R. W. Dale was born in London and attended with his parents Moorfields Tabernacle which had once echoed to the ringing voice of George Whitfield.
He became a school teacher at the early age of 14. It was at that age he read John Angell James’ book, Anxious Enquirer After Salvation, little aware that within a decade he was to become that famous preacher’s assistant, and a few years later his successor in one of England’s most famous pulpits The boy was so deeply impressed when he read this book that he declared he waited impatiently every evening for the family to retire, so that he might read it undisturbed.
While teaching at Andover, Dale joined the Congregational Church. He preached his first sermon at the age of sixteen in a basket-maker’s shop. He had decided on the ministry and sought to enter a Congregational college. He attended Spring College in Birmingham, a small school with but three professors. From there he went to the University of London, where he received his degree in 1853.
While still a student, Dale assisted John Angell James at Carr’s Lane Church, and James, recognizing his ability, invited Dale to become his assistant, thus beginning an association with that church which was to last forty-two years. In 1859, when James died after fifty-six years at Carr’s Lane, Dale succeeded him and served the congregation until his death in 1895.
When Dale came to Birmingham, the traditions at Carr’s Lane were Calvinistic. The total depravity of man, an unconditional election, a restricted atonement, and a circumscribed will of God to save, were the doctrines acceptable to the congregation. Dale aroused opposition when he attacked the doctrines of total depravity and restricted grace.
When Moody and Sankey visited Birmingham they were opposed by the local clergy because of their methods. Dale not only defended them but cooperated with them and preached at some of their outdoor meetings.
Dale was above everything else a preacher. When A. M. Fairbairn was a young man, he once walked to and fro in front of Carr’s Lane Chapel, saying to himself, “It is here that so great a preacher proclaims the everlasting Gospel.” Almost everything Dale wrote had its origin in his weekly work for the pulpit. Even the lectures on the Atonement were all delivered at his Sunday evening service, when — his son tells us in his biography of his father — “week after week for nearly three months the building was crowded from end to end, without any diminution of interest.”1
One great secret of Dale’s power as a preacher was that he put his pulpit first, and made everything else subservient to it. His sermons were not merely the by-product of other and more serious labors; they were the ripe fruit of his best hours. As an instance of his thoroughness, before preaching the Centenary sermon of John Wesley’s death at City Road Chapel in London, Dale read the complete works of Wesley which had been presented to him by the Wesleyan Bookroom.
He was a doctrinal preacher of necessity. His strong masculine intellect scorned to be satisfied with the vagueness of thought in the realm of Christian truth with which even intelligent people are often content, and which seemed to him a serious injury to the vigor of their religious life.” The injury is the graver because of the increasing precision with which men are thinking about natural phenomena. In one region of the intellectual life there is granite, above it are clouds.”
In the preface to his volume of sermons, Christian Doctrine, Dale tells how some years after he had settled at Carr’s Lane, he met another Congregational minister in the streets of Birmingham, who said to him: “I hear you are preaching doctrinal sermons to your congregation. They will not stand it.” To this Dale replied, “They will have to stand it.” They did stand it and liked it and the result was a congregation which for robust and masculine Christian intelligence was unrivalled in England.
This book of sermons was an attempt to expound in an orderly and systematic fashion all the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. It contains twelve sermons: two on the existence of God, two on the divinity of Christ and one on His humanity, sermons on the Holy Spirit, man, and sin, and three on the Atonement. They are soundly based on the Bible and closely reasoned but they lack the imaginative fire that lights up the doctrines from within. Dale recognized this weakness of his and wrote: “I fear that the truth occupies too large a place in my thought and that I have been too much occupied with the instrument for effecting the ends of the ministry, too little with the actual persons to be restored to God.”2
In the middle of his ministry an incident occurred which changed his manner of preaching. While preparing an Easter sermon, the thought came to him that Christians say much about the risen Lord, yet do not realize fully that He is alive. The thought of the living Saviour impressed itself upon him to such an extent, Dale says, that he rose from his desk, and paced up and down the room, exclaiming, “Christ is alive.” At first it seemed strange and hardly true but at last it came upon him like a burst of glory: Christ is living!
