Baptists and Preaching: Lessons from Sprague’s Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit
One of the joys of pastoral ministry is camaraderie with pastors of ages past. Bearing similar strains and experiencing similar joys creates a special affection between pastors that is no less present when we reflect on examples from the past. Chiefly situated among these “strains” and “joys” of ministry is the weighty responsibility of preaching.
In this first article of what I hope will be a series of lessons from William Buell Sprague’s Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit, I examine the practice of preaching among early American Baptists. I will focus on four questions, and allow the biographies to speak for themselves in answer to these questions as much as possible.
- How did they prepare to preach?
- How long did they preach?
- Did they use manuscripts?
- What kind of sermons did they preach?
How Did They Prepare to Preach?
The typical pattern of early American Baptist sermon preparation is exhibited by Hezekiah Smith (1737–1805), a Baptist minister of New York, who “went into his study on Thursday morning, and devoted the residue of the week to careful preparation for the duties of the Sabbath” (101). Stephen Gano (1762–1828), the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Providence, exhibited similar methodical preparation for “Sabbath duties.” Gano regularly devoted two whole days to sermon preparation: “Wednesday and Saturday he gave scrupulously to the work of preparation for the duties of the Sabbath” (234). As John Tallmadge recalled,
It was his custom, in preparing his sermon, to note, on a small piece of paper, his text and the general divisions of his discourse, with references to passages of Scripture and other illustrations of his subject. This memorandum, placed in the book before him, was a sufficient guide to his thoughts; and it enabled him to speak with great promptness and fluency. (234)
These examples of diligence in sermon preparation notwithstanding, not all pastors were afforded (nor sought) the opportunity to set aside days for study. Joseph Grafton (1757–1836), also of Providence, was remembered to have “spent little time in his study, but a great deal in pastoral visitation.” Writing of his friend Grafton, Samuel Smith recounts that “there was scarcely a day when he did not ride abroad to see some of his parishioners.” As a result, “Much of his preparation for the pulpit was conducted in his chaise.” Sometimes, when riding with a familiar friend, he has been observed not only talking out the plans of his sermons, but actually gesticulating, as if preaching them from the pulpit” (227).
Continuing to reflect on the life and ministry of his friend, Smith recalls how Grafton’s social disposition sometimes got in the way of sermon preparation. One Saturday evening, Grafton had been conversing with a number of friends in his parlor until 8 o’clock, when he pleasantly remarked to his companions “that he had now a learned congregation to preach to, and must withdraw to his study to prepare for the Sabbath” (227). Smith recalls that he was absent “only about twenty minutes, when, yielding to the strong temptation below, he came running down again, and spent the residue of the evening in friendly chat” (227).
The more typical fashion of diligently devoting time to sermon preparation is exhibited in the weekly schedule of Horatio Gates Jones (1777–1853), as recounted by his friend Rufus Babcock. After resting from the labors of preaching on Monday, by Tuesday or Wednesday Jones had usually selected his sermon text for the following Sunday. On Thursday mornings, he entered his library “soon after breakfast” and devoted “several hours of continuous study to the topic selected for his discourse.” Babcock recounts that Dr. Jones would “rarely leave the room till the outline of what he intends to say is strongly fixed in his mind” (459). Throughout the rest of the day, “whether in the field or the garden, or on the broad piazza of the family mansion,” he would “resolve, analyze, and recast the several parts of the proposed discourse” until he “feels assured they cannot be arranged by him more satisfactorily.” Only then would Dr. Gates “commit the full outline to paper.” Completing this stage of the sermon preparation by Wednesday, or at the latest Thursday, allowed Dr. Gates to handle the inevitable interruptions to the last half of his week (“the funerals, or marriages, or the diversified duties of his Pastorate”). The result was that he could state, “ordinarily, before the evening of Saturday, all is ready.” Contemplating Gates’ diligent study and the ready demeanor it produced, Babcock reflected,
Never does the man of God appear to more advantage in his family circle, than when the closing hours of the week find him with the happy consciousness of due preparation, and resting in anticipation of the time of public service. How tender, solemn, holy is the spirit he now breathes and diffuses! The bow is unbent, but in hand; the shafts are chosen and ready; and the arm is becoming more vigorous by the temporary relaxation now enjoyed. (459).
