George Herbert Morrison was the son of a minister, born in Glasgow October 2, 1866. His mother had been reading George Herbert, the 17th century devotional poet, before his birth, hence the Christian names given to her son. Her death — when he was barely five – made a deep impression on him and the sense of loss never left him all through his life.
He went to the University of Glasgow in 1883 and then was offered an assistant editorship under Sir James Murray, on the staff of the New English Dictionary at Oxford. This was an experience and education he would not have missed for anything, for it gave him a sense of the fitness of words and a command of the English language he could never have acquired otherwise. Years later Sir James Murray declared to Dr. Whyte that, of all his assistants, Morrison was the most methodical and the most dependable.
After fifteen months in Oxford he returned to Glasgow for his Divinity course.
In 1893 Morrison became assistant to Alexander Whyte. The fifteen months at St. George’s, Edinburgh, altered his whole life. He says: “I found an ideal Scottish minister who carried my heart captive. Whatever service I have been able to render in the years that have passed, I owe it entirely to him.
“Think what it must have meant to me, a shy, raw beginner, to live for over a year in close intimacy with such a big soul. His devotion to duty, his dogged adherence to his own work, his mapped out days, his intense love of all good literature, his humility, his amazing appreciation of the most commonplace service — these things were my school of pastoral theology.”1
In 1894 he went to Thurso, in the far north of Scotland, the most northerly town on the mainland. His first sermon, “The Two Gardens — Eden and Gethsemane,” convinced the congregation that they had called a man of some ability and one whom they would never be able to hold for long. He stayed there for four years. The debt that he owed to Thurso he often declared he could never tell. It put iron into his blood.
From 1898 to 1902 he was minister of St. John’s, Dundee, a large city church. “I preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel.” Those words of Bunyan might be taken as Morrison’s motto as a young preacher to a congregation composed of men and women beset all week with their own difficulties and doubts. He believed it was a minister’s duty to preach only the positive truths that had proved themselves in the experience of his own soul. It was for that reason that, while he was full abreast of the times as to biblical criticism and the advance of science on all hands, he resolutely set himself to declare to his people only the sure things of God that were the tried foundations of his own faith.
In the large Bible class after the Sunday evening service it was different. There he never shirked any doubt or difficulty that might be suggested. On one occasion he was told that a certain minister had ended a sermon on Amos with the words, “I have told you what, on the one hand, this critic says of Amos, and what, on the other hand, So-and-So holds. Next week I will tell you what I think.” Morrison’s comment was: “But what were the poor sheep to live on that week?” That question gives his point of view in all his preaching. At the back of his mind in all his pulpit preparation he seemed to be ever asking the question, “What is there for my people to live on?” It was for that reason that he never found himself able to use a big word or a technical term which the simplest in his audience might stumble over.
People who heard Morrison often went away speaking of his style. No one ever troubled less about style, whether of language or of delivery. His style was the man — the man with but one aim in his heart: to bring men close to God. It was his custom to read a sermon every day, however busy he might be. Newman, Spurgeon, Robertson, Maclaren were taken in rotation. He did this, not for the sake of learning style, but, as he said, for his own soul’s good and to see how the great masters got their message home.
With all his activities in the pulpit and in the homes of his people — for he was an assiduous visitor — he was making his name known to a wider public by his pen. His articles in The British Weekly made every Sunday School teacher his debtor. They were written on Tuesday mornings. His first book of sermons, Flood Tide, came also from Dundee.
Morrison began his ministry at Wellington Church, Glasgow, on May 13, 1902 in his thirty-sixth year (and the eighth year of his ministry), and there he remained until his death in 1928.
Morrison was punctual and methodical in everything that he did. He would rise at 7:30 and, after breakfast, would deal with letters that required an immediate answer, then work in his study until 1:30. He bore always in mind the maxim of Dr. Whyte: “Mind your books and Satan cannot touch you.” He visited every afternoon for several hours and kept an accurate record of every visit he paid. The last year he lived he paid 1200 calls; he had nearly two thousand members at Wellington Church.
His sermons were finished and written out by midday on Friday. He refused to answer telephone calls after 9:30 a.m. unless they were really urgent. It was only by keeping the morning hours sacred to study that he managed to go into the pulpit on Sundays with a fresh message well prepared.
Morrison turned down calls to preach or to be minister at many important churches and to lecture in America, Canada, and Australia. His one desire was to spend and be spent in the service of Christ so that he might be an influence for the highest in the civic and church life of the city he loved so well. As someone said, “He did not dig many channels, but the one he dug was very deep.”
A favorite saying of his was, “Do it now.” His study was a miracle of tidiness and neatness, indicative of his mind. Every book had its place and was returned to the shelf the moment he was through with it.
Morrison believed in preaching, believed it was worth his best and gave his best to it. There is about his published sermons a simplicity of language, a sincerity of feeling, a quiet and genial style, and a certain quality of timelessness. There is nothing elaborate or labored about them.
