Not many people read Joseph Parker’s sermons today, but he had his day and a great day it was. His preaching helped make it great.
Preaching was the one thing for which God had sent him into the world, and as Robertson Nicoll says, “there was never an hour when he would have changed his work for any other in the world.”1
A lady once asked him what was his hobby, and he instantly replied, “Preaching.” “But in addition to preaching?” she asked. “Preaching, nothing but preaching. Everything with me ministers to preaching.” He had inscribed on his notepaper the words: “Telegrams: Preacher, London.” Preaching was his passion, his life, an all-absorbing enthusiasm.
He was born at Hexham on April 9, 1830. There, amid the natural beauty of the wild Northumbrian moors, he spent the first twenty-two years of his life. This is an important psychological fact since the wide spaces, the loneliness and the mystery of the moors were part of his being — he was a natural mystic.
Like Carlyle and Moody, he was the son of a stonemason, and his father wanted him to follow that trade. But one day in June 1848 he made his way to an open-air meeting held on the village green at Wells.
He had no intention of preaching a sermon, but the idea came to him suddenly. He preached on the words, “It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.”
He became convinced of a call to the ministry and wrote to Dr. John Campbell, an eminent London minister, expressing his desire and asking for advice. Campbell answered that he had an opening for just such a young man and that if he would come at once he could place him in his pulpit for three Sundays and give him three guineas a week for his expenses.
So in 1852 he left for London and on Easter Day at Whitefield’s Tabernacle began his ministerial career. After three Sundays Campbell invited him to remain as junior minister and for nine months he preached three sermons each week, under the tutelage of Campbell. In the summer of 1853 he accepted a call to Banbury Congregational Church, where he ministered for five years.
His first sermon on the text, “Now it is high time to awake out of sleep,” was delivered to less than fifty people. This was at the morning service; in the evening the church was full.
Besides his two sermons each Sunday, he lectured in the Corn Exchange each Sunday afternoon during the winter and in the summer spoke in the open air on a cricket field.
He had a three nights public debate with G. J. Holyoake, the leader of the Secularist Party, who was thirteen years older than Parker. One of the questions Holyoake put to him was, “What did Providence do for the martyr Stephen when he was being stoned to death?” Parker prayed to God for an answer and it was given him: “God enabled him to say, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge’.”
A new church was built at Ban-bury and opened by Dr. Dale. Parker was invited to Cavendish St. Congregational Church in Manchester, known as the Congregational Cathedral of the North of England. The leaders were so keen to have Parker that they offered to pay the 300 pound debt on the new church at Banbury if he would come.
In his letter of acceptance he said: “As a minister I claim the most perfect freedom of action. With regard to my conduct in the pulpit I must be the sole human arbiter. What appears to me right I shall do. I cannot visit for the sake of visiting. I claim an annual vacation of one clear month.”
He quickly made his ministry felt as a power not only in Manchester but throughout the land. A new voice, arresting and compelling, was heard in the churches. The great church was filled to its utmost capacity — which was 1,666 — every Sunday. He remained in Manchester for eleven years.
On September 19, 1869, in his fortieth year, Parker opened his ministry at the Poultry Chapel, London, which had been for two years without a pastor. On the Thursday following, he inaugurated the weekday noon services which were maintained without interruption for thirty-three years.
Parker’s sermons were published in a weekly pamphlet which he called The City Temple; four thousand were sold each week. Under “City Temple Notes” in the first month of his ministry Parker made this intimation: “As an arrangement for self-protection, lam driven to announce the following as my charges for general public service:
Preaching on behalf of the salaries of poor ministers: Nothing. Preaching for ministers whose salaries are less than 100 pound a year: Nothing. Preaching at the opening of chapels: Six volumes of standard literature. Attending tea meetings: 50 pound. Going to bazaars: 1,000 guineas. Serving on committees: 2000 pound.”
The City Temple was opened in 1874; the great white pulpit was a gift of the Corporation of London. Parker declared that it was in his heart “to make the City Temple a terror to evildoers, a tower of strength to all who are honest and pure and a light to all who are asking the way to the truth and love of God.”2
It was here that Parker’s great work was done. Visitors from the provinces went to Spurgeon’s Tabernacle for one service and to the City Temple for another. Parker’s was a ministry whose influence went out to the ends of the earth. As he himself once said: “The back seats of the City Temple are in the Rocky Mountains.”
