James Black (1879-1949) was born in Rothesay, Scotland, in 1879.
While in school, a teacher described one of his essays as the most original, though not the best informed. Originality was one of the outstanding marks of his work as a preacher.
Black was educated at Glasgow University, the United Free Church College in Glasgow, and Marburg University. He was ordained in 1903.
Called to Castle Hill Church in Forres (on the North East coast of Scotland), after a short but memorable ministry there he went to Broughton Place Church in Edinburgh. There he built his reputation as a preacher. He was there from 1907 to 1921, serving as a chaplain in the armed forces from 1915 to 1918.
In 1921, Black was called to St. George’s West, Edinburgh, in succession to Dr. John Kelman. This is the church where Alexander Whyte, his own brother Hugh Black, and Kelman had set up a standard of preaching which was not easy to live up to.
James Black not only maintained the reputation of that noted pulpit, he added lustre to it. He became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1938, and was appointed Chaplain to the King of Scotland in 1942.
Black died in October, 1949. In the memorial sermon — preached by his successor at St. George’s, the Rev. Murdo E. Macdonald — he stressed what he regarded as the chief emphases of Dr. Black’s preaching: thankfulness, victory, loyalty and radiant certainty.
In his prime, James Black was quite irresistible as a preacher, and he retained much of that power to the very end.
What a pulpit figure he made! His great shock of white hair gave him the appearance of some Covenanter of old, but in his face and eyes there was a perennial youthfulness. Occasionally he revealed the spirit of a boy who refused to grow up; no wonder that his sermons to children were inimitable.
The human note was dominant in everything Black said or wrote. He knew the questions which thoughtful men ask of the teacher of religion and he knew the answers given by an instructed and liberal evangelicalism. Yet he knew also that what men need most is not answers to conundrums but sheer sympathy and friendship.
Black’s first book of sermons preached in Broughton Place is entitled The Burden of the Weeks. It contains twenty-five sermons, fifteen on Old Testament texts. “Religion as a fine art” is the title given to a sermon on Ezekiel 33:32. “Playing on the low strings” is a sermon on the text: “Will the son of Jesse give everyone fields and vineyards?” (I Sam. 22:7).
A later book, The Dilemma of Jesus, presents twelve studies of Jesus seen amid the adventures of His own soul, when He settled His ways at the cross-roads of life and walked on His clear way to God.
An Apology for Rogues, sermons preached in Australia, is a plea for a reevalution of some of the outstanding characters in the Bible who have been criticized and condemned. He seeks to build his case for each person on the facts narrated in biblical history. He deals with Cain, Esau, Korah, Balaam, Saul, Jezebel, Gehazi, the Elder Brother, Pilate, the impenitent thief, Ananias and Demas. This book shows his power of imagination and his dramatic gifts; it is a notable example of character drawing.
Black’s last book of sermons — published after his death — The Days of my Autumn — consists of sermons as chosen by members of his church and friends in Britain and America. The sermons, he says, were chosen for hearers, not readers.
“I am comforted,” he observed, “that, in the long run, the best, perhaps the only test of a sermon, is the impression it makes on a hearer’s mind and memory.”
These sermons are gripping, imaginative, ingenious, moving and biblical in the best sense; they show that, to the very end, Black retained his power as a preacher. His preaching never lost touch with actual life anymore than with the eternal realities of God’s presence and His redeeming love in Christ.
Black provided a detailed account of his own methods of preparing for the pulpit in the Warrack Lectures, given in 1923 to the students of the United Free Church colleges at Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen. They were published under the title The Mystery of Preaching.
Preaching, he says, presupposed three things: an audience, a message, and the man as vehicle. Preaching must be made interesting. The interest may lie in the subject chosen, in the treatment of it, and above all in the preacher himself — whatever is distinctive and arresting in his personality.
There was the warmth of Christian brotherliness in Black’s preaching. Vivid, picturesque, piercing, humorous — any epithets will do which describe a preacher who was incapable of langor or dullness in what to him was the most exciting work in the world: the preaching of the Gospel.
