Among the pulpit voices that continue to speak across the years is that of G. Campbell Morgan. His sermons are still widely read, and are likely to be so for years to come.
Still known as “the Prince of Biblical Expositors,” it is not uncommon to hear his expositions of the Bible widely quoted by clergy and church school teachers. But a strange irony remains. An important factor in the success of his pulpit ministry has been overlooked.
As the custodian of the original manuscripts of my grandfather, I have read many of his 1,639 sermons, concentrating on those preached in his first pastorate at Westminster Chapel, London (1904-1917). It was here that Morgan’s ministry transformed this “white elephant of Congregationalism” into a dynamic church, with a worldwide mission.
What has struck me is how these sermons reflect a pastoral note. My brief encounters with my grandfather, the traditions of our family which surrounded his life, all created an image of the preacher-teacher. But many of his sermons reflect the concerns of the pastor. They resonate with his hearers, speaking to personal needs, and touching vital nerves.
Recently Conrad Massa has claimed that we have never developed a holistic kind of preaching. We have concentrated on the form and content of the sermon, rather than focusing on all the elements that are present. For Massa, the preacher, the congregation, the sermon, and the particular context of time, place, and circumstance are crucial, and preaching must include all of these components.
He calls for confluent preaching — “… where the rushing streams of the culture, the individual lives of the congregation, the faith experience of the preacher, and the reality of Jesus Christ meet at that junction which is the preaching event.”1
Niedenthal and Rice underscore the need for holistic preaching. “Anyone who has experienced preaching, whether in pulpit or pew, knows that it is an event — a moment, a meeting, a sudden seeing, in which the preacher, listener, the message and the impinging social environment all come together.”2
Often preaching has fallen into the trap of polarizing biblical exposition and pastoral concerns. Harry Emerson Fosdick warned against a sterile kind of expository preaching which was unrelated to life. Few people then or now are really interested in what happened to the Jebusites!
But preaching that is preoccupied with “people problems” leads to an unhealthy concern with posting biblical solutions to human problems. The Bible can be likened to the way a drunk uses a lamppost — for support. William H. Willimon has said,
Preachers who begin with people’s needs rarely offer more than people’s solutions to people’s problems, and there is nothing specifically Christian, or divine or ultimately significant about that.3
In Campbell Morgan’s pulpit ministry at the Chapel in London, all the elements of holistic preaching are present: the everliving Word, the faith experience of the preacher, the congregational needs, and the pastoral moment. Although Morgan chose texts for other reasons, such as doctrinal sermons or homilies on biblical themes, it was those situations which were pastoral that produced holistic preaching.
He alluded to this kind of preaching in some lectures given to the students at Biblical Seminary in New York in 1925.
“In the course of your ministry, especially your pastoral work … you will sometimes have to preach on some distinctive subject — some bereavement, some perplexity, some special need, something in your church life, something in the city you ought to speak about, something in front of the people listening to you … We are to know these things, and to bring the Word of God to bear upon them.”4
With all of his skills as a biblical expositor, Morgan’s innate sense of the pastoral needs of his congregation, and his unique ability to speak to these concerns has often been overlooked. Many of his sermons grew out of shared concerns between pastor and people.
The glory of his preaching was that his years of meditating on the Word enabled him to know the Word for that moment. Indeed, his preaching illustrated the word of the ancient proverb, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
Three sermons preached during his first pastorate at Westminster Chapel will illustrate this model of holistic preaching.
The Wreck of the Titanic
On April 14, 1912, the supposedly unsinkable Titanic went down to a watery grave. In that time it was an event of equal proportion to the tragic, fiery end of the American space shuttle, Challenger.
When Campbell Morgan faced the Chapel congregation on that first Lord’s Day after the disaster, the pastoral moment was all too real. All the elements of grief were present: shock, disbelief, anger, depression, guilt. It was indeed “a catastrophe that plunged the world into a sense of awe and horror.”
Morgan saw it as a time “when all human enterprise is for the moment halted and humbled. The last and finest product of man’s skill in his conflict with the sea is driven against a mass of ice, and there, in two miles of water, lies the Titanic, crumbled like tissue paper.”
