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John Albert Broadus: Preacher Extraordinary by Unknown

By April 3, 2011April 12th, 2016Biographies

DURING the last half of the nineteenth century in America, no Baptist preacher enjoyed greater popular fame than did John Albert Broadus. By his Seminary colleagues, by denominational leaders, by competent critics of preaching, and by appreciative congregations, he was ranked as one of the leading preachers of his time.

W. C. Wilkinson, a keen, analytic student of preachers and preaching, gave this appraisal of Dr. Broadus in Modern Masters of Pulpit Discourse

‘I have named in my title a man with every natural endowment, every acquired accomplishment, except, perhaps plentitude of physical power, to have become, had he been only a preacher, a preacher hardly second to any in the world.

. . . His preaching work has been incidental, rather than principal in his career. He presents a conspicuous example . . . of a man who, notwithstanding that this must be said of him, yet enjoys, and justly enjoys . . . a national reputation as a preacher.’

In discussing Broadus as a preacher, Dr. A. T. Robertson made this helpful comparison:

‘It has been my fortune to hear Beecher and Phillips Brooks, Maclaren, Joseph Parker and Spurgeon, John Hall and Moody, John Clifford and David Lloyd George. At his best and in a congenial atmosphere Broadus was the equal of any man I have ever heard.’

In a recent book on the Yale Lectures, The Royalty of the Pulpit, Edgar DeWitt Jones has listed Dr. Broadus as one of the Olympians.

In speaking of the conspicuous position which he occupied and of the esteem and affection in which he was held by Baptists everywhere, Jones observed, ‘No king on his throne had more loyal and willing subjects than did this professor-preacher.’

To these evaluations could be added the personal testimonies of thousands who heard John A. Broadus preach. His fame as a preacher began in his first pastorate at Charlottesville, Virginia, and continued and increased throughout his life. While teaching in the Seminary he was offered some of the leading pastorates m the United States. He was also widely sought as a summer supply-preaching in Richmond, New York, Brooklyn, Detroit, St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities. Dr. Broadus records that he preached seventy-five times as summer supply and on special occasions in Orange, New Jersey. In addition to supply preaching, he delivered many dedication, convention, and commencement sermons, and was the featured speaker at various conferences. Wherever he preached the testimony was the same, ‘He is one of the world’s great preachers.’

Since it is most unusual for a preacher to receive almost universal acclaim, a question naturally presents itself. How can one account for the unusual popularity? Actually, this question can never be completely or accurately answered. In every area, but especially in the area of preaching, there is a quality which escapes definition or explanation. However, certain factors in the life of Broadus and in his preaching blended to produce a man with unique preaching abilities.

John Albert Broadus was born January 24, 1827, in Culpepper County, Virginia, the fourth child of Major Edmund Broadus and Nancy Sims. Although the Broadus home was not financially wealthy, it was rich in the things which count-intelligence, culture, love, and piety.

Since John Albert was the youngest child, the parents and the other children shared in his early training. To their instructions was added the teaching of other tutors. From an uncle, Albert G. Sims, he received a careful and accurate grounding in the rudiments of learning. His ‘graduation’ from his uncle’s school was somewhat unusual. He returned home unexpectedly and when Major Broadus inquired the reason, his son replied, ‘My uncle says he has no further use for me.’ Unable to induce his son to say more, Major Broadus went at once to see Mr. Sims. However, the boy’s uncle assured him that there had been no difficulty, but rather he had taught John ‘all that he knew.’

When he was about sixteen, the young man surrendered himself to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Though he had been surrounded by religious influences, he had not yet confessed faith in Christ. During a revival meeting at the Mt. Poney Baptist Church, a friend asked him if he would not accept the promise of the preacher’s text, ‘all that the Father giveth me shall come to me. And him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.’ In that moment he yielded his life to Christ. After this initial experience, he made a constant effort to grow in grace and knowledge of his Lord. He began immediately to witness, to study, and to serve. His preaching knew the undergirding of a warm, contagious, experimental religious faith.

From 1844 to 1846 he continued his education by teaching in a small school and engaging in disciplined independent study. It was during this period that he began a study of Greek. It required vast resolution for him to stay by the task. In the development of his religious life, he became a Sunday school teacher and later superintendent. He gave some consideration to becoming a minister, but finally chose medicine and began to make general preparation in that area. Plans were now made for him to enter the University of Virginia.

