F. W. Boreham (1871-1959) was introduced once to a gathering of preachers in
Frank William Boreham did have a unique way of illuminating a text through the life story of a famous person in history or literature. Let’s sketch a little of Boreham’s own life story first. Then we will talk more about his unique style of narrative preaching.
Boreham was born March 1871 in
Boreham was probably the last student that Spurgeon personally interviewed for entrance into his pastor’s school. He attended Spurgeon’s College but did not graduate. Instead, when James A. Spurgeon returned to
While Boreham was still a young man, the Rev. J. J. Doke, an older minister, counseled him to develop methodical reading habits. “But what shall I read? asked Boreham, “Give me a start.”
“Read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” the older man said. He urged him to read it through and to follow up with a more intense study of every period in which Gibbon stirs his interest. Boreham started the plan the next day and completed all four volumes of Gibbon in one month. This began a lifetime habit of buying and reading one book per week. He loved history and especially biography.
While still a young preacher in
When he became pastor in the small agricultural community on New Zealand’s plain, he was still speaking in a high-pitched, rapid and monotonous voice. He shut himself in his study regularly to practice vocal exercises to improve range and pitch. He rehearsed delivery of his sermons, including gestures. His only critic, his young bride, helped him. “You still speak too fast, dear.”
He took pains to hear and analyze every notable lawyer, politician, lecturer or preacher who came within range. Before he left that pastorate, he had developed a pleasing and distinctive delivery. He had clear enunciation, flexible, well-modulated tones with the long-drawn out vowels that came to distinguish his delivery.
After six years at Mosgiel, he accepted the call of Baptist Tabernacle in Hobart, Tasmania, an island state two hundred miles south of the Australian mainland. There he attracted more attention as a speaker and writer. The newspaper editorialized right away about his “oratorical flight” at a temperance rally and described him as “a pleasing and effective speaker” who would have “both ears” of the Tasmanians.”2
In the middle of this pastorate, he made a decision to prepare only one new sermon a week so that he might continue to research and write. He continued his reading of biography. While working on his marathon series on Texts That Made History, at age forty, he found in a used bookstore dozens of biographical studies. He bargained with the shopkeeper for the whole lot at a shilling each and read them every one.
He would eventually produce more than fifty significant books, plus 2,500 articles and many more editorials for newspapers. He also wrote hundreds of carefully composed personal letters. Many of these were part of a regular evangelistic outreach to those in his community who were yet uncommitted to Christ. During World War I he kept up also a faithful pastoral correspondence with every service man away from his church.
But supremely F. W. Boreham was a preacher. He has been criticized for depending too much on storytelling for the content of his sermons. It is true that he is not an expositor if that means one must take an extended passage of Scripture and explain it in all its detail. But few preachers could take a key verse of the Bible and make it live for the congregation as Boreham could.
Consider this sample typical of his interpretation of the life of a great person in history, always through the lens of a life-shaping Scripture text. Such sermons usually bore a simple title such as “Michael Faraday’s Text.” In it Boreham interprets the character through the living text and at the same time sheds light on the text through the life of the historical character.
Let’s slip into a sermon already in progress. The preacher has introduced his subject, the great scientist Michael Faraday. Now the preacher wishes to introduce his text. The scene is Faraday’s deathbed, a scene preachers of his generation were not reluctant to describe. The preacher is saying:
As he lay dying they tried to interview the professor, but it was the little child in him that answered them.
“What are your speculations?” they inquired.
“Speculations” he asked, in wondering surprise. “Speculations! I have none! I am resting on certainties. ‘I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day!’” And, reveling like a child in those cloudless simplicities, his great soul passed away.”3
In 1916, F. W. Boreham accepted the call of a church in a suburb of Melbourne. There he served as pastor for the next dozen years. Then in 1928 he entered a new and final phase of ministry: he resigned the pastorate to give full time to writing and itinerant preaching. When he was not on a preaching tour in these last years, he delivered a regular lunchtime sermon at the Scots Church in Melbourne.
The Hobart Mercury published some 3,000 of Boreham’s weekly editorials over 47 years (1912-1959). Another newspaper, the Melbourne Age, published many others.
Boreham continued writing for newspapers until he retired in 1956. Three years later he died.
It was largely from his regular weekly discipline of writing sermons and editorial essays that he published some 46 books. His last book, The Tide Comes In (1958), appeared only months before his death. Many of his books met wide acclaim all over the English-speaking world, none more so than the series of five books published between 1920 and 1928 from 125 sermons under the banner, Texts That Made History. They appeared in five famous books poetically entitled A Bunch of Everlastings, A Handful of Stars, A Casket of Cameos, A Faggot of Torches, and A Temple of Topaz.
There is today a lively trade in them on the Internet. Each sermon is based on a text that Boreham thought explained the essence of a famous person in history such as Martin Luther, William Penn, Aldus Huxley, William Booth, Andrew Boner, and William Carey. Others are based on texts that figure prominently in the story of fictional characters like Robinson Crusoe and Uncle Tom.