Such was the enviable disciplined experience of Horatio Gates Jones.
While such repose is undoubtedly the aim of every pastor, there is still some comfort to be drawn from the memory of Basil Manly Jr., who recalled one occasion where his friend William Theophilus Brantly was preparing a sermon for the afternoon. “The bell struck, denoting the hour of service” and Brantly rose with an audible sigh, “hastily dashing off a dozen lines in large misshapen letters,” and commenting with a smile, “my sermon is like a half formed insect on the banks of the Nile—part out, part in” (501).
How Long Did They Preach?
At a time when an hour was not considered “by any means, an extraordinary length,” William Parkinson (1774–1848) seldom preached “less than an hour” and his hearers “never wearied under him” (365). This length seemed typical in Baptist churches at the time. Babcock recounts that the sermons of Horatio Gates Jones (1777–1853) generally filled up “nearly an hour” (460). In his first sermon, while not yet a preacher, Spencer Houghton Cone (1785–1855) preached “nearly an hour” from 1 John 2:1 to a congregation of 20 to 30 persons at a Sabbath morning prayer-meeting (646).
Despite this hour-long pattern, it was not unusual to find examples of pastors who typically exceeded that length. General Briggs recalled hearing John Leland preach for “an hour and three-quarters” without any “flagging of interest in the hearers.” (183).
Preaching extemporaneously and not being “very methodical in his arrangement,” Samuel Lamkin Straughan (1783–1821) typically preached anywhere from “an hour to an hour and a half, and sometimes two hours” (517)! His biographer noted that his discourses often contained sufficient material for “two ordinary discourses” and could have doubtless “borne much pruning, if they had been written out.” The sermons of Nathaniel Kendrick (1777–1848) were remembered as being “rather long,” but to keep his congregation in their place, he often quoted, “with sportive approval, the remark of his old teacher, Dr. Emmons, that ‘he who preached less than half an hour had better never have gone into the pulpit, and he who preached over an hour had better never come out’” (486).
Did They Use Manuscripts?
Perhaps the most striking lesson from these biographies of American Baptists is their aversion to manuscripts. Time and time again, ministers are commended for preaching extemporaneously or with minimal notes. For instance, Aaron Leland (1761–1833) of Vermont is remembered for being able to speak “extempore without any apparent effort” and without the use of any “written discourse” (241). John Seamans (1748–1830) is likewise commended as a preacher who “never wrote a sermon,” demonstrating “that he had a mind of more than common clearness and vigour” (152).
On the whole, the use of notes and manuscripts seem to be portrayed as a liability. The less the preacher depended on notes, the better. So, for example, Samuel Jones (1735–1814) of Philadelphia was remembered for preaching “with great freedom, and generally spoke either without any manuscript before him, or from short notes” (106). Now, preaching without a manuscript clearly didn’t always produce better preachers. One minister recalled of John Hastings (1743–1811) that “he never preached even from short notes, and I doubt whether he ever wrote a sermon; still, his thoughts were generally well expressed, and quite consecutive, though I sometimes thought that a little more premeditation would have rendered his discourses somewhat shorter” (173).
Examining the use of manuscripts among early American Baptists as a whole, three observations can be made:
- The disdain for manuscripts doesn’t appear uniquely Baptist, but was rooted in a social prejudice nearly ubiquitous in New England at that time.
- This suspicion led to using extemporaneous preaching as a test for discerning whether or not someone was “called” to ministry.
- Given the prejudice against manuscripts and the fact that many of these biographies are written as eulogies, manuscript use was probably more widespread than the Annals lets on.
Let me unpack each of these statements in turn.