However, before entering the University his vocational plans were completely changed. He attended an associational meeting and heard a powerful and impressive sermon on the parable of the talents by S. M. Poindexter, one of the most famous preachers in the South. Broadus gave this account of the experience. ‘The preacher spoke of consecrating one’s mental gifts and possible attainments to the work of the ministry. He seemed to clear up all difficulties pertaining to the subject; he swept away all the excuses of fancied humility; he held up the thought that the greatest sacrifices and toils possible to the minister’s lifetime would be a hundred-fold repaid if he should be the instrument of saving one soul . . . when the intermission came, the young man . . . sought out his pastor, and with choking voice said: ‘Brother Grimsley, the question is decided; I must try to be a preacher.”

In the fall of 1846, young Broadus entered the University of Virginia as he had planned. His early education had been somewhat irregular; consequently, he spent four years in diligent, disciplined study. He received the M.A. degree in 1850 and later came to be considered the University of Virginia’s most famous alumnus. At the close of his University course, Broadus declined various offers because he desired to pursue theological studies. During the next year he taught in a private school in Fluvanna County, Virginia, preached in small country churches, and diligently studied church history, theology, sermons, and above all the Bible. During this year two notable events occurred-his ordination August 12, 1850, and his marriage to Miss Maria Harrison, November 13, 1850.

Calls of various kinds came to the young teacher, and he finally accepted the one to be tutor in Latin and Greek at his alma mater and pastor of the Baptist Church at Charlottesville. After one year he resigned his teaching position in order to devote his full time to his pastorate, which he did with the exception of two years when he was given a leave of absence to serve as chaplain at the University of Virginia.

In 1858 he was asked to become a member of the first faculty of the new Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Though Broadus had had a part in the planning of the institution, he at first declined the offer because of his attachment to preaching and pastoral work. But there ensued months of struggle with himself over the decision, and he finally agreed to become a member of the first faculty of the Seminary when it opened in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1859. For the next thirty-six years, he was Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Homiletics, and his life was inextricably bound to the school.

During the first two years, the Seminary showed real promise, but then came the Civil War and the school was forced to close. Broadus preached in small churches and spent some time as chaplain in Lee’s army in Northern Virginia. When the Seminary reopened in 1865, its small endowment was gone, the students few, and the prospect one of struggle and sacrifice. During the darkest days in Greenville, Broadus revealed his spirit when he said to the other professors, ‘Perhaps the Seminary may die, but let us resolve to die first.’ However, it was in this period of stress and strain, that Broadus did some of his best and most painstaking work, once carefully reworking his lectures on homiletics for a blind student. In 1870 he published A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, a book which was to become and remain a classic in its field.

The Seminary was moved to Louisville in 1877. Though conditions were somewhat better, Broadus and James P. Boyce, the Seminary’s first president, were to give their lives trying to establish the Seminary on a firm financial foundation. Broadus was offered many influential pastorates in the North and South, many professorships and other positions, but he had cast his lot with the school and with it he chose to remain.

The last years of his life were years of increasing fame and recognition. In 1889, he gave the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale University, the only Southern Baptist ever to be accorded this honor and became the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s second president. His Commentary on Matthew, Lectures on the History of Preaching, Harmony of the Gospels, and other books were to add to his stature as a scholar.

Broadus had struggled with ill health since his college days. By extreme care he had continued his work in spite of toil and trial. However, years of privation and struggle had taken their toll, and Broadus died March 16, 1895, almost at the zenith of his fame. His life had been a life of quiet but intense dedication to a great task.

Now let us turn to the preaching of Broadus. In the preparation of the sermons, the sermons themselves and their delivery, several factors contributed to his unusual pulpit effectiveness.

One factor which contributed to Broadus’ power in preaching came from his devotion to God’s message. His commission to preach was a commission to speak for God. He had a ‘profound personal belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible. . . . His reverence for the word of God was one of the deepest feelings of his nature.’ So eager was he to know the meaning of the Scripture that he began independently the study of Greek and Hebrew. It was not unusual for him in the midst of a sermon to make a plea for the Bible-its worth, its spiritual guidance, its help in attaining holiness. He felt that the Bible was the source of the most potent and precious truth, and in discussing spiritual matters he would say, ‘We can learn about such a subject as this ouly from the Bible.’ One could not do a nobler deed, he believed, than to share the truth of the Bible. In a sermon on the ‘Holy Scriptures’ he said:

The greatest privilege of earthly life is to give some fellow creature the blessed word of God, and then try by loving speech and example, to bring home to the heart and conscience…the truths it contains.