Some criticized his use of fictional characters to illustrate divine grace. Boreham did not apologize, but he did explain that a fictional story might convey divine truth as “a portrait of humanity, painted by a master hand.” He said, “Robinson Crusoe’s Text is really Daniel Defoe’s Text; the text that stands embedded in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the text that Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stow had enthroned within her heart.”4
Notable about Boreham’s homiletical style is the way he captured attention in the opening words of the sermon. Almost any in the series would serve as an example. They are not constructed with cookie cutter sameness, but they invariably plunge the listener into an attention-getting narrative from the life of the character. This becomes the canvas for painting the Scripture text. Take “Hudson Taylor’s Text” as an example.
The day on which James Hudson Taylor – then a boy in his teens – found himself confronted by that tremendous text was, as he himself testified in old age, “a day that he could never forget.” It was a day that China can never forget; a day that the world can never forget. It was a holiday; everybody was away from home; and the boy found time hanging heavily upon his hands. In an aimless way he wandered, during the afternoon, into his father’s library, and poked about among the shelves.
“I tried,” he says, “to find some book with which to while away the leaden hours. Nothing attracting me, I turned over a basket of pamphlets and selected from among them a tract that looked interesting. I knew that it would have a story at the commencement and a moral at the close; but I promised myself that I would enjoy the story and leave the rest. It would be easy to put away the tract as soon as it should seem prosy.”
He scampers off to the stable-loft, throws himself on the hay, and plunges into the book. He is captivated by the narrative, and finds it impossible to drop the book when the story comes to an end. He reads on and on. He is rewarded by one great golden word whose significance he has never before discovered: “The Finished Work of Christ!”
The theme entrances him; and at last he only rises from his bed in the soft hay that he may kneel on the hard floor of the loft and surrender his young life to the Saviour who had surrendered everything for him. If, he asked himself, as he lay upon the hay, if the whole work was finished, and the whole debt paid upon the Cross, what is there left for me to do?
“And then,” he tells us, “there dawned upon me the joyous conviction that there was nothing in the world to be done but to fall upon my knees, accept the Saviour and praise Him for evermore.”5
In little more than 300 words, the preacher has our attention and has directed it to his text and the theme of his sermon. The text is John 19:30 “It is finished.” Boreham held up to the light that three-word jewel of a text to let us see the sparkle of one facet after another through the sermon. First he stated the text, then he stated it again in the context in which it is found in Scripture. Then he quoted the key sentence in Hudson Taylor’s testimony of the dawning conviction that the work of redemption was indeed finished.
Next the preacher showed how that one Greek word was used in ancient times. “It was a farmer’s word. When into his herd, there was born an animal so beautiful and shapely that it seemed absolutely destitute of faults and defects, the farmer gazed upon the creature with proud, delighted eyes. Tetelestai! he said, tetelestai!”
In half-dozen lines or so, he lifted up the word as an artist’s word admiring his masterpiece, a priestly word looking at the sacrificial lamb without spot or blemish, and finally the Lamb of God himself who “cried with a loud voice Tetelestai! And gave up the ghost.’
Next the preacher turned to talk about the joy of finishing and finishing well. He drew on literature for examples from Livingston’s journal, from historian Henry Buckle, from missionary Henry Martyn, from Charles Dickens, and several others who “long, but long in vain, for the priceless privilege of finishing their work.”
In this vein the preacher continued. He reached the high point of the sermon to quote from Hudson Taylor’s autobiography a poem that included the stanza:
’It is Finished!’ yes, indeed,
Finished every jot;
Sinner, this is all you need;
Tell me, is it not?
Several other examples from history and literature follow, extolling the virtue of finishing. The sermon text comes again and again like the chorus of a hymn:
’The Finished Work of Christ!’
‘It is finished!’
Boreham’s unique homiletical style in his books and in the pulpit found a great welcome from the public, but some other preachers criticized them as theologically shallow. If a modern reader is looking for theological jargon in Boreham’s writings, he will search in vain. This is no accident, for Boreham said: “Theology is to a sermon what the skeleton is to the body: it gives shape and support to the preacher’s utterance without itself being visible. It is very noticeable that Jesus Himself seldom or never became theological.”6
In his autobiography, Boreham said, “The one passionate desire of my heart has been to lead my hearers to Christ. I have never entered a pulpit without feeling that, if only people could catch a vision of the Saviour, they would have no alternative but to lay their devotion at his feet. My soul has caught fire when ever I have exalted the cross.”7
F. W. Boreham was a master storyteller, but this skill was more than a mere attention getter. Like the parables of Jesus, Boreham’s stories were the vessel for bringing the water of life to thirsty souls. His stories did more than capture attention; they also conveyed the gospel truth and stuck in the memory of all who heard them.
Austin B. Tucker is a frequent contributor to Preaching and a Distance Learning Instructor for Liberty Theological Seminary. He lives in Shreveport, LA.
1. W.A. Van Leen, www.ccgm.org.
2. T. Howard Crago, The Story of F. W. Boreham. Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1981, p. 121.
3. F. W. Boreham, A Handful of Stars. Chicago: Judson, 1950 reprint. pp.183-185. Copyright by F. W. Boreham, 1922.
4. Crogo, 180.
5. F. W. Boreham, “Hudson Taylor’s Text” A Handful of Stars. Philadelphia: Judson reprint, 1950 (copyright, 1922, by F. W. Boreham).
6. Crago, 120.
7. F. W. Boreham, My Pilgrimage. Judson, 1950, p.20, quoted in Clyde Fant and Wm. Pinson, Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, VIII, 189.