There is a story of his offering a prayer one Thursday in such words as these: “Lord, bless the word which shall be preached in this place today and in many other churches next Sunday.”
Whenever he said anything particularly solemn he used to shake his massive head and many young preachers began to imitate him — but they did not always shake out of their heads what he did.
Once he was reading the parable of the Good Samaritan and when he had read about the priest passing by on the other side, he added, “I suppose the priest observed that the poor man had been robbed already.” On another occasion he entered the pulpit for his Thursday service, and said: “I enter this pulpit with considerable oppression of spirit. A letter was handed to me an hour ago intimating that a philosopher was to be present at this service. My spirit sank. However my spirit slightly revived when on re-reading it I found that the gentleman himself had written it and spelt philosopher with an ‘f'”
Parker was a genius; he had an original mind touched with brilliant flashes of insight. His fertility of mind was amazing. The further he got away from a manuscript the better he preached.
He had a highly developed power of extempore utterance. The language of his sermons was forged in the pulpit. On the rare occasions when he wrote and read a sermon, according to Robertson Nicoll, he was much less effective.
“The only time I ever knew him decidely to fail was his speech at the Union of the Churches in Scotland. He failed simply because he had prepared too much. For months the speech ran in his mind until at last he lost confidence in himself.”3
A. J. Gossip tells us that when Parker rose to make this speech the whole thing had vanished from his mind, and he had to fall back on an old sermon in no way appropriate.4
One Thursday, Thomas Yates — later a noted Congregational minister — was present at the noon service when the Doctor roared and raged but could not soar above platitudes. Yates went to the vestry after the service and found the great man with his head upon his arms, bowed over the table.
“Thank you, Dr. Parker, for the sermon. I enjoyed the service.” Parker looked up fiercely and bellowed out: “You young liar. Wasn’t it terrible? I will never preach again.”
“Now, now,” protested Yates, “you must not take on so. Sometimes I have heard you and have said to myself, I will never preach again; but it is true you did not have that effect upon me this morning.”
“Ah,” said Parker, “That’s better: that’s more like the truth.”
It was Parker’s practice, so Yates said, to find his text early in the week, and having found it, on no account to drop it. Even when nothing much developed as a result of reflection, he persisted. To acknowledge defeat was impossible and the consequence was that occasionally he had a very bad time.
Gossip says: “I have heard Parker preach sermons awesome for their fulness and impressiveness. Yet once the thing was nothing short of a colossal fiasco, and that from sheer tenuity and lack of matter. He took as his subject how Jacob made off with Laban’s idols. And the whole thing was nothing more than a dramatic retelling of the story.
“He tip-toed about the pulpit, furtively he concealed the hymn book, we saw the flight and the pursuit, and were told of the lassie sitting on the idols. There was not an attempt at expounding or applying till the last sentence when he suddenly drew himself up, and using the full compass of his mighty voice, shouted, ‘My friends, believe me, a god that can be sat upon is not the true God.’ And that was all, from a mind teeming with ideas.”5
It has been said that Parker “had not the massive intellectual strength of Dale nor the exegetical clearness of Maclaren, nor the perfect artistry of Jowett. He was rough-hewn like the Northumbria from which he hailed.”6 But he had great natural endowments.
Sir Angus Watson thus describes him in the City Temple pulpit: “His massive figure and his leonine head at once fixed the attention and his voice, rich as an organ, held his audience spell-bound. It rose and fell in sonorous periods as he poured out his perfectly-phrased sentences. He was a superb actor and he delivered his thoughts with a dramatic force that kindled each sentence.
“His sermons were an example of perfect English, every word the inevitable one for its purpose, each thought challenging and full of surprise — the whole constructed like a stately building, graceful in model and design. The gleaming eyes, the vigorous gesture, the constantly changing inflection of his voice, now soft as a whisper, then challenging as a trumpet, the whole effect was so memorable as to be almost overwhelming.”