“It was to me a new discovery. I thought that all along I had believed it; but not until that moment did I feel sure about it.” He determined that his people should share this discovery and for months afterwards the living Christ was his one theme, and there and then began the custom of singing an Easter hymn every Sunday morning.3
Dale’s preaching was as ethical as it was doctrinal. He was convinced that the preacher’s task was to transform the will as well as to inform the mind. In one of his letters he said: “To assist the intellect is much; to quicken the conscience and confirm the righteous will is more.”4 He lamented the ethical sterility of much current evangelical religion. “We are living in a new world,” he said, “and Evangelicals do not seem to have discovered it. Evangelical Christians have hardly touched the new ethical problems which have come with the new time,” and he set himself to build up the ethical structure as diligently as he had sought to lay the doctrinal foundations.
Horton Davies considers that the province in which Dale excelled was the ethical. “No nineteenth century divine can compare with him in the application of Christian ethical principles (originally conceived in an agrarian context) to the changed environment of a modern commercial and industrial society.”5 The best of his ethical sermons are to be found in the volume The Laws of Christ for Common Life. He deals with family life, the relation between employer and employee, the stewardship of wealth, the civic duties of the Christian, and other ethical themes, showing throughout sound judgment, practical common sense and Christian charity.
Dale gave particular attention to the educated people of Birmingham, for he believed that these people had been overlooked by the Christian churches. He urged his denomination to consider it their special task to reach the educated masses. He threw himself eagerly into the municipal and political life of his city.
Someone once sent him a devotional book with these words written in it: “There are no politics in heaven: that is where your life should be; sad, sad, that it is otherwise.”6 Toward the end of Dale’s life, he had grave misgivings about the wisdom of the course he had followed. He came to ask himself whether if he had attempted less for the state, he might not have done more for the church. The church, he feared, was living beyond its spiritual income; it was overdoing the energetic side of things at the cost of the soul He said to his friend, P. T. Forsyth, that if he had to begin again he would not be less evangelical in his methods but more.
Robertson Nicoll did not hesitate to call Dale’s style “one of the most perfect in the whole range of English literature.”7 His master was Edmund Burke, which helps to explain both the strength and the weakness of Dale’s preaching on its literary side. As Horton Davies points out: “No man made fewer concessions to his hearers. He appealed almost exclusively to intelligent and practical people: civic leaders, professional people, captains of industry and commerce, and educationalists made up the bulk of his congregation, to whom he poured out the well-digested contents of a thoughtful, comprehensive and well-stored mind.”8
Dale always took a full manuscript into the pulpit and defended this practice by saying, “I do not accept the superstition which implies that the spirit of God is with us in the pulpit and not in the study.”9 He once told Joseph Parker that he read his sermons to keep him from talking too much. “If I spoke extemporaneously I should never sit down. My command of words is such that as a young man I could preach standing on my head. To be condensed is my object in writing my sermons.”