He had the gift, as James Denney (who was a member of his congregation) once said, of saying the things that we all would have said if it had occurred to us to say them; and he said those inevitable things as we could not, in English prose that had the effect of poetry on the heart.
One layman, recalling the years he had sat under Morrison, declared that those services had been for him both a graduate course in theology and Bible study as well as a liberal education.
Morrison was a skilled exegete and had a library of useful books on exegesia. Yet he did not allow his finished sermons to show the marks of the craftsman’s tools. Before a sermon was preached he had devoted many hours of thorough study to its preparation. When Sunday came he had something to say and said it with clarity and conviction. The secret of his preaching power would seem to lie in his quiet taste, his utter sincerity, his simple style which enabled the common people to hear him gladly, and an infinite capacity for taking pains.
He was not a dramatic preacher. He stood quite still, entirely without gesture, his hands behind his back, and spoke quietly. Up to 1914 his sermons were fully written out and read from the manuscript in the pulpit but during the war he felt compelled to get into closer touch with the people; from that time he discarded his manuscript and spoke to the people freely. He used to say that he was not an extempore preacher in the true sense of the term and to the end he was as careful and thorough in his preparation as ever.
His sermons are best described as pastoral and devotional. The concerns of a pastor are evident throughout his preaching. The emphasis is on the personal and experiential. There is little reference to the contemporary scene. There are no stories of persons or places. The illustrations that he uses really illustrate; that is, they draw attention to the subject, not to themselves.
He had the happy art of providing suggestive titles for his sermons. Here are a few examples: The Fatal Power of Inattention (Luke 16:25); The Selective Power of Personality (Titus 1:15); The Perils of Unsettlement (Acts 20:24); The Grace of Happy-Heartedness (1 Cor. 7:32).
Obscure texts seemed to yield their treasures to his swift insight. He preached a sermon on How Science Helps Religion on the text Revelation 12:16, “The earth helped the woman.” Here are some unusual texts on which Morrison preached: “There is sorrow on the sea” (Jeremiah 49); “God hath made me forget” (Genesis 41:51); “He gave them drink as out of the great depths” (Psalm 78:15).
Morrison could and did preach on the great texts of Scripture. He had an eye for the picturesque but he could also make the familiar text come to life.
It was Morrison’s habit at the morning service to handle the greater themes of the Christian revelation and at the evening service to allow himself a wider scope, putting essential things in a somewhat different setting and calling to his aid every interest he could command.
After he had fully prepared his subject, he set himself the task of striving to see how simply he could present it. His simplicity was not the easy thing it might have been thought; it was the fruit of earnest effort.
His aim in these more informal sermons was to win the attention of some of the people who sit lightly to the church, and he succeeded in attracting and keeping great crowds for twenty-six years. People of all classes and ages came on Sunday evenings, drawn not by novelty or sensation, but by the feeling that their longings and yearnings were understood and could be satisfied by the preacher.
How did Morrison manage it all? First and foremost was the old, obvious commonplace of work. Marcus Dods once said: “Nothing will persuade me that a minister’s life is healthy if he is not working hard for a certain number of hours each day in his study,” and then he went on to picture a minister who lets the morning slip away as he lingers over his newspaper and his gossip with Mr. Fritterday and hardly does a decent hand’s turn from breakfast to dinner. So his whole life goes and when he dies, his people regret the loss of a goodhearted kindly friend, but they inwardly resolve that, whatever their next minister is, he shall at all events be a student. Morrison was always that. He was an omnivorous reader, with a library of six thousand volumes.
To industry he added method. He knew where to lay his hand on every book and paper without a moment’s delay. He left nothing in his sentences or in his congregation’s affairs at loose ends. But neither his industry nor his method would have enabled him to do what he did unless he had stuck to his job. He was not a strong man physically; twice he suffered major illnesses, one of which compelled him to take a year’s leave of absence from Wellington. It would have been no satisfaction to him to have gone here, there and everywhere and neglected his own church. Morrison knew his own limitations and wisely kept within them.
The great secret of a happy ministry, Morrison once said, is to be constantly moving among the homes of our people. “I often used to lose the happy freedom of Christian intercourse by the haunting thought that I must get a prayer offered before leaving. I do not worry about that now. I do not believe our Lord had prayer in every house He entered but I profoundly believe that He never entered a house without bringing sunshine, help, encouragement and comfort. If only we could do that. It is not the prayers we offer when visiting that make the difference; it is those we offer before visiting.”
