A Professor His Books and Preachers: “Lessons from the ‘Plodding’ Prince of 19th Century British Preaching”

 |  May 28, 2021

The following article is part of a series of articles by the preaching faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where a faculty member reviews a recent book they have read and shares its importance for preachers.

John C. Carlile, Alexander Mclaren, The Man and His Message. London: S. W. Partridge, 1901.

This Spring I had the opportunity to digest an obscure but excellent book that packs a powerful punch. Accessing it may prove more difficult than a host of other books. However, I can assure you that the effort will be met with considerable reward. The book concerns the life and ministry of Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910) and is entitled, Alexander Maclaren, The Man and His Message. This relatively brief volume is loaded with timeless and practical applications for preachers today.

Before delving into the content of the book, let me offer a couple of observations that can enhance your appreciation of it. First, about two years ago my colleague, Deron Biles, wrote a blog article about Maclaren and his preaching. He noted that Maclaren was shy and retiring by nature and did not possess the pulpit flair of other preachers of his generation. Nonetheless, as Biles notes, Maclaren carried out a faithful and long-term preaching ministry at Union Chapel in Manchester, England. Secondly, it’s worth noting that Maclaren was a contemporary of Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), who arguably remains the most popular and well-known British preacher of the 19th century. In contrast to the massive amount of attention devoted to Spurgeon in printed form, relatively few resources currently are available concerning the fruitful ministry of Maclaren. This may be due, in part, to the fact that Maclaren was retiring by nature and consistently avoided the “limelight” of public exposure and inspection. That being understood, I am convinced that, on the basis of his extended years of productivity (45 years as Pastor at Union Chapel), his giftedness in handling the biblical languages, and his clear structuring of biblical texts, Maclaren likely was the most text-driven preacher among British preachers of the 19th century.

With these observations in mind, let’s proceed to uncover some of the timeless and transferable “nuggets” of truth contained in the book. Here are just a few examples:

First, author John C. Carlile notes the following concerning Maclaren: “At the High School he formed the habit of patient plodding that enabled him in after years to read a chapter of Greek and Hebrew each day.”[1]John C. Carlile. Alexander Maclaren, The Man and His Message. (London: S. W. Partridge, 1901), 15. What a poignant reminder this is to modern preachers living in the midst of an instant-everything culture. Maclaren’s practice of patient plodding speaks to the value of faithful toiling and exhaustive wrestling with biblical texts when no one, except the Lord, sees and knows the expenditure of time and energy in rightly handling the word of truth.

Next, Maclaren was known for his mastery of the English language and his verbal precision. This explains, in part, the reason why most of his sermons, in comparison to his contemporaries, were shorter in length. Repeatedly, he stressed and exemplified the attractive values of an economy of words and a brevity of discourse.[2]Carlile, 49. Preachers today would do well to heed the example of Maclaren and to aim for a poetic perspective in their preaching so that every sentence is pregnant with a powerful truth. Maclaren’s preaching consistently was marked by a commitment to a “splendid simplicity.”[3]Carlile, 79.

Finally, the beauty of Maclaren’s ministry was that he was concerned not only with the proper mechanics and structuring of a sermon but also with the heart condition and motivation of those who delivered sermons. Carlile records that he lamented the fact that some preachers were done a disservice as far as being prepared for the rigors of pastoral ministry because “too early they had been pitchforked into prominent positions.” Referring to his years prior to assuming his pastoral role at Union Chapel, Maclaren said, “I thank God for the early days of struggle and obscurity.”[4]Carlile, 51.Here, Maclaren offers a cogent corrective to a modern mindset that too frequently is marked by an obsession for platforming and popularity. By contrast, Maclaren’s perspective reorients present-day preachers to the depth of toiling in relative obscurity while trusting the Lord to superintend the breadth of their ministries.

Believe me, the aforementioned references are offered only as a means to whet your appetite for the abundance of pastoral and preaching gems contained in this book. Reading it will challenge and encourage you to plod patiently in the path of Maclaren.

Matthew McKellar is Professor of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.


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