Having this high regard for the Bible, he desired to interpret it rightly. In his textbook, he devoted a brief section to hermeneutics, suggesting ways and means by which the preacher can interpret correctly. One of his favorite injunctions to his class was, ‘If you forget everything else I have told you, don’t forget to treat the Scripture in a common-sense way.’ Even in a sermon, Dr. Broadus would leave his main idea to make a plea for correct interpretation. In discussing Romans 9:3, ‘For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren,’ a text which he said was difficult to interpret, he gave these three rules of interpretation:

  1. Be willing to let the Scripture mean what it wants to mean…
  2. Take good account of the connection.
  3. Take good account of the state of the writer’s mind.

In his last New Testament class, in which he had lectured on Apollos, he appealed to his students to be ”mighty in the Scriptures.’

In his own preaching, Dr. Broadus made excellent use of the Scripture. He used a text for every sermon; and the text was more than a springboard; it had a vital relation to the sermon. Sometimes the text would provide the outline of the sermon, sometimes only a portion of the outline, sometimes the subject of the discourse, or again the introduction. He used, never abused, the Scripture.

The texts which he used most frequently are some of the great preaching texts of the Bible. He followed his own advice, ‘Do not avoid a text because it is familiar.’ A listing of these texts sounds like a roll call of the great texts of the Bible. This may be seen by noting the texts of the sermons in this book. Surprisingly, however, few of Dr. Broadus’ sermons were expository, i.e., drawing the divisions and explanation of the divisions from the text. In fact, he did not often take a long passage as a text. From 1857 to 1893, he kept a record in his ‘Day Book’ of four hundred and sixty sermons which he preached in various places. Of these sermons, 344 were on single verses, 110 on two or more verses, and six were on multiple texts.

Nonetheless, Dr. Broadus was an expository preacher in the broad sense of that term. He rarely, indeed if ever, preached a sermon in which there was not some exposition. He wanted the Scripture to say what it meant; he wanted his listeners to know what God was saying to them. Almost every sermon included here illustrates this concern. Because he let himself be a channel of God’s message, the intrinsic power of that message gave him unusual power.

A second factor which contributed to his power was the simplicity of his preaching. What he had to say was transparently clear. This does not mean that his sermons lacked worth-while thought. He gave to his preaching his best intellectual effort, but he invariably concealed the processes and brought to his congregations the results of his investigations in language which they could understand. One Sunday morning he preached on the ‘Practical Aspects of the Trinity,’ and a ten-year-old boy came forward after the service to thank him for the helpful message.

In the practice of simplicity, Dr. Broadus’ practice was in accord with his theory. He called perspicuity ‘the most important property of style,’ and felt the preacher had a responsibility to attain it.

‘A preacher is more solemnly bound than any other person, to make his language perspicuous. This is very important in wording a law, in writing a title-deed, or a physician’s prescription, but still more important in proclaiming the word of God, words of eternal life.’

This teaching concerning clearness was practice before it became theory. Clarity was a prerequisite in his first pastorate. In the congregation at Charlottesville there were five distinct group-those from the University, the business people in the town, the country people, the children, and a large group of slaves. Consequently, ‘he had to give his audience high thinking in simple language.’ The ideas had to be strong enough to interest the University teachers and clear enough for the others to understand. ‘He accomplished his feat and made each group, not to say each individual, feel that every sermon was a special message to that class.’ This lesson once mastered became the rule of his later preaching.

Simplicity can be seen in every aspect of Dr. Broadus’ sermon making. His sermon outlines are almost astoundingly simple. The following outline is a sermon on Repentance which he recorded having preached nineteen times. It is a simple adverbial plan.

  1. What is it to repent?
  2. Why should we repent?
  3. When shall we repent?

Such simplicity, which is so marked in his organization, is also to be found in his explanation of terms and ideas. So prominent was the quality of simplicity that almost any paragraph selected gives evidence of it. A representative example is his explanation of justification:

‘What does Paul mean, when he talks about being justified? There has been a great deal of misapprehension as to his meaning. Martin Luther was all wrong in his early life because he had been reared upon the idea that a justified man means simply a just man, a good man, and that he could not account himself justified or hope for salvation until he was a thorough good man. Now, the Latin word from which we borrow our word ‘justified’ does mean to make just, and as the Romanists use the Latin, their error is natural. But Paul’s Greek word means not to make just, but to regard as just, to treat as just. That is a very important difference, –not to make just, but to regard and treat as just. How would God treat you, if you were a righteous man; if you had, through all your life, faithfully performed all your duties, conforming to all your relations to your fellow-beings, how would he regard you and treat you? He would look upon you with complacency. He would smile on you as one that was in his sight pleasing. He would bless you as long as you lived in this world, and, when you were done with this world, he would delight to take you home to his bosom, in another world, because you would deserve it. And now as God would treat a man who was just because he deserved it, so the Gospel proposes to treat men who are not just and who do not deserve it, if they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He will treat them as just, though they are not just, if they believe in Christ; that is to say, he will look upon them with his favor; he will smile upon them in his love; he will bless them with every good as long as they live, and when they die he will delight to take them home to his own bosom, though they never deserved it, through his Son, Jesus Christ. That is what Paul means by justification.’

