While thousands of Americans converged on Philadelpha this summer to celebrate the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, my wife and I went a bit farther north and took a walk through the rich history of American preaching.
Boston is a city overflowing with interesting historical sites and exhibits. Beyond the normal spots dating to pre-revolutionary days, Boston offers a virtual pilgrimage for the preacher.
We worshipped in Trinity Church, the magnificent sanctuary where Phillips Brooks proclaimed the Gospel for many years. Sunday evening we attended Tremont Temple Baptist Church, which was dubbed “the pulpit of America” by Dwight L. Moody.
The visitor to Boston can walk through the historic Park Street Church, then travel just a few blocks to see the oldest pulpit in America in continuous use at the same site (in King’s Chapel, built in 1717).
Yet apart from historical curiosity — which could as easily lead one to a battlefield or an inn which claims “George Washington slept here” — what value is there in exploring the history of preaching?
Those of us who are called to proclaim the Word of God through preaching are called to a place of service that has a great heritage. We follow “a cloud of witnesses” from whom we draw nourishment and inspiration. As we enter the pulpit, we do not stand alone.
Fred Craddock expresses it well when he observes: “The pulpit in every church is set in a long and rich tradition and whoever enters the pulpit not only continues that tradition but is also influenced by it as a part of the Christian community’s memory” (Preaching, p. 36).
Craddock goes on to note three benefits gained by becoming aware of the historical context of preaching. First, such knowledge can provide encouragement “when the soul is wandering in waterless places.” When self-doubt and frustration creep into the preacher’s mind, there is real strength to be drawn from knowledge of those who have stood in the difficult places where we are standing and yet have been used greatly by God.
Second, study of the history of preaching aids the preacher in developing the skill of self-criticism. It is all too easy to fall into predictable patterns of delivery and style which are difficult to detect, much less abandon.
“All change is difficult, especially if it involves activity that is significant,” notes Craddock, “but the discovery that all methods and forms of preaching are historically relative is quite liberating. A knowledge of history sets us free from history, enabling us to develop methods congenial to the gospel without magnifying them beyond their merits as servants of the message.”
Finally, a study of preaching’s past helps us discover a wealth of resources for developing and improving our own sermon construction and delivery. The preacher who has not drawn at the well of Wesley, Brooks, Beecher, Spurgeon and other past masters of the pulpit is a preacher whose thirst is still unquenched.
I like the way Craddock drives his point home: “Preaching without knowledge of the tradition of the discipline can be done, of course, just as one can pick up pretty stones while walking over a diamond mine.”

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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