John Albert Broadus represents a breed of gentlemen scholar-preachers who enjoyed regional and national influence in America in the last half of the eighteenth century. A brief stint as a pastor gave him practical understanding of pastoral ministry and prepared him for the institutional role that would free him to influence the theory and practice of homiletics in the English-speaking world for a century.
Contemporary preachers would do well to emulate his best qualities of spiritual devotion to Christ, love of the Scriptures, respect for the church, and diligent scholarship. He was a student of the Bible, a master exegete, a rhetorician of the first order, and a man of letters. Each of these interests and skills fed the others.
Broadus was professor of New Testament and Homiletics on the original faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the second president of the seminary. He was a linguist who was proficient in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Coptic, Gothic, and Anglo Saxon.
Broadus was a biblical scholar, administrator, educator, and preacher. His diverse gifts were harnessed in the service of an institution. For good or ill, he believed in institutions and their potential for the greatest good for the most people — particularly he believed in the seminary to which he devoted his life and whose character he shaped as a loving parent. In the midst of institutional storms that would have frightened lesser humans, he turned down opportunities to teach at the University of Chicago, Brown University, and many others including an invitation to be the president of Vassar College. When the winds raged and it appeared that Jesus was not aboard — or, at best, asleep in the stern — he held to the mast and sailed on. In this day of short pastorates and career planning, such perseverance and devotion is worth noting.
John Broadus was reared in a Christian home and in due course professed faith in Christ at age sixteen. A response to a friend’s inquiry about the possibility of Broadus becoming a minister reveals a somewhat unorthodox view of call.
Your inquiry if I ever think about preaching. I answer, I do; but I always come to the conclusion that preaching is not my office. Not because I consider a call to the ministry to consist in some supernatural intimation, for I believe that to be little more than an earnest and ardent desire for the work, but because I do not think I am qualified for it …. I know that my mental capacities are, in some respects, not inconsiderable, but I was not “cut out” for a public speaker. I have not that grace of manner and appearance, that pleasant voice, that easy flow of words, which are indispensably necessary …. in him who would make impressions on his fellows by public speaking.1
Two years after his conversion, Broadus enrolled in the University of Virginia to study medicine. Returning to the university for his second year, young Broadus attended revival services and was so moved by a sermon on the parable of the talents that he altered his vocational plans. Forty years later he described the effect of A. M. Poindexter’s sermon.
He [Poindexter] spoke of concentrating one’s mental gifts and possible attainments to the work of the ministry … he swept away all the disguise of self-delusion, all the excuses of fancied humility; he held up the thought that the greatest sacrifices and toils possible to the minister’s life time would be a hundred-fold repaid if he should be the instrument of saving one soul…. When intermission came, the young man who has been mentioned sought out his pastor, and with choking voice said: “Brother Grimsley, the question is decided; I must try to be a preacher.”2
Broadus distinguished himself in classical studies at the University of Virginia and, when he graduated at the age of twenty-three, was offered a position as assistant professor of Latin and Greek at his alma mater. A few years later, he added to his responsibilities the position of university chaplain. He also served as pastor of the Charlottesville church where he profoundly influenced young people and practiced what was, for him, the fine art of preaching.
Broadus believed that ministers should be educated in the liberal arts. At the University, to his study of languages, he added moral philosophy, natural philosophy, chemistry, and history. He often quoted the ancient Greeks and Romans but included also such thinkers as Confucious, Chaucer, Bacon, Ignatius, Goldsmith, Wordsworth, Renan, and others. He advised preachers that no kind of knowledge can be utterly useless”3 and that they should read the “best books in every subject.”4 Ministers should be familiar with the great authors, the natural world, and human nature.
Near the end of his life he complained in letters to his wife and daughter that he did not have enough time for reading novels. It is doubtful that it was ever necessary for him to purchase books of illustrations and call friends in desperation on Saturday night seeking a sermon-saving story.
Broadus was a Bible scholar who struggled with careless treatment of Scripture produced by superficial familiarity. “The main difficulty with students of the Bible,” he said, “is they think they know more than they do and want to know more than they can ….”5 One of his former students noted that Broadus’ students “feared him hardly less than they loved him.”6 He demanded respect for learning and set rigid standards for aspiring ministers of religion.