So simple were Dr. Broadus’ sermons that some people were disappointed the first time they heard him preach. His simple language did not match his great reputation. However, as they pondered his message, they were eager to hear him a second time.

But here was no artless simplicity; it was the result of studious care. Dr. Broadus labored to make his message simple. He had learned from experience that the simple message was acceptable to every group. (One Sunday he preached a sermon to his congregation at Cedar Grove, a small country church in South Carolina; a week later he preached the same sermon at the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.) He believed strongly in clarity of thought and expression. In an article on ‘The American Baptist Ministry 100 Years Ago,’ he exclaimed, ‘Alas! for the education of the ministers of Jesus if it ceases to be true that the common people hear them gladly.’ He urged his students to cultivate clarity as a quality of style. Surely, this purposeful simplicity of style, which made his preaching understandable to every audience, was one of the factors which made his preaching so universally acceptable.

A third factor which contributed to his power was his conscious purpose to lead his hearers to some spiritual decision. He was not content just to preach a sermon; he wanted the sermon to do something. In defining good preaching, he declared, ‘There must be a powerful impulse upon the will; the hearers must feel smitten, stirred, moved to, or at least towards, some action or determination to act.’ This attitude also is seen in a plea which he frequently made to his students. ‘A good speech is a good thing, but the verdict is the thing. Gentlemen, when you preach strike for a verdict.’ Dr. W. H. Whitsitt has well summarized the aim which undergirded Broadus’ preaching:

In his conception the supreme end of delivery was not to charm or delight the hearer, but rather to convince and persuade him. Therefore, every art of persuasion was studied and employed if by any means he might reach the heart and move to action.

Different means were employed to attain this meaningful objective. Broadus always sought to win the sympathy of his audience. It was his conviction that the success of a discourse depended largely upon ‘the sympathy which one succeeds in gaining from those he addresses.’ Said he, ‘if I were asked what is the first thing in effective preaching, I should say sympathy; and what is the second thing, I should say sympathy; and what is the third thing, sympathy.

Perhaps the most effective means he used to win immediate verdicts, however, was direct appeal. Dr. Broadus knew how to make direct appeal-not in a bombastic, overbearing way, but in a quiet, winning way. Sometimes this appeal came within the body of the sermon, but generally it came as part of a conclusion.

Examples of his use of direct appeal as a method of conclusion are numerous. A representative example is seen in a part of the conclusion in a sermon, ‘Ask and It Shall Be Given You.’ After a long conclusion, he makes a final appeal:

‘My friends, let us make it a practical lesson for us all. Christian people, begin to pray more. Fathers of families, if you have neglected to pray with your families, begin now at once. If you have been negligent in public or private prayer, renew your petitions with earnestness. O, troubled one, shrinking away from the Saviour, remember that he said, ‘Ask and it shall be given you.’ And, if there is somebody here this evening that has not prayed for months, that has not prayed for years; if there is some man that has not prayed since the time long ago when he prayed by his mother’s knee, and who all these years has been slighting God’s word and rejecting God’s invitation; O soul, O fellow-sinner, will you not tonight take Jesus’ word home to your heart, and begin to find in your experience what some like you have found, that you have but to ask and it shall be given.’

The use of direct appeal is sometimes resented by an audience-but not when used in the spirit in which Broadus used it. His audiences felt a great soul yearning for their spiritual good. His appeals were motivated by love, and as genuine love always does, that love drew a response.

These are the means which Dr. Broadus used to lead his listeners to make spiritual decisions. In a lesser man they could have been only techniques, ends in themselves; but as used by Broadus, they were means to achieve a high end-that of helping his hearers.

A fourth factor which contributed to Broadus’ preaching power was his method of preparation and delivery. Early in his ministry, Dr. Broadus determined to master the technique of preaching. Besides his own dedication to his task, the high standard for sermon delivery which had been established in Virginia, the demands of a university church, and perhaps the example set by Andrew Broadus, his famous kinsman, spurred him to attain his best. Consequently, long before he had thought of teaching homiletics, he began an analytic study of the great preachers and their sermons and sought to put the principles which he learned from them into practice. In 1854 Dr. Broadus wrote an article for the Religious Herald on the ‘Best Mode of Preparing and Delivering Sermons.’ This article, which was a forerunner of his later book, set forth his ideals of sermon preparation and delivery.

