On the opening day of the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale University in 1912, John Henry Jowett said, “I have had but one passion, and I have lived for it—the absorbingly arduous yet glorious work of proclaiming the grace and love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Such a confession revealed a romance with preaching that made Jowett one of the most admired ministers of the early 20th century and subsequently earned him the title “Stylist of the English Pulpit.”
Jowett was born Aug. 25, 1863, in Halifax, England, in the home of devoted and godly parents. His call to the ministry was influenced by his parents and his church, and it was nurtured through his educational training at Airedale College and Edinburgh University. At first, Jowett was interested in a legal career and considered studying law. However, his Sunday School teacher challenged him to reach a decision about the ministry. In his 17th year, he experienced a definite call and surrendered to “the divine initiative.”
Jowett understood the ministry as a holy vocation requiring solemn devotion and faithful training. Through Airedale and Edinburgh, Jowett equipped himself for the work; upon graduation from the latter, he accepted the invitation to pastor at St. James Congregational Church in Newcastle, England.
Jowett as Pastor
Unlike most young pastors who begin in small churches, Jowett’s first church was a large and influential one with a seating capacity of more than a thousand. He served as pastor of St. James for nearly six years, during which time he met and married Lissie A. Winpenny.
In 1895, upon the death of R.W. Dale, Carr’s Lane Congregation Church in Birmingham extended a call to Jowett. Carr’s Lane was a bulwark among the Free Churches of Great Britain; under the leadership of Dale, it had achieved unparalleled prominence. The thought of assuming such a demanding ministry and following a leader such as Dale gave Jowett considerable consternation.
Dale was said to be made of granite and Jowett of alabaster. Dale was more assertive and dogmatic, whereas Jowett was more self-effacing and modest. Dale’s preaching was more theological; Jowett’s was more practical. Jowett accepted the call and not only followed in the illustrious tradition of Dale, but scaled new heights for the church, as well as personally.
In 1907, the British Weekly conducted a survey to discover England’s most appealing preacher. When the results were tallied, Jowett ranked first, followed respectively by G. Campbell Morgan, Alexander MacLaren, and F.B. Meyer. In 1909, Jowett was elected president of the National Council of Evangelical Free Churches; in 1910, Edinburgh University granted him a Doctorate of Divinity.
The ministry at Carr’s Lane was so rewarding that Jowett felt he could “grow old joyfully” in Birmingham. He had the satisfaction of knowing his sermons were read widely on both sides of the Atlantic, and he had published several books. Furthermore, he had the contentment of founding the Digbeth Institute and watching it reach the poor and underprivileged children of Birmingham. The Institute served as a recreation center and as a place of worship for hundreds in the slum areas of the city.
Although contented at Carr’s Lane, Jowett kept his heart open to God’s will. Feeling constrained to accept the invitation from Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, he resigned at Carr’s Lane and headed for America in 1911. Jowett’s seven years at Fifth Avenue were fruitful ones. The New York Times indicated that “no preacher since the days of Henry Ward Beecher ever had greater crowds come to hear him preach Sunday after Sunday and hang on his words.” Not only did he preach to overflowing crowds on Sundays, the Wednesday evening services were the largest in the city.
His ministry at Fifth Avenue was marked by spiritual and numerical growth, but his personal happiness was marred by the impending threat of war involving England. The tug from his homeland was a constant struggle. Consequently in 1918, he accepted the invitation from Westminster Chapel in London and delivered his parting words to the Fifth Avenue Congregation: “I lead you where I sought to lead you for the last seven years. I lead you to Jesus, the Christ and risen Savior, the reigning King of Glory. All my hope in Him is stayed. I believe in the morrow because I believe in Him.”
The Westminister Church, like Jowett’s three previous ones, emphasized the preaching gift. Each Sunday, long lines of people awaited entrance. Public interest in Jowett reached its zenith there, but Jowett’s health rapidly declined. His passion for preaching was stymied by pernicious anemia, and his condition worsened steadily until he died in 1923.
When the esteemed preacher and personal friend J.D. Jones heard of Jowett’s death, he said: “The mightiest preacher of us all has been taken. It is a sore loss. It leaves us with a great sense of impoverishment. The whole church of Christ is indeed the poorer for his passing. But his work will remain…And as for his friends, they will never forget this man who humbled them by the greatness of preaching and yet inspired them to wish to be preachers, too.”
