Charles Edward Jefferson was born at Cambridge, Ohio, on August 29, 1860, the son of Dr. Milton Jefferson, a native of Virginia, and his wife, Ella Sachet, born in the Isle of Guernsey. It was a Methodist family, and Charles graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1882.
He was superintendent of schools in Washington, Ohio, for two years, and then went to Boston to study law at Harvard, having at that time little interest in the church or Christianity. But one evening he went to Trinity Church to hear Phillips Brooks.
“At last I had discovered a preacher,” he said. “I wanted all my friends in the West to hear him. I felt sorry for them because they did not live in Boston. I longed to tell everybody about him.”In a sermon which he preached in Trinity Church in 1931 he said of his preacher-hero: “Every sermon was baptized in the spirit of Christ. No matter what his text, one could always feel certain that before he got done with us, we should all be standing before the judgment seat of Christ.”
Now that he had discovered what preaching was, he began to wish to be a preacher, though he was still a skeptic, full of doubts. He had an interview with Brooks and after a week decided to enter the ministry. He spent three years at the Boston School of Theology, and during that time heard Brooks constantly and learned more from him than from his professors. “He kindled a fire in me. He made me believe in God, in man and in myself. I have now been preaching for forty-four years, just twice as many years as he preached in Trinity and through all of these years his face has been in my eyes and his voice has been in my ears.”
Jefferson graduated from Boston School of Theology in 1887, and was called in September of that year to the Congregational Church in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He left there in 1898 to become the minister of the Broadway Tabernacle — now the Broadway Congregational Church — in New York, where he remained for thirty-one years, becoming pastor-emeritus on his retirement in 1930.
There is no biography or autobiography of Jefferson. His entire and consecrated devotion to his vocation makes him the despair of the biographer. The settings of his life work were so relatively simple as to need no long telling.
A biographer loves drama. The drama of Jefferson’s life was outwardly in climbing his pulpit stairs, preaching the sermons in whose preparation he had spent secluded hours. He lived more than almost any of the great preachers of his time between his study, pulpit, and pen. In this he is strikingly similar to Alexander Maclaren of Manchester. Like his English counterpart, Jefferson served only two churches, and he was also like him in being shy, retiring, and austere in appearance. They were both Puritan in character and Christian ideals. A penetrating seriousness is traceable through all their preaching and published works.
Preaching was more than a profession to Jefferson. It was a commission from God. He regarded his ministry not as a task but as a privilege, the greatest work in the world. He declared that he would rather be the pastor of Broadway Tabernacle than hold any other position on earth. He regarded preaching as the minister’s chief business and believed that only as he studied hard every day could he stand in the pulpit with a message worth hearing. Jefferson was a man of the study and he achieved his terse, epigrammatic style by hard work. He shut himself up with his books and away from disturbances. He wrote painstakingly during most of his ministry but he never took a manuscript into the pulpit until failing memory forced him to do so or if the sermon contained facts or figures which demanded absolute accuracy. He used to speak of his ability to do “mental writing” as with an invisible stylus on the tablet of his memory.
The opening and closing sentences of his sermon were worked out in final form. He used to say that it was very important to win the congregation from the first word and he knew just how and when to stop. So completely did Jefferson master this method of delivery that he was able to dictate both of his Sunday sermons to a stenographer on Monday precisely as they had been preached the previous day.
A former pulpit associate of Jefferson gives this account of his preaching: “For simplicity of structure and directness of delivery, Dr. Jefferson’s sermons will long be remembered by those of us who heard enough of them to sense where their great power lay. A minimum of gestures and movements characterised his delivery. So frequently the preacher’s hands were folded upon the top of the open Bible. Who of his congregations ever heard him shout, even when his soul was burning at white heat?
