preacher is of interest to all students of the craft if only because he was
one of the most widely heard English preachers in the post-World War II years.
In his masterly chronicle entitled A History of Pastoral Care in America,
E. Brooks Holifield describes the direction in this discipline in the book’s
subtitle: From Salvation to Self-Realization. A corresponding movement
within preaching saw the increasing horizontalization and psychologization of
the sermon with Leslie Weatherhead beating the loudest drum in the British Isles.
In North America the attractive and engaging preaching of the liberal Harry
Emerson Fosdick along with the “life-situation preaching” of Charles
F. Kemp (as in The Preaching Pastor) turned the focus of pulpit discourse
ascendency of audience-centered, problem-solving preaching in our time finds
its roots in these earlier advocates of preaching as psychotherapy. While we
would not give way for a moment to those extremists who rant and rave incessantly
against psychology (after all there is psychology and there is pop psychology),
psychological insight can never be a substitute for Scriptural Revelation. Sound
insights from this discipline are relevant for the preacher, the counsellor,
the exegete, the historian, but psychology is not theology and is severely limited
in what it can yield to us. Since “nature abhors a vacuum,” we see
in Weatherhead a tragic instance in which psychical research replaced “sound
D. Weatherhead was born into a Wesleyan home near London in 1893. He early felt
the nudge to overseas ministry and matriculated at Cliff College and Richmond
College, Methodist training schools. In 1916 he went to Madras to serve the
Georgetown Church where in response to his public invitations, many stood to
be counted for Christ. In his younger son’s memoir (Leslie Weatherhead: A
Personal Portrait), we trace his growing faith in human nature and his capitulation
to liberal theology. He served briefly as a military chaplain in Basra in Iraq
in World War I, and then after marrying in India, returned in 1922 to England.
served two substantial Methodist churches, in Manchester and the famous Brunswick
Church in Leeds where his successor was W.E. Sangster, a true gospel-preaching
Methodist. Weatherhead drew crowds wherever he preached. He did this even with
a rather unattractive highly-pitched voice. What was his secret? He always appealed
strongly to the emotions – he was a “feeling” preacher and would
use the proverbial tearjerker. He loved language and could turn a phrase but
was always forthright if not blunt. He had a great sense of humor and after
his preaching at St. Giles in Edinburgh it was said that it was “the first
time they had laughed in St. Giles.” His language was quite free and had
to be edited for publication. He delighted in the loud laconic whisper. But
above all, he genuinely cared for people. He could embrace a crowd of people.
1936 he took the call to the venerable Congregational citadel, the three hundred
year old City Temple at Holbum Viaduct, the only non-conformist church in the
City of London itself. Tracing back to the Poultry Chapel and Thomas Goodwin
in Puritan days, this was the domicile of such worthies as Joseph Parker, R.J.
Campbell, Joseph Fort Newton and F.W. Norwood. During Weatherhead’s 24 year
incumbency, the building was destroyed in the Nazi blitz of 1941 and the congregation
wandered until the new City Temple was dedicated in 1958, built largely through
the generosity of John D. Rockefeller and American funds. He retired in 1960.
Even with a successor such as Leonard Griffiths, the City Temple did not survive
very long and today is used by a zealous group of American Presbyterian charismatics.
fact is that Weatherhead jettisoned historic Christianity and something had
to fill the vacuum – current events, preferring Q&A to preaching in
the services and above all his deep immersion into modern psychology all made
a gallant effort for something to say. He early on denied any transactual atonement
or the efficacy of the Blood of Jesus (A Plain Man Looks at the Cross)
and the bodily resurrection of Christ (The Manner of the Resurrection in
the Light of Modern Science and Psychical Research). The Virgin Birth was
dismissed early and “the legion” of demons probably meant that the
man had been molested as a child by Roman legionnaires. He regularly attended
spiritist seances and used hypnosis in his healing practice. Like his friend,
Donald Soper, he was an ardent pacifist and a leader in the strong movement
in England in the thirties which kept England from arming itself against the
rise of Hitler. He ultimately finished his PhD at the University of London (Psychology,
Religion and Healing). This volume also includes his Beecher Lectures of
1949 which Yale asked him to change “late in the day” because they
were so manifestly psychological and not in any way homiletical.
almost a recluse but publicly a man of immense charm and “awful nerve,”
he himself grappled with very serious physical and psychological problems throughout
his long life. The Book of Joshua was “irrelevant nonsense” to him
and the Apostle Paul was hopelessly neurotic. He inclined to believe that the
priest Zechariah was the father of Jesus and Archbishop William Temple was more
inspired than the Apostle Paul. No wonder his sermons are vacuous and empty.
In such collections as That Mortal Sea and This is the Victory
we see a good example of a brilliant preacher’s efforts who believed that we
would be advised to seek our theology more from the poets than the Church Fathers.
Of course John Wesley appeared to him in a seance so he had special sources.
In Over His Own Signature he does seek to base the message on the “I
am” sayings of Jesus, but this was very rare.
strikes me as one who has kept somewhat abreast of the discipline, is that his
psychology and Freudianism are now so severely dated. No one today talks about
odic force and the leakage of psychic energy. His 55 books are virtually unread
today. Yet “the genius of the gospels” and the writings of the Apostle
Paul continue their contextualized impact around a modern and post-modern world
in the winning of many to Christ and the building up of the Church. There are
insights to be valued in a thoughtful psychological probing of human behavior,
but I doubt the sea of Galilee in John 21 is a picture of the unconscious mind
or that the psychic scar Moses bore from his exposure to the Nile as a baby
explains his striking the rock in the Book of Numbers.
one of his first books, After Death?, he concludes that hell is subjective,
judgment is self judgment and forgiveness is absolute. A critic of the liberal
mainline (one of their own, James D. Smart) diagnosed the problem as The
Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. Can evangelicals expect any
different fate if there seems to be a growing “Strange Silence of the
Bible” among us? Can anything take the place of the opening of the
Word and the exposition of the Gospel of Christ?
L. Larsen is Professor Emeritus of Preaching of Trinity Ev. Divinity School.