The seminary professor had recommended his young student, Thomas De Witt Talmage (1832-1902), as a candidate for the pulpit at the Reformed Church of Belville, New Jersey. When the occasion arrived he felt quite comfortable with his chosen text. The better of his two sermons (all he owned at this point!) was on Judges 7:20-21 and, as it described a battle scene between the Gideonites and the Midianites it would give him good scope for the descriptive powers and excellent vocabulary skills for which he was well-known.
But his discomfort grew as the service progressed and his time to speak drew closer. Then, when his sermon manuscript suddenly disappeared between the upright back and lower seat of the hard-stuffed horsehair pulpit sofa, he was almost ready to raise the white flag of surrender. Talmage later described his dilemma thus:
… But how could I recover it, and in so short a time? I bent over and reached under as far as I could. But the sofa was low, and I could not touch the lost discourse. The congregation was singing the last verse of the hymn and I was reduced to desperate effort. I got down on my hands and knees, and then down flat, and crawled under the sofa and clutched the prize. Fortunately, the pulpit front was wide and hid the sprawling attitude I was compelled to take, When I arose to preach a moment after, the fugitive manuscript before me on the Bible, it is easy to understand why I felt more like the Midianites than I did like Gideon. (Talmage, 1912: 20).
This “near-death” experience (as he described it) resulted in his being cured of preaching from a manuscript forever. He commented:
This and other mishaps with manuscripts helped me after a while to strike for entire emancipation from such bondage, and for about a quarter of a century I have preached without notes — only a sketch of the sermon pinned to my Bible, and that sketch seldom referred to. (Talmage, 1912:21)
A Carefully-Crafted Style
Talmage favored small and often unusual biblical texts upon which he could develop interesting subjects, often using the biblical material only as a launching pad for his thought rather than as a basis for exegetical discussion. His commitment to sermon preparation focused on form and style as much as it did on content. He walked five miles for his health every day except Friday and Saturday when he paced back and forth in his study dictating his ideas for Sunday in an abandonment of delivery to a secretary.
The secretary’s typed productions were then revised, and boiled down several times, and finally reduced to include many epigrammatic statements. Then, without committing the manuscript to actual word-for-word memorization, he would rehearse the sermon again and again, grasping both its thought movement and linguistic expression until he became so saturated with its form that a basic recall of most of its detail was not difficult.
He began most sermons at an emotional level with a vivid description of a biblical scene, historical event, or contemporary incident. He would use something patriotic, revive memories of home and family, or discuss the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln to initiate audience identification and response.
The secret of his impactive delivery lay first in the careful crafting of the original sermon, and second in the freedom which the mastery of this enabled him to focus on clear enunciation, and the many varieties of pitch, pace, projection, and emphasis that made every word vital and alive. Even where he used occasional word-for-word memorization of key phrases, his delivery was such that his manner seemed completely extemporaneous.
Talmage’s artistry with words appears in almost every sermon. When he spoke on The King’s Ferry-Boat which came from “the other shore” as recorded in 2 Sam. 19:18, he likened this to our crossing of the “river of death” and spoke of how folks try to travel from earth to heaven through the power of values gathered in life.
… They gather up their good works, and some sentimental theories, and they make a raft, shoving it from this shore and poor, deluded souls get on board that raft and they go down. The fact is that skepticism and infidelity never yet helped one man to die. I invite all the ship-carpenters of worldly philosophy to come and build one boat that can safely cross this river …. All together, in ten thousand years, they will never be able to make a boat that will cross this Jordan. Of all the unbelievers of all ages not one died well. Some of them sneaked out of life, some wept themselves away in darkness; some blasphemed and raved and tore their bed-covers to tatters. (Talmage. 1978: Vol. 7, 207-208).