The dual emphasis on Bible and preaching is a natural one. Broadus stressed expository preaching, not in the sense of tedious verse-by-verse commentary but with the understanding that the preacher’s task is to explain the passage. Every sermon should be true to the text. He urged preachers to dismiss “prepossessions,” i.e. prejudices with regard to the meaning of text. He believed that depth analysis of Scripture required work in the original languages. His hermeneutic required the preacher to translate ideas and not just words. He warned that “strict interpretation may be carried too far”7 — although his own exposition seems most often to have followed “strict” interpretation.
Broadus’ exposition of the passages dealing with women speaking in mixed assembly demonstrates the fact that he began with literal interpretation. He was not preoccupied with notions of inerrancy, acknowledging that the words of Scripture “often differ very widely from what the same words would mean in writing of today.”8 Nonetheless, he began with the sense of grammar and a presumption of historicity unless mitigating factors were present.
Although Broadus did not embrace the higher criticism of the nineteenth century, he was a serious textual critic. His commentary on Matthew and his preaching text note a number of passages which he identified as “spurious.” He cautioned against proof-texting and urged that careful attention be given to the “connection” of scriptures. He feared the isolation of verses from the context and contended for the theological whole of the books of the Bible.
Broadus published a Harmony of the Gospels in 1883. He departed from the accepted patterns of such works by arranging the material according to the public ministry of Jesus, the training of the disciples, and the period of hostility. His work in this area undoubtedly had a great influence on his student A. T. Robertson, who was to write a harmony that would be the standard for several generations.
Broadus believed that the preaching and teaching of the church should focus on the person of Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth was his contribution to the field of ethics. He focused on the life of Jesus rather than His divine nature. Jesus’ life had implications for living in the world. Broadus stressed Jesus’ piety and behavior as a model for being Christian in the world.
Broadus’ greatest contributions — particularly beyond Baptist circles — were in the field of preaching. His book, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, was the preeminent homiletics text in the United States for over half a century. In the preface to his textbook, he mourned the fact that his duties as president and New Testament professor made it “necessary to relinquish Homiletics though always a favorite branch.”9 This was at a time when the discipline was considered, at best, peripheral to the body of divinity.
Broadus was chosen to deliver the most prestigious preaching lectureship in America, the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale University, in 1889. Unfortunately, those lectures were not preserved. The subject of the lectures were:
1. “The Young Preacher’s Outfit” in which Broadus defined seven mental, spiritual, and physical qualifications of a preacher;
2. “Freshness in Preaching'” closely allied to concepts of originality;
3. “Sensational Preaching”;
4. “Freedom in Preaching”: rhetorical principles, social conventions, physical characteristics, which mitigate against the full revelation of the speaker in the speech;
5. “The Minister’s General Reading”: emphasis on broad, general education;
6. “The Minister, and His Hymn-book”: a history of hymnology;
7. “The Preacher and His Bible”: why and how to read the Bible;
8. “The Minister’s Private Life”: five personal qualities important to the success of a minister’s work.10
On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons makes clear Broadus’ commitment to the Aristotelian rhetorical tradition, one often dismissed by today’s homileticians in favor of inductive and narrative preaching. In the preface of the first edition, he asserted that preaching “ought to be largely composed of argument, for even the most ignorant people constantly practice it … and always feel its force.”11 The purpose of preaching was, in his mind, to effect change and generate action. His primary criteria for judging preaching were truth and effectiveness. Contemporary critics may have missed some of the finer points of this school of rhetoric with an assumption of a disproportionate stress on rationalism.
Neither Aristotle nor Broadus advocated calibrated lectures or bare syllogisms in the public arena. Broadus was praised for his ability to make the profound simple. He pointed out that the Greek homilia and Latin sermo should both be rendered “conversation” or “discussion.” Broadus’ emphasis on reasoning was balanced by recurring stress on the importance and power of imagination. The subject of imagination comes up in a number of different places in Preparation and Delivery. He cited imagination as a primary characteristic of eloquence and suggested ways in which the preacher might cultivate personal imagination.
