George Herbert on preaching

Herbert has some sage and arresting advice for pastors about preaching.

Pastors must be keen on preaching. They shouldn’t vacate their pulpits for vast stretches of time. if they do let a guest preacher in, it’s for a very good reason (such as repeating what the pastor himself has often said without being successfully heard, so to speak!).

Pastors should make very concrete and particular applications to various groups within the church. They should use stories and illustrations “as the text invites him” (not just to generate a laugh or put people artificially at ease). Anecdotes are especially useful, he says, because country people are a bit thick…!

According to Herbert, sermons are dangerous things. The word of God judges us, and every sermon will change us, one way or the other. So the preacher “is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but holy”, and he preaches on “moving and ravishing texts”, rather than focusing on controversies or delivering exegetical lectures which correct the commentators or nearby preachers all the time. Let the people see that the text has moved and changed us first.

Herbert also recommends that the preacher pray to God for help, out loud, within the sermon. This can be done sensitively with great effect, but is not a tactic that should be overused, or it may become a distracting affectation.

Above all, people must be convinced that you love them and pray for them and only desire what is best for them. Preaching is not about making people do what you want them to do, an exercise in power and persuasion for its own sake. Here our poet gives many examples from the pastoral practice of Paul and Christ himself. Their pastoral example is one we must follow, explicitly in our preaching.

Finally, don’t crumble your text into pieces or atomise it. It means what it means in its context (ultimately the context of the whole of scripture). Oh, and don’t preach for more than an hour — which is the good standard length of a sermon throughout church history, he says…

The Parson Preaching.

The Country Parson preaches constantly. The pulpit is his joy and his throne. If he at any time intermit, it is either for want of health, or against some great Festival, that he may the better celebrate it, or for the variety of the hearers, that he may be heard at his return more attentively.

When he intermits, he is ever very well supplied by some able man who treads in his steps, and will not throw down what he has built; whom also he intreats to press some point, that he himself has often urged with no great success, that so in the mouth of two or three witnesses the truth may be more established.

When he preaches, he procures attention by all possible art, both by earnestness of speech (it being natural to men to think, that where is much earnestness, there is somewhat worth hearing), and by a diligent, and busy cast of his eye on his auditors, with letting them know, that he observes who marks, and who not; and with particularizing of his speech now to the younger sort, then to the elder, now to the poor, and now to the rich. “This is for you,” and “This is for you.” For particulars ever touch, and awake more then generals.

Herein also he serves himself of the judgements of God, as of those of ancient times, so especially of the late ones; and those most, which are nearest to his parish; for people are very attentive at such discourses, and think it behoves them to be so, when God is so near them, and even over their heads.

Sometimes he tells them stories, and sayings of others, according as his text invites him; for them also men heed, and remember better then exhortations; which though earnest, yet often die with the sermon, especially with country people; which are thick, and heavy, and hard to raise to a point of zeal, and fervency, and need a mountain of fire to kindle them; but stories and sayings they will well remember.

He often tells them that sermons are dangerous things, that none goes out of church as he came in, but either better, or worse; that none is careless before his judge, and that the word of God shall judge us.

By these and other means the parson procures attention; but the character of his sermon is holiness; he is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but holy. A character, that Hermogenes never dreamed of, and therefore he could give no precepts thereof. [Probably a reference to the rhetorician, Hermogenes of Tarsus who lived in the mid second century.]

But it is gained, first, by choosing texts of devotion, not controversy, moving and ravishing texts, whereof the Scriptures are full.

Secondly, by dipping, and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts, before they come into our mouths, truly affecting, and cordially expressing all that we say; so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is heart-deep.

Thirdly, by turning often, and making many apostrophes to God, as, “Oh Lord bless my people, and teach them this point,” or, “Oh my Master, on whose errand I come, let me hold my peace, and do thou speak thyself; for you are Love, and when you teach, all are scholars.” Some such irradiations scatteringly in the sermon, carry great holiness in them. The Prophets are admirable in this. So Isaiah 64:1, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” And Jeremiah, after he had complained of the desolation of Israel, turns to God suddenly, “I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, etc.” (Jeremiah 10:23).

Fourthly, by frequent wishes of the people’s good, and rejoicing therein, though he himself were with Saint Paul even sacrificed upon the service of their faith (Philippians 2:17). For there is no greater sign of holiness, than the procuring, and rejoicing in another’s good. And herein St Paul excelled in all his epistles. How did he put the Romans in all his prayers (Romans 1.9)? And ceased not to give thanks for the Ephesians (Ephesians 1.16). And for the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 1:4). And for the Philippians made request with joy (Philippians 1:4). And is in contention for them whither to live, or die; be with them, or Christ (Philippians 1:23), which, setting aside his care of his flock, were a madness to doubt of.

What an admirable epistle is the second to the Corinthians! How full of affections! He rejoices, and he is sorry, he grieves, and he glories. Never was there such care of a flock expressed, save in the great shepherd of the fold, who first shed tears over Jerusalem, and afterwards blood. Therefore this care may be learned there, and then woven into sermons, which will make them appear exceeding reverend, and holy.

Lastly, by an often urging of the presence, and majesty of God, by these, or such like speeches: “Oh let us all take heed what we do! God sees us, he sees whether I speak as I ought, or you hear as you ought. He sees hearts, as we see faces: he is among us; for if we be here, he must be here, since we are here by him, and without him could not be here.” Then turning the discourse to his Majesty, “And he is a great God, and terrible, as great in mercy, so great in judgement: There are but two devouring elements, fire, and water — he has both in him: his voice is as the sound of many waters.(Revelation 1:15); and he himself is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).”

Such discourses show very holy. The parson’s method in handling of a text consists of two parts: first, a plain and evident declaration of the meaning of the text; and secondly, some choice observations drawn out of the whole text, as it lies entire, and unbroken in the Scripture itself. This he thinks natural, and sweet, and grave. Whereas the other way of crumbling a text into small parts — such as, the person speaking, or spoken to, the subject, and object, and the like — has neither in it sweetness, nor gravity, nor variety, since the words apart are not Scripture, but a dictionary, and may be considered alike in all the Scripture.

The parson exceeds not an hour in preaching, because all ages have thought that a competency, and he that profits not in that time, will less afterwards; the same affection which made him not profit before, making him then weary, and so he grows from not relishing, to loathing.


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