As a typical college freshman, much of what the professors taught in class missed me, I’m afraid. But something history professor Mae Parrish said at Georgia’s Berry College in the winter of 1958-59 caught my attention and has stayed with me all these years. My assessment is that this outstanding teacher was not a believer in the conventional sense, but one day she gave the class her endorsement of the college chaplain.
“Preachers are notorious,” she said, “for getting their history wrong. But I’ve never caught Dr. Gresham in a single error. He gets it right every time.”
I thought of that the other day when I heard a well-known pastor deliver a sermon at a denominational event in which he completely mangled a quote from Winston Churchill.
“I’m a great admirer of Churchill,” he began, but you’d never have known it by what he did. Making a point about faithfulness to duty, he told of something Churchill said at a time during the Second World War when Britain’s coal miners threatened to strike, a disastrous move that could cripple England’s war effort, weaken the economy, and leave millions of Britons in the cold. Churchill met with the miners and delivered one of his impassioned speeches that drove them out of the meeting and back into the pits to dig the coal.
According to the speaker, Churchill told the coal miners – and I’m going from memory here – “One of these days, we will all stand before the Lord Jesus Christ at the final judgment. He will turn to the fighter pilots and ask, ‘What did you do?’ and they will say, ‘We gave our all in the defense of liberty.’ He will say to the soldiers, ‘What did you do?’ and they will answer, ‘We faced the enemy and risked everything for our nation.’
The speaker went on in that vein for a bit. Then, quoting Churchill, he said, “Then the coal miners will come before the King of Kings, and He will ask, ‘What did you do?’ and they will say, ‘We cut the coal.'”
The minister went on with his sermon, but I was stuck. Something about his version of that story was not right. I have a shelf of Churchill books at home, some by him and most about him, and, while I was familiar with that story, I was fairly certain Churchill had not spoken of anyone standing before the Lord Jesus at judgment. As soon as I returned home from the meeting, I looked up the incident in a book of Churchill’s speeches.
The date was October 31, 1942. Winston Churchill was addressing a conference of coal-mine operators and miners in Westminster’s Central Hall. It was a short speech and can be read in five minutes. As Churchill speeches go, this one was rather routine, no brilliant oratorical flourishes, nothing really memorable until the final paragraph.
“We shall not fail, and then some day, when children ask, ‘What did you do to win this inheritance for us, and to make our name so respected among men?’ one will say: ‘I was a fighter pilot’; another will say: ‘I was in the Submarine Service’; another: ‘I marched with the Eighth Army’; a fourth will say: ‘None of you could have lived without the convoys and the Merchant Seamen’; and you in your turn will say, with equal pride and with equal right: ‘We cut the coal.’” At least the preacher got the last line correct.
Now, I’ve been pastoring churches since 1962, and I think I know what happened here. Some preacher – more than likely, not our speaker but some distant preacher down the line – had decided to improve on Churchill’s speech. Not to sit in judgment on the Twentieth Century’s greatest orator, but the speech seems to need something there at the end. When we were ready for it to soar, it just lays there. In fact, I seem to recall hearing a man of God tell this story and the final line being something like: “We were down in the pits with our faces to the wall, cutting the coal.”
My father and his brothers, and their father and uncles before them, were all coal miners, which perhaps explains my attraction to this little story. (None of the Churchill biographies I own even mention the incident.) Churchill’s point – that the miners were as essential to the war effort as the fighter pilots and seamen – was well made. In fact, at the D-Day Museum here in New Orleans, where people have paid two hundred dollars to honor their World War II veterans with a memorial brick, I purchased one for my father. It reads:
CARL J. MCKEEVER
DUG THE COAL THAT
POWERED THE SHIPS
We preachers need occasional reminders that often someone who knows far more than we about our stories and illustrations will be sitting in the congregation. I can recall giving illustrations from aeronautics (“trust your instruments, no matter what your vertigo is telling you”) while Air Force pilots sat in the congregation. I have referred to architecture (“build the house any way you want so long as the foundation is solid”) with experts in that field sitting before me. I have told of medical experiments (“In the mid-1800s, Ignaz Semmelweiss was driven to insanity by his staff of doctors who refused to follow his instructions and wash their hands after each examination, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of new mothers”) with physicians scattered throughout the church.
If I expect to be heard and respected by these experts in their own field, in order to win a hearing for the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, I had better know what I’m talking about and get it right. If they catch me in an error in something they know well, they will be less likely to believe I know what I’m talking about in mine.
When in doubt about the story I’m about to use, I should either go back to my source and verify it, check with an expert about it, or at the very least, attribute the entire thing to my source and leave him or her to vouch for its authenticity and accuracy.
After arriving home from the denominational meeting and looking up the Churchill reference, I debated with myself about contacting the erring preacher and telling him what the British prime minister had actually said. Surely he would want to know so he could get it right the next time.
Unable to decide, I appealed to a higher authority. I asked my wife. She said, “How old is that preacher?” About my age. “Old enough to know better, isn’t he?” Absolutely. “And plenty smart enough to look it up if he wants to know what Churchill actually said.” Right. “I suggest you drop it.”
I did, except for writing this article. I tell myself that the minister who did not care enough to get his story straight will not be reading a preaching journal, so my concern is not with his reading this and taking offense. Rather, what I hope to do is connect with the next generation of preachers with a lifetime of declaring the gospel and illustrating with anecdotes and historical references in front of them. I want to encourage them to get it right.
Integrity in preaching demands that the Lord’s servant handle His message carefully, as Paul commanded, “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Our entire message should be the truth, not just the biblical portion.
Something our Lord said to Nicodemus throws light on this matter. “If you do not believe when I speak of earthly things, how will you believe when I speak of heavenly?” (John 3:12)
Joe McKeever is Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.