Call to Preach

The notion of preacher often invokes images of days gone by. Wesley, Finney and Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, are characters from a bygone era, doing something that fitted that generation, but which we do not see as so relevant today.

The idea of a preacher standing in an open field or marketplace, with thousands of people listening and being transformed by the message, as revival fire sweeps a nation, is not something we think of in today’s western church.

Of course we have preachers today. Christian TV channels are crammed with fancy speakers, each with their own style and emphasis. We also have some exemplary preachers in our modern world.

However, the value of a preacher is not so well recognised today as it was in previous generations. Yet I believe we are approaching a revival of Preaching and Preachers, because the day of Preachers has not passed.

The Place of Preaching

The New Testament church was built on preaching.  Jesus Christ commissioned His followers to preach.

“And he (Jesus) said to them, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to everyone.” Mark 16:15

“And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Luke 24:47

“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.” 1Corinthians 1:17

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” 2Timothy 4:2

The Apostle Paul recognised that God has given a special place to preaching as a tool to bring transformation.

“God, in His wisdom, determined that people would not find or know God by pursuing human wisdom, but God would use the ‘foolishness of preaching’ to save those people who believe.”

1Corinthians 1:21 (paraphrased)

Proclaiming the Truth

Preaching does not need a crowd or a pulpit.  What we call witnessing is the same a preaching.  Telling the truth of the gospel to a person is preaching.  We see this where what was said privately to one person is still said to be “preached” to them.

When God gave promise to Abraham, privately, God was preaching to him.

“And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached the gospel to Abraham in time past, saying, In you all nations will be blessed.” Galatians 3:8

When Phillip the Evangelist had a private session with the Ethiopian eunuch he “preached” to him, even though we would call it explaining the gospel, or witnessing.

“Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” Acts 8:35

Every time you proclaim the truth, to thousands, or privately and quietly to one person, you are preaching. And preaching is what we are called to do.

The Power of Preaching

We see in the New Testament that by Christians simply going out and telling others about Christ multitudes of lives and even whole cultures were transformed.  The Apostle Paul, one of the most active preachers, was hated by the Jewish religious leaders because he turned so many to Christ.  Even those who made idols to a heathen goddess in Ephesus attacked Paul because he was destroying their business.

The simple process of talking to people, individually and in groups, about the gospel released tremendous transforming power, called “Salvation”.

“I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God to salvation to every one that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (non-Jew).” Romans 1:16

Historic Role of Preaching

World history reveals that preaching is so significant that those who preach actually direct society.

The English king Charles 1 wrote about preaching back in 1646, recognising the influence held by the preachers from the pulpits.  He said, “people are governed by pulpits more than the sword in times of peace.”

For centuries English culture was shaped by the simple process of men standing up to preach the truth from God’s word.

A similar testimony comes from Herman Melville’s 1850 novel, Moby Dick, in chapter 8, titled The Pulpit.

“…the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”

Too Many Voices

The significant place of the pulpit, celebrated for centuries, has now declined.  This is due in large part to the abandonment of Christianity and the decline in church attendance, where most people get to hear preaching.

Another influence is the sheer abundance of voices clamouring for our attention.  The influence of the Christian pulpit has been replaced with other voices that are not sympathetic to Bible truth.

Secular education provides a pulpit for every teacher to preach the approved social values into the hearts and minds of their captive congregation.  The press and printed material also preach the populist message.  Radio and television, songs and movies all capture our attention and preach their preferred values into our culture.

Instead of Bible truth and the gospel bringing transforming power into society and steering us to godly living and the blessings of Almighty God, we are now turned every which way, and left to languish in our confusion and defeat, without godly direction and God’s power.

Popular media has become the pulpit of modern day culture.

Preachers as Kingdom Technology

We now need a fresh release of preachers into our culture.  This is the main technology used in history to expand God’s kingdom, and it is still the principal Kingdom technology today.

The New Testament church thrived where ever preaching took place.  When the Jerusalem church was persecuted and believers were dispersed to other cities and nations the church grew wonderfully.

As Paul and others took the gospel to places, the church grew in those new locations.  History reveals that the Ethiopian eunuch, taking back what he learned from Phillip, prompted the growth of the church there.  And people in southern India can trace their church connection back to the arrival of the disciple Thomas almost two millennia ago.

John Wycliffe, a professor at Oxford, was the first to translate the Bible into English, way back in 1380.  But what gave his translation and life greater impact were the many people who read his translation and preached from it across the English countryside.  These Lollards opened the word of God to their generation.

Almost four centuries after Wycliffe, John and Charles Wesley, also based at Oxford, instigated a preaching program which came to be known as Methodism.  The heart of this movement was the circuit riding preacher.  These men were expected to preach multiple times on a Sunday, walking or riding on horseback around their circuit.

