In recent years we have had strong biographical address to the life and ministry of the noted Reformed theologian James I. Packer, as well as a splendidly done work on J. Sidlow Baxter, long-time pastor of the influential Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh, the evangelical center of Scotland. A superb work on Stephen Olford has also entered the lists. It is always profitable to be reading some preacher biography or autobiography.
Of late we have had two epochal volumes that register strongly on the biographical Richter scale. The first of these is Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, 336 pages). Written by Professor Lauro Martines, historian at UCLA, this learned work does not supply immense spiritual insight but can only thrill us to be reminded of the prominence of powerful biblical preaching in altering the course of a dissolute and debauched society.
In “a tepid age,” Savonarola was able to transform ideas and concepts into incandescence. He set the city on fire with his preaching of the Old Testament-especially Exodus, Ezekiel, Amos and Haggai. His challenge was to corrupting opulence and the immoral use of political power, and he just opened Scripture and preached it. Martines does not dismiss him as a demagogue (as did George Eliot in her Romola in 1863) but shows him as in many ways a compassionate moderate. He makes a convincing case that he was wise, scholarly and even a poet. He was an “unbribed soul,” and as “the little friar from Ferrara” stood most resolutely for the truth and principles having to do with repentance at whatever the cost. This entrancing study is highly recommended.
In a starkly contrasting venue, Debby Applegate has unquestionably given us the long-awaited definitive biography of the 19th-century American preacher Henry Ward Beecher in her superlative The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (New York: Doubleday, 2006, 527 pages). An amazing commentary on his pre- and post-Civil War times, this book is most satisfying on helping us understand how this eighth child of the distinguished preacher and educator Lyman Beecher became the eloquent advocate of “the gospel of love,” which packed huge crowds into his megachurch in Brooklyn. All seven of the Beecher boys became ministers (and his sisters, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, were not slouches either); but it was Henry who achieved the pinnacles of fame-without ever professing conversion and entering the ministry because he loved to speak to crowds and receive applause.
He hated pastoral functions but relished the role of telling people they didn’t need to worry about their sins because God loved them. Spurgeon would have nothing to do with Beecher, but Joseph Parker in London courted him. One reviewer cites him as an example of a popularity achieved by “oratorical skills exceeding his principles.” Oh my soul, beware. He was consumed by the desire “to have a good time and be loved.”
But he was an adulterous spendthrift whose love for people seemed to justify extra-marital affairs, having long since emotionally abandoned his wife, Eunice, mother of his 10 children. Applegate compares him to Martin Luther King Jr., and others in this regard. Beecher quickly mastered the new “culture of mass consumption,” but his ministry was in ruins. He kept going, but he was only the custodian of ashes. In the fratricidal agonies of the Civil War he brought a message of love “so deep and so wide that the entire country could feel his warmth, like it or not.” So President Lincoln, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman would join the crowds at Plymouth Church, but it was not the gospel of Christ that they heard. This is a critically important biography, stately and forthright-a much-needed read among us right now. It was the cover review in the New York Times Book Review of July 16, 2006. Amazing in itself.
A third volume deserves mention-Larry Witham’s A City Upon a Hill: How Sermons Changed the Course of American History (New York: Harper One, 2007, 318 pages). Written by a prominent religious journalist, this book lacks theological context; but its very existence and popularity ought to encourage preachers laboring on their preaching in some small corner of the vineyard. God always blesses His Word. Beginning with Puritan preaching and continuing to moderns like Graham and Falwell, Witham argues his thesis that “the heritage of the sermon tells our national story like no other chronicle.” His reader-friendly study supplies the evidence.
While the first preaching took place “under a sail strong in the treetops” at Jamestown, Puritan preaching was massive and dominant in New England. Puritanism was not of one cloth, as he shows how many “preparationists” made the case for prevenient grace (27). One wonders where the “Jeremiahs” have gone in our wayward culture today. Pietistic influences are given their proper place in the early preaching landscape. He notes but does not probe why Jonathan Edwards’ disciples so quickly moved to human moral ability and to a governmental theory of atonement.
The best chapter, in my view, is chapter four on “Pulpits of Sedition: The Rhetoric of Revolution.” This and the insights of Civil War preaching grapple with the issues all preachers face in this election year. How can we address critical issues without undue political partisanship? We cannot just be silent. How shall we find our way? Occasional glances in the rear-view mirror can help us here. Perhaps he overstates the degree to which Broadus saw preaching as “an argument.” The weakness of preaching as “a discursive lecture” is apparent, and the errors of the social gospel are painful but need to be faced in our time when “justice issues” are increasingly pre-empting biblical preaching of the supernatural gospel.
As an old buff in the history of preaching, I learned for the first time how determined Oliver Cromwell once was to come to America and of the influence of D.L. Moody on Theodore Roosevelt. Roman Catholic and Jewish preaching are within the purview of the author. Every preacher who dips into this work will be moved and stirred quite positively in a time when the biblical roots of our common life are ignored and what is more increasingly denigrated if not denied. Highly recommended.