Each year, around the country, recognized masters of the biblical “art” of preaching offer help and advice in scores of lecture series on preaching. The Sprunt, Warrack, Mullins, Payton, Hester, Jameson Jones Lectures — to name only a few — have become for many one answer to the question, “Where do I go to find masterly advice on preaching?”
Of all the lectures, however, none, in Warren Wiersbe’s words, “can claim the scope and influence of those delivered at Yale.”1 His judgment has been seconded by other voices of the “contemporary preaching fraternity.” The published versions of the lectures — to date there are about ninety-five — have become treasured volumes in many a preacher’s study.
The Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching (the Yale Divinity School Lectures), which began in 1872 with Henry Ward Beecher’s famous First Series of lectures, have included a hall of fame of preaching masters. Older names such as John Hall, Phillips Brooks, P. T. Forsyth, J. H. Jowett, and newer ones like Frederick Buechner, Henry Mitchell, Fred Craddock and Walter Brueggemann have been added to the list of distinguished speakers on preaching.
One hundred years ago this year, it was John A. Broadus’ name on the marquee at Yale’s Marquand Chapel. A century later, Broadus is treated either as pillar of homiletical method or pilloried as representing all that is wrong with preaching method. For some critics, Broadus is a classical dinosaur attempting to navigate modern highways. As representatives of what has been variously called a “conceptual,” “deductive,” “discursive,” “classical” approach to sermon composition, his method and advice is viewed as something akin to the anesthesiologist’s needle, which — when artfully applied — puts hearers into the third stage of anesthesia.
What is worse, other Broadus critics say, is his very notion of a “Christianized Rhetoric,” which for American homiletics has “severed the head of preaching from theology and dropped it into the basket of rhetoric held by Aristotle.”2
While numerous contemporary writers who speak positively about Broadus could be cited, F. R. Webber’s accolade in A History of Preaching seems representative of the “pillar” school. “The general principles of preaching, set forth so admirably by Dr. Broadus,” he writes, “are timeless. They will command respect long after the homiletical fads of the present time are forgotten.”3
It would be fairly easy to offer an extended criticism of Broadus’ homiletical thought. Much of his writing bears the marks of the past age in which it was written. It is the purpose of this article, however, not to censure the faults of the tradition from which Broadus wrote, but — following Fred Craddock’s advice — to “listen carefully to that tradition.”4 A sympathetic examination of Broadus’ 1889 Yale Lectures and his other homiletical thought reveals much that is perpetually modern.
Broadus’ Reputation
In his own day, John A. Broadus (1827-1895) enjoyed an international reputation. At the age of twenty-eight he was offered the Chair of Greek at the University of Virginia — ahead of Basil L. Gildersleeve, who was destined to become the most prominent professor of languages in America. Broadus traveled and read widely. He personally knew Moody, Spurgeon, Bishop Ellicot, Lightfoot, Westcott, Hort and other luminaries of the age.
Throughout his life of preaching and teaching he received calls to serve at numerous churches and educational institutions around the country. The University of Chicago sought him for its presidency in the early 1870’s. But Broadus’ heart was at the Southern Baptist Seminary which he helped found at Greenville, South Carolina in 1859. There at Greenville and then after the seminary was moved to Louisville, Kentucky, Broadus taught New Testament and homiletics until 1895. Throughout his life he was in wide demand to fill pulpits all over the United States.
The Lost Yale Lectures
From their inception, Broadus showed a keen interest in the Yale Lectures. While his seminary homiletics classes first used Ripley’s, Vinet’s, and then his own text On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (1870), as soon as Beecher’s First Series of Lectures appeared in print Broadus adopted it as one of his texts. Between 1872 and 1891, the seminary catalogs show the regular use of either Beecher’s Lectures or “Some Volume of the Yale Lectures” in his classes.
