William Malcolm Macgregor was born at Glasgow in 1861, and served churches at Troon, Renfield, Glasgow, and St. Andrew’s, Edinburgh. He was appointed Professor of the New Testament in Trinity College, Glasgow in 1919, and became Principal of the College in 1928, a position which he held until his retirement in 1938. Macgregor died at Edinburgh in 1944.
As the name suggests, William Malcolm Macgregor came of Highland stock. His stately figure, erect and unbowed to the very end, had a distinction and a majesty about it that made others in his presence look very ordinary. By nature he was not fiery and passionate, as the typical Gael is said to be, but calm and cool.
His father and brother, two uncles, two cousins, and a cousin’s son were all ministers, so that he can be said to have sprung from a levitical house. While he was a scholar and a tireless reader, original and adventurous in thought, he had no hobbies. He never played any game nor was interested in any sport. He was content with the Gospel and his pulpit, his congregation and the many calls and interests of the wider Church to which he gave himself unstintingly. To him these things were life.
Macgregor was a master in the art of preaching — a searching and difficult art, demanding of a man his best and betraying incontrovertibly anything loose or unreal in the artist’s expression of himself.
He was a master of language. He had an unerring instinct for the perfect word. There was always present in his speech a certain gravity, a certain warmth and urgency which cast a spell on his hearers. Every word had weight, but it also had edge.
George Jackson gives an example of his gift of neat and incisive speech. Macgregor was present one Sunday morning at the church of a popular minister whose reputation, he thought, was too much ahead of his real merit. Coming out of the church someone remarked to him, “That was a very fine children’s address we had this morning, Doctor.” “Two fine children’s addresses,” was his acid comment.
He had none of the gifts that make a man catch the ear of the multitude. The church in Edinburgh — of which he was minister for twenty years — was never crowded. He made little attempt to commend his message to the heedless crowd. It was a very select company of worshippers who were attracted by his preaching.
Marcus Dods wrote to a friend, “Macgregor is preaching magnificently but the church is far from full. What a public.” He wrote to Sir William Robertson Nicoll to say that all Macgregor’s sermons would go into print as they were delivered. And when the first volume was published, he wrote to Alexander Whyte, “Aren’t Macgregor’s published sermons extraordinary?”1
When Henry Sloane Coffin was a student at New College, Edinburgh, Macgregor had just begun his ministry at St. Andrews, and this is the account he gives of the preacher: “He had a striking appearance in the pulpit with a profile which suggested the bust of Dante. From voice and speech and style, it was clear that he was an intellectual aristocrat, with broad culture, a multifarious reading from which he drew apt quotations to drive home his points.
“He seemed austere, scrupulously exact in thought and language, and he spoke with an unforgettable voice, measured, unhurried and with a plaintive note in it, wistful and haunting as the cry of a curlew from his native Highlands.
“When he preached, his language was so painstakingly chosen that listeners were on the alert for every word and every word counted in the accurate expression of his thought. He seemed to have put his sentences through a wringer before he set them down or perhaps after he had written, to squeeze out every otiose word. His was a lean style and it made exciting listening.”2
In 1907, Macgregor’s first book of sermons was published in T. & T. Clark’s famous Scholar as Preacher series, with the title, “Jesus Christ the Son of God.” The secret of his abiding power lies in the main in that title. In all his preaching, Macgregor struck straight for the center and stayed there. His was, definitely and distinctively, Christian preaching. John A. Hutton, himself a great preacher who became editor of The British Weekly, in reviewing a later book of Macgregor’s sermons, Christ and the Church, said: “They are all great subjects: the deep things are not evaded. They are welcomed and dealt with with a humble integrity of mind. This book now reposes in my library on the same shelf as Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons, every volume of Dean Church’s sermons, the University Sermons of J. B. Mozley and the sermons of Phillips Brooks. These are the volumes which provide for my spirit, in its oscillations and agitations, the ministry of the still small voice.”
Macgregor was a preacher’s preacher. He gave his best to the small Sunday evening congregation, feeling that while the larger company who came in the morning came largely from habit, the evening handful were seeking God and must be helped and encouraged.
A. J. Gossip tells how once, coming away from a service conducted by Macgregor, he met a brother minister who said: “In that one hour I have received an uplift, in the strength of which my own soul will go many days and in addition, three whole sermons that rushed in on me as I worshipped, offered me as a gift.” That was characteristic, Gossip comments.
“What was said was deep and memorable and arresting. But always that kept opening new vistas, down which one’s mind caught glimpses of added truths that crowded in on one. This preacher was like a diviner, in whose subtle hands the hazel wand twisted and turned and pointed. And parched souls had but to drive their spades into the hot, dry sand and there was living water in abundance.”3
When Macgregor’s sermons were published, they made a wide and immediate appeal. They exercised a profound and permanent influence on numbers of his fellow-ministers, giving them a new idea of what preaching means.
In literary grace, in easy mastery in the handling of Scripture — the mastery which comes only through long and loving discipleship — in the union of law and Gospel, searching ethic suffused with evangelical zeal, his sermons are unique. His style is simple and direct, as preaching ought always to be.
The sermons are literature, pieces of finished English literature. Every phrase in them has a bite and cutting edge. All the words are so used as to seem clean and new and freshly minted.
His sermons are lit up by frequent quotations, the freshness and felicity of which are quite extraordinary. He was not only a man of wide and varied reading, but he had learned what so many well-read preachers fail to learn: how to cut channels between his reading and his pulpit through which the freshening, fertilizing stream may flow. Yet he is never a pedant; the literary wealth never obtrudes itself.