Broadus argued that most of Scripture is narrative which “possesses an unfailing interest, for old and young, cultivated and ignorant, converted and unconverted.”12 He agreed with a popular preacher of his day that one “who would hold the ear of the people, must either tell stories, or paint pictures.”13 He urged preachers to lead hearers to decision. They should “stimulate the hearer’s imagination into seeing for himself.”14 W. H. Whitsett observed that Broadus “invariably concealed the processes, but the processes were always elaborate and helpful.”15 Broadus himself said that that “the best application of a sermon is that which the hearers make for themselves.”16
Broadus’ preaching power may well have developed as Aristotle’s rhetoric did, from observing people and what moved them. He directed his considerable talents toward the ministry goals most important to him. He was sensitive to relationship and preaching to human need. He did not rely on power or position to influence society. When urged to seek the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention in Memphis in 1889 he declined, saying that there were two things that he would never accomplish: riding a bicycle and presiding over the Southern Baptist Convention.17 And yet his views usually prevailed on the floor of the Convention. Whitsett called Broadus the “most potent leader of the Convention in his generation.”18 His practice as a statesman within his denomination embodied his philosophy of preaching. He wrote that homiletical theory is “piety” which supplies “motive,” plus natural gifts which “furnish means,” and knowledge which provides matter, and skill which constitute the art of preaching. These, he taught, are the requisites of effectual preaching.
Broadus was widely respected, likely suggesting a sensitivity to others that earned their respect. At the time of his death, The Louisville Evening Post mourned the loss of “the leading personal influence in this community.”19 Broadus was not provincial. In addition to preaching in the great churches across America, he delivered major lectures at universities across the nation: in addition to Yale, he gave stated lectures at such places as Johns Hopkins and Harvard. The latter institution awarded him the degree of doctor of divinity.
The last five years of his life he served on the board of trustees of the Kentucky School of Medicine and for a portion of that time was president of that board. One of the most eloquent eulogies at the time of Broadus’ death was delivered by Rabbi Adolph Moses of Temple Adas Israel. The rabbi noted that, through Broadus, Christianity had been presented as “a living power for good, as actualized in an ideal man.” Rabbi Moses surely captured the spirit of Broadus in his loving summary of the man:
He was the most intensely and genuinely religious man I ever knew. Religion was not with him some theory of divine government which he professed, no system of theology which he accepted and taught. Religion was life itself with him. Faith in God … fear of God and love of God, hatred of evil and love of righteousness dwelt central in his soul as its ultimate, ruling ideas…. They determined all his actions from the greatest to the least significant, from composing a standard work or establishing a seminary to writing a note recommending a worthy person to a friend’s kindness.22
The prayer recorded by John Broadus in February 1851 was surely granted. It is a worthy petition for all of us.
“Deliver me, O Lord, from wrong ambition, from every improper desire to be first among my brethren. May I be enabled to subordinate all my desires and plans and hopes to Thy will, and when I labor and strive for success and eminence and fame, may I ‘do all for the glory of God’.”21
1. Archibald Thomas Robertson, Life and Letters of John Albert Broadus (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1901). p. 49.
2. John A. Broadus, Sermons and Addresses, Second edition (Baltimore: H. M. Wharton, 1888), p. 399.
3. John Albert Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1889), p. 120.
4. Ibid, p. 124.
5. Seminary Magazine, 1891.
6. R. J. Williams, Western Recorder, Apr. 4, 1895.
7. Broadus, Preparation, pp. 76-77; also Broadus scrapbook MSS 286.108 B78n v. 1.
8. J. A. Broadus quoted in Hints on Bible Study, ed. by H. Clay Trunbill (Philadelphia: John D. Wattles and Co., 1885), p. 98.
9. Broadus, Preparation, p. vii.
10. David McCants, “The Lost Yale Lectures on Preaching, by John A. Broadus,” Southern Speech Journal, #1, vol. 36 (Fall, 1970-71), pp. 49-60.
11. Broadus, p. xi.
12. Broadus, Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, p. 303.
13. Ibid, p. 151.
14. Ibid, p. 152.
15. Ibid, p. 346.
16. Seminary Magazine, Vol. IV. March 1891, No. 3, p. 75; RPP Se52inym microfilm.
17. Review and Expositor, Vol. 4, No. 3 (July 1907), p. 343.
18. Ibid, p. 343.
19. Louisville Evening Post, March 30, 1901.
20. Yahwism and Other Discourses by Rabbi Adolph Moses, ed. by H. G. Enlow (Louisville: Council of Jewish Women, 1903), pp. 285-286.
21. Prayer of John Broadus on February 2, 1851, after reading Mark 10.

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