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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The History of Preaching

J. A. Ireland

From The Christian Repository, 1859, S. H. Ford, Ed

About the time men first began to meet for the public worship of the Divine Being, preaching commenced in the world.

Enoch, son of Jared, was a preacher, and lived cotemporary with Adam more than three hundred years. We talk about "thorough training!" What must have been the opportunity of Enoch for learning the destiny of man, when he could learn from the lips of the first man the story of the creation, the circumstances of the fall, the terms of the promise, with other great truths connected with man's redemption I Hear him (Jude 14, 15): "Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousand of his saints to execute judgment upon all, and convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him."

Enoch never preached by the clock, neither did he read his sermons, and yet it is said (Heb. 11: 5) "that he pleased God." From Enoch to Moses, each patriarch worshiped God with his family, and at certain times, such as new moons, &c., a number of families worshiped together. They were instructed by different preachers, alternately speaking to the people. They had no splendidly decorated church edifices, but met underneath some gigantic forest tree, or they were protected from the weather by tents constructed for the purpose.

Noah was a preacher of righteousness. Jacob, when his house lapsed into idolatry, preached against it, and exhorted them, and all that were with him, to put away strange Gods, and go up with him to Bethel.

Moses was a preacher, raised up by the authority of God. He felt the responsibility of delivering his message to the people; hence his earnest appeals in favor of his God.

Joshua preached with great effect to the tribes of Shechem. (Deut. 34:9) It seems that public preaching was not necessarily attached to the priesthood. Joshua was an Ephraimite, and not a Levite. Solomon was a prince of the house of Judah, and Amos a herdsman of Tekoa; yet both were preachers.

When the Jews were carried to Babylon, the prophets still preached to them. When the years of captivity expired, Zerubbabel, Haggai, and others, continued preaching to the people. They wept, fasted, prayed, preached, &c., and at last prevailed.

Nehemiah and Ezra performed a noble part among their brethren. The first was Governor, and reformed their civil state. The latter was a scribe of the law, and addressed himself to ecclesiastical affairs, in which he rendered the noblest service to his country and all posterity. Ezra restored, arranged, and published the Holy Scriptures after the Jews’ return from captivity. He corrected many errors which had crept into the old manuscripts by the carelessness of transcribers. The Jews have an extraordinary esteem for Ezra, and say, that if the law had not been given by Moses, Ezra deserved to have been the legislator of the Hebrews.

Ezra revived and new-modeled public preaching. During the seventy years’ captivity, the Jews had almost lost the knowledge of Hebrew, and spoke a jargon, made up of their own and the Chaldean language, which was mostly used in Babylon. Hence it became necessary that he should explain words as well as ideas to the people. This gave a new cast to the art of preaching. Houses were now opened, not for ceremonial worship, as sacrificing, for this was confined to the temple; but for public prayer and praise, reading the law, preaching, &c. These houses were called Synagogues. The people came together thither morning and evening for prayer.

At Jerusalem there was a large street near the water gate, on which Ezra met the people on a Sabbath morning for the purpose of reading and expounding the law to them. Imagine that you see that good old man ascending a pulpit, constructed of wood, in fashion of a small tower; see seated at his side thirteen others of the principal preachers of his day. The whole affair looks very much like what I have seen at some of our country churches, -where stiff aristocratic notions of propriety do not forbid the inviting our preaching brethren into the pulpit.

Ezra produces the law—commences unrolling it. The people see it, and rise to their feet. Ezra blesses the Lord—the people respond, Amen, Amen. The preaching commences; the whole congregation is in tears. Think!—fifty thousand people standing in the open air, on a public street, weeping at the reading and expounding of the law. The famous Plato was then living, and teaching dull philosophy. But what was he, and what Xenophon, or Demosthenes, or any of those pagan orators, in comparison with Ezra?

From this period to the appearing of the Saviour, public preaching was practiced, and Synagogues were multiplied in great numbers. Yet it seems that the people grew more and more perverse in their wills, and wandered to a great distance from God.

As one light after another under the old dispensation was extinguished, the world became enveloped in moral darkness, until at last, when the fullness of time bad come and as the darkest hour of the night is just before day—it seemed that all was lost in darkness. But stop! The prophets had foretold a Saviour to come. Twilight makes its appearance. John Baptist is preaching in the wilderness of Judea.

After a brief period the glorious Sun of Righteousness bursts forth with all his resplendent glories, and illumines our world. Angels reach forth and pluck their harps from the willows, and strike up the song of redeeming love. Earth and heaven are in commotion. The Son of God is made flesh, and dwells among us.

Jesus Christ was the prince of preachers. No one can but admire his style, the transcendent beauty of his images, the alternate softness and severity of his language, the wise choice of his subjects, the loveliness and gracefulness of his deportment, and the indefatigableness of his most earnest zeal.

The Saviour excelled all other preachers; and yet how plain was his language, how sublime his conceptions of heavenly truths, how well adapted was all his preaching to poor, fallen humanity. His sermon upon the Mount is full of instruction. His prayer — how beautiful yet how sublime. His parables are inimitable, yet they bear to the human mind great truths, full of the most dignified wisdom, calculated to prepare mortal man for his final destiny. Christ's prayer, while he was on the Cross, contains more sound religious instruction than whole volumes of theology prepared by men. The Saviour stands preeminently the greatest preacher the world ever saw. And how strictly all other preachers should aim to follow the blessed Saviour's example.

