called to be minister at Union Chapel in Manchester. No ministry could have been happier. The church prospered and a new building had to be erected to seat 1,500; every sitting was taken.
His renown as preacher spread throughout the English-speaking world. His pulpit became his throne. He was twice elected President of the Baptist Union. He resigned as pastor in 1905 after a ministry of forty-five years.
Maclaren’s religious life was hid with Christ in God. He walked with God day by day. He loved Jesus Christ with a reverent, holy love and lived to make Him known. In his farewell sermon at Union he said: “To efface oneself is one of a preacher’s first duties.”
His sister, who wrote his biography, said: “Throughout Dr. Maclaren’s long ministry this was his aim, or to put it differently his mind was so full of his subject that thought of self had no place. But, for this very reason, that there was no self-consciousness, his hearers could not forget his personality, and it marvellously deepened the effect of his words.”
He organized his sermons under three heads as a rule. A plainspoken critic once said that “he served the bread of life with a three-pronged fork.” Maclaren answered that for the most part that was the best way of organizing his sermons.
Robertson Nicoll said of his method of analyzing a text that “he touched it with a silver hammer and it immediately broke up into natural and memorable divisions, so comprehensive, and so clear that it seemed wonderful that the text should ever have been handled in any other way.”
His sermon titles were not very striking. They kept close to the biblical passages on which they were based. Most of his sermons run to about 4,000 words and some were longer. Every one must have taken at least forty minutes to deliver. There are twenty volumes of his sermons, and they contain 427 sermons.
On what does Maclaren’s great influence rest? To begin with, he had the magnificent bearing of a Highland chieftain. He had only to stand up to be looked at.
“Before you knew he was a prophet” says Nicoll, “you were sure he was a king.”
A weightier reason for his influence was that he had a regal gift of style. He owed much in his early years to Carlyle, still more to the best English poetry, most of all to his own exacting standards and unsparing toil. Yet, hard as he worked, he never forgot that a sermon is essentially a spoken, not a written word.
He had a wonderful gift of felicitous and telling illustration. On every page are sparkling metaphors and illuminating phrases which not merely adorn but light up the subject under discussion.
The real secret of his power is that his preaching was almost exclusively biblical. Current topics, questions of the hour were left severely alone in the pulpit. He never tired of quoting Archbishop Leighton’s remark to those who complained that he did not “preach up the times.” “Surely,” said Leighton, “when all of you are preaching up the times, you may allow one poor brother to preach up Christ and eternity.”
Maclaren stays with his text, gets the substance out of it, makes an application of it that is as practical and relevant as it is personal. He was mighty in the Scriptures and became known as the prince of expositors.
Maclaren’s own idea of what preaching should be is given clearly in a letter written in 1900 to students in an American seminary.
“I sometimes think that a verse in one of the Psalms carries the whole pith of homiletics. ‘While I was musing the fire burned, than spake I with my tongue.’ Patient meditation, resulting in kindled emotion and the flashing up of truth into warmth and light, and then and not till then, the rush of speech moved by the Holy Ghost — these are the processes which will make sermons live things with hands and feet, as Luther’s words were said to be. Then spake I,’ not, ‘Then I sat down at my desk and wrote it all down to be read majestically out of manuscript in a leathery case’.”
Maclaren resolved from the very beginning that if he could not look his hearers in the face he would give up. He wrote out fully the first few sentences but after that his notes were scant. When one day the notes he had placed in the Bible blew away, he resolved to face his people without a scrap of paper. His illustrations had been carefully thought out, but were only clothed when he faced the people.
He could not understand how a man could prepare a sermon weeks before it was given. “I must give it red-hot,” he would say. His most remarkable gift was his power of almost perfect composition. It was noted that he was one of the few preachers who spoke better than he wrote. His sermons were reported by stenographers and they needed little correction.
He was able to create literature in the very act of delivery. He once said, “I have always found that my own comfort and efficiency in preaching have been in direct proportion to the depth of my daily communion with God. I know no way in which we can do our work but in fellowship with God, in keeping up the habits of the student’s life, which needs some power of saying ‘No’ and by conscientious pulpit preparation. The secret of success in everything is trust in God and hard work.”
Until after middle age he preferred textual preaching, but in his later years he began to do expository work. His Expositions of Holy Scripture are in thirty-one volumes, which he completed in his retirement. He approached his text in the spirit of a learner. He did not bring his ideas to the Bible but strove to discover and explain God’s thoughts that he found there. There is a greater amount of sound exegesis in Maclaren’s preaching than in any other preacher.
Robertson Nicoll, in his obituary notice of Maclaren in The British Weekly, said: “It is difficult to believe that his Expositions of Holy Scripture will be superceded. Will there ever be again such a combination of spiritual insight, of scholarship, of passion, of style, of keen intellectual powers? He was clearly a man of genius and men of genius are rare. So long as preachers care to teach from the Scriptures they will find their best guide and help in him.”
As an example of his homiletical skill turn to a sermon in his exposition of Genesis, entitled “A Coffin in Egypt.” The text is Gen. 50:26: “They embalmed him and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.”
Maclaren begins: “So closes the book of Genesis. During all the period leading up to the Exodus, Israel is left with a mummy and a hope. For three centuries that silent coffin in Egypt preached its impressive messages. What did it say?
“That coffin was a silent reminder of immortality. It was a herald of hope. It was a preacher of patience. It was a pledge of progression.”
He concludes: “The average Christian of today may well be sent to school to Joseph on his deathbed. We have a better inheritance and fuller, clearer promises and facts on which to trust. Shame on us if we have a feebler faith.”
Ernest H. Jeffs, in his Princes of the Modern Pulpit, says: “The charm of Maclaren’s preaching was intellectual and artistic. It lay in the logical closeness and firmness of his exposition, architectural culmination of proof and argument, warmth and richness of his metaphor and illustrations; and under all this was the stern challenge to righteousness and repentance, breaking into sunshine, so to speak, when the emphasis changes from the God who judges to the Jesus who redeems.”

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