Black was convinced that the first duty of the preacher was to be interesting, to arrest and hold attention. To that end he bent all his energies, and how wonderfully he succeeded! He had the sense of drama in his blood and he could make his sermons dramatic in their content as well as in their delivery. A great believer in illustrations, Black confessed that he went about with his eyes wide open, seeking in life as well as in literature for pictures to convey an idea.
It might be said of James Black that he lived to preach. He was never happier than when in the pulpit. His voice was an asset — full and resonant in its tones with the Scots’ burr adding to its effect.
With deft, graphic strokes he illumined his theme, making it stand out in clear relief before his hearers. At times he would soar into the realms of pure oratory.
For a number of years he wrote a weekly column in the Christian World, a Congregational paper, called “Dr. Black’s Corner.” In one of his contributions he quoted the judgment of David Hume, the sceptical philosopher, about a preacher whom he used to walk some miles to hear, John Brown of Haddington.
“That’s the man for me,” Hume said. “He means what he says and he speaks as if Jesus Christ was at his elbow.”
Here James Black discerns one of the great reasons for Christian power in the pulpit: a rich, enquiring mind like that of John Brown, who had little formal schooling yet became one of the great and exact scholars of his day. “This is the one thing that lasts longest; it lasts when youthful vigor, fine voice, good address and charm have long since passed. It is this constantly-enriched mind which alone keeps a man young and interesting, for as his own mind stays active, he retains the good powers of interest for others.” That was true of Black himself — he had a keen, alive and enquiring mind.
The third lecture, which he calls “The smith at his forge,” deals with indirect and direct preparation for the pulpit. “The best preaching is always the natural overflow of a ripe mind and the expression of a growing experience.” Indirect preparation lies spread out over the years, and its value consists in what those years have meant in mental and spiritual richness.
The only way to preach well, according to Black, is to begin ten years ago. The future lies in germ in the preparation of the early days. “A big ministry is more often the fruit of hard work than the fruit of genius.”
James Black always jealously guarded his morning hours for study. He followed Anthony Trollope’s recipe for literary work, which was to put a piece of soft cobbler’s wax on his study chair and then sit on it.
Next to work and reading, Black stressed common observation of men and things. His best illustrations came from his daily observation of people. “A wise minister may bring strange grist to his mill from his own experience.”
The finest indirect preparation for the pulpit, in his opinion, was to know the Bible as a book, even as literature, apart from criticism and exegesis. In his reading of the Bible, he kept a book in which he jotted down any text or passage which appealed to him, and the thought it suggested to his mind. A text thus obtained is likely to be one that can be used with freshness and interest, for it is the text that finds and grips the preacher which is most likely to find and grip the hearers.
Having chosen his text or passage, Black’s custom was to get to know its exact rendering and its place in its own context.
“I have no use for a lovely sermon that is built on a wrong exegesis. The man who does that is trifling with three things that ought to be sacred for anyone of intellectual honesty — he trifles with truth, his people, and the message of the Bible.”
His next step was to define and delimit his message. The first thing he decided upon was his conclusion, since a wise traveller, in considering his journey, looks first to the goal. He never hesitated to announce his divisions, for the finest thing in a sermon is when it conveys the idea of progress or distinct movement.
It was Black’s practice to jot down, without any pretense of order or arrangement, everything he could say or think helpfully on his subject. “When I have my text or subject, I put a series of questions to it and try to make it answer them. I box its ears something like this: ‘What do you mean? What did you mean for that man in his own day? Why was he led to say this? Can you stand on your own legs, or are you only a dwarfed half-truth? Are you true always? Do you mean the same for me today? What would it imply for me if I accepted what you teach? What must I do to make your message real and true in my own life? How can I illustrate modernly what you teach for myself and others.
Having assembled his material early in the week, he would leave it for a while, and then proceed to sift and sort things out. There must be some logical arrangement or order. Everything that is irrelevant, or needless, or redundant, or distracting, should be cut out.
