When Alexander Maclaren entered the study in his home at 9 every morning to take up his sermon preparation, he would kick off his slippers and put on heavy outdoor work boots as a reminder to himself of the hard work he was about to do. It was this work ethic – coupled with his deep devotion to Christ and His Word – that brought Maclaren the reputation as “the prince of expositors.”
Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910) labored in England at the same time as several other prominent preachers, such as C. H. Spurgeon, Joseph Parker, and F. B. Meyer. Meyer himself, in comparing Maclaren to his many notable contemporaries, said, “As an expository preacher none of them equaled Maclaren of Manchester, and no other sermons were so widely read the world around. . . . Dr. Maclaren is said with truth to have changed the whole style of the British pulpit, and to have influenced it more (than) any of his predecessors.”
Maclaren came to prominence during a 45-year-tenure in the mill city of Manchester, England. Unlike his friend Spurgeon, Maclaren had only one ministry – preaching. He rarely traveled and started no schools or publications. The only responsibility he took beyond his own church was two terms as president of the Baptist Union late in his career.
Since he was from a Baptist nonconformist family, he could not gain admission to Oxford or Cambridge University so in 1842 he entered the Baptist College in Stepney where he met one of the most significant influences of his life, Principle Benjamin Davies. Davies instilled in the young Maclaren a life-long habit of meticulous study in the Scripture’s original languages. It became Maclaren’s habit to spend a half hour each in the Hebrew and Greek texts every morning as part of his devotions. His sermons, while never flaunting his skills, often show a keen understanding of the language and grammar of the original tongues.
Maclaren knew from his youth that he was called to preach and never considered any other vocation. When he preached his first sermon at the age of 17 he began his written log, recording the sermon number, location, text and date.
His first charge was a small, dying Baptist congregation in Southhampton. Only 20 people were coming to a sanctuary that seated 800, but as Maclaren labored there for twelve years the church steadied and grew. He later said, “I thank God for the early days of struggle and obscurity.”
Maclaren’s move to Manchester in 1858 brought an end to his obscurity. After eleven years there, a new 1500-seat auditorium was built and every seat was filled morning and evening.
Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, a prominent publisher of the day, said Maclaren was without question “the most brilliant man, all round,” that he ever knew. His scholarship was impeccable. He read widely – from Augustine to the Quakers, as well as the great British poetry and novels.
But it is not his learning that sets his sermons apart from others. First and foremost, Maclaren was a true expositor of Scripture. While he never took long texts, he always dealt with a unit of thought and elegantly laid bare the logic and force of the text. He had an almost uncanny ability to lay open a text along its natural lines. His outlines made clear not only the seams in a passage of Scripture but also in the workings of the human heart. To this day he is one of those preacher-scholars whom we should not read too early in our preparation lest we find ourselves unable to think for ourselves.
Maclaren never used a manuscript, preferring only sketchy notes, yet his sermons as recorded by stenographers were masterpieces of compelling, vivid and elegant language. This amazing extemporaneous ability made his sermons all the more powerful because his clear and poetic language so perfectly matched the lofty and grand truths of Scripture.
Maclaren usually preached three-point sermons. When his brother-in-law pointed out this tendency, he responded, “[T]he three-pronged fork seems to me a thoroughly useful instrument.” His points were drawn directly from the text. Sometimes he simply labeled the sections, as in a sermon on Psalm 48 – “the glory of Zion, the deliverance of Zion, and the consequent grateful praise and glad trust of Zion.” But many other times, his points captured biblical principles, as in this rare two-point message from Neh. 5:15: (I) “Nothing will go right unless you dare to be singular,” and (II) “You cannot resist evil unless you give yourselves to God.”
Although Maclaren rarely told a story, repeated a quotation or alluded to current events, his sermons are vivid with metaphors and similes, bringing sometimes complex biblical truth to the level of the ordinary listener. For example, in one sermon he said, “We cannot weave the web except Christ gives us the yarn, nor can we work out our own salvation except Christ bestows upon us the salvation which we work out.”
Though he was a disciplined expositor, his sermons never have the feel of a Bible lecture. They are rich with insight into both the implications of Scripture and the workings of the human heart. His introductions were short and pointed, diving right into the meat of the text. The first two or three sentences were the only part of the sermon he was likely to write out in advance so that he could be sure, as he put it, “to launch out into the deep.”
For all his muscular boldness in the pulpit, Maclaren was a shy and reclusive man. While he did the required pastoral work, he was never comfortable with it. For example, shortly after coming to Manchester a godly man in the congregation asked him, “Are you aware that your housemaid is under serious conviction regarding the state of her soul?” “No,” Maclaren answered, “I did not know, but commend her to your care. I am able, with God’s help, to teach His truth to hundreds; you can bring it home better to one or two.”
Those who knew him well reported that Maclaren suffered after every sermon, thinking each was a failure. A friend once asked him if he recalled what he thought about as he waited for applause to die down after he was introduced at a large gathering. “Yes, perfectly,” he said, “I all but heard the words, ‘It is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment; he that judgeth me is the Lord.’” He could only face the awful responsibility of preaching because he so wanted the message to be heard.
Besides being published each week in the Manchester Guardian, over 400 of Maclaren’s sermons were published in book form, besides several other non-sermonic books. Then, after retirement, he undertook what became a 31-volume pastoral commentary entitled Expositions of Holy Scripture, providing sermonic analysis for virtually all of the Bible.
Alexander Maclaren preached for 45 years in Manchester, concluding in June 1903 and seldom preached again after that final Sunday. The last sermon noted in his register, #6860, was given on November 21, 1904, almost exactly 61 years after his very first.
The great preacher, scholar and Christian died May 10, 1910. His body was cremated and his ashes were buried under a cross he had placed on the family plot years before. The cross bore the words he had chosen: “In Christo, in Pace, in Spe” – in Christ, in Peace, in Hope.
Lee Eclov is Pastor of the Village Church of Lincolnshire, IL.