Ministers are rediscovering that simple stories enrich sermons. Traditionally preaching has been considered as presenting organized themes supported with the sacred scriptures. This normative homiletical form becomes transformed when creative preachers envision their sermons as the examination, reliving, and recreation of religious experiences.
During the New England Regional Conference on Christianity and Literature in Cambridge during 1983, Richard Marius, director of Harvard’s Expository Writing Program, contended convincingly that telling stories is intrinsically a religious activity. Narrative drawn from experience, history, drama, and literature can communicate truth effectively and artistically.
Among the distinct emphases within contemporary theological education are studies in literary criticism and preaching using narrative. Students reading Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis’ Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives are reminded that the sacred scriptures contain stories, parables, and poems that have structured plot, characters, and action that can be criticized with conventional literary canons.
Growing interest has focused upon storytelling as valuable verbal support in preaching. From the printing preses and publishing houses have come several interesting books explaining storytelling. Steiml, Niedenthal, and Rice’s Preaching the Story describes preaching as a shared story and states that Christian faith and life requires hearing, telling, and living a story.
Jensen’s Telling the Story encourages preaching in which stories are sermons. Attempting to encourage using narrative theologically, Navone’s Towards a Theology of Story discusses biography, autobiography, scripture, and other literature as rich resources.
Fackre’s The Christian Story maintains that the “story quality” within the Christian faith has a significance in explicating Christian doctrine and provides a helpful approach for communicating systematic theology. As an agency for communicating thoughts and feelings, stories are invaluable.
A preacher’s fertile imagination can fashion narratives that remain memorable when sermons are completed.
Kort’s Narrative Elements and Religious Meaning indicates how storytelling is especially effective. Kort concluded that modern narratives frequently convey suggestive meanings because narratives relate directly to corresponding moments in persons’ religious life and thought. Storytelling becomes fascinating.
Without assuming that storytelling has distinctive theological justification, it is nevertheless clear that storytelling possesses enormous rhetorical utility.
Two specific devices for utilizing storytelling in contemporary preaching are found in sermons preached by Preston Bradley, the founder and senior pastor emeritus who served the Peoples Church of Chicago.1 These two devices are the elongated, more complete illustrations and the brief, uninvolved specific instance.
Although Henry Ward Beecher’s innovations within American preaching includes his employment of illustrative materials in sermonic discourse,2 Preston Bradley provides a contemporary example. From Bradley’s sixty-six year ministry came the emergence of the world’s largest non-denominational non-sectarian congregation, the oldest continuous religious program on American radio, and a record of tenure for one individual serving a single congregation.
Preston Bradley: The Preacher as Storyteller
Preston Bradley employed an old-fashioned oratory, book reviews, and book sermons. Especially during February sermons and in funeral eulogies, he used biographical narratives when he praised persons whose lives enriched the common life of all humankind. With an exceptional eloquence, he maintained that describing Albert Schweitzer was like
standing in the presence of a mighty, mighty waterfall and trying to capture its power. It is like standing in the presence of a great mountain so high that it seems to part the sky, and trying to develop and embrace its power. It is like standing in the presence of an indescribable sunset and trying to describe color harmony.3
Abraham Lincoln remained his favorite, and Bradley suggested why:
The theme of Lincoln always has a tendency to overpower me in some strange way. There is a majesty about it; there is a sweep about it; it has an element of latitude that seems to stretch out far beyond the confines of any one speech or the utterance of any one man; it has all the elements of the sky; it has all of the challenge and mystery of the sea; and it is encompassed about by a limitless range of emotions.
Eulogizing the Great Emancipator, Bradley explained: “Lincoln is a great deal like the sky, — it all depends for its immensity and its coloration largely upon the angle of vision by which one looks at the sky.” Drawing upon outstanding world literature, he praised great writers, especially poets:
Homer! Homer who made the water-waves in storm or calm leap in beating rhythm down through the ages as no genius of literature has ever done, passed his life away in poverty and blindness. Homer could not see the salt-spray of the sea except with the eyes of the soul!
Milton! Milton, who drew between the peaks of two eternities the golden thread of an immortal epoch, saw the Paradise Lost joined to eternity. Milton never saw the paradise he drew except with the eyes of the soul ….
And I often think in this connection of Socrates, who wrote his name higher in the world of philosophy than any other outstanding philosopher the world has ever known, and who was Socrates? A tramp, a wanderer.4
Bradley’s powerful imagination exploded verbally with such vivid specific instances, moving in random sequences, capturing a listening congregation’s attention and dramatizing fundamental concepts. Bradley’s extensive vocabulary, almost continuous reading in varied literature, and poetic command of the English language, permitted him to employ dramatic storytelling. He could transport an immediate audience into a visualized or conjectured environment:
Come with me to the coast of Normandy and see there a little old French cottage and examine an old cabinet there. In it you find a canvas and you unroll it and you see figures. No name is signed to it, but you have seen that before. It is “The Angelus,” the reapers, and you have no trouble identifying the picture. No one but Millet could have painted it and you know it. Every life has a dominating theme.
Rhetorically, personal experiences provided a fundamental resource for dramatic storytelling. Visiting Europe, Bradley encountered nature’s beauty and eventually described that event:
We had come over lovely Lake Interlachen, and we had hoped to see the Jungfrau hovering under the golden glory of a sunset, and fortunately we did see the Jungfrau and the exquisitely sublime blending of colorful cast, that hung like a golden blanket of indescribable charm over the Jungfrau. In silence we stood and studied that all too rare picture. Night deepened, the golden glory faded into purple mist and soon night let down her sable curtain and pinned it with a star.