Morrison preached children’s sermons to which it was a delight to listen. He was never happier or more at home than amongst children, his own or other people’s. He could not resist smiling or speaking to every child he met. He was standing in a hospital ward one day speaking to a little boy who was very ill and, after saying a few words of encouragement, left the bedside. Before he reached the door of the ward, the boy’s mother appeared and — full of excitement — the child said, “Quick, mother, look. That is Dr. Morrison. He has been speaking to me and if Jesus is like him, I’ll no be feart to dee.”2
Morrison became Moderator of the General Assembly in 1926 and the last four months of his year of office he spent visiting South Africa and the missions in that country. He died suddenly after a gastric operation in October 1928. Almost his last words were: “It’s an ever open door, never closed to anyone. It’s open to me now and I’m going through.”
“In the memorial volume published the year after his death — with the title The Ever Open Door — is included the last sermon Morrison prepared. It was preached on the evening of the Harvest Festival. His wife says: “I shall ever remember him as he stood in the golden glow of the hanging lamp, surrounded by a glorious wealth of autumn flowers, fruit and foliage. It seems to me now, looking back, that there was a beautiful significance in the whole circumstance. His text — ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters’ — was typical of what he had been doing with lavish prodigality throughout his ministry; not counting the cost but scattering lavishly the finest of the wheat. Then within a few days he himself, a well-bound sheaf of golden grain, was gathered into that home where all things are made clear and where, at last, a true vision has been granted to him of the harvest of his labors after many days.”3
In his choice and handling of texts Morrison is not a little reminiscent of Joseph Parker. He has something of the same swift and flashing insight into the possibilities of obscure texts, something of the same sure instinct for the picturesque, and something of the same sensitiveness to verbal suggestion.
A famous devotional writer of the period, Mrs. Herman, in a study of famous preachers published in 1912 pays this tribute to Morrison: “There is the most absolute and complete sincerity of taste and feeling, not so much in his matter as in his manner. He has always been entirely faithful to his own, quiet, discriminative vision. There is no sense of effort, no smell of midnight oil; yet even his slightest utterance is serious, not solemn but grave, weighty, full of substance. The style is quiet and genial, with frequent colloquial touches. Morrison is one of those who believe that a world lost by devotion to the pulpit is a world well lost.”4
Morrison was once asked the secret of his success as a preacher. “I don’t know anything about a secret,” was his reply. “I simply get my message, then I prepare my heart and mind to deliver it, sit down and write it, and on Sunday give it to my people.”
His was an appeal to the heart — homely and personal. He was not altogether a good model for preachers with lesser gifts than his. It is possible to imitate his homeliness and simplicity but to fall off into mere commonplaces and sentimentalism. It was the background of liberal study and pastoral insight which enabled Morrison to preach the eternal simplicities with unfailing variety of color and unerring accuracy in his appeal to the heart.
His preaching did not attempt to handle the affairs of the day in the sense of commenting on moral and social issues or of grappling with the intellectual difficulties of the age. He knew what he could do and he knew what he was doing. He knew that his church was thronged with people who were not ambitious to solve the problems of the ages, but who were very much in need of a comforting and fortifying faith.
Morrison added nothing strikingly new to the thought of the Church nor did he pioneer new paths in the art of preaching. His place in the records of pulpit leadership is rather that of the preacher who says, “This one thing I do,” and into the doing of it puts every grain of concentrated devotion, knowledge and art of which he is possessed.
There is only one volume of his Morning Sermons, published in 1931 with that title. This gives us examples of his longer, more expository sermons. There is a series of four sermons on Nehemiah and nine on Abraham. There are two volumes of his weekly devotional sermons as contributed to The British Weekly, entitled Highways of the Heart and The Gateway of the Stars. There are a dozen volumes of his Sunday evening sermons, worth searching for in a secondhand bookstore.
George M. Docherty has recently published an anthology, The Greatest Sermons of G. H. Morrison, containing forty sermons in all, together with a valuable introduction, in which he says of Morrison: “He is devotional, didactic, evangelistic, prophetic and biblical. These sermons are perfect for devotional reading — in non-technical language they are shot through with the great themes of theology.”
This study of G. H. Morrison may well conclude with a tribute to him by one of his close friends, which Mrs. Morrison includes in her excellent biography of her husband: “No one who was with Morrison could fail to feel that the man had resources in the unseen, a deep that couched beneath, and what he said and did had an awesome effect from what was behind it. He carried a hallowing atmosphere with him, whether in the pulpit or in more intimate intercourse with his people. Few ministers have impressed me as so entirely absorbed in their office. Everything that came within his reach he laid hold of for his one purpose. He was an interpreter to man of the life with Christ in God.”5
There are twelve hours in the day, he used to say, time for all that is needed to be done. Therefore let us be quiet, unhurried, orderly, faithful in that which is least. But another note was sounded by his life — the note of urgency. There are only twelve hours in the day. They must be filled to the very brim, for the night cometh.
1. Morrison of Wellington, A Memoir by his Wife, p. 21.
2. Op. cit, p. 155.
3. G. H. Morrison, The Ever Open Door, p. 6.
4. Hugh Sinclair, Voices of Today, pp. 154-5.
5. Morrison of Wellington, pp. 197-8.

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