Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching: An Encyclopedia of Preaching

Gordon Clinard  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 13 - Fall 1972

Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching. By Clyde E. Fant, Jr., and William M. Pinson, Jr. Waco: Word Books, 1971. 13 Vols. $199.95. 

Professors Fant and Pinson have likely produced the most practical history of preaching ever written. Their monumental work has already received high acclaim from the best scholars and practitioners of preaching. This reception comes from ministers and theologians representing many of the major Chris- tian communities and institutions of the nation. 

The work is a history of preaching. Unique historical charts preface each volume. They list the major national and world events through which the preachers included in that volume lived and spoke for God. In addition, short biographies of the preachers present the major events in their lives and minis- tries. Longer essays follow which present fuller accounts of the ministers’ lives and times. 

But the work is much more than a history. It is a practical, and thus exciting, tracing of the changing styles and content of preaching through twenty centuries. Each minister’s philosophy of preaching, his physical appearance, and his sermonic and delivery techniques are also presented in brief essays and illustrations. Sermons follow which illustrate the pulpit work of the masters and which show the changing emphases of Christian preaching. Using this format, the authors have given flesh and blood to the history of the Chris- tian pulpit. And, even more important, they have written a textbook on preaching. There is hardly a subject of homiletic interest, whether it be the selection of a sermon idea or the delivery of a sermon, which is not discussed and illustrated. Thus, the volumes contain an “inductive” study of the art of sermon preparation and delivery. 

This practical history of preaching brings together the master sermons of the centuries. Many of them have been unavailable to the average preacher because they have appeared in volumes now out of print or in periodicals which he has not read. The sermons give the reader inspiration as well as instruction. A part of the minister’s devotional life could well be the daily reading of a sermon from the pen of a respected preacher. The contents of this set can minister in this way for years. The sermons are also literal storehouses of sermonic information and illustrations. 

The final volume is a classic. It contains a thorough index of subjects dis- cussed in the biographical material and the sermons in the total collection. It affords a complete index to the Scriptures used both as texts and as supporting material in the sermons. There are also indexes of the persons referred to in the volumes. An index of sermons offers an alphabetic listing of the titles in the set. There are complete indexes of the principles of homiletics and of sermon illustrations. Finally, an alphabetic arrangement of those ministers chosen for inclusion in this history of the Christian pulpit is given. The 300 pages of this volume reflect careful labor on the part of the authors and their associates. They reflect that the work was undertaken for the maximum benefit of its readers. 

There is a “hidden” purpose in the collection which must not be missed. The teaching disciplines of the authors, preaching and Christian ethics, are brought together admirably. It is evident mat Fant and Pinson have sought to demonstrate that most of the great Christian preachers have combined personal evangelism and social concern in their ministries. At times the social interest is evident in a man’s preaching, as with George Buttrick (Vol. X, pp. 255-87). At other times the social interest of the preacher is more subtle, as with G. Campbell Morgan (Vol. VIII, pp. 1-48) or John Henry Jowett (Vol. VIII, pp. 50-87), whose social ministry was largely a matter of personal involvement rather than pulpit utterance. But the authors rarely neglect their thesis that the history of preaching demonstrates the place of social concern in all great preachers. The long list of ethical themes in the index of subjects gives further proof to this interest. The emphasis is of contemporary value, for many Chris- tian communions are polarized by factions who emphasize evangelism or social ministry. The history of preaching, to say nothing of the biblical message, indicates that both are parts of the authentic Christian mission. 

The authors’ choice of ministers to present the story of twenty centuries of great preaching cannot be seriously faulted. It is true that their purpose could have dictated some of their choices. It is also evident that the names of the master preachers of the last decade cannot be judged fully by history as yet. But what better list could have been chosen than one which includes biblical preachers, Church Fathers, Chrysostom, Spurgeon, Gossip, Truett, Tillich, Buttrick, Graham and the many others whose sermons fill these volumes? Happily the choices include important shapers of the history of preaching from many Christian churches. They are pastors, theologians, and evangelists. 

Only three criticisms seem valid. It would have enhanced the collection if more sermons not already in print could have been used. The binding of the volumes does not measure up to the publisher’s claim for beauty and durability. Such a work deserves better, for it should last a minister a lifetime of heavy use. The price of the collection could frighten away young ministers and other potential buyers who could profit greatly from it. Fortunately, the publisher has provided a time-payment plan, although it would have been preferable if each volume could have been obtained separately. 

These criticisms are as nothing when the true value of this majestic work is seen. It belongs in every seminary and college library. Every minister should own it. It is a magnificent story of the history of preaching. And its practical motif makes it an almost inexhaustible resource for a continuation of great preaching for another century! 

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