Morgan’s text that day was from Luke 13:1-5, regarding Jesus’ words about the people who had died in Pilate’s blood bath, and in the Tower of Siloam accident. To the words of the text he added, “Of those engulfed in the destruction of the Titanic, suppose ye that these were the greatest sinners on the waters? I tell you, Nay; But except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
Morgan made it clear that the sinking of the Titanic was not an act of God, nor could it be attributed to the will of God. “Man in his magnificent conflict with, and determination to master, the forces of nature … has been checked, not by God in judgment, but because he has not discovered all the laws of nature.”5
He dealt tenderly with the issue of “corrupt men” who had been lost at sea. He believed “it was inconceivable that in those hours these men did not come face to face with eternity, did not realize the grandeur of their essential spirit life, become awakened to a consciousness of sin and cast themselves on the mercy of God.”6
No doubt this tragedy would have been a great moment for the “hellfire preachers,” with their ominous words and dire warnings. But Morgan reminded the congregation of the final salvation moment for the dying criminal on the cross, and spoke words of mercy and grace,
In the light that lies beyond we shall review the thing that has appalled and shaken our hearts to their centre today and we shall discover multitudes who turned to God, and were kissed with the kiss of reconciliation, and so found their way into the light and love of the home that lies beyond.7
He concluded his pastoral message with an appeal for repentance, rather than idle speculation on reasons for the tragedy.
“The accidental method of the physical ending of a life is nothing; the supreme and essential fact and matter of urgency in every life is the relation of that life to God.” It was a painful moment. But the loss of the Titanic became a new opportunity for turning to God with true and godly repentance, yet with loving fear.
Death in the Congregation
A moment of rare pastoral crisis in every congregation almost always comes when death strikes. Just prior to his sermon of May 18, 1913, Lennox Nutton, the twenty-one-year-old son of a beloved minister-friend, the Reverend Samuel Nutton, died suddenly. That same week, Thomas Nicholson, a minister friend of the congregation died suddenly. Nicholson was to have stood at the church “desk” and preached that following Sunday night.
Although the clock time of ministry may not cause us to deal with death, sooner or later there is always a moment of truth, a kairos, when someone close dies, and the pastoral moment cries out for some word from beyond. As Thomas Oden has wisely said,
The death of one person affects all with whom he or she has dealt. Death is an eminently social event. It breaks into our community like an echoing, ricocheting sound, reminding us all of our finitude.8
Campbell Morgan’s own faith experience prepared him to face this crisis. Twice in his life he had experienced the sudden sting of death. When he was a boy of eight, he lost his little sister and one friend, Lizzie. Somehow her death destroyed his childhood fantasy world. In 1894, his youngest daughter Gwennie died, and as late as twenty-six years later, he spoke of her death in a sermon preached at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.
I pass no day that I am not conscious of the nearness of at least one who has entered the veil twenty-six years ago … But I know the touch of her spirit upon me, for the spirit of life cannot be measured by the dimensions of the material.9
Henri J. M. Nouwen’s words about death describe Morgan’s sensitive spirit. “People who live a deeply spiritual life, a life of real intimacy with God, must feel the pain of death in a particularly acute way.”10
On that May morning, when most of the congregation was still stunned by the shock of those two losses, Campbell Morgan preached on “The Vanquished Enemy.” His text, “The last enemy that shall be abolished is death” (I Corinthians 15:26), led him to speak of death as an enemy that had been destroyed by the Resurrection.
He first described death as the last and most terrible enemy, a tragic reality that cannot be romanticized or sentimentalized.
Death is not robed in beauty. It is named an enemy. Its long persistent power is realized … Death to humanity is always hostile and hateful. Death continues, age after age, century after century, defying every attempt that man has made to discover its secret and abolish it … Death is the wounder of hearts. It is the assailant of faith; It is the challenger of hope … The Christian conception of release does not rob the earthly side of death of its terror.11
But the text also led Morgan to demonstrate his faith that the resurrection of Christ had the final word. “Deny it and you have no comfort — the thud of the clod on the coffin, and that is all. Blessed be God, for He is risen.”