Preachers are mainly distinguished by their use of the art of omission. A good preacher makes his point with ease and natural fullness, and adds nothing more. He denies himself interesting side-issues which would only obscure the main point for the hearer. Black learned by experience to omit the elaborate and detailed introduction.
“Where there is a need,” he asserted, “sketch your preamble quickly, vividly, graphically, pictorially if possible. Let the audience see the situation in a few nervous phrases, like the strokes of an artist’s brush. Once this is done, get ahead into your subject.”
In dealing with methods of treatment of subjects and texts, Black stresses the need for variety in pulpit work. “It is fatal to let your people know the inside of your mind, so that they could almost make a wager how you are going to treat your subject. If a minister has only one stereotyped method, a congregation hearing him Sunday by Sunday soon gets to know his official way of thinking, and of dividing his thinking.”
Variety is the spice of continuous preaching. Black varied his own methods and styles, as a careful study of any of his books will show. One Sunday he would preach a bit of logic, stiff as steel, and the next Sunday a sheer bit of poetry.
He would never put pen to paper until he could stand up and talk it all out point by point, for he was convinced that a man cannot write clearly and exactly until his thinking was orderly and definite. One thing he was careful to study was the transitions between the various divisions of the sermon.
The final impression of a sermon is the one that lasts longest and clearest. He believed in stopping when he had finished, naturally and simply. “You have reached the climax of your argument or thought. If you have dealt with your subject rightly, you have produced a cumulative impression, building up naturally and inevitably from point to point. The finish is just the last brick put in its place, with that little tap of the mason’s trowel to settle it down into position. Do not overemphasize the tap, or you will split the brick.”
The fourth of Black’s lectures concerns the marks of good preaching. The first quality to be aimed at is clearness, so that people know what the preacher means. This involves clarifying our thought. When, at the age of 28, Black was invited to Broughton Place, he consulted Alexander Whyte.
Whyte asked him if he could clarify his thought, and — on being assured that he could — said: “If you can clarify your thought, you can go anywhere.” The preacher should have in his mind, as clear as crystal, what he wants to teach and expound. If he has any reason to doubt whether his statement is obvious, he should repeat it in another form.
The second means to clearness is language. Words are designed as the vehicle of thought. Plain, simple, Anglo-Saxon words, accurately and delicately used, will ensure clarity. It is necessary to know the precise meaning of words, for the fine use of language is a joy to preacher and people alike.
The third means to clearness is illustration. Many people can only grasp ideas when they are put before them in a concrete form. It is easier to reach the average mind by a picture than by an idea.
There is a fine Arab proverb which says, “He is the best speaker who can turn the ear into an eye.”
Black tells of a ministerial friend who once said to him, “I’ve got three dandy illustrations, and I am looking for a good text.” His comment is: “That is the last ditch. Many of us would like to die before we reach it.”
Black used a Commonplace Book (like a big business ledger) with printed index at the end, into which he copied striking things, situations or incidents which he noticed. He went through his books with a noting and claiming eye, not seeking illustrations, but letting them find him as he read.
Walter Scott said that he learned the secrets of human nature from talking to the man on the driver’s box. Black followed the same practice. One day he said to a forester, “I see the fungus has done that tree in.” The reply was, “No! fungus never hurts a healthy tree. Disease always comes first and then the fungus gets a hold.”
Black used his eyes as he travelled about and applied his agile mind, so that his rich experience became a storehouse for himself and others.
On the vexed question of quotation in sermons, Black says: “Our object in making a quotation should be either to say something in memorable words, something that has been perfectly said once and for all in classic beauty, or it should be to summon to our aid a competent authority on our subject, whose views are either impressive or final.”
Yet he felt the modern habit of quotations in sermons is too much abused and too profuse. Some use quotations as if they were ‘proofs,’ appealing to the fallacy of the big name. A quotation too often interrupts the line of progress and argument.
The second mark of good preaching is directness and pointedness. “Preach like fencers with the foils off” is his advice; general, vague preaching never touches anybody. Speaking, in its very idea, is personal, and should therefore be direct and straight and pointed.