Meeting unforgettable humans and visiting unusual places enriched Bradley’s experiences with numerous vivid stories. He appreciated historic settings and geographical beauty, and Bradley employed his memories as instances and illustrations. “The greatest thrill I had in some respects on our recent journeys,” he said,
was in standing on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece. As we stood there looking out over the Acropolis, with its great, classic structure, the Parthenon, I heard again the great words of the Apostle Paul, probably the most philosophic mind which Christianity has produced — the mind of the Apostle Paul — and I heard him say: “He whom ye ignorantly worship, I announce to you.”
Bradley’s audiences shared vicariously these experiences narrated through imaginative storytelling. They could identify with the popular preacher, partly because his dramatic preaching provided meaningful symbolic contact between the clergyman and his congregation. Identification was encouraged because Bradley’s autobiography was a “success story,” a dramatization about a small-town boy from Linden, Michigan coming to the city of Chicago and making good. People living in rural Midwestern America felt an appealing affinity with a youthful minister who recalled:
My father, as you know, was a blacksmith and during these years I have talked a great deal about him because our association and friendship was something deeper than the usual relationship of father and son…. I want to tell you what his religion was, because it is the best example of what I want mine to be.
Bradley employed compelling illustrations that emphasized essential concepts. Warm human interest and eloquent language were combined in dramatic illustrations that seemed complete within themselves, sermons summarized within simple stories that were comprehended instantly and remembered indefinitely.
The Chicago pastor who emphasized courage in numerous sermons and books employed storytelling through factual and hypothetical illustrations to inspire courage and self-sacrifice. Although compound and complex sentence structures sometimes violated good grammar, these narrative illustrations were drawn from human experience or imagination and held interest and attention.
In Europe there was once a student in the University in Paris who had studied and worked hard and he needed physical rest and physical change. So he wanted to climb mountains and he packed his knapsack and went by train to a little mountain station at the foot of the Pyrenees. Going into the inn, he said to the innkeeper, “1 want to get someone who is a good guide to go with me in the afternoon up among the mountains of the Pyrenees,” and the innkeeper said, “I think we have just the man you are looking for.”
They met, they started on their expedition, they were to return the same night, but a great storm swept down through the valleys until the mountains reverberated and shook and they sought refuge in a crevice on the hillside. Night deepened and they prepared to make themselves as comfortable as possible.
The young man lay by the side of the elderly mountain climber and very soon they were both asleep, when all at once the mountain shook, the skies trembled. The boy awakened, frightened; the rain was beating in his face, lightning flashed, the rocks trembled, and he awakened the old guide and said, “Is this the end of the world? I am frightened!” and the old guide said, “No, my son, don’t be frightened, turn over and go to sleep; this is the way the dawn comes up in the Pyrenees.”5
Such memorable stories dramatize dangerous and daring human adventures.
When I was out to Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire some years ago they told me this story. On a late fall night on the rockbound New Hampshire coast a terrific storm came up and a ship was sighted in great difficulty, floundering out there on the rocks.
The Coast Guards were commanded by an elderly captain who had seen much service in that part of the Atlantic seaboard. He had in his crew some younger men. They came down the shore with their boat, looked out over the sea and the violence of the storm. They said to the old man who was captain, “Captain, do you not know that the tide is going out, that it is a north breeze and it is deepening? If we leave this shore tonight that tide and wind will drive us out to sea!”
The old captain turned to him and said, “Young man, we are going. We do not have to come back.”6
Another illustration provides a powerful intergenerational connection:
I am reminded of that afternoon when the great Dr. Frank W. Gunsaulus was preparing his sermon for the following Sunday, and his nephew, Andrew McPherson, eighteen years of age, came into the study and asked: “Uncle Frank, what are you going to preach on Sunday?”
Dr. Gunsaulus replied: “I am going to preach Sunday on the subject — ‘For this cause came 1 into the world’.” And the young man of eighteen sort of shrugged his shoulders and went out.
That afternoon the Iroquois Theater burned and that young man was passing by, only eighteen years old, and he went to work helping to bring out the dying and the dead up onto a fire escape between the upper floors across to the building next to the burning theater. He helped to carry out the people until the fire escape above him gave way and crashed to the street and he was killed.
They took the young man to the hospital and just before his death his uncle, Dr. Gunsaulus, came into the room, and that eighteen-year-old boy looked at him and said: “Uncle Frank, I know now why I came into the world.”7
Preston Bradley was a masterful storyteller who employed dramatic instances and illustrations to communicate religious convictions. Loving mercy and acting kindly, the compassionate clergyman became a living legend who is remembered as a “happy man of God” and “The Cheerful Shepherd.”
1. See Daniel Ross Chandler, “The Reverend Dr. Preston Bradley’s Speaking: An Historical-Rhetorical Study,” (Unpublished disseration, Ohio University, Athens, 1969). See Daniel Ross Chandler, The Reverend Dr. Preston Bradley (New York: Exposition/Testament, 1971).
2. See William G. McLaughlin, The Meaning of Henry Ward Beecher (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970). See Daniel Ross Chandler, “Henry Ward Beecher,” Regions Communication Today VI (September, 1983), 1-10.
3. Preston Bradley, “A Tribute to Dr. Albert Schweitzer.”
4. Preston Bradley, “Courage.”
5. Preston Bradley, “Easter And The World’s Future.”
6. Preston Bradley, “Outdoor Minded Peopie.”
7. Preston Bradley, “Radar in Religion.”

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