When Broadus’ own turn came in January 1889 to deliver the Lyman Beecher Lectures, he was at the crest of a brilliant career of service, with forty years experience as a preacher and thirty years as a teacher of preachers. The newspaper noted that Yale’s Marquand Chapel was filled, with part of the audience standing and crowding into corners. The lectures, A. T. Robertson reports, “created high enthusiasm, more, perhaps, than any since the days of Henry Ward Beecher’s.”5
One problem faces the student of Broadus’ lectures at this point. While some were incorporated into E. C. Dargan’s 1898 revision of Broadus’ On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, the lectures in their entirety were never published! Although a recent Yale biblography of the Lyman Beecher Lectures lists ninety-five published renditions, to date, of past Yale Lectures, Broadus’ series, which he titled “Preaching and the Ministerial Life,” is not one of them.
His lectures are, indeed, what David McCants called them, “The Lost Yale Lectures on Preaching.”6 Fortunately, summaries of Broadus’ lectures were reported in two newspapers of the day, The Examiner and The Christian Inquirer, providing later students with a sketchy digest of the contents.
Outfitting for Public and Private Excellence
In his first of eight lectures, “The Young Preacher’s Outfit,” Broadus stressed the necessity of certain mental, spiritual and physical qualifications for preaching. While Thorstein Veblen, a younger American contemporay of Broadus, later called their era the age of the “leisure class,” Broadus’ favorite motto was “Fear God and Work.” His own life seemed an amazing commentary on Paul’s Corinthian maxim that God can, in our lives, cultivate unbelievable fruit and effect, despite our weaknesses.
From his early days he suffered from a host of sicknesses and bodily ailments. Yet, in the midst of affliction, Broadus — with an energy born of faith — prodigiously taught, preached, wrote and sympathetically served people. To this day, Broadus’ example of labor in the face of what Luther called Anfechtung (all the assaults against faith in Christ), stands as a perpetual encouragement to preachers who are similarly buffeted.
From his earliest student days, he sought to be a useful, independent thinker. He once told George Braxton Taylor, a member of his Greek class, “Though I may not become an authority, yet I wish to be able, for myself, to form an independent judgment on all questions of New Testament interpretation.”7
Exacting thinker though he was, Broadus tempered his independence by a humble dependence upon the written Word. In his last Yale lecture, “The Minister’s Private Life,” he urged a life of deep Christian devotion. That naturally meant a thorough study of Scripture. Broadus would have seconded Ernest Liddie’s view that “The Bible is the Book of books. A preacher must master it before he can expound it.”8
Thus, in Lecture VII he proposed a design for a two-hour daily program of Bible study for preachers. This was necessary, David McCants recounts, in order that the preacher “would have a ready supply of biblical materials, readiness in locating texts, readiness in quotation and oral interpretation of the Scriptures, and the broad knowledge required for expository preaching.”9
Freshness in Preaching
Such a knowledge of Scripture, coupled with three other ingredients, was the key to what he called in Lecture II, “Freshness in Preaching.” To scriptural knowledge Broadus added a knowledge of systematic theology, personal cases (real life illustration), and the times in which we live.
From scriptural study, especially on the basis of the original language, a preacher learns the true meaning of the text. Those familiar with Robertson’s little classic, The Minister and His Greek New Testament, with chapters titled “Pictures in Prepositions” and “Sermons in Greek Tenses,” will recognize the Broadus influence. Robertson — first a student of Broadus, then colleague and son-in-law — described what it was like to sit in Broadus’ class, where the Greek text came alive with homiletical freshness. It was “sheer delight” to recall the “flashes of light from Greek cases and tenses as Broadus turned them inside out.”10
Broadus was sympathetic to men called to the public ministry late in life. In his Lectures on the History of Preaching (1876), he recalled that Chrysostom began to preach at thirty-nine, and Augustine at thirty-six. Was it too late then to learn the biblical language in order to gain “freshness?” Certainly not! John Knox, he wrote, was “pressed into the ministry at the age of forty-two.” Only then did he learn Greek. At age forty-nine Knox went to Geneva to study Hebrew.11 One wonders what Broadus would say today in our age of technology which has revolutionized biblical language study through cassette and computer.
Systematic Theology, Guardian of Freshness
Since heresy also cuts its teeth on the edge of freshness, Broadus insists in his second lecture that preachers know systematic theology. He assumed that preaching took place in and out of the context of biblical and systematic theology. Preaching could never be for him a mere rhetorical exercise severed from the biblical, theological reality to which it was attesting.