The great Wesleyan revival started the 1700’s continued long past the deaths of these men of God, because of the preaching system (method) they created.  At its heart, apart from the message of personal encounter with God and the truth of God’s word, the Methodist revival was based on preaching.

Preaching Through Opposition

Preachers are not usually welcome in a society that needs God.  Paul was opposed across the many nations and cities to which he took the gospel.  Revivalists through history have been at times violently opposed by angry audiences.

While we expect Christian preachers to be opposed in heathen lands, note that John Wesley was driven from many places when he started preaching in Christian England.  His Methodist preachers had to face rocks, roof tiles and mud, among other abuses.

Today’s new generation of preachers will also face opposition and trials.  While many will gain prominence and have popular ministries, others will have to struggle through opposition.

Releasing Preachers

In every generation and in every culture there is always primary place for preachers, great and small.  Each nation and culture needs more preachers, from those who quietly inform their small circle of friends, to those who draw vast crowds in stadiums, halls and fields.

I have always delighted in the role of preacher, but am all the more convinced today than ever that God is seeking a new generation of labourers in the harvest field, who preach the good news of Jesus Christ into their culture, whether the hearers are resistant or not.

Susanna Wesley Raises Children to Change the World

Susanna Wesley was born Susanna Annesley, the youngest of 25 children, to a nonconformist minister in London, in January 1669. At age 13 she forsook her father’s nonconformist views because she did not believe in dissent, and became part of the Church of England. At about the same time Susanna met the man who would become her husband. Samuel Wesley changed his surname from Westley when he too left the nonconformist ranks and returned to the Church of England. The couple met at the wedding of Susanna’s older sister, Elizabeth.

After Samuel graduated from Oxford in 1688 he was ordained as a Church of England minister and he promptly married Susanna, then 19 years old (he was 26).

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Samuel had a problem with money and spent his life in debt, even when he moved to Epworth and received a good salary. There he turned his hand at farming and proved so ineffective that he increased his debts rather than reduce them. In later years Samuel was even thrown into debtor’s prison, but was rescued by Susanna’s appeals to the Archbishop of York.

For the first nineteen years of married life Susanna averaged one baby per year, totalling 19 with the birth of baby Kezia. Eight of her children died in infancy and a daughter was permanently crippled due to a maid’s accident.

To add to Susanna’s challenges, apart from the children, the debts, a fire that destroyed their home, and her strained health, her husband abandoned her for six months over her refusal to say “Amen” when he prayed a blessing on King William III, William of Orange, who Susanna thought to be an illegitimate pretender to the throne.

Her last two sons, John – born in 1703, and Charles – born four years later, became the two of the most famous preachers of English history.

In 1709 the family endured its second inferno when the rectory in which the family lived caught fire. Susanna heroically saved the lives of her two infant sons, John and Charles. John later referred to himself as “a brand picked out of the fire”.

Susanna’s educational methods were clearly defined, strict and effective. She was also a devoted mother, intent on giving personal time to each of her children, each day. She was particularly intent on teaching her children spiritual truths, for which John and Charles Wesley’s later ministries owe a great debt.

Among the strictures imposed by this disciplinarian mother, the children were taught to cry softly, to eat what they were given, and never to raise their voices or be noisy at play. Susanna used physical punishment, but her children could avoid it if they confessed their faults.

Her children valued her care as a mother and it is said that when John was only seven years old he advised that he would never marry “because I could never find such a woman as my father had”.

When Samuel hired a curate to preach while he was away, Susanna found the sermons so unsatisfactory that she began the practice of reading sermons to her family on a Sunday afternoon. In time she had up to 200 people coming to hear her read, with Samuel’s disapproval.

Susanna spent her life with ministers. She was first a minister’s daughter. Then she married a preacher. And she then raised children who became outstanding preachers.

Susanna’s husband, Samuel, died in Epworth, where he had pastored for 38 years, on April 25, 1735 at the age of 72. Susanna lived with various of her children and survived Samuel by seven years, dying on July 23, 1742.

It is interesting to note Susanna’s strength of personal resolve. Her father had stood for his right to believe a dissenting principle, in the face of the organised church. His daughter caught that right to hold personal conviction in the face of opposition.

She chose her own religious direction at age 13, contrary to her father. She resisted her husband’s demand that she honour a King who she could not respect. She persisted in her personal piety and faith despite all challenges. And she raised sons who resisted the taunts of fellow students when they set up their own religious club on campus.

Susanna’s life was hard, with the burden of a large family and her husband’s debts. Yet her faith in God and faithfulness to God, especially in her vocation as mother, educator and spiritual instructor to her children, paid dividends for which the world is thankful. None of the failings of those around her caused her to fail in her own life purpose.

Oh that there were many more like her!

