Clarence E. Macartney was born at Northwood, Ohio in 1879. He studied at Pomona College, the University of Wisconsin and Princeton Seminary. He was pastor of these downtown churches: the First Presbyterian Church in Paterson, N.J., from 1905 to 1914; Arch Street Church in Philadelphia, from 1914 to 1927, and First Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, from 1927 to 1953.
Macartney served as Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1924. He died in 1957.
The most difficult field for a minister today is the downtown church, but Macartney excelled in three such churches. What was his secret? Dick Shappard, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, when asked for the secret of his success, replied that such a pulpit calls for three things: a minister with a unique personality, an actor who dramatizes his sermons, and a willingness to advertise in all sorts of winning ways. From a different standpoint we could apply all of these to Macartney.
The secret of his effectiveness was due partly to his personality. He was a Son of the Covenanters with more strength than charm. He had travelled widely and read much. He had made a lifelong study of American history and of homiletics. He published more than fifty books. Yet he would have said that his power was due much more to his message than to his personality. He was a staunch conservative, never afraid to contend for the faith of his fathers.
In a foreword to Macartney’s autobiography, The Making of a Minister, Frank Gaebelein says of Macartney’s preaching that there was in it a real measure of grandeur. “High seriousness, powerful directness, intensive conviction, mastery of the Scriptures, and knowledge of the human heart marked his sermons. In his imaginative illustrations and in his ability to reach the minds of his listeners, he had few equals.”
His preaching was always rooted in the Bible. Two days before he died, Macartney said to his brother who was leaving to preach: “Put all the Bible you can into it.”
Macartney’s preaching was marked by simplicity — a single theme is stated, illustrated and applied but it invariably brings his hearers to the heart of the Gospel. He took his stand on the Bible as the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Macartney was an evangelist who could have said as John Wesley often did: “I offered them Christ.” He was once told that if he would devote all his time to it he could be the greatest evangelist of the century.
Macartney once observed: “My texts and themes are suggested as a rule by a regular reading of the Scriptures. When a theme or a passage strikes me I file it away in a packet and from time to time make notations and comments. I carefully outline in longhand my sermons and after several drafts, dictate them. All my sermons are fully written. My mornings are devoted to study and any other hours of the day or night I can employ. Many ministers waste their time through the want of a definite plan and the willpower to adhere to such a plan.”
He was a prodigious worker. His celibate life made more practical his intense study schedule. Those who heard him as often as four times a week, year after year, testify that never once was there an iota of lack of preparation or shoddiness about his sermons. Everything in life was grist to his sermonic mill — but it was finely ground, well beaten, and baked before being sliced for public consumption.
Macartney was a diligent and faithful pastor. With five preaching responsibilities every week he yet called in homes or hospitals three afternoons and evenings every week. He had a shepherd’s heart. He once asked a Canadian minister friend if he did much pastoral calling and the reply was: “Yes, I do, for I feel that before I preach I must irrigate my soul with the joys and sorrows of my people.” That is how Macartney felt and what he tried to do.
In the year between graduating from the University of Wisconsin and entering Princeton Seminary, Macartney was a newspaper reporter. He later said: “Newspaper reporting taught me to be clear and lucid in what I wrote and also that the drama of human life is always interesting. If in any way my pulpit preaching and my writing has been clear and interesting, I owe much of that to my newspaper experience.”
At the end of his first year at Princeton he was invited to supply the pulpit of the Presbyterian Church at Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. David Burrell had taught him two things in his homiletic lectures: to have a clear outline and to preach without notes. On his first Sunday Macartney knew his sermon well but took his manuscript into the pulpit and — though he never referred to it — the very fact that it was there seemed to chain him to the pulpit. He resolved to try it without a manuscript and from that time to the end of his ministry he preached without notes of any kind.
His sermons were topical, by which I mean that the form or structure grows out of the topic, not the text. Sometimes his work was doctrinal, as in a series of sermons on “Things Most Surely Believed.” Sometimes it was apologetic, as in a series called “A Doubter’s Dialogue.” More than most men of his school, he allotted a large place to biblical ethics as it concerns the individual. He declared the whole counsel of God about our personal duties.
Sometimes the pulpit work was pastoral. One of his most effective series was on prayer, with the title of the series “The Golden Altar.” Another dealt with what is now known as pastoral psychiatry under the heading “Facing Life.” He believed in repeating certain sermons. Every year he repeated his sermon “Come Before Winter,” an evangelistic appeal.
Macartney’s influence was due also to his homiletical skill. He said, “As the years go by, we think less about preaching a good sermon, and more about preaching a sermon that will do good.” His former assistants report that he toiled six hours a day in order to prepare good sermons.
