W. E. Sangster was born in 1900 into a humble home in Shoreditch, London, the son of Anglican parents. In a fragment of autobiography he wrote: “I believe that I was born to be a minister. I cannot recall a time in my life when I was without a sense of holy vocation. It did not derive from any conviction in the mind of my parents, who had never so much as entertained the thought. But I felt the pressure of a directing hand upon me from my tenderest years.
“In my teens, seeking what I came to regard as a deeper and more personal experience of God I drifted from the church of my baptism and early training and associated with the people called Methodist, and when the time came for me to join the army on my eighteenth birthday I was already a local preacher.
“Army life tested me and deepened me. The strange Man upon the Cross haunted and held me all the time. I came out of the army convinced that His was the only way and I offered myself for the Methodist ministry. I had four years training in college and was put on sound lines of scholarship.”
He ministered in Bognor, Colwyn Bay, Liverpool and Scarborough, attracting large congregations in each place. In 1936 he was called to succeed Leslie Weatherhead at Brunswick Church, Leeds. It is a sufficient tribute to his power as a preacher that he should have been selected as the successor of the most popular preacher in the Methodist Church.
His longest and most memorable ministry was at the Central Hall, Westminster, where he succeeded the veteran Dinsdale T. Young. He remained there until 1955, when he was appointed as head of the Home Mission Department of the Methodist Church. He died on May 24, 1960, after two years of suffering — with extraordinary courage — from progressive muscular atrophy.
Before he began his ministry in London he wrote an article for The Christian Herald expressing his ideals of ministry. “I shall aim to maintain an expression of the Christian religion which shall be (1) intellectually honest and satisfying, (2) a witness emotionally warm, (3) a witness dignified and worthy in Church services, (4) a witness earnestly evangelical in method, (5) a witness social and international in its redemptive consequences.”
During the War, when the bombing began, he threw open the vast basement of the Hall to the homeless and for five years he and his family made their home there and ministered to those who came there nightly for shelter.
Sangster had the largest Sunday evening congregation in London, filling the 2,500 seats in the Hall. His style and emphasis were all his own.
He represented the traditional evangelical intensity of a Methodist but with the distinctive coloring of a man who had a vivid personal experience of religion and was gifted with a singular power of persuasive and picturesque speech. In his sermons you find the short staccato sentence, the pointed exclamation, the direct thrust of personal application, the mastery of illustration, especially those drawn from his own acute powers of observation and his understanding of human beings.
His style, both spoken and written, was always lively and vigorous. He could not be dull. The pulpit was his throne. His sermons were such that you could never forget them, clear in outline, easy to carry away and with striking illustrations from life as well as from a wide range of reading.
He regarded preaching as the sacrament of the Word. He said: “The man who jealously guards his morning hours for deep study which centers on God’s Word; who lets it be known that, while he is available at any hour of day or night for the dying and other needs which brook no delay, he expects to be left undisturbed in his pulpit preparation until lunch-time; who uses these fenced hours, first for praying, then for brooding on the Bible and for the flinty kind of thinking which will enable him to go to his pulpit on Sunday and feed his people from the Word of God — that man will not lack his reward.”
When he was too ill to speak, he was urged to write his autobiography. This he refused to do but when he was told that someone would inevitably write the story of his life he sent for his son Paul and wrote on a pad these words: “I deeply doubt the value of it but if it must be done, you must do it.” He indicated chapter headings and instructed Paul to give his readers “the whole truth — warts and all.” This he did magnificently. As an avid reader of clerical biography I consider this book the finest of its kind I have ever read.
I had the privilege of knowing Sangster as a friend and, as his son remarks, when you were his friend you were a friend forever, though he had many. On two occasions I had the joy of supplying his pulpit at Westminster. I never missed an opportunity of hearing him preach and lecture and I have read everything he wrote to my great spiritual profit.
We shall not look upon his like again. He was unique. He was a dynamically-positive Puritan, as Paul says, with a deep pastoral concern.
He published three invaluable books on preaching. The Craft of the Sermon, dealing with sermon construction and the art of illustration, is a first-rate book. The Approach to Preaching consists of lectures he gave to ministerial students in 1950 when he was President of the Methodist Conference. Power for Preaching is the third.
His first book consisted of sermons preached in Liverpool in his early days: Why Jesus Never Wrote a Book. Other books are He is Able, God Does Guide Us and These Things Abide, obviously sermonic material.
Weatherhead said of He is Able: “No chapter finishes by making you say, ‘What a clever writer Sangster is.’ They all make you say, ‘What a wonderful Savior Jesus is.”
After his death two volumes of his Westminster sermons were published, Can I Know God? and Sangster’s Special Day Sermons. The first illustrates his versatility and variety, the second shows him at his doctrinal best. There are no prolonged introductions or concluding perorations.
This clear instructor always employs a memorable structure for his sermons, with terse subheadings. In a sermon on “Christ as the Master of Time” the divisions are: (1) the past is not dead; (2) the future is not ours; (3) now is the acceptable time. A sermon entitled “Four Judgments of Jesus” is based on evaluations of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, arranged in ascending order of importance. Jesus was said to be devil-possessed, a good man, the Christ, culminating in Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and My God.”
A memorable sermon which I heard Sangster preach had two texts: Genesis 28:20 (Jacob making conditions with God) and Daniel 3:17 (“But if not”). His three divisions were: (1) Never make conditions with God. He makes conditions with us; (2) God retains the right to say No; (3) We are going to be unshaken in discipleship, whatever happens.
This is how the sermon ended: “I was asked to go to the Eye Hospital in Liverpool and tell a girl that within three months she would go blind. I went at once and talked with her on trivial matters, not knowing how to broach the subject. She suspected it and said, “I think God’s going to take my sight.”
“I replied: ‘I wouldn’t let Him. Will you see if you can offer this prayer, not now but in three month’s time? ‘Father, if for any reason known to you I must lose my sight, I will not have it taken from me. I will give it to you.’
“It was a stormy three months. I visited her often and she kept saying, ‘I can’t pray that prayer. I can’t live without a little light.’ But at last she got it said. And now ask any one who knows the Sisterhoods on Merseyside if they know Jessie Johnson. She comes with her dog and speaks to the women out of her rich experience. God has told her things He has only whispered to me. Out of the darkness she speaks.”
Let me conclude this study of Sangster with the three points of an ordination charge I heard him give: (1) Be glad that God has called you to a hard life. (2) Never be content to know about God. Know God yourself in the intimacy of prayer and by quarrying in the book of God. (3) Want nothing for yourself but holiness.
I commend to you this great preacher of a universal Gospel, of Christian spirituality and deep human compassion, who in his final illness trod the most difficult steps on the path to perfection. Read his sermons, study his books on preaching, and above all, read Dr. Sangster by his son Paul, and you will agree with his friend Weatherhead’s verdict: “He was one of the bravest saints I have ever known.”

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