For more information on Susanna Wesley see the post: http://chrisfieldblog.com/ministry/church-history/susanna-wesley-ministrysusanna-wesley-ministry

Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

Charles Wesley the Sweet Singer of Methodism

Charles Wesley was born the 18th child of Rev. Samuel and Susanna Wesley on December 18, 1707. He was premature – “several weeks before his time, he appeared more dead than alive. He did not cry, nor open his eyes, and was kept wrapped up in soft wool until the time when he should have been born … and then he opened his eyes and cried” (A Heart Set Free, by A. Dallimore, page 23).

England at the time of Wesley’s birth was in a state of stale religion and social decay. Immorality, violence and drunkenness prevailed, along with illiteracy and hopelessness. The death penalty was applied to crimes great and small in effort to tame unruly behaviour.

Susanna was a devoted and productive mother or strict disciplines and Samuel hoped that his children would help restore the church to spiritual health. Charles and his brother John, four years his senior, both attended Oxford at young age and were distressed by the careless lives of the other students (all males at that time). Not yet being born again, the young brothers maintained their commitment to the pious values taught them by their parents and formed a society of committed chaps who were determined to read the Bible, fast, pray, live pure, attend Holy Communion regularly and visit the sick and needy. Their disciplines earned them the derisive labels of “The Holy Club” and “Methodists” (in view of their disciplined method). When deeper spiritual awakening impacted them in later years they were able to use the methodological disciplines to raise up generations of effective ministers.

Charles returned home from Oxford to visit his dying father, who laid his hand upon his son’s head and said: “Be steady. The Christian faith will surely revive in this kingdom. You shall see it, though I shall not”.

That same year the two brothers sailed for the colony of Georgia, in the New World (America) planning to be missionaries to the Indians. When a great storm struck their vessel the Wesleys were fearful, but the Moravian Christians with them were untroubled. This deeply impacted the brothers and prompted them to seek out the Moravians when they returned to England, and learned the way of God more perfectly from them.

Charles was 31 when his spiritual eyes were opened, on 21 May, 1738, just three days before his brother, John, also came into the assurance of sins forgiven … and together these two “sons of Susanna” (along with George Whitefield) launched the Methodist Revival.

Charles and John initially worked together, preaching and ministering with great effect, but when Charles married in 1749 he stayed at home more and resided in Bristol for many years. However, he was always the sweet singer of Methodism. As a hymn writer he was unique.

Charles left his mark by writing about 6,500 hymns – “on every conceivable phase of Christian experience and Methodist theology”. In his study, in his garden, on horseback, hardly a day passed for the next 50 years that he did not write a hymn. He even dictated a hymn to his wife from his deathbed! (C. Wesley, by V. Clark, page 28).

When Whitefield died – despite theological differences – Charles Wesley wrote a ‘biographical’ poem – 536 lines in length (Dallimore, pages 238-9).

Among his great contributions to the hymnology of the church are: “Jesus, Lover of my soul”, “And can it be”, “Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing”, “Love Divine, all loves excelling”, “Soldiers of Christ arise”, “Hark the herald angels sing”, “Christ the Lord is risen today”… and many, many more.

Charles Wesley died on 29 March, 1788.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

James Montgomery Returns to the Fold to Teach Hymnody

James Montgomery was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on November 4th, 1771.

This son of a Moravian minister “wrote more hymns in common use today than any writer except Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts”.

His early years were spent in a Moravian settlement and when he was twelve his parents went as Moravian missionaries to the West Indies. Both died in their first year.

James was reared in a Christian boys’ boarding school in Yorkshire, England but was not a successful student. The school prohibited secular poems but somehow James borrowed and read a good deal of poetry. He then decided to write his own boyhood verse.

He was apprenticed to a baker, but at the age of 16 he ran away to London to find a publisher for some poems he had penned. But to no avail.

He finally found employment in a bookshop and then, in London, working for a radical newspaper, The Sheffield Register. When his boss left England to avoid political persecution Montgomery took over the Register and renamed it the Sheffield Iris. Twice he was imprisoned for “seditious libel” against the government!

By this point James had abandoned the faith which he first professed when he was seven. He spent many years seeking success and meaning in his writings. At the age of 43 he came back to the Moravian church and reaffirmed his faith.

He expressed his penitence in a poem.
People of the living God, I have sought the world around,
Paths of sin and sorrow trod, Peace and comfort nowhere found.
Now to you my spirit turns– Turns a fugitive unblest;
Brethren, where your altar burns, O receive me into rest.

Firmly back in the Christian fold Montgomery made a huge contribution in verse and hymn. It is said that his book, The Christian Psalmist, he laid the foundations of modern scientific hymnology. He spurned the practice of his predecessors who threw a collection of dispirit ideas together in their hymns and his own hymns were characterised by “one central creative thought, shaping for itself melodious utterance, and with every detail subordinate to its harmonious presentation”.