On December 21, 1913, some six months later, Morgan again spoke about death. On that previous Wednesday, his beloved friend and colleague, Albert Swift, had suddenly died of a massive coronary.
For thirty-three years Morgan and Swift had maintained a “David and Jonathan” friendship. Both had been rejected for ministry by the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Both had entered the Congregational ministry. And, when Morgan spurned many lucrative offers from American pulpits, it was Swift’s willingness to become his co-worker at Westminster Chapel that led to the final decision.
Albert Swift was the unheralded catalyst of the amazing success of that pastorate. He believed Morgan had been given the unique gift of teaching and preaching, so he bore the burden of the administrative work, which he called “those promiscuous activities of ministry.” In so doing, he freed Morgan for the ministry of the Word.
Now Swift was dead, and Morgan preached a sensitive sermon entitled, Albert Swift,12 using as his text, “After he had in his own generation served the counsel of God, he fell on sleep” (Acts 13:36). It is significant that this sermon was never listed in Morgan’s Sermon Register. After paying tribute to Swift, Morgan won the hearts of the people with an unveiling of his own vulnerability. The sermon seemed to mirror the feelings of his congregation, as he walked with them through the valley of despair to the mountain of hope.
Fifty Years and After
On Sunday, December 7, 1913, two days before his fiftieth birthday, Campbell Morgan preached a sermon entitled, “Fifty Years and After.” This sermon was not published in the American Westminster Pulpit, and has been largely ignored, yet it may be one of Morgan’s most important sermons although he only preached it once.
It came a few days before Swift’s death at the age of forty-seven, and describes the midlife crisis in amazing words. All the issues of midlife — awareness of mortality, fear of dying, aging, and career uncertainty — are present in this sermon.
In the next year Morgan would undergo severe shocks and crises. His own illness, the onset of World War I, the stress of the Chapel ministry (without Albert Swift), would lead to his own physical collapse. But, almost prophetically fulfilling his own words, he would return to a second pastorate at the Chapel in 1932, at the ripe old age of 69!
Morgan’s text was found in Numbers 8:25,26, and dealt with the changing role of the Levites when they reached the age of fifty, and were set free from routine work, and given a new ministry in spiritual things.
Morgan saw midlife as a time of dead ends and new beginnings. The loss of the power of recovery was compensated by the gain of the ability to rest; the loss of self-confidence paved the way to new obedience; the loss of the power of resistance led to the gain in the ability to take refuge, and discovering a new sense of worship more than compensated for the loss of the capacity for wonder.
Aging, with all of its losses and infirmities, was also a time for new opportunities for service, reinforced by the maturity of experience. If ever a Campbell Morgan sermon should be heard today, it is this one. In a culture that has been described as “the graying of America,” these words resonate with many in the church,
What we ask of life is that we may be set free from certain forms of service, not for idleness, but that we may do less in order to the doing of more; in order that we may employ the great gains that the years have brought to us in the interest of our fellow-men; in order that with increasing faith we may encourage dawning faith; in order that with more patient hope we may recover hope when it fades in the lives of others; in order that with developed and enlarged love, we may provide a refuge for those who need our help.”13
Preaching as pastoral event bridges the gap between biblical and pastoral preaching. The biblical text is important. There was nothing Morgan deplored more than “topical preaching.” The text was not to be an addendum, like music or the national anthem played in the background for a major event. Nor would Campbell Morgan ever have resorted to the contemporary practice of preaching from the lectionary. His sermons were based on the biblical text, because he had lived with the Word all of his life. When the pastoral moment arrived, he knew the Scriptures so well that the appropriate text leaped into his mind. Indeed, the word of the Psalmist might have application to modern preachers, “Thy Word have I had in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee” (Psalm 119:11).
Morgan never abdicated his responsibility to the Word. He decided what it was, studied its meaning, and delivered it to his people. And as one reflects on his amazing pulpit ministry at Westminster, who is to deny that those who heard him did not hear “the whole counsel of God”?
