When Jowett preached in the sermon class at Airedale College, Dr. Fairbairn said to his students: “Gentlemen, I will tell you what I have observed this morning: behind that sermon there was a man.”
That man grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with the churches, until he became one of the princes of the pulpit.
Jowett was born in Halifax in 1863. He taught school for a while and then resolved to study law. On the day before his articles were to be signed (to begin his legal work), he met his Sunday School teacher in the street and told him what he was going to do. Mr. Dewhirst said: “I had always hoped that you would go into the ministry.”
Jowett decided to enter the Congregational ministry. After his training in Edinburgh and Oxford, he was called in 1889 to St. James Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This was a church with a seating capacity of more than a thousand and from the first Jowett preached to large crowds. His fame soon spread and, on the death of Dr. Dale in 1895, he became his successor at Carr’s Lane, Birmingham.
He wisely did not attempt to match Dale’s stride. The difference between the two men was well expressed thus: “Dale’s congregation could pass an examination in the doctrines and Jowett’s in the Scriptures.”
Jowett confessed that he had been in danger of mere prettiness in preaching but carrying on Dale’s work had proved his deliverance. Dr. Lynn Harold Hough compared Dale to a great Cathedral and Jowett to the marvellously-embroidered communion cloth on its altar. “I was interested in the rare art which hid from sight the fact that it was art at all.”
He was invited to become minister of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. He declined the call twice but when it was repeated the third time in 1911 he felt it his duty to accept it.
The church was crowded long before the hour of Jowett’s first service. Reporters crowded the side galleries, expecting to find a sensational preacher with dazzling oratory and catchy sermon topics on current events. Instead they found a shy, quiet little man, bald-headed and with a cropped white moustache, who spoke in a calm, simple manner.
He remained in New York until April 1918 when he felt it his duty to return to England. He was called to Westminster Chapel, London, to succeed G. Campbell Morgan. Preaching to 2,500 people twice a Sunday and a weekday service proved too much for his health, which had never been robust. He resigned in 1922 and died in December 1923, at the age of sixty.
In a letter to a friend Jowett wrote: “If the pulpit is to be occupied by men with a message worth hearing, we must have time to prepare it.”
No one can read his sermons and notice the variety of illustrative matter from literature and life without feeling that he was preparing all the time. His mind was like a notebook, instinctively recording what he saw in books and life, and bending it not only to the use of the artist in words, but to those of an apostle of the truth, an evangelist of love.
As one of Jowett’s friends in the ministry said of him, “With the greatest ease he could turn his bright lamp upon the hidden things of Scripture, wrest the truth from ancient Oriental figures and symbols and make it simpler, beautiful and seductive to Western modern minds.”
What was the secret of his power? Was it his fine presence, his consummate art, his flawless diction, his pellucid style? No doubt these helped but Jowett touched the heart as perhaps no other preacher did because of his constant proclamation of the Gospel in all its urgency and winsomeness–‘the wooing note” as he called it.
Redeeming grace was the center of his message, the great theme to which he returned again and again. He said: “I have but one passion and I have lived for it–the absorbingly arduous yet glorious work of proclaiming the grace and work of our Lord.”
His Yale lectures on “The Preacher: His Life and Work,” reveal to us his method in the study and in the pulpit. Bible study occupied his best hour, the early morning hours. He began at 6 a.m. He told his New York congregation that if working people can rise at six in order to earn their daily bread, much more should a minister be at his desk at the same hour, because he is concerned with the bread of life.
Jowett mapped out each hour of his day and each day of the week. He said: “If the study is a lounge, the pulpit will be an impertinence.”
He read hard, and widely, the daily papers and the religious press as well as theology and general literature. Preparation for his Sunday sermons began on Tuesday morning and two days were spent in thinking and writing out each sermon.
The best sermons, he said, are not made: they grow. He carried with him a tiny notebook in which he jotted down subjects for sermons or suggestive texts, and made a brief outline.
He would not work on a sermon until he could put into a sentence the central idea he wanted to present. He confessed that getting that sentence was the most exacting and at the same time the most essential element in his sermon preparation.
Two further mental exercises followed. Jowett made it a habit to ask himself how other preachers would deal with the subject he had chosen. This broadened his conception of the theme, clarified his own mind and expanded his vision. The second mental exercise was to keep in view an invisible circle of typical men and women in his congregation, varying in education, temperament, social standing and spiritual experience. For every one of them each sermon ought to provide some soul nutriment according to their several needs.
Once the sermon had been completely thought out Jowett began to commit to paper It was a slow work with him, done without haste and at the cost of infinite labor.
“Pay sacred heed to the ministry of style,” he said to the students at Yale, and he practiced what he preached. He was fastidious about the use of words and had a passionate interest in word study. “A well-ordered, well-shaped sentence, carrying a body and weight of truth, will strangely influence even the uncultured hearer.”
One day a minister friend walking with him in a Birmingham park wanted to show Jowett how the Holly Blue butterfly differed from the Common Blue. “With the utmost caution,” says this minister, “I approached the resting insect, so that I could lift it off the leaf without injury to show him the markings on the underside of the wings. Jowett watched me in silence and then said ‘That is just how I pick a word’.”
Jowett said that a sermon illustration should be like an honest street lamp–throwing floods of light on the road–and not an item of decoration like a fairy lantern. He felt that an illustration that needed explanation was worthless.
Jowett also wrote his sermon out in full and read it over carefully three or four times until he knew it completely, but for his own reassurance he kept the manuscript before him in the pulpit.
“I turn the pages over and once I see the first word of a page, I know all that comes to the end of the page. I think each sentence over as it comes, so that however often I repeat a sermon, I go through the whole process of thought each time I give it, as though it were the first.”
In that way he was able to keep himself fresh in delivery and put the right expression into every word.
Jowett was a prose-poet of the evangel rather than a thinker or theologian. He preached to the saints, or at least to those who accepted the main truths of Christianity but needed to have their faith and hope warmed into a glad certainty. He took them by the hand and led them into a garden of the soul, flowering with sweet, peaceful thoughts grown in the rich soil of meditation and study and prayer.
He never seems to have been afflicted by doubts and thus was not able to reach the intelligent outsider. As Dr. Horton Davies says: “His task would always be to edify the convinced rather than to convince the doubters.”
Jowett’s sermons are still worth study for their grace of language, sensitive but virile spirituality and luminous suggestiveness of thought.
They are notable also for their clear organization. He divides his thoughts into three or four heads and makes it clear when he moves from one point to another.
The language fits the thought as a well-made glove fits the hand. It is a clear glass through which the thought shines bright. There are many pictorial phrases: “A perfectly dry eye is blind and a perfectly dry religion has no sight,” “Sentimentalism is born among the flowers: noble sentiment is born among the snows.” He described an old saved sinner as having a face like “a half-ruined chapel, lit up for evening service.”
Jowett’s expert companions in his work were Joseph Parker and Alexander Whyte. Their portraits were always near him and were easily seen by him, to the last, from his sick bed.
There was virility behind all his gentleness and strength behind all his fineness. There was an extreme delicacy of texture about him which reminded one of the loveliest lace. He combined a shy and sensitive nature with the firmness of tempered steel. John Henry Jowett was a sweet singer of Israel whose instrument was the harp and not the trumpet.

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