His preaching method was often biographical. He was at his best in presenting truth and duty as revealed in biblical characters. His introductions are often deliberate as well as dramatic. He makes the hearer behold the biblical scene.
The main part of the sermon is often propositional. Where Robertson of Brighton would have two divisions and Maclaren three, Macartney often has four. He has much variety in structure.
Macartney excelled in the use of illustration. Many were biblical; others came from history and biography. Sometimes the preacher himself has some part in the illustration. The hearer becomes the hypothetical actor.
“On a certain day, walking through the woods, you have set your foot upon the trunk of a fallen tree, and the moment your weight came upon the bark it gave way and your foot crashed through to the rotten heart of the tree.” Thus he makes clear one of his main ideas: “How men fall slowly and how moral deterioration may proceed without being observed by the man who is its victim and by those who know him best.”
His influence was also due to his dramatic power. He has a sermon on “Beauty and the Beast,” based on the story of Nabal and Abigail as recorded in 1 Samuel 25. The first part of the message corresponds to the opening scene of a one-act play. When the characters are all in view, the action begins in earnest. Before the sermon is over the preacher does some strong biblical teaching. He brings it out by contrasting the sweetness of Abigail and the churlishness of Nabal.
A downtown pulpit lends itself admirably to serial preaching. Macartney had series on “Bible Epitaphs,” “The Greatest Texts of the Bible,” “Great Nights of the Bible,” “Great Women of the Bible,” “Old Testament Heroes,” “Great Interviews of Jesus.”
One of his finest series had fifteen sermons on “The Greatest Words in the Bible and in Human Speech.” When first announced the series was made up of only five sermons but the popular interest in these words and the joy of working out these sermons led him to extend the series to fifteen. In announcing the series the particular word was never given; even in the preaching it was not stated until well along in the introduction. This gave the preacher the advantage of a natural curiosity and suspense.
Some of the words that he used were: The saddest word — Sin (Genesis 4:7); The most beautiful word — Forgiveness (Psalm 1 30:4); The hardest word — No (Daniel 3:18); God’s favorite word — Come (Revelation 22:17a); The most dangerous word — Tomorrow (Proverbs 27:1); The word that conquers God — Prayer (James 5:16); The word that is the greatest teacher — Experience (Genesis 30:27). “I have learned by experience,” says Laban, the uncle of Jacob. In this sermon he deals with the experiences of Joseph, Solomon, the Prodigal Son, Paul and John. These are all great words which entered unforgettably into the lives of men and women in the Bible and which continue to express the desires, fears, hopes and emotions of the human heart.
In 1946 Macartney published a book, Preaching Without Notes, which contained lectures he had given to students in various seminaries. It is an account of his own experiences in study and preparation for the pulpit and in preaching. The first lecture is the call to gospel preaching, the second deals with the preacher and his illustrations, the third is getting ready for the pulpit, the fourth treats of biographical preaching, the fifth is on preaching without notes, and the final lecture is on the minister’s occupation.
In a book edited by Donald Macleod, Here is My Method, Macartney shows how he prepared a sermon on “God’s Helpers,” based on Acts 9:25 (“And they let him down in a basket.”). This was one in a series of Sunday night sermons on “Strange Texts but Great Truths.” The sermon is then printed that it may be studied.
The first step in the making of a sermon is to have the subject clearly in one’s mind and then develop the sermon accordingly. Macartney always had the plan in his mind before he put the pen to paper. He then consulted his interleaved Bible, his general reference file, and his commentaries. He wrote out in longhand (on three successive days) three outlines of the sermon. The more outlines he made, the more lucid was the sermon and the easier for him to preach without notes.
After this he would dictate the sermon to a typist; he found that by this point he could reproduce it without difficulty. Nevertheless, he went over the sermon carefully several times before preaching and often made a fourth outline to fix the sermon more firmly in his mind.
At the close of his autobiography he says: “So far as the general plan and method of my ministry is concerned — that is preaching on the truths of the Bible, faithful pastoral visitation, wide reading and constant study and writing, and investment of time and money in travel, serial preaching, emphasis on the evening services and preaching without notes — there is not much I would change. For I believe these principles of ministerial labor, tested by the experience of many years, are sound.”
Macartney was an evangelical preacher. He had a passion for souls and their salvation. He believed in presenting the cardinal doctrines and truths of the faith. One of the rewards of such preaching is the tonic it supplies for the minister’s own life; another is the unction it gives to the preacher, and another is that it gives joy to the people. He said: “The Church must advance or retreat, evangelize or perish.”

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