“Yet the voice was full and strong, speaking crystal-clear ideas in one- or two-syllable words, which were never slurred and never clipped. And throughout all the discourse ran the red thread of an outline, tied inseparably to the text, with inexorable reasonableness, logic and appeal, which you might have expected from one who started to be a trial lawyer, became a minister and was one of the great expositors and defenders of the faith and a spokesman for God.”1
There was little of the dramatic in Jefferson. His manner was direct and simple. He once said: “Never endeavor to be eloquent. It may be that God will let you be eloquent half a dozen times in your life, but I am sure you cannot be eloquent if you try to be.” That indicates the austere integrity of the man. He would often preach for an hour. He said once to a group of preachers that the Broadway Tabernacle was a place where the preacher preaches as long as is necessary to develop his subject.
Style, according to Jefferson, is perfect when it becomes invisible; that exactly describes his own style. It puts on no airs and attracts no attention to itself. It is simple, human, sincere, yet quickening. The sentences are short, terse, and packed with thought. Lynn Harold Hough said of his style: “He carries the reader along as if in a fireside conversation and only as he looks back does he realize what clearness of thought and what luminous power of expression the author has brought to his task.”2
Jefferson toiled incessantly to perfect the quest yet invigorating fluency which marks his preaching and writing. He said: “A sermon is a rose. The text is the bud and the preacher, breathing on the bud, causes the folded petals to open on the air and fill with fragrance the places where the saints of God are sitting.”
In answer to a letter from Edgar De Witt Jones inquiring about his method of pulpit preparation, Jefferson made this reply: “I prepare my sermons by preparing myself. Self-preparation is the most difficult work a preacher has to do. If he does not prepare himself, it matters little what else he does. But I work on my sermons too. I work on them all the time. I work on them through all my waking hours and probably in my sleep.
“I do not build sermons as Ford builds cars or architects build skyscrapers. My sermons are not manufactured products. They are more like apple dumplings. I usually have half a dozen of them in the pot at the same time. I keep the water boiling and now and then I stick in a fork to see which one should be served next. My favorite figure for my sermons is a flower. My sermons grow. They unfold. I never ‘get up’ a sermon. A sermon of the right sort gets itself up. If I supply the soil and the seed and the sun and rain, the sermon will come up of itself.”3
George Jackson, in an essay on “Suburban Preaching,” said that one grave fault of the pulpit of our day, and especially in America, is suburban preaching, by which he meant preaching “which makes its home in the fringes and outskirts of Christian truth rather than in the center and the citadel,” preaching “which has much to say about the minor moralities of life but very little about the great themes of the Christian Gospel.”
If, he continues, preachers like Wesley, Newman, Dale, Spurgeon and Liddon have one common word to speak to the pulpit of today it is this, that behind all great preaching there lies a great Gospel greatly conceived.4 To that list of names he might have added Charles E. Jefferson. Take any of Jefferson’s published volumes of sermons — like Doctrine and Deed or The New Crusade — and you find him dealing with the basic issues of faith, both in their profound significance for thought and in their practical meaning for life.
In the book Doctrine and Deed, there is a sermon on “The Reconciliation,” in which he predicts that the preaching of the next fifty years will be far more doctrinal than the preaching of the last fifty years has been.
“I imagine that some of you will shudder at that. You say you do not like doctrinal preaching: you want preaching that is practical. Well, pray, what is practical preaching? It is preaching that accomplishes the object for which preaching is done and the primary object of all Christian preaching is to reconcile man to God.
“The experience of nineteen hundred years proves that it is only doctrinal preaching that reconciles the heart to God. If you really want practical preaching, the only preaching that is deserving the name is preaching that deals with the great Christian doctrines….”Doctrinal preaching need not be antiquated — it may be fresh, it may be couched in the language in which men were born, it may use for its illustrations the images and figures and analogies which are uppermost in men’s imaginations. Whenever it does this there is no preaching which is so thrilling and uplifting and mighty as the preaching which deals with the great fundamental doctrines.”5
It was said that any regular attendant at the Broadway Tabernacle could pass an examination on Christian teaching, both as to its ruling ideas and their application to the life of today. Jefferson criticized much of the preaching in the America of his day in an essay in his Quiet Talks with Earnest People:”Bright things, true things, helpful things, are said in abundance, but the spiritual passion is lacking. The service smacks of time and not of eternity. The atmosphere of the sermon is not that of Sinai or Calvary but that of the professor’s room or the sanctum of the editor. The intellect is instructed, the emotions are touched, but the conscience is not stirred, nor is the will compelled to appear before the judgment throne and render its decision. The old tone of ‘Thus saith the Lord’ of the Hebrew prophets is lacking.”