On the other hand, Morgan was also sensitive to the pastoral moment, to the real needs of his people. As a pastor he had listened to the fears, anxieties, and concerns of his flock. He sat by the bedside of the aged and dying; he bore the burden of those who struggled with sickness; he ministered to those who knew the gnawing hopelessness caused by poverty and unemployment.
In May of 1914, he was forced to leave the pulpit for five Sundays, and spent a month recuperating at Mundesley-On-The-Sea. He called this time “Five Silent Sundays,” and in that time of enforced silence, gained a new perspective on preaching. As we listen to his own words about this experience, it is significant that his pastoral concerns come to the forefront.
As I quietly sat and attempted to look out upon my people, they came and took their accustomed places, and I tried to think of them and with them. I knew they would come, weary, restless, weak, strong, quiet, happy, but all realizing that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. My business must be that of bringing them of that Word.
How should I do it? I felt that to be of real use the message must come to them interpreted through my own experience. And so I thought of life, its hunger and its need … I was still facing personal problems, without any clear shining light. Then there came to me again words I had used writing on my second first day, “Unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” And so I spent the morning thinking of the terrors of life, but finding them all transfigured in the glory of His goodness.14
His own faith experience, his own awareness of his people, and his rich experience of the Bible led to a magnificent sermon on Psalm 27:13 when he returned to the pulpit on June 6, 1914.
Frederick Buechener is right when he says,
But to preach the Gospel is not just to tell the truth but to tell the truth in love, and to tell the truth in love means to tell it with concern not only for the truth that is being told, but with concern also for the people it is being told to … Who are they? What is going on inside of them? What is happening behind their faces?15
Campbell Morgan was a preacher whose sermons maintained a creative balance between the biblical word and the needs of the congregation. He never unduly focused on either, but made preaching a pastoral moment.
While doing research in the G. Campbell Morgan Memorial Library at Westminster Chapel, I found some words about preaching quoted often in his sermons and messages. They are also pasted on the flyleaf of his personal Bible. Somehow, they show his unique ability to make preaching of the Word a pastoral moment. Perhaps, they point a new way to those who would proclaim the Word today:
If when the word is on me to deliver,
Lefts the illusion and the truth lies bare,
Desert or throng, the city as the river,
Melts in a lucid paradise quir, —
Only like souls I see the folk thereunder,
Bound who should conquer, slaves who should be kings,
Hearing their one hope, like a vacant wonder,
Sadly contended in a show of things;
There with a rush, the intolerable craving
Shivers throughout me like a trumpet call,
O to save these, to perish for their saving,
Die for their life, be offered for their all.
1. Conrad Massa, “Preaching as Confluence” in Heralds of a New Age. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1985, 56.
2. Morris J. Niedenthal and Charles L. Rice, “Preaching as Shared Story,” in Steimle, Niedenthal, and Rice, editors, Preaching the Story. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1980, 9.
3. William H. Willimon, Integrative Preaching. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1981, 19.
4. G. Campbell Morgan, “Biblical Homiletics,” The Biblical Review, X (October 1925): 519.
5. G. Campbell Morgan, “The Wreck of the Titanic,” The Westminister Pulpit, 7 (April 26, 1912): 130.
6. Ibid., 131.
8. Thomas C. Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry. New York: Harper and Row, 1983, 296.
9. G. Campbell Morgan, “Death Abolished,” The Lafayette Record, XIV (April 1920), n.p.
10. Henri J. M. Nouwen, A Letter of Consolation. New York: Harper and Row, 1982, 75.
11. G. Campbell Morgan, “The Vanquished Enemy,” The Westminster Record, 8 (May 30, 1913), 170.
12. G. Campbell Morgan, “Albert Swift,” The Westminster Pulpit, 9 (January 2, 1914).
13. G. Campbell Morgan, “Fifty Years and After,” The Westminster Pulpit, 8 (December 26, 1913): 413.
14. G. Campbell Morgan, “Five Silent Sundays,” The Westminster Bible Record, V (July, 1914): 148.
15. Frederick Buechener, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. New York: Harper and Row, 1977, 8.
Among the pulpit voices that continue to speak across the years is that of G. Campbell Morgan. His sermons are still widely read, and are likely to be so for years to come.