The social prejudice against manuscripts in preaching can be heard in a statement made by Francis Wayland as he recalls the preaching of his friend Thomas Baldwin (1753–1826). Remembered as “among the most eminent of his time,” Baldwin “rarely wrote his sermons in full” and rarely even did he “furnish himself with a copious skeleton” (215). Rather, from early in his ministry, he became acquainted with studying and reflecting on the text and merely writing out the leading divisions. Then Wayland makes this startling comment:
Though far from being prejudiced against the use of notes, he was fully, and doubtless very truly, aware that, in New England at least, there is as much danger to be apprehended from too great a reliance on writing, as there is from not writing at all (215).
In other words, Baldwin’s practice was not rooted in any personal disdain for manuscripts. He was personally “far from being prejudiced against the use of notes.” Instead, he was aware “that in New England at least,” there was a social stigma against “too great a reliance on writing.” So Baldwin’s preaching accommodated to his social context.
Neither does this aversion toward the use of manuscripts in preaching appear distinctly Baptist. Instead, the practice developed by the Congregationalists, and it seems often used by the Baptists, was to use extemporaneous preaching as a test for ordination. While still a Congregationalist, William Elliot (1748–1830) was challenged to prove that his call to ministry was genuine by preaching from a text given to him “at the very hour at which the church meeting was begun.” Only after successfully preaching spontaneously from a text handed to him at the beginning of the service was it “settled in every mind that he [was] called of God to preach the Gospel” (239).
Baptists seemed to, on occasion at least, use similar tests before a preacher would be licensed. For example, Elisha Andrews (1768–1840) of Vermont was tested at the same time as his cousin. According to the “usual introductory exercises,” he was handed a text and expected to expound upon it extemporaneously to the best of his ability “with a view to being licensed as a preacher” (270). The first time this happened, Elisha’s cousin proved unable to get very far. Then Elisha was given a turn with the same text and “delivered what turned out to be a very acceptable discourse” (270). The second time, a week later, Elisha found himself “obliged to stop before he had finished the introduction of his sermon” (270) whereas his cousin “made a very successful effort.” The outcome was that Elisha’s cousin was licensed but Elisha was not.
Indeed, extemporaneous preaching was not only seen as a test for ordination but also as a preacher’s “badge of honor.” As B. T. Welch recounts, a Congregationalist opponent of the great Baptist preacher John Leland (1754–1841) spread the rumor that “Mr. Leland did not preach extempore, but wrote his sermons, and committed them to memory” (185). So great was this insult that Leland responded to this accusation by accepting a challenge to preach extemporaneously at the Congregational meeting-house on a text of their choosing. So it happened, that on the appointed day, the meeting-house was opened, and Mr. Leland was handed a little piece of paper as he was about to ascend the pulpit stairs. He did not open the piece of paper until he rose to begin his sermon and then he opened it leisurely, stating that he did not know what the text was, but that they should quickly see; and on turning to it in the Bible, he found it to read thus:
‘And Balaam saddled his ass,’—and as he announced it, he said that if he had searched the Bible through, he could not have found a text more appropriate. ‘It brings to our view,’ said he, ‘three things,—a prophet, an ass, and a saddle. Balaam, the prophet, who loved the wages of unrighteousness—and he well represents the class who oppress their fellow-men (otherwise the Congregationalists); the ass, a penitent bearer of grievous burdens, represents those who are oppressed by them; and the saddle is the unrighteous exaction that is made of these down-trodden denominations.’ (185)
What followed was a sermon which forced even those who disagreed with its message to acknowledge the remarkable promptness, shrewdness, and pungency of Leland’s preaching.
Despite the prejudice against manuscripts, many Baptist preachers made good use of notes. While not writing “out a sermon,” William Batchelder (1768–1818) of Massachusetts meditated on the text and wrote out “skeletons” from which he preached with “fluent eloquence” (325). While Roswell Burrowes (d. 1837) was “not accustomed to deliver his sermons from a manuscript,” he nonetheless “rarely preached without having written at least the plan of his discourse, and not unfrequently much the greater part of all that he delivered” (112). Such careful language suggests that some preachers may have used manuscripts or at least extensive notes more than their biographers may care to remember. For instance, William Duncan wrote of Thomas Ustick (1753–1803) that “his discourses . . . were evidently premeditated, and arranged with devout care, though, I think nothing beyond the outline was ordinarily written” (168).