In the earlier years of his ministry Parker wrote his sermons carefully. Later he read much in the Bible and texts started out of its pages. When he found a text, he brooded over it — in his solitary walks, in his study, and in his garden — till he reached the heart of it.
Once that was discovered, illustrations crowded upon him and his work was done. A few pencilled notes were all that he needed. Once in the pulpit the crowd roused and stimulated all his faculties. There was no lack of words, and the words came as at the command of a magician, ready to do his bidding.
The pulpit was his throne. He once said: “Sunday is my festival day. I love Sunday. All the days of the week lead up to it and I hold high festival with my God and my people every Sabbath.”
He once confessed that on Saturday nights, when he needed stimulus for the labors of Sunday, he would read the lives of the early Methodist preachers and the fire would begin to kindle.
Robertson Nicoll, who knew Parker more intimately than most, says of him: “For multitudes there was no preacher like him. He showed power from the first, but he took bad models, and his taste was imperfect. It is wonderful to trace his progress, to see how he toiled and how he ascended. To other preachers he owed almost nothing. The one preacher whose influence is traceable in his late work is Newman, and Newman was almost the only sermon writer whom he read for many years.
“I make no attempt to analyze his preaching, or to discover the secret of his power. It was a spiritual wonder. There was about it the touch of miracle. Apparently free from rule, it was unconsciously obedient to the great principles of art.
“As you listened you saw deeper meanings. The horizon lifted, widened, broadened — the preacher had thrust his hand among your heart strings. You heard the cry of life, and the Christ preached as the answer to that cry. The preacher had every gift. He was mystical, poetical, ironical, consoling, rebuking by turns.”7
Parker’s preaching was expository. He lived in the Bible, loved it and brooded over it. At the semi-jubilee of his ministry at the City Temple he said: “Twenty-five years and I have not begun my exposition. Twenty-five years and I am still at Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1. I have preached from every text in the Bible, and I have not yet begun to preach at all. So great is the Book, so manifold its ministry, so all-sustaining the Eternal Spirit.”
His expositions of the Bible were quite unlike those of Alexander Maclaren, which are exact and meticulous. He brought his own wonderful powers of imagination and insight to his study of the Bible.
From 1884 to 1891, the Sunday sermons and the Thursday noon sermons went into The People’s Bible, in twenty-five volumes. He also published six volumes of Studies in Texts, which are very suggestive to the preacher.
He was not a good writer. Verbatim transcripts of the reporter’s notes on his sermons for The People’s Bible were sent direct to the printer, because Parker could not be persuaded to read the proof of one of his sermons.
It was as a preacher that he made his mark and exerted his influence. Perhaps the finest tribute paid to him was that one went away from listening to a sermon by Spurgeon with an earnest desire to be a preacher oneself, but that one went away from listening to a sermon by Parker with a deep resolve to be a better man.
Parker once published a book of advice to preachers under the title Ad Clerum, which we may assume to be the outcome of his early experiences. He believed that the discipline of broad intellectual study is necessary for the preacher.
In the training of the intellect the young preacher must be on his guard lest he should be so absorbed in intellectual pursuits that he despises the ordinary occupations of life or loses sympathy with those engaged in them.
To intellectual training he must add the cultivation of the heart and must so maintain the freshness and vigor of his spiritual life that his heart may be aglow with love for Christ. Here are some sentences from this book:
“Some preachers plan beautifully but build nothing: they are nothing but outline.”
“You must study the idea of your text: try to pierce it to its very heart and, having seized the truth, expound it with all simplicity and earnestness.”
“In proportion as a sermon is a mere effort of the intellect it will be a failure and in proportion as it is an expression of the heart it will succeed in doing good.”
Parker’s methods of illustration are like his sermons: unique. He possessed the open eye of the poet and the inner eye of the seer, and was thus able to interpret man to himself.
His illustrations are frequently suggestions rather than fully developed figures or finished pictures. He rarely used an anecdote or a story, did not often quote from poetry or history, but seized on those facts of nature and of human life which most perfectly conveyed his teaching.
He said: “I love to study human nature. It can often be better studied through the letters and gossipings, the free conversations, the repartees and confidences of offhand communications, than by an anatomy which might be considered critical and philosophical. All books that relate to the interpretation of human nature greatly interest me; hence my love for the drama, for biography, for a certain class of fiction, for memoirs of great men of every class; in these I find continual delight and frequent inspiration.”