Thus, “Systematic Theology is of unspeakable importance,” Broadus wrote, because by means of it a preacher can “speak with boldness of assured conviction” having a “confidence in the great system of inspired truth which no minute criticism can shake.” Next to the Bible, “A preacher ought always to have some able treatise of theology, new or old, which he is regularly studying …,”12
Sympathy for People and Times
Those who knew Broadus, from General Robert E. Lee to his friend Rabbi Moses of the Louisville Conversation Club, were unanimous in this estimation. He was no ivory tower ideologue, no doctor-dry-as-dust, disconnected from people through “theology.” His sympathy for people and for the times in which he lived tempered his preaching into something which spoke not only “to” but “with” the people.
Applying Henry Mitchell’s dictum about preacher/people relationships, “he sat where they sat.”13 The word “sympathy” was a favorite word of Broadus, just as it had been for his own mentors — Vinet, McGuffey, Beecher. It is not surprising that it was a favorite word used by Broadus’ friends and colleagues to describe him.
Sympathy Through General Reading
One way preachers gain sympathy for their people and the times in which they serve is through their focused reading. In his fifth lecture, “The Minister’s General Reading,” Broadus recommended reading widely from poetry, history, essays, science and novels. He recognized newspapers as a critical source for keeping informed and tuned in to the temper of the times. At the same time he warned against developing shallow reading habits through a steady diet only of newspapers.
Whatever books a minister reads, they should be the best, few in number, and read often. His advice regarding specific kinds of books varied according to the preacher’s age.
I think that young men should be specially exhorted to read old hooks. If you have a friend in the ministry who is growing old, urge him to read mainly new hooks, that he may freshen his mind, and keep in sympathy with his surroundings. “But must not young men keep abreast of the age?” Certainly, only first thing is to get abreast of the age, and in order to [do] this they must go back to where the age came from, and join there the great procession of its moving thought.14
The purpose of all such reading was to capture everything for the sake of the preaching task.
Sympathy for Change in Sermon Method
While Broadus’ homiletical method was unquestionably “prescriptive” — favoring what has been variously labeled “discursive,” “deductive,” “argumentative,” “conceptual,” “classical,” — few, if any, recent writers of the inductive, story, narrative “school” have been sympathetic enough with Broadus, it seems, to notice how open he was to changing his “prescriptions.”
While it is not so readily apparent in the Yale Lectures, in other places in his writings Broadus displays a remarkably evangelical openness toward change in sermon method, perhaps more so than some of his brothers in the “contemporary preaching fraternity.” He believed in “moving thought.”
As to methods of preaching, you are entered upon a time of great freedom in composition, a time in which men are little restrained by classical models or current usage, whether as to the structure or the style of discourse…. You may freely adopt any of the methods which have been found useful in any age of the past, or by varied experiment may learn from yourselves how best to meet the wants of the present. Freedom is always a blessing and a power, when it is used with wise control.15
If Broadus and his times were prone to a point approach to sermon composition, he was not locked into it absolutely nor was he slavish to his own dictates. Broadus no doubt would have agreed with Fred Craddock’s proposition that the Gospel should not “always be impaled upon the frame of Aristotelian logic.”16
For example, some texts, Broadus says, lend themselves to a narrative style of preaching, especially the sections of Scripture which are themselves in the form of “story” or scripture history. In such texts the narrative itself “possesses an unfailing interest, for old and young, cultivated and ignorant, converted and unconverted.” In these instances it would be a mistake if
the preacher makes haste to deduce from the narrative before him a subject, or certain doctrines or lessons, and proceeds to discuss these precisely as if he had drawn them from some verse in Romans or Psalms; thus sinking the narrative, with all its charm, completely out of sight.17
If Don Wardlaw is right — that most preachers in the Broadus tradition “have been trained to force a straitjacket of deductive reason” over scriptural narratives, “which in effect restrains rather than releases the vitality” of the text — Broadus separates himself from that tradition also, opting for a sermon shape which takes it cue from the text.18
Broadus’ “Relevance” a Century After His Yale Lectures
Like the word “contemporary,” the word “relevant” seems, at times, to be fit only for the place where old jargon and cliches are consigned. Yet, Samuel D. Proctor, the 1989-90 Yale lecturer, reminds us by the title of his series, “How Shall They Hear? — The Quest for Relevance in Preaching,” that the pursuit of “relevance” is by no means a forgotten issue in preaching. Modern preachers can learn from Broadus that the quest for relevance is not only a journey into the future, but a sympathetic voyage into the past.