The apostles imitated their Divine Master, constituted multitudes of churches, and were wonderfully successful in all their arduous labors. They did not engage in the arena of political strife, but were contented while engaged in preaching Christ to the people. They did not employ the bombastic eloquence of school theology. No, they had no use for it. They preached after the pattern Christ had given them, administering those holy truths burning and glowing with the impress of Deity stamped upon them, without being soiled and polluted by being cast and remodeled in a theological seminary. Look at Peter, with uplifted hands dripping with water from his fishing net, crying to his fellow-men to repent and obey the Saviour.

What multitudes were moved to repentance and faith through his instrumentality. Peter was not a graduate of any theological school. We have no reason to suppose any of the apostles were dubbed D.D., L.L. D., or Reverend, but on the other hand, we have scripture proof that they were plain men. Even Paul, though a well-educated man, was the plainest of preachers. Chrysostom tells us he was but three cubits high, yet Paul was high enough to reach heaven. His conversation was there, and thence he derived those pure lessons of religion and morals, and that loftiness of Christian principle, for which he was so much distinguished.

The other apostles performed their work, and, like Peter and Paul, were gathered to their fathers, being hurried from the stage of action by suffering and martyrdom. After the apostles died, everything came to pass as they had foretold. The whole Christian system underwent a change. Preaching shared the dreadful fate of other institutions, and this glory of the primitive churches was now, to a certain extent, degenerated.

We must now "wade through a continent of mud" to find the history of preaching as recorded by the Christian fathers, as they are called. Christianity is found in the writings of those men, but it is so mixed with pagan philosophy and Jewish allegory, that it is difficult to separate the gold from the dross. This continued for about three centuries. The next five centuries produced many pious and excellent preachers belonging to the Latin and Greek Churches, but the doctrine they preached continued to degenerate.

Belonging to the Greek Church, we will mention Basil, bishop of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, who preached at Antioch, and Gregory Nazianzen, all of whom flourished in the fourth century. About the same time Jerome and Augustine flourished in the Latin Church. For some time, preaching was practiced alike by Bishops, Elders, Deacons, and sometimes by lay brethren. But this did not long continue. After a while, preaching was confined to Bishops alone, and such as they saw cause to appoint. This appointment they called ordination.

So many errors had crept into the church at this time, but little of gospel simplicity was to be found in the Christian Church, so called. A traveling Bishop claimed no right to preach unless he was invited by the churches where he visited. The style of preaching in those days differed very much. All preachers spoke extempore. Sermons were preached in what was called the vulgar tongue. Greeks preached in Greek; Latins preached in Latin. Preachers in those days did not preach against time, but one hour was the usual length of a sermon. It was usual for preacher and people to stand while worshiping, but occasionally very aged persons sat. Many of the fathers were fond of allegory, and took pattern after Origen, the everlasting allegorizer.

Degenerate as those days were in comparison with the days of the apostles, they were far better, in many respects, than the ages which follow — when metaphysical reasonings, and mystified mystical divinity, and Aristotelian categories, connected with the reading of the lives of saints, were in place of gospel sermons. It is enough to make a Christian heart bleed, and his eyes flow with tears of blood, to read the history of the apostate church from this time until the dawn of the reformation, when a new and glorious change took place. The people, as well as the clergy, began to read the Bible and interpret it for themselves. Preaching became more common, and pulpits, which had been "bells without clappers," according to Latimer, were occupied by preachers.

But it were well to remark, that while we trace the outlines of the history of preaching among a people where the gospel in its adulterated form was preached, there were still men who strictly adhered to the primitive simplicity of the gospel, and preached it in its matchless purity to obscure and vilely persecuted churches, who had to flee to the rocks and mountains to evade the bloodthirsty vengeance of an apostate church. History abundantly proves that during the reign of persecution and miserable apostasy and adulterated Christianity in the established churches, there still remained a people who worshiped God after the apostolic model. Consequently, a pure church, though frequently an obscure one, has always existed in the world ever since the days of the apostles.

Men talk about a reformed Christianity. Christianity proper never needed, and never will need, reformation. Christianity is pure and holy—always remains the same, in all countries, at all times, and under all circumstances. But the half-fabricated complications of polluted compound mixtures of countless adulterations of Christianity, so called, did need reformation, and still needs it; or, rather, a complete transformation, which is alone to be accomplished by the omnipotent power of Almighty God, through the instrumentality of his faithful servants and true ministers of the Cross.

How unlike the ministerial work of the present day, when churches must have a splendid edifice, a fine organ and a choir of singers, hired seats, with all that sort of thing—so unlike anything found in the New Testament. But there were men in those days who served God from principle, and were willing to serve him under any circumstances. Cramner reproved proud Henry VIII in such a manner as no other man dared to do. All of these men had not what is called a "thorough training," yet they exerted a mighty power for God. Bishop Wilkins enumerated upwards of sixty who had written on the subject of preaching, and gave rules of instruction in the art of preaching.

Within the last two centuries we have had burning and shining lights in the pulpits of Europe and America—men who have faced all opposition that fiendish malice and hellish influence could exert to hinder the cause of Christ—while there have been men of eloquence, and piety, and great moral worth in other denominations. The Baptists have been honored with names of equal, if not far superior greatness. Look at the immortal Bunyan, who was confined in Bedford jail nearly thirteen years. Was he idle? No. He wrote that inimitable allegory, the Pilgrim's Progress, which is now exerting such a vast influence over the Christian world. He preached through iron grates to the ruined sons and daughters of Adam. Andrew Fuller, John Foster, Robert Hall, and many others of England, were bright and shining lights.

Those who have read the history of our American brethren, especially the history of Virginia Baptists, remember how they preached and toiled for the cause of God. James Ireland, of Virginia, was an example. He preached through grated windows to perishing sinners.

Here I must leave my readers for the present.