When the new Broadway Tabernacle was built in 1908, Jefferson said he wanted it to be an inspirational church, putting the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, a church that should inspire men and women to use their minds, to develop their affections and widen their sympathies, but above all a church which should concern itself supremely with the building of Christian character. He wanted it to have a free pulpit for free men willing to be led by the Spirit into all truth. He was an evangelical who believed that the Cross should be in the forefront of his preaching and at the same time he had a deep concern to relate the Gospel to the social issues of his day.
His sermons were impressionistic, in picture language, in short, simple sentences, thought-provoking and challenging. Edgar De Witt Jones points out that for thirty years in the nation’s metropolis, Jefferson “maintained the finest ideals of pulpit decorum, dignity, sermonic standards, and has never once sought to pander to the populace.”6 He was never sensational or spectacular, but his sermons were always fresh, stimulating, well-conceived and timely.
In Jefferson’s book Quiet Talks with Earnest People there is a chapter entitled “Ways of Killing a Sermon,” which reveals his high view of the function of preaching. “When strangers come to the church, the first question asked at the close of the service is, How did you like the sermon? No wonder spiritual results of preaching are so meager. What can be expected from preaching unless laymen realize that they have to follow up the work of persuasion by driving home the word left by the preacher?
“Sermons are not toys to be played with, or pretty pieces of rhetoric on which every member of the congregation is expected to pass judgment. A sermon is not an exquisite bit of literary bric-a-brac to be chattered over and judged by the technical rules of art. It is not a dumpling into which every self-appointed critic is invited to stick his fork that he may praise or condemn the work. A sermon is a solemn warning, a bugle call to duty, a burning condemnation, an earnest strike against a giant wrong, or exhortation to high endeavor, the illumination of a majestic truth.”
In 1910, Jefferson gave the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching, entitled The Building of the Church, which many have thought to be his best book. The church building idea in the New Testament is the subject of the first lecture, and this idea is developed and enriched during the lectures that follow: Building the Brotherhood, Building the Individual, Building Moods and Tempers, Building Thrones, Building the Holy Catholic Church, Building the Plan, and the Building of the Builder.
In an article published in a British religious newspaper many years later on “The Kind of Preachers We Need,” Jefferson wrote: “In my judgment the kind of preacher the world needs in our day must first of all be a builder. He must have a creative mind. He must have a talent for construction. His genius must be architectonic. We preachers are ordained to reconstruct a shattered world. It is not a time for negations. If a man has nothing positive to say, let him keep out of the ministry.”7
Though he was an omnivorous reader, he could have said with John Wesley that he was a man of one book. He brought a penetrating mind to bear on every task and responded to those spiritual and moral realities by which men live.We may fitly conclude our study of a preacher of whom it was said that he never preached a poor sermon by quoting his words in the Beecher Lectures: “A sermon is the life-blood of a Christian spirit. A preacher dies in the act of preaching. The pulpit is a Golgotha on which the preacher gives his life for the life of the world.”8
1. Edgar De Witt Jones, The Royalty of the Pulpit, p. 74.
2. Lynn Harold Hough, Adventures in the Minds of Men, p. 62.
3. Edgar De Witt Jones, American Preachers of Today, pp. 59-60.
4. George Jackson, Reasonable Religion, pp. 21-22.
5. C. E. Jefferson, Doctrine and Deed, p. 51.
6. Op. cit., p. 57.
7. The Christian World, June 13, 1929.
8. The Building of the Church, p. 287.