Jowett as Preacher
At 6 each morning of the week, Jowett was in his study. He felt that if the pulpit was to be occupied by men with a message worth hearing, then they must take time to study and prepare. He reminded the students at Yale that “if the study is a lounge, the pulpit will be an impertinence.” Many preachers who envied Jowett failed to realize the detailed and laborious preparation of his sermons. Behind the seeming ease and charm of his preaching lay hours of painstaking research.
He held tenaciously to the principle that a sermon should not be constructed without a clearly defined central idea. He explained, “I have a conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as a crystal.” He was one of the first to popularize the necessity of a propositional statement.
Jowett was a keen student of Scripture. He encouraged young preachers to be engaged continually in a comprehensive study of some book of the Bible and to attain perfect mastery of the subject matter. Jowett majored on the central truths of Scripture; his most frequent themes focused on grace, sin, redemption and Christian maturity. He maintained that the ultimate aim of all true preaching was the salvation of the lost. After hearing him preach, a reporter wrote, “The dynamic of the cross is behind all he says.”
The genius of Jowett’s preaching sprang from his utility of language. He was an artist with words. Believing the language of the pulpit demanded excellence from the preacher, he took prodigious pains in selecting appropriate words to convey his thoughts. The study of words was an enjoyable hobby from which he developed a gift for uniting “the inevitable adjective to the inescapable noun with infallible felicity.”
Jowett wrote his sermons in full and took the complete manuscript into the pulpit. The practice of writing disciplined him to clear and concise communication and enabled him to paint mental images with which people easily could identify. Terse, pithy epigrams abounded in his messages; he became renowned for pictorial preaching.
Jowett could have earned a venerable place in the history of preaching for the content and construction of his sermons alone. He modeled an incarnational delivery; however, that also enhanced his preaching. He believed every preacher should be a wooer, a compassionate conversationalist. “We need to woo our people,” he said. “Jesus, lover of my soul; preacher, lover of man’s soul. Let us speak a little more tenderly. Let us drop out the thunder and put in the constraint and where the thunder has failed the lover may succeed.”
Admittedly, Jowett was blessed with a voice that could express the richness of human emotion. His voice resonated with genuine affection and conveyed a sympathetic quality. Many of his contemporaries acknowledged that while Jowett occasionally spoke in booming tones, he usually communicated in a calm, controlled manner. He was natural in the pulpit and at ease with himself and his audience.
In addition to his verbal qualities, Jowett’s nonverbal qualities preached, too—particularly his eyes. His eye contact had a beckoning magnetism that held people with a gripping force. After hearing Jowett preach in Copenhagen, the erudite biblical scholar Adolf Deismann declared, “I shall never forget the wonderful glance of his eye.”
Jowett as Person
Preaching is never merely what we do, but intrinsically who we are. The personality of the preacher is bound inseparably to the message proclaimed. Jowett’s sermons were mirrors of his personality. He believed strongly that a preacher’s message should “first of all ‘touch’ the preacher himself.”
Possessing what Edgar Jackson called a “capacity for sensitivity,” Jowett demonstrated empathy for his hearers and once described empathy as a “ministry of bleeding.” “As soon as we cease to bleed, we cease to bless,” he explained. “When our sympathy loses its pang, we can no longer be servants of the Passion.” One reason crowds gathered wherever he preached was because people perceived him as a man who understood their problems.
Privately and publicly, Jowett was an unpretentious and humble person. Surrounded by the glare of fame, he refused to play the part of public expectation. His unassuming personality was a disappointment to those who expected him to be flamboyant. He was not a socialite, and consequently he was sometimes criticized by fellow ministers for seeming reclusive or aloof.
Entwined in Jowett’s disposition was a relentless quest for communion with Christ. In addressing the students at Yale, he reminded them not to measure their ministry by the ground they cover in a week but by the time they spend cultivating their spiritual life. He claimed that preachers were great only as they were God-possessed, and scrupulous appointments in the upper room with the Master would prepare them for the hardships of the campaign. He thought the impotence of most preachers was related to ineptitude in prayer. He added, “If men are unmoved by our prayers, they are not likely to be profoundly stirred by our preaching.”
Jowett’s legacy to contemporary preachers merits careful study. His passion for proclaiming the good news can be rekindled in every pastor who is consecrated authentically to the Savior and devoted to the rigorous task of sermon building.