He then told how a man tried to get over Niagara Falls but drowned in its rapids, and continued
… When a man puts out from the shore of this world on the river of death in a boat of his own construction, he has worse disaster than that — shipwreck, eternal shipwreck. Blessed be God, there is a boat coming from the other side! Transportation at last for our souls to the other shore; everything about this Gospel from the other shore; pardon from the other shore; pity from the other shore; ministry of angels from the other shore; power to work miracles from the other shore; Jesus Christ from the other shore. I see the ferryboat coming and it rolls with the surges of a Savior’s suffering; but as it strikes the earth the mountains rock, and the dead adjust their apparel so that they may be fit to come out …. Good Sarah Wesley got into that boat, and as she shoved off from the shore she cried, “Open the gates! Open the gates!” I bless God that as this boat came from the other shore to take David and his men across, so, when we are about to die, the boat will come from the same direction. God forbid that I should ever trust to anything that starts from this side. (Talmage, 1978: Vol. 7, 209).
Talmage’s seminary professors warned him to change his style or no church would ever call him. But his skills in vocabulary, in the coining of new words and phrases, and his many pungent eccentricities of language formed a picturesque style which made him virtually unique as a preacher. A natural artist with words, and a master of metaphor, he possessed the ability to conjure up a scene before the human imagination of his hearers. He could employ language which was at once sophisticated enough for the cultured and simple enough for the plain.
That ability to pictorialize truth through vivid description is demonstrated when he spoke of Christ as the centrality of the revelation of God’s love in the Bible saying,
It seems to me as if Jesus in the Bible were standing on a platform in a great amphitheater, as if the prophets were behind Him throwing light forward on His sacred person, and as if the apostles and evangelists stood before Him, like footlights throwing up their light into His blessed countenance, and then as if all earth and heaven were the applauding auditory. (Talmage, 1956: Vol.4, 140-1)
Broad Popularity
Despite his many duties Talmage remained accessible to his huge congregation and spent many hours in counseling them in his home. He captured the ears and hearts of multitudes weighed down by everyday problems and difficulties. He was able — through a spiritual optimism reinforced by biblical convictions — to lift the worn and weary close to Christ and help them feel they were within sight and sound of heaven.
If not America’s greatest preacher he certainly became one of our most popular ones. Enormous crowds packed services whenever he preached. Calvary Presbyterian is one of largest churches in San Francisco but when he arrived there to be a pulpit guest the crowds so packed around that police needed to clear a way for his entrance.
Barely had he begun to preach when those who could not gain admittance began to break the doors down and were only dissuaded upon his promise to speak in Union Square one block away after the service at 9 p.m. Seizing the circumstance to advantage he chose as his open-air subject There Is Plenty Of Room In Heaven based on John 14: 2. He graced the popular public lecture platform on an average of once every week for 45 years, and was considered the most applauded public attraction of his time, during the course of his career visiting virtually every significant city and town in the United States.
A Dramatized Delivery
During a fruitful ministry at the Second Reformed Church of Philadelphia he developed the ability to employ dramatic physical theatrics in his sermons, thus providing ample opportunity for his growing number of critics who felt such sensational methods were out of place in the Christian pulpit.
Many times Talmage’s sermons began with some descriptive narration of the historical events surrounding his text. With eyes closed he would pace the platform like a lion in his cage, sweeping his hearers onto the biblical landscape, and into the arena of its action with an ardor and fervency born from the most exhaustive research in preparation. He spoke from the Old Testament three times more than the New, lacing each sermon with evangelical passion, and often forged conversation among the biblical characters about whom he was speaking to bring home the truths he shared with extra power.
Talmage was a large man, who stood erect and projected a masterful manner. Possessed of a powerful voice and a warmth of manner, his persona impacted hearers with the feeling that his directness was a clean blow from his shoulder to every listening heart. He threw himself completely into every word of the sermon delivery with eagle eyes fastened hard on the audience wrestling for a hold on each individual in order to pin home his cherished convictions. He preached with every inch of his body, every facet of his mind, and every element of language and emotion he could muster for his purpose, vivid in adjective, keen in analysis, tender in appeal.
Occasionally he would deliver an unplanned sentence with unrestrained vigor. Tides of eloquent verbal inspiration often swept over him during delivery, leading to a climax of unforgettable application.
Home, and Early Ministries
Talmage lived 70 years and when born, in 1832, found himself to be the youngest child from a family of Dutch Reformed Church background. His father, although a hard-working farmer, always found time to gather his twelve children around the supper table every evening for a time of worship. In that family he learned the values of disciplined industry and personal faith.