John Telford wrote of Montgomery: “His father had been a disciple of John Cennick, and it is said that a volume of Cennick’s sermons was the means of James Montgomery’s conversion. He lived a busy life as editor, lecturer and advocate of Foreign Missions and of the Bible Society” (Methodist Hymnal Illustrated, page 101).

Montgomery wrote over 400 hymns – many of which are still sung. Among his most popular are:
Hail to the Lord’s anointed –

Great David’s greater Son…
and
Stand up and bless the Lord, Ye people of His choice …

And the Christmas carol, penned on Christmas Eve, 1816:
Angels from the realms of glory

Unlike most male hymnists, James Montgomery was not a clergyman. Nor did he ever marry. He died in his sleep on 30 April, 1854, aged 83.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Matthew Henry Gives Us His Grand Commentary

This is the day that Matthew Henry was born in a Welsh farmhouse in Shropshire, England, close to the border of England and Wales, in 1662.

His father, Philip, had been ejected from his church for refusing to ‘bow the knee’ to the king’s demands. His non-conformist views would not allow him to recognize the king as “Head of the Church” nor be compelled to use the Prayer Book. Submitting to ordination by a bishop was also anathema to him.

Along with nearly two thousand other ministers, Philip Henry had refused to submit to the Act of Uniformity, which had come into effect on 24 August 1662 and was radically opposed to all that Puritans like Henry stood for.

So young Matthew grew up in a godly home where Christian principles and conscience were adhered to – regardless of the consequences.

Matthew apparently suffered from a weak constitution during his childhood. But what he lacked in physical health he made up for in spiritual vigour. There is credible evidence that he could read the Scriptures when only three years old. His conversion took place before he turned eleven. Ion Henry’s words, one of his father’s sermons ‘melted’ him and caused him to ‘enquire after Christ’.

Taught at first by his father, an excellent educator, Matthew gained further education from nonconformist schools and at one time studied law. But he kept his focus on the ministry calling, taking occasion to preach where ever he could. The dissenters of Chester liked what they heard and invited him to be their minister.

Henry began his ministry with Presbyterian ordination on 9 May, 1687. Over the course of the next two decades his Chester congregation increased to more than 350 members. Not surprisingly, his success as a pastor caused other churches to seek him as their minister.

His first wife died in childbirth, in 1689. The following year he wed Mary Warburton – and all three children born to them died in infancy.

For 25 years he ministered at Chester. After rejecting many calls by other churches he finally chose to pastor a dissenting church in Hackney, London, so he could be closer to printers, in view of the large commentary he was composing.

Ill health plagued him. He suffered from diabetes and repeated attacks of kidney stones.

In June, 1714, while on a preaching tour of Cheshire, he was thrown from his horse and taken to the house of a nearby parson, where he died the following morning, 22 June, 1714, aged 52.

While Henry wrote a number of worthy works, his memory lives on in his monumental Commentary, The Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. Henry had begun this massive work in November 1704. By the time of his death ten years later, the project had got as far as the end of the book of Acts. It would be finished by a number of ministers after his death.

The commentary is quintessentially Puritan. It focuses on biblical spirituality and is alert to the need to glorify God in the whole of life. It is also chock-full of the terse and piquant aphorisms that the Puritans delighted to use to penetrate the hearts of their hearers and readers. Here are a few examples:
‘God’s grace can save souls without preaching, but our preaching cannot save them without God’s grace, and that grace must be sought by prayer’ (on Ezekiel 37:1-14).

‘Ministers may be serving Christ, and promoting the great ends of their ministry, by writing good letters, as well as by preaching good sermons’ (on Acts 18:7-11).

‘It is easier to build temples than to be temples to God’ (on 2 Chronicles 24:1-14).

‘The pleasures of sense are puddle-water; spiritual delights are rock water, so pure, so clear, so refreshing — rivers of pleasure’ (on Exodus 17:1-7).

‘The beauty of holiness is that which the grave, that consumes all other beauty, cannot touch, or do any damage to’ (on Psalm 49:6-14).

George Whitefield, we are told, read Henry’s commentary through four times … on his knees!

Spurgeon speaks of Matthew Henry’s Commentary as “first among the mighty” – and recommends that every minister of the gospel should read it through “once at least”.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was so moved by Henry’s comments on Leviticus 8:35 that he based one of his most famous hymns on them. Henry had written: ‘we have every one of us a charge to keep, an eternal God to glorify, an immortal soul to provide for, needful duty to be done, our generation to serve; and it must be our daily duty to keep this charge, for it is the charge of the Lord our Master, who will shortly call us to an account about it’. Gripped by this comment, Wesley sat down to write “A charge to keep I have”.

One does not have to agree with everything this great Puritan said to be blessed indeed by his Scriptural reflections.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.