He felt the dignity of the English language should never be lost in the pulpit manner. He preferred the simplicity and directness of pure English to “the purple patch.” He said to the students at Yale: “There is no reason when you have at your service the noblest language for an orator that was ever spoken by the human race you should be satisfied with the threadbare phrases, the tawdry tarnished finery, the patched and ragged garments with a smell like that of the stock of a second-hand clothes shop, with which half-educated declaimers are content to cover the nakedness of their thoughts.”10
A. M. Fairbairn said that Dale’s words “though written to be spoken are even more fitted to be read than to be heard, for his books are as firm in texture, as weighty in matter, as vigorous in expression as the concentrated thought of a strong man could make them.”11
His delivery of the sermons tended to monotony and lack of pathos; the intellectual predominated over the emotional. When thoroughly aroused on great occasions he could profoundly affect an audience. What he once said of John Bright was true of himself. “When you have listened to Bright you always feel more impressed with the force he kept in reserve than with what he actually used.” A member of his congregation at the close of a sermon that lasted an hour and had been preached amid a stillness almost painful — nothing heard except the ticking of the clock when the preacher paused — said: “If Dr. Dale intends to preach like that I shall not come to hear him, for I cannot stand it: it goes through me.”12
Often, however, Dale moved in a region beyond the common reach. One of the old members of Carr’s Lane, a poor woman of sixty-five, used to say, “Ah, me, I cannot understand his sermons but his prayers do me so much good that I always come.”13
In a review of one of Dale’s volumes of sermons, the writer complained that his illustrations were “provincial.” Dale remarked that the complaint was just. “Human life, as I know it, is the life of Birmingham manufacturers, merchants, and tradesmen and of Birmingham working people, who work in iron and brass and tin, who make pens and guns and jewelry, hardware, and beautiful things in silver and gold. When I think of human life I think of it in all the forms it assumes among the people with whom I have lived for more than thirty years. I think of the troubles and temptations which come to them in their trade and of their own keen interest in public affairs.”
An examination of Dale’s sermons show the truth of this statement. He usually illustrates his teaching from facts gathered from his own observation and experience. Sometimes he turns to account the common occurrences and facts of nature and daily life; sometimes his knowledge of human nature and sometimes reminiscences of his holiday travels.
Towards the end of his life Dale reviewed the spirit and method of his preaching. “My preaching has a fatal defect,” he wrote. “It is wanting in an element which is indispensable to real success. I have striven to press home upon men and to illustrate the central contents of the Christian Gospel, but I have not recognized practically the obligation to use in preaching all those secondary powers which contribute to create and sustain intellectual and emotional interest in preaching. The word which has been used most often to denote what my critics regard as the excellence of my preaching really suggested the qualities in which it has been defective: ‘stateliness.’ That is not the characteristic of effective preaching and it suggests a whole set of intellectual, ethical, and spiritual elements which account for failure. I think that in the sermons of the last two Sundays the stateliness has disappeared and there has been more of brotherly access to the people. In preparation I aimed at more freedom and in preaching God gave it to me.”14
In 1877-78, Dale delivered the Yale lectures on preaching — nine in number — skillfully and solidly written. Careful preparation, long familiarity with his theme and years of research distinguish these lectures. When they were published they were favorably received. They are self-revealing, for they tell us more about Dale than we can learn from any other of his writings. In his sermons the personal note is rarely heard, but in the lectures — speaking to young men on a subject that gave him a right to speak for himself and of himself — he tried to hit hardest at the evils which had lessened the power of his own ministry. He makes his own shortcomings serve him for warning and for rebuke. And, on the other hand, it is the methods that had served him best in the study and the pulpit that he describes and commends for imitation.
“Some men speak contemptuously of lectures on preaching,” he says. “For myself I have read scores of books of this kind, and I have never read one without finding in it some useful suggestion. I advise you to read every book on preaching that you can buy or borrow, whether it is old or new, Catholic or Protestant, English, French or German. Learn on what principles the great preachers of other churches as well as of your own, of other countries as well as of your own, of ancient as well as of modern times, have done their work. If your experience corresponds with mine, the dullest and most tedious writer on this subject will remind you of some fault that you are committing habitually, or of some element of power which you have failed to use.”15
Dale also recommended the study of the sermons of successful preachers, not with the hope of discovering suggestive thoughts but with a keen eye for the qualities which have given the great preachers their power over the people who listened to them.