Talmage initially trained for the law, believing that his natural ability for language and drama could best be applied within that profession. After obtaining his legal degree he entered New Brunswick Theological Seminary in 1853, responding to a sense of divine call to the ministry following similar decisions made by three of his brothers.
From his earliest years the young preacher-to-be was fascinated by the religious literature in his father’s library. Accordingly he browsed in commentaries and theological volumes far above his capacity to understand but gleaned some basic understandings of the biblical record. The birth of DeWitt’s personal faith came in the family home through the personal work of a visiting preacher. The evangelist simply shared the story of the lost sheep from Luke 15 with such tenderness that the young lad recognized the Savior’s love for him personally and responded to that love with a deep commitment to Christ and His church.
He pastored three Reformed churches (in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania), for 25 years then became a household name in his Brooklyn pastorate before entering a world wide ministry, then settled at the First Presbyterian Church of Washington, D.C., from 1895 to 1899.
Ministry in Brooklyn
After his initial successes, three of America’s most prominent congregations invited him to pastor them in 1869 — Calvary Church of Chicago, Union Church of Boston, and the First Presbyterian Church of San Francisco. Never one to build on another’s foundation, he responded instead to an approach from the Central Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, New York, which offered an empty church while only enlisting seventeen communicant members!
There he found himself in constant challenge with the degenerating New York society in which he ministered as the alcohol manufacturers controlled city policies. Despite his indictments the state’s best-known gambler candidated for the Senate with the full support of high government officials. He saw the completion of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, erection of the Statue of Liberty, and supported movements for the equal education of women and their unlimited acceptance in society.
Within fifteen months his seventeen members quickly grew to a church crowded out under his whirlwind preaching, whereupon he abolished pew rents and resigned his endowed salary, trusting the free-will offerings of the people. He led them to erect a Tabernacle seating 3,500 in 1870 which was immediately enlarged in 1871. There his work was supported by intensive intercessory prayer and his unashamed evangelical theology and evangelistic program. When this church burned he moved temporarily to the Academy of Music, erecting a second Tabernacle in 1874 which housed 5,000 worshipers.
When fire destroyed that church he built one having the largest seating capacity in America officially housing 6,000 but where 7,000 often gathered — packing out the aisles and spilling onto the platform to hear him.
Publicizing a Social Conscience
For years Brooklyn preachers protested the social wickedness of their area but Talmage decided to take some direct action concerning this blight on his city.
Feeling called upon to explore underground New York City life, that I might report the evils to be combatted, I took with me two elders of my church and a New York City Police Commissioner and a policeman, and I explored and reported the horrors that needed removal, and the allurements that endangered our young men. There came upon me an outburst of indignation that fright ened almost everybody but myself. That exploration put into my church thirty or forty newspaper correspondents, from north, south, east, and west; which opened for me new avenues in which to preach the Gospel that otherwise would never have been opened. I preached a series of sermons on amusements, and a false report of what I did say roused a violence that threatened me with poison, dirk, and pistol and other forms of extinguishment, until the chief of the Brooklyn police, without any suggestion from me, took possession of the church with twenty-four policemen, to see that no harm was done. (Banks, 1902: 67-68).
His unconventional methods and alleged falsehoods brought him before the Presbytery on charges of malice and inaccuracy but he was able to prove his critics wrong and gain a complete exoneration. He wrote of unexpected results from criticisms of his ministry saying:
Their accusations were published in every newspaper in the country … the New York correspondents of the leading papers in the chief cities of the United States came to my church on Sundays expecting I would make counter attacks which would make good news… The correspondents were after news, and failing to get the sensational charges, they took down the sermons and sent them to their papers. Thus my audiences were increased ten-thousand fold and the Gospel was proclaimed to countless numbers who never darkened church doors. The sermons seemed to please the readers, and the weekly press has continued the practice of publishing them until the present, while thousands of others have made them a regular feature, until it is now estimated that they appear weekly in thousands of periodicals through our America, Europe, and Asia, and that the number of weekly readers is about 20,000,000. (Banks, 1902: 70).