When Phillip Schaff asked Broadus to write an introduction to Chrysostom for volume 13 of a Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, he produced a fascinating portrait of this early church father and master preacher. What is more, Broadus captured in print the spirit of sympathy and love which governed his reading of past masters. While not uncritical of Chrysostom, he sought out those features in the ancient preacher which seemed to him perpetually new and useful. That “quest” seems to be one that all preachers ought to follow after, whether repelled by or attracted to older masters and their volumes.
One who is at first without interest in Chrysostom, perhaps even repelled by the extravagant expressions, the heaped-up imagery, the frequent bad taste (at least, according to our standards), … is precisely the man that ought to read Chrysostom … how fully he sympathizes with his hearers! He thoroughly knows them, ardently loves them, has a like temperament, shares not a little in the faults of his age and race, as must always be the case with a truly inspiring orator or poet. Even when severely rebuking, when blazing with indignation, he never seems alien, never stands aloof, but throws himself among them, in a very transport of desire to check, and rescue, and save. Is there, indeed, any preacher, ancient or modern, who in these respects equals John Chrysostom?19
There are alternative ways of being “relevant,” one of which is to entirely discard the past. John Ruskin in his Val d’Arno lectures on Tuscan Art once quipped, “Behold, the Christians despising the Dunce Greeks, as the Infidel Modernists despise the Dunce Christians.” While Broadus may for some be a “Dunce Christian” because he used rhetoric from the “Dunce Greeks,” he joins a long line of “dunces,” among whom are numbered Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and a long list of influential contemporary preachers.
The author acknowledges with great appreciation the National Endowment for the Humanities for research funding and especially Edward P. J. Corbett and members of his 1987 NEH “Summer Seminar For College Teachers” for conversation which helped generate this article.
1. Warren Wiersbe, Walking With the Giants (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 203.
2. David James Randolph, The Renewal of Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 21. Cf. also Dietrich Ritschl’s A Theology of Proclamation (Richmond: John Knox, 1960), 135, for similar anti-Broadus sentiment. David Buttrick in his Homiletic (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 464, states that “Homiletics has always been in coversation with rhetoric. Although, of late, homiletics has been isolated by its attraction to biblical theology, properly it should draw on rhetorical wisdom.”
3. F. R. Webber, A History of Preaching, vol. 3 (Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1957), 405.
4. Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), 14.
5. A. T. Robertson, Life and Letters of John A. Broadus (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1901), 376-77.
6. David A. McCants, “The Lost Yale Lectures on Preaching By John Broadus,” The Southern Speech Journal 36 (1970), 49. My article relies upon McCant’s extremely valuable article for summaries of the Yale Lectures, as reported by The Examiner and The Christian Inquirer.
7. George Braxton Taylor, Virginia Baptist Ministers (Lynchburg, Va.: J. P. Bell, 1913), 241-42.
8. Ernest V. Liddle, “A Preacher’s Preparation,” Preaching 4.6 (1989), 23.
9. McCants, 55.
10. A. T. Robertson, “Broadus in the Class Room,” The Review and Expositor 30 (1933), 162.
11. John A. Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, New Edition, 1899), 76, 196.
12. John A. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 17th ed. (New York: A. C. Armstrong, 1891), 122-23.
13. Henry H. Mitchell, The Recovery of Preaching (San Francisco: Harper, 1977), 5.
14. John A. Broadus, Lectures, 230-31.
15. Mil., 233-34.
16. Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), 45.
17. John A. Broadus, A Treatise, 304.
18. Don M. Wardlaw, “Introduction/The Need for New Shapes,” Preaching Biblically, ed. Don M. Wardlaw (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 16.
19. John A. Broadus, “St. Chrysostom as a Homilist,” A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 13 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976), v, vi.

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