The third mark of good preaching is naturalness. The fourth is that the preacher should be a man on fire. Earnestness creates enthusiasm and passion.
The final mark is brevity. “We should preach according to our subject, and not according to the clock. If the subject demands a limited treatment, stop. If your people know that you preach by your subject and not by so many pages, then when you have a big subject, they will not grudge the extra time. We should try to leave our people with an appetite for more.”
The fifth lecture deals with the use of our material in preaching, by which Black means the use of the Bible. “When the Bible is put on the shelf, the Church will surely follow it.”
His own experience was that exposition is welcomed by most congregations, for it makes the Bible a living reality for them. It is also good for the preacher, saving him from scrappy work where he dances from text to text and omits the full circle of Christian truth.
Black first suggests methods of using a book of the Bible and preaching about it or through it. Some books are best expounded around the problems they face, the problems they were meant to solve, like the Epistles to the Church at Corinth. A book like Amos can be expounded under the sins it scourges. Another type of book, like Proverbs or the Epistle of James, can best be treated by selecting its main ideas.
For a short course to open up a book like the Acts, Black suggests treating it under the idea of the cities into which Paul entered. The same book can be used as a portrait gallery, revealing the types of people whom the Apostles met. An explanation of a book like Numbers or Deuteronomy might expound the gracious laws promulgated by the Jews and the institutions set up for life and safety, like the cities of refuge.
It was Black’s custom to take one book of the Bible each winter; he found, after his study of it, that he could have turned back and preached on fifty different texts and subjects that appealed to him. On Sunday evenings, he often preached on some of the chief doctrines, translating them into modern terms.
Black urges the need of constant writing as a discipline which no preacher dare sacrifice. He says that Joseph Parker of the City Temple had acquired a freedom and power in extempore speech that was unique. A young student came to him after a service and asked whether he himself should not try the same method. Parker replied: “Young man, I wrote every word I uttered for fifteen years. When you have done what I did then, you can try to do what I do now.”
Black felt there was a great deal to be said for the read sermon, for it represents well-considered material and is likely to offer as full and rounded a statement as a man can give. Yet he also recognized that a read sermon can easily become cold or lukewarm, too detached and too essay-like. Nevertheless, at the beginning of a ministry it saves a preacher from fear of himself, his subject, and his people. After fifteen years in the ministry he considers that speaking out of a full mind is the ideal method.
Until the first World War, Black never preached a sermon that he had not previously written, and he read it word for word. When he became a chaplain, it was impossible to read and he learned to speak without notes.
For the next two years he never wrote out a sermon, but prepared more carefully than ever and tried to think out his subject in all its details until he could talk it out aloud in his study. Then he went into the pulpit as full of his theme as possible, and with only his points and transitions before him, trusted to the moment for his language.
Thereafter he made it his practice to write and read one of the two sermons each Sunday, and to speak the other out of a full mind. This rescues the preacher from the tyranny of one method and of one mood, and gives variety to the services. For a preacher who wants to try free speech, Black recommends a big canvas, a subject or situation with points and natural developments. The one-idea sermon is too narrow and limiting for free speech. It needs fine handling, delicate transitions and precise phrasing.
As an example of his dramatic power I recall a sermon I heard Black preach at a Tuesday midday service in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester before 2,500 people. His theme was “Comparative Values in Life.” It was a study of Jesus on trial before Annas. His three points were as follows:
1. In this meeting we see the essential opposition of final good and final evil.
2. There is the opposition between the two final creeds. Jesus stood for fine character, honesty, truth; we know what Annas stood for, the direct opposite of these things.
3. There is the opposition between the two final destinies. Annas received the contempt of the world and six feet of earth. Jesus received a Cross and a grave; nay, rather, a throne and life.
“I shall not be afraid,” he concluded, “in the last day if Jesus talks to me and even scolds me, but I shall be afraid if He just looks at me and says nothing.”
James Black (1879-1949) was born in Rothesay, Scotland, in 1879.