At the service which celebrated his 25 years of pastoral service in the Brooklyn congregation he surprised them all by resigning in order to fulfill a wider ministry. He then was himself surprised when fire broke out in the organ loft at the conclusion of the service and, as before, an enormous conflagration burned the mighty Tabernacle to the ground — the third so to be destroyed. Although no longer pastor his popularity continued. A newspaper report of his return in November 1900 to be a guest preacher for his former congregation says it all:
Women fainted, children were half-crushed, gowns were torn and strong men grew red in the face as they buffeted the crowds that gathered to greet Rev. T. De Witt Talmage at the Central Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn. (Talmage, 1902:397).
A World-Wide Ministry
While he was at Brooklyn (and even afterward until he died in 1902), 3,500 daily newspapers continued to spread his sermons across the entire world reaching an estimated 30,000,000 readers and being translated into most European and even some Asian languages. In Great Britain one magazine carried his weekly sermon alongside C. H. Spurgeon’s regular messages.
Talmage toured Britain under sponsorship of a lecture bureau and found folks complaining of the high admission ticket prices over which he had no control as his contract called for a specific fee and he had no part in such income. In 1879 he arranged to revisit every place at his own expense where he had been and preach without price in all the places he had previously visited as a lecturer. He took up collections in some meetings to benefit the YMCA.
In London he preached to huge crowds gathered in the Albert Hall and in the open air in Hyde Park. In London he went to hear C. H. Spurgeon and, determined to be gracious when introduced he said, “Mr. Spurgeon — I read your sermons.” Spurgeon, more than equal to the compliment, replied, “Dr. Talmage, everybody reads yours”!
In later years Talmage served as editor of the Christian Herald and several other magazines. He published a 20 volume set of 500 sermon as well as some individual volumes. His popular itinerant lectures delivered across the U.S. and around the world were printed in many volumes such as Everyday Religion, Crumbs Swept Up, and From the Manger to the Throne.
As a grey-haired veteran at 62 he spent two months in Australia preaching every night for up to two hours and to ministers each Monday morning. A sermon in Melbourne was on God’s Sunshine.” Presbyterian businessman, High Victor McKay was so moved by his ideas that he called the wheat processing machine he had just invented The Sunshine Harvester. He erected a new residence in the street he named Talmage Street and named the outlying area where he built his factory, “Sunshine” — a Melbourne suburb which continues by that name to this day. McKay’s “Sunshine” harvester transformed an entire nation’s primary industry and lifted him to such affluence that he developed into one of Australia’s foremost philanthropists.
Model Sermons
Present-day preachers can profit from the reading of Talmage’s sermons. While not all of his flowery language and elocutionary craft will easily be received by contemporary congregations, no pulpiteer can read those sermons without being impressed by the facility of well-chosen language to communicate truth. In today’s demanding contexts congregations require clear, succinct communication. However, sanctified, authentic, and controlled oratory will never lose its value.
Some preachers will always be loquacious rather than eloquent. The “Gift of the Gab” can never effectively substitute for genuine enthusiastic emotion. Today we are afraid of the facile use of affluent verbiage as language can be so easily abused. But Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous I have a dream speech was carefully prepared and emotionally delivered using the same language arts that Talmage employed. It has now gone down in contemporary history as one of our most powerful and effective moments of communication. So also from preachers such as Talmage we learn that God’s Word can be communicated in many ways, and that a disciplined and responsible rhetoric will always have its place in public speech.
Oratory in the pulpit can be empty and profitless where it is viewed as only an end in itself. But where the preacher possesses a true and radiant faith, and is motivated by a genuine concern to energize hearers through the power of words, such an authentic declamatory and emotional power can be a worthy instrument for good when surrendered to the direction of the Spirit of God.
1. Key reference volumes as quoted above are: Talmage, T. De Witt, T. De Witt Talmage As I Knew Him (autobiography) (London, Eng.: John Murray, 1912); Banks, Louis Albert, T. De Witt Talmage, His Life and Work (Phil.,PA: Winston, 1902); Talmage, T. De Witt, 500 Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1956, 1978, 20 volumes)

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