Dr. Broadus had unique methods of making preparation for the pulpit. As a result of his severe discipline in independent study, he had, even as a young man, a large fund of general knowledge to draw upon. He not only sought to master his favorite studies, the Bible and ancient and modern languages, but he read widely in history, philosophy, art, literature, and current events. These studies strengthened and elevated the powers of mind and modes of expression and gave him a large mental store upon which to draw in sermon preparation. In his immediate preparation, he would take a text, seek to find its exact meaning, and then arrange its ideas under logical headings. Since Dr. Broadus ‘preferred speaking to writing as a mode of self-expression,’ he wrote little. He would jot down introductory ideas, state his main points clearly, and indicate his illustrations. Such brief writing was usually done on a sheet of writing paper, folded length-wise, making four long, narrow pages. When typed, one of these sermons makes a manuscript three to six pages in length. A typical sheet showing his handwriting is reproduced on p.141.

His method of preparation has often been criticized, the critics feeling that the sermons should have been fully written. However, Dr. Broadus wanted the freedom of choosing exact words in the act of delivery as the occasion and nature of the subject dictated. Thus he was left free for many striking asides and helpful thoughts which came to him as he spoke. This method proved quite advantageous to Dr. Broadus after he became a seminary professor. Before re-preaching a sermon, he would spend at least two hours trying to adapt it to the new situation and in seeking to make the sermon real to him again. Thus he recreated his sermons and gave them a freshness and vitality which they might not otherwise have had.

After this writing, Dr. Broadus would fix the sermon in his mind by thinking about it as he walked, a habit which he formed early in life. His daughter, Miss Eliza Broadus, recorded that near the University of Virginia he had worn a path by walking back and forth as he prepared to speak. And now he was ready for the sermon prepared to become the sermon delivered. In the essay written in 1854, he maintained that a ‘sermon becomes such only in the act of delivery. Whatever mode of preparing be adopted, it is not strictly a sermon, but only preparation until it is delivered.’

Dr. Broadus did not use the brief notes which he had prepared. He practiced what he called extempore delivery; in fact, he would not carry a ‘scrap of paper’ into the pulpit with him. One Sunday morning as he was walking into the church, he discovered that he had his notes with him. He turned to his daughter, Mrs. A. T. Robertson and said, ‘Daughter, I forgot to leave my notes at home. Will you keep them until after the services?’ However, extempore deliver did not mean extempore thinking. It meant a free delivery after careful preparation.

Freedom from a manuscript allowed him the freedom to look directly at his audience and establish excellent eye contact. He assiduously cultivated this habit and developed the ability to make each person in the audience feel that he was talking directly to him. V T. M. Hawes, who taught classes in public speaking at the Seminar said of Dr. Broadus:

‘No matter how far away from him you might be, he always seemed near. Somehow he always seemed to be speaking to me, and the others were there simply to hear what he had to say, so great was his power of individualizing an audience.’

Contributing also to his directness was his conversational manner of speaking. Broadus always began quietly and easily and continued in a conversational tone. He often urged his students to ‘talk like folks talk,’ and he tried to put that rule into practice. In keeping with his quiet delivery, he used few gestures, but these were always appropriate for enforcing his ideas. His voice, while not unusually strong, had wonderful carrying power. It was marked by a soft richness, fine flexibility, and often expressed deep pathos. He articulate carefully and there was a good distribution of emphasis. Though his sermons have been called ‘enlarged conversations,’ he would occasionally burst forth spontaneously into intense and blazing declamation. He was capable of eloquence which carried his hearers to height of thought and emotion.

His quiet conversational delivery brought both critics and imitators. Some men, who equated ‘real preaching’ with soaring in the oratorical stratosphere, accused Broadus of ‘ruining the preachers of the South’ by his example. His students, however, saw his effectiveness and in spite of his warning, many of them tried to imitate his tones, his genuine pathos, his platform manner, failing to realize that they had only a few of his external characteristics and not the qualities of his success.

This method of delivery was deeply appreciated by the congregations which heard Broadus speak-for audiences have always appreciated preachers who look directly at them and speak directly to them. His Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching, which were delivered in this manner, were enthusiastically received by the students and faculty at Yale University. Since his unique method of preparing and delivering sermons won the same enthusiastic response from every group he addressed, it must be listed as an important element of strength in his preaching. It was, however, the total impact of man and message that made John A. Broadus such a tremendously popular preacher to his own generation. In Broadus, his audience sensed reality. One listener summarized and made articulate what many felt about Broadus’ preaching.

It was not so much what he said. It did seem that almost anyone might have said what he was saying. But it was the man behind the message. He spoke with the authority of one who tested and knew the truth.