At the very beginning of his lectures Dale strongly recommends careful mental preparation. To him a study was not a lounge or an office but a place “where men wrestled with the great thoughts of the past in many languages and especially in the oracles of God.” He warns ministers against idle habits and desultory reading and urges them to keep up the knowledge they have acquired in the seminary. To retain the results of reading he found it necessary to read with pen in hand and a notebook at his side. He tells how in preparing his lectures on the Atonement he was able to save himself much work by using notes he had made sixteen years before.
Dale advises the preacher to draw up a list at the beginning of the year of a dozen or more subjects on which it is desirable to preach, instead of leaving the choice of subjects to chance. His own preference was for subjects with a strong moral and religious interest. He was no believer in the maxim that “dullness is necessary to dignity,” but maintained that it is the preacher’s business to make his sermons so interesting that the people shall be able to think of nothing else during their delivery.
Dale has sound advice to offer on the subject of texts. To treat a text as a mere motto is unjustifiable. The text should not be chosen to display the preacher’s cleverness or ingenuity like the man who preached on Ezra’s nine and twenty knives. Dale suggests that the sermon was remarkable for what the preacher put into it rather than what he got out of it.
“For myself, I like to listen to a good preacher and I have no objection in the world to being amused by the tricks of a clever conjuror; but I prefer to keep the conjuring and the preaching separate; conjuring on Sunday morning, conjuring in church, conjuring with texts of Scripture, is not quite to my taste.”16
George Barber, a former assistant to Dale, recalls how he disliked “fancy sermons.”
“We had been speaking of various kinds of preaching, and I had suggested a certain text as a good one for a sermon. He was not a little amused, and replied: ‘Yes, it would make a good fancy sermon, but fancy sermons are useless things. No doubt they attract the people and please them, but they are not wholesome enough to do any lasting good’.”17
On the other hand, Dale recognized that there was considerable risk in choosing a text in which a truth is stated so sublimely that the text creates expectations which the sermon cannot fulfill. As a rule he felt it was wise to avoid texts that are very sublime, very striking, or very remarkable for their imaginative beauty.
In Dale’s opinion, the accumulation of materials should precede the making of the plan of the sermon. The answer to the question, “what is the sermon to do?” determines the method of preparation. He did not think it always necessary or advisable to announce the divisions of a sermon. The wise preacher will seek not only to suit his message to the needs of the people, but at the same time declare the whole counsel of God, using the Christian festivals to bring before the people the great facts underlying the faith.
Dale urged the value of expository preaching, because “exposition will do something to protect you from the desultoriness and want of method which is one of the gravest faults of modern preaching, and which is one of the chief causes that it conveys so little definite and systematic instruction. Our practice of preaching from texts has accustomed people to try what they can discover in single sentences, and even single phrases, of the Bible, and to disregard the general current and structure of the argument or history.”18
Dale is a writer we cannot afford to ignore. He is still a preacher from whose principles we can learn. In his day there was no abler interpreter of evangelical truth. His chief merit was a depth that was never narrow and a breadth that was never shallow. He was manysided, rich in his interests, clear and compact in thought.
1. A. W. W. Dale, Life of R. W. Dale, p. 324.
2. op. cit., p. 590.
3. op. cit., pp. 642-3.
4. op. cit., p. 143.
5. Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England from Newman to Martineau, p. 324.
6. Life of R. W. Dale, p. 399.
7. W. R. Nicoll, Princes of the Church, p. 79.
8. Horton Davies, op. cit., p. 331.
9. R. W. Dale, Nine Lectures on Preaching, p. 158.
10. op. cit., p. 171.
11. Life of R. W. Dale. p. 696.
12. op. cit., p. 641.
13. op. cit., p. 644.
14. Life of R. W. Dale, pp. 590-3.
15. Nine Lectures on Preaching, p. 93.
16. op. cit., p. 127.
17. Life of R. W. Dale, p. 642.
18. Nine Lectures on Preaching, p. 232.
Robert William Dale Interpreter of evangelical truth
R. W. Dale was born in London and attended with his parents Moorfields Tabernacle which had once echoed to the ringing voice of George Whitfield.