Only a few of the biographies explicitly acknowledged the use of manuscripts. Charles Thompson (1748–1803), pastor of First Baptist Church in Swansea, Massachusetts, preached sermons that were “sometimes written, but his manuscript was never seen in the pulpit, and his language was generally such as was supplied to him at the moment” (134). Even more extraordinary was the example of John Stanford (1786–1834), one of the leading Baptist figures of his day, who prepared his sermons by writing them out on paper and then committing the bulk of his sermon to memory:
He was accustomed to arrange his thoughts for the pulpit on paper, and to make himself master of his subject, committing the outline, thus prepared, to memory, and then to preach without any manuscript before him, so that his preaching had the appearance of being extemporaneous. (250)
One last positive example of the use of manuscripts is William Staughton (1770–1829), pastor in Philadelphia, PA, who was remembered for preaching three to four times on a Sunday to crowds of thousands. Here is how Daniel Sharp remembered his preaching:
Although his sermons were not wholly written, yet they were by no means extemporaneous effusions—they were the product of much and varied reading, and of deep and patient thought. . . . During the period I was with him, I never heard him on the Sabbath, more than once or twice, when he had not notes of his discourse, more of less copious. These, however, he used so expertly that persons who did not see them, had no suspicions of any paper being before him. (340)
To conclude, given the social stigma against manuscripts demonstrated by the zeal with which Leland sought to defend his honor so impugned by the accusation of “memorizing” his sermons, and the care taken by Thompson and Stanford to avoid “the appearance” of bringing a manuscript to the pulpit, it can be safely assumed that a greater number of Baptist preachers used manuscripts than the Annals lets on. Indeed, given what a coveted “badge of honor” extemporaneous preaching was at the time, perhaps the real headline is the fact that only about half of the biographies mention that a pastor’s preaching was “manuscript-free.”
What Kind of Sermons Did They Preach?
While Annals does not reproduce any sermons, the descriptions of Baptist preaching allow for them to be summarized as single-verse, evangelical expositions. These seem to be the three main characteristics of the kind of sermons early American Baptists preached.
By “single-verse” I mean that the predominant pattern seemed to be to choose a single verse, or two at most, as the text for the Sunday sermon. Examples of this are too many to recount. Though predating the practice of C. H. Spurgeon, American Baptists seemed to be characterized by similar preaching habits. They often chose a verse or two from a text of Scripture that impacted them during the week in contrast to preaching consecutive expositional sermons through an entire book. As has been mentioned, Horatio Gates Jones (1777–1853) usually selected his text on Tuesday or Wednesday (459). In fact, throughout the entire volume, I only came across one reference to a pastor who practiced continuous expositions. As the pastor of First Baptist Church of New York City, William Parkinson (1774–1848) preached twenty-six sermons on Moses’ blessing in Deuteronomy 33, which were later published in two volumes in 1831 (364). In all likelihood, this practice of preaching a single verse greatly facilitated the practice of extemporaneous preaching. Any seasoned expositor knows that preaching a single verse on the fly is far easier than preaching an entire chapter or more extemporaneously.
Second, early American Baptist preaching was evangelical. This was perhaps the main ingredient of Baptist preaching: whether or not it had the effect of convicting sinners and enticing them to flee to Christ. So, to recall one of the ordination tests, it was only determined that William Elliot (1748–1830) was called to the ministry when he preached an “evangelical discourse” (239). Likewise, the preaching of William Batchelder (1768–1818) was beloved precisely because “his hearers would testify that however comfortable they were in mind as they sat down to hear him, he inevitably tore to pieces all their robes of self-righteousness, and left them naked, and imploring for the garment of salvation at the hands of Christ, the Redeemer” (325).
