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Samuel Stennett on Preaching

Particular Baptist Press has recently republished Samuel Stennett’s An Exposition of the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, and it is worth purchasing. Stennett (1728-1795) served as a Baptist pastor for almost 47 years in London and composed many hymns including “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.”

In the introductory portion of his exposition Stennett provides a helpful discussion of preaching. His words continue to be quite relevant, so I have included a lengthy excerpt here. At first it may sound like he is opposed to animation in preaching, but, if you read on, you see that is not the case. He is concerned that showmanship not obscure the message.

And now we are upon the subject of public preaching, it may not be amiss to add, that this mystical treatment of Scripture is not the only evil we have to complain of. The pulpit is too often disgraced with a kind of language, action, and manner of address, better suited to the familiarity of the market or fireside, yea in some instances to the drollery of the stage, than the gravity of a Christian assembly. Sermons shall become vehicles not only of trifling puerilities, quaint conceits, and fantastic allusions, but of idle stories, some true and some false. At every step the preacher advances you shall have some image held up to view, taken from common life, dressed in an antic form, and adapted as it should see rather to disturb than to excite devotion. Or if this be not his aim, but on the contrary his object is to make some truth or duty familiar to his hearers, yet the means defeat the end: for the substance is lost amidst the people’s attention to the shadow, and so much time is taken up about the images of things, that little is left to investigate the real nature of things themselves.

That this is an easy mode of preaching and requires no great labor or ingenuity, is not to be doubted. A man of slender capacity, with a little natural elocution and a good deal of courage, may easily enough descant for a while upon this or that trite metaphor, making its several qualities stand for something he has no clear idea of, and knows not how to express in plain language; especially if he has the talent of digressing when occasion requires, and of mingling with his discourse a variety of tales, some ludicrous and others serious. And thus possessed of the art of preaching pray why should he throw away his time in laborious researches into nature, the Word of God, and his own heart? Why should he spend his days and nights in close thought, diligent reading, severe inquiry, and a constant succession of painful exertions? Truly if this mode of preaching were agreeable either to common sense or Scripture, he would be justified in forbearing such labor. But as this is not the case, it would surely be more for his own and the people’s advantage, if he were less solicitous about his ease, and applied himself with great anxiety to his duty. It is the plain language of the Bible, Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine (1 Tim. 4:13); Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Labor to get at the grounds and reasons of things; to explore their nature, uses, and effects; to state clearly the difference between good and evil; and thus to lead men step by step to the knowledge of God, Christ, themselves, their interest, duty, and final state.

It is indeed to be feared too many hearers are more pleased with sounds than sense, with the shadow than the substance, the false glare of a bold image than the striking energy of truth. They feel no weariness in hearing a loose unconnected unmeaning harangue, but their spirits are quickly jaded by an attention to close reasoning. In short, so their fancy is pleased and their passions moved, they care not what becomes of their understanding and judgment.

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