Parker delighted in short, crisp sentences, and often suggests a picture and a lesson in a few words as the following examples show.
“Do not go far out to sea in a cockle-shell.” “Man’s final requirement of man is a grave.” “Some of us live too near the smoke ever to be very great trees.” “A circle has an outside as well as an inside; beware lest your little self-drawn circles exclude everything and include nothing.”
“The true worker puts the quality of his life into all his service; the painter paints with his soul; the preacher preaches with his soul; if the soul is not interested in the work, the work will crumble away, leaving no memorial.”
Here is one example of a more detailed illustration taken from a sermon on II Corinthians 2:16: “The truth produces one of two effects. It saves or it kills. It raises men from the dead or it buries them in a grave sevenfold deep. Verily, it is the great power of God. Is the spring sun which is now shining upon us doing the same thing throughout the forest and the garden to everything it finds there?
“The other day I looked upon a tree that was full of blossom, and under its wide-spreading branches I saw a huge limb of a tree withering away. Was the sun that created the blossom causing the tree branch to wither? Yes, that was even so. To the living tree whose roots were struck into the earth the sun was giving life, but to the branch cut away, having nothing but itself to live upon, the sun was pouring down arrows of destruction.
“The great sun, so hospitably full of light, kind, friendly, was feeding, like a mother-nurse, the living tree, and was killing with pitiless fire the sundered branch. As is the double effect of light, so is the double effect of truth.”
Parker possessed to a peculiar degree the quality of directness in speech. Though he was a pulpit orator, he never allowed his rhetoric to obscure his meaning. He once defined preaching as “dignified conversation,” laying equal stress on both the words in that description.
“If any one would excel in useful public speaking,” he once said, “he must first have something to say; second, say it audibly and tersely; third, say it as if he meant it; and, fourth, not care one button for pedants, critics, and purists.”
Parker’s sermons do not read well. It is something like the difference between reading a play and seeing it perfectly acted. The most impressive fact about Parker’s preaching was the personality of the preacher. Whatever he saw or read or experienced contributed to his preaching.
Once a young man sought his advice. He had been well-trained, was anxious to make good but success had left his best efforts unrewarded. Could Parker frankly tell him what was lacking?
“That is rather difficult, because I know nothing of you or your qualities,” he replied, but suggested that the young minister should preach before him, in the vestry, one of his sermons. The young man did so, and when he had finished, Parker said: “I think I can tell you what is the matter. For the last half hour you have been trying to get something out of your head instead of something into mine.”
His way of living was regular and methodical. Every morning he was in his study by 7:30, and spent the first half hour looking at the papers. After breakfast he retired to his study and dealt with his correspondence. He then went on with reading or literary work for a couple of hours.
Afterwards he walked, invariably alone, meditating his sermons. In the evening he liked to be read to.
Between his home and his congregation his life was lived until his wife died in 1898, a loss from which he never recovered. In the spring of 1902 his health, hitherto remarkably robust, began to give warning that the last long mile had been reached. He died on November 28, and was succeeded as he had planned by R. J. Campbell of Brighton, who had already been assisting him at his Thursday services.
A. E. Garvie, a noted Congregationalist theologian, has paid this tribute to Parker: “Rough and overbearing in manner as he often was, his heart was tender and gentle. His self-conceit was quite ludicrous, and yet was forgotten in the strength of his faith, the fervor of his feelings and the force of his speech.
“Taking his own line in theology, he remained true and devoted to the evangelical verities. He delighted in the exposition of the Scriptures, in which he displayed a fine moral and religious discernment. A rich imagination and a keen humor were controlled by a thoroughly masculine intellect.”8
1. W. Robertson Nicoll, Princes of the Church, p. 171.
2. Albert Clare, The City Temple, p. 120.
3. Princes of the Church, p. 175.
4. In Christ’s Stead, p. 188.
5. Op. cit., pp. 163-4.
6. Alexander Gammie, Preachers I have heard, p. 40.
7. Princes of the Church, p. 180.
8. A. E. Garvie, The Christian Preacher, p. 256.

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