There are those who decry quotations in sermons on the ground that they distract the hearer’s mind from the main object. It all depends on how skillfully the quotations are made. Macgregor was a master in the art. His quotations are never long, a sentence or two. He states his case and, with the perfect quotation, drives the nail home, buried forever in the wood.
Not less striking is Macgregor’s knowledge and use of Scripture. Here again the mere apparatus of the scholar is kept well out of sight; the fruit is well stoned so that plain folk do not jar their teeth; yet every Bible student can discern the patient labor that lies behind these lucid sermons. Particularly helpful is the way in which old worn texts are reminted by a new and less familiar rendering.
His custom was to preach from notes but looking directly at his congregation. Towards the end he tried dispensing with paper altogether and asked A. J. Gossip how he liked it. The reply was that he had always read so freely that it made little difference.
Macgregor was a shy man, with a deeply affectionate nature breaking through a natural reserve. He had an unusual personal interest in his fellowmen. He was never known to forget a face or a name.
One of his successors at Troon, his first parish, tells how when Macgregor came back, after long years of absence, as they moved through the streets, the visitor recognized every one afar off and recalled everything about them with startling accuracy, remembering each by name. Yet when they came up to these people whom he knew so intimately he had often little to say to them. In the Session afterwards it was said regretfully, “He has forgotten all about us,” until the minister told them the facts.4
This interest in individuals contributed greatly to his preaching power. The depth and width of his sympathy and the fierceness of his own spiritual struggle gave him an understanding of other men’s religious problems. When he was asked why he was leaving the pulpit for a professor’s chair, he replied that he had learned some things from A. B. Bruce which he would like to hand on.
His teaching and his personality were an inspiration to many students. After his retirement when he came back to the College to deliver the Warrack Lectures, the room was crowded with former students eager to hear again the familiar voice. The attendances, large at the first, steadily grew throughout the week until they were really remarkable. Macgregor had lost none of his penetrating insight, his pungency of phrase, or his unique power of appeal.
These lectures, The Making of a Preacher, are the fruit of his long and varied experience, the crown of his life-work. The first lecture presents an ideal of ministry based on the ministry of Christ as priest as exhibited in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which should be the ideal and pattern of the ministry today. Such a priest must be a man with men, he must have active sympathy with human infirmities, he must be free from anything of the official, and he must be at home with God.
The next two lectures deal with the making of a preacher through knowledge of God and of man. Then follows a lecture on the enriching of a preacher through reading, and the final lecture deals with the theme and quality of the preaching which should ensue. Here Macgregor states certain notes that should be sounded in Christian preaching: authority, expectation, centrality of theme, and definiteness.
At the celebration of his ministerial jubilee, Macgregor said that looking back he could mark his ministry by three main stages. The first in its influence on his whole life was the coming of Moody in the early seventies of the nineteenth century, when there was a surging deep emotion through the land. The next stage was his entering what was then the Free Church College, Glasgow. The third stage was his going into the ministry. There he learned more than any teachers could have taught him. The younger men, he said, had to learn that a village was an infinitely more interesting place to work in than a town. A city was a dull place with uniform people who had their edges and corners rubbed off.
In this same speech he recalled that during his Glasgow ministry he taught his friend, James Moffatt, the Greek Testament. The last thing he wrote was an appreciation of Moffatt for the Expository Times; he had gone with it to the post when he was seized with illness. After three days in bed, almost no suffering, he died peacefully in his sleep.
In an address to divinity students he says that the race of popular preachers to which they would like to belong may be roughly divided into two groups: Sophists and Prophets. The Sophist was the popular moralist, the hero of halls and marketplaces where people gathered. “For the successful discharge of his task he mastered all the arts of rhetoric, and was able effectively to use the burst of passion, the skillful pause, the muffled sob.”
The Sophist was ready to discourse on anything and if he was a master in the trade he was everywhere welcomed by crowds. Carlyle said of a noted London preacher that “if he had anything to say, he would know how to say it.” But in the Sophist the professional skills were developed at the expense of the subject and the crowds went away thinking of his brilliance, his exquisite phrasing, his fine voice, instead of reflecting on the greatness of the truth he proclaimed.
By contrast, the Prophet was absorbed in his theme. His message was given to him by God but it had to pass into him and become a part of his being before it could rightly be uttered. Macgregor goes on to ask: how can the message which has thus come to a man be effectively passed on?
A sermon is a communication. The first requirement for effective translation of the Gospel committed to the preacher is that he should understand the subject from within and deliver it in such a way that those who hear him would desire to know for themselves what he had discovered. The second requirement is an understanding of the people he addresses, a sense of their needs and limitations and of the divine spark which is somewhere in them all.5
In the preface to a book he wrote on the Christian ministry and the call to it, entitled For Christ and the Kingdom, Macgregor says: “The simple and less glittering any sermon is, the better it is for its purpose, which should be to make God visible. Mark Twain paid an inimitable compliment to a charming scrap of biography by an old Scots lady; ‘It is an exquisite book, the perfection of literary workmanship. It says in every line: “Don’t look at me, look at him”; and one tries to be good and obey’.” No words could better describe preaching as it ought to be, and they are a perfect description of Macgregor’s own preaching.
1. George Jackson, Reasonable Religion, p. 230.
2. H. S. Coffin, Communion Through Preaching, p. 115.
3. W. H. Macgregor, The Making of a Preacher, p. 10.
4. Op. cit., p. 18.
5. W. M Macgregor, Persons and Ideals, p. 49ff.

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