The Complete History of a Sermon
T MAY NOT BE uninteresting to trace here the complete history of a sermon, from the time when the text first suggested itself to the preacher, until the moment that the final proof left his hands for the printers.
The work commenced at six o'clock on a Saturday evening, when C. H. Spurgeon invariably wished any visitors or guests in his study to pray over and prepare his sermon for the coming morning. "No human ear," Mrs. Spurgeon has told us, "ever heard the mighty pleadings with God for himself and his people, which rose from his study on those solemn evenings; no mortal eyes ever beheld him as he wrestled with the Angel of the covenant until he prevailed and came back from his brook Jabbok with the message he was to deliver in his Master's name. His grandest and most fruitful sermons were those which cost him most soul-travail and spiritual anguish; not in their preparation and arrangement, but in his own overwhelming sense of accountability to God for the souls to whom he had to preach the gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ."
Sometimes a text would have been laid upon the preacher's heart during the week, but occasionally it was well into the Saturday evening, and only after much prayer that he could feel he had a message from above. Mere suggestions of texts from others were never taken, unless, at the same time, C. H. Spurgeon felt that it was the Lord's distinct will that he should preach therefrom and that the Scripture had been sent to him in that way. His wife was on many occasions the means of conveying a text to him, and she helped him greatly in the preparation. On one occasion he took a number of ministers (former students of his Pastors' College), into his confidence and told them something of his methods.
"Brethren," he said, "it is not easy for me to tell you precisely how I make my sermons. All through the week I am on the look-out for material that I can use on the Sabbath; but the actual work of arranging it is necessarily left until Saturday evening, for every other moment is fully occupied in the Lord's service. I have often said that my greatest difficult is to fix my mind upon the particular texts which are to be the subjects of discourse on the following day; or, to speak more correctly, to know what topics the Holy Spirit would have me bring before the congregation. As soon as any passage of Scripture really grips my heart and soul I concentrate my whole attention upon it, look at the precise meaning of the original, closely examine the context so as to see the special aspect of the text in its surroundings, and roughly jot down all the thoughts that occur to me concerning the subject, leaving to a later period the orderly marshaling of them for presentation to my hearers.
"When I have reached this point I am often stopped by an obstacle, which is only a trouble to those of us whose sermons are regularly printed. I turn to my own Bible, which contains a complete record of all my published discourses; and looking at those I have preached upon the text, I find, perhaps, that the general run of thought is so similar to that which I have marked out, that I have to abandon the subject and seek another. Happily, a text of Scripture is like a diamond with many facets which sparkles and flashes whichever way it is held, so that, although I may have already printed several sermons upon a particular passage, there is still a fresh setting possible for the priceless gem, and I can go forward with my work. I like next to see what others have to say about my text; and, as a rule, my experience is that if its teaching is perfectly plain, the commentators to a man explain it at great length, whereas, with equal unanimity, they studiously avoid or evade the verses which Peter might have described as 'things hard to be understood.' I am very much obliged to them for leaving me so many nuts to crack; but I should have been just as grateful if they had made more use of their own theological teeth as nut-crackers. However, among the many who have written upon the Word I generally find some who can at least help to throw a sidelight upon it; and when I have arrived at that part of my preparation, I am glad to call my dear wife to my assistance. She reads to me until I get a clear idea of the whole subject; and gradually I am guided to the best form of outline, which I copy out on a half-sheet of notepaper, for use in the pulpit. This relates only to the morning sermon; for the evening sermon I am usually content, if I can decide upon the text and have a general notion of the lessons to be drawn from it, leaving to the Lord's day afternoon the final arrangement of divisions, sub-divisions and illustrations."
In passing it may be mentioned that Messrs. Passmore and Alabaster have published an interesting little volume, entitled Facsimile Pulpit Notes, which contains a dozen sermons by C. H. Spurgeon, together with exact facsimiles of the notes upon half-sheets of notepaper, from which the sermons were delivered. By means of this book the preacher's methods may be closely followed.
At the Tabernacle a shorthand writer was always in attendance to take down the sermon as delivered, and the reporter found C. H. Spurgeon an ideal speaker for this purpose. Mr. Thomas Allen Reed, who for many years performed the important duty, has recorded his impressions of the speaker. "When a speaker," he says, "has a distinct articulation, combined with a clear, strong voice, the reporter, who has to follow him, is in Elysium; that is, if the utterance is not too rapid, or the style of composition too difficult. The combination, however, is rare. It has a very striking example in Mr. Spurgeon, who, without apparent effort, makes himself distinctly heard at the farthest end of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. To a clear, ringing, musical voice he adds an almost perfect articulation . . . The average rate of public speaking is about 120 words a minute. Some speakers vary greatly in their speech. I have, for example, a memorandum of a sermon by Mr. Spurgeon, showing that during the first ten minutes he spoke at the rate of 123 words a minute; the second ten minutes, 132; the third ten minutes, 128; the fourth ten minutes, 155; and the remaining nine minutes, 162; giving an average of about 140 words a minute. Another sermon shows an average of 125 words a minute: namely, the first ten minutes, 119; the second ten minutes, 118; the third ten minutes, 139; and the remaining sixteen minutes, 126. Taking the average of a number of sermons, his rate may be reckoned to be nearly 140 words a minute."
The sermon, written out in longhand by the reporter, was taken to C. H. Spurgeon's house, and early on Monday morning he commenced to revise it, first of all glancing at the number of folios to see whether the discourse were longer or shorter than usual, whether he would have to cut it down or write some additional matter to bring it to the required length. On one occasion, at least, the preacher was found by the servants at work upon the manuscript as early as four o'clock in the morning, and sometimes, when he had preaching engagements in the country on Monday (necessitating an early departure), he has been compelled, on Sunday night, after returning weary from the day's labors at the Tabernacle, to begin revising the shorthand writer's manuscript then. The work could not be left till Tuesday, and C. H. Spurgeon used playfully to remark that the earth itself would cease to revolve if the sermon did not come out every Thursday morning.
After the preacher had made the alterations and corrections which he considered necessary upon the manuscript, he used to hand it over to his private secretary for the verification of quotations, the proper punctuation of the matter, etc., and when about a third was ready, a messenger would take that installment post-haste to the printers, returning later for the remainder. By this time it was usually late in the afternoon, for the work was done thoroughly, and after tea the preacher had to hurry off to the Tabernacle for the weekly prayer meeting, which was sometimes followed by another engagement.
Then, on returning home, his first question was, "Has the sermon come," and if it had, he proceeded to see if the length, as shown on the printer's gallery slips, was correct to a line. Otherwise, there had to be further cutting or addition. If a preaching engagement was to be fulfilled on the following day, the revision of the proof had to be finished that night or early the next morning, but this done the work was complete. Probably, very few,
however, of those who read the discourses had any idea of the amount of labor entailed, not only in preparation before delivery, but in revision and correction afterwards.
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Yet, with all his stress of work the preacher was thoughtful of others, as witness the following note sent to Mr. Passmore: "When that good little lad came here on Monday with the sermon late at night, it was needful. But please blow somebody up for sending the poor little creature here late tonight, in all this snow, with a parcel much heavier that he ought to carry. He could not get home till eleven, I fear; and I feel like a cruel brute in being the innocent cause of having a poor lad out at such an hour on such a night. There was no need at all for it. Do kick somebody for me, so that it may not happen again."
Throughout their long connection, the relations between the preacher and his publishers was of a most cordial character. There was never a hitch or a harsh word on either side, and C. H. Spurgeon often used to ask Mr. Passmore, jokingly, "Do I write for you or do you print for me; am I your employer or are you mine?" The following letter will give a pretty clear indication of the relationship:
"My dear Mr. Passmore: As you have today paid to me the largest amount I have ever received from your firm at one time, I seize the opportunity of saying, what I am sure you know already, that I am most sincerely thankful to God for putting me into your hands in my publishing matters. My connection with you has been one of unmingled satisfaction and pleasure. Your liberality has been as great as it has been spontaneous. Had I derived no personal benefit it would have delighted me to see you prosper, for my interest in you is as deep as if you were my own brother, as, indeed, in the best sense you are. From you and your partner I have received nothing but kindness, courtesy and generosity. My share of profits has always exceeded my expectations, and the way it has been given has been even more valuable than the money itself. God bless you both in your business and your families! May your health be recruited, and, as long as we live, may we be on as near and dear terms as we ever have been! I am afraid I sometimes tease you when I grumble in my peculiar way; but I never intend anything but to let you know where a screw may be loose with your workmen and not because I really have anything to complain of. Your growing welfare lies very near my heart, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to see you advance in prosperity. I need not add my Christian love to you as my friend and deacon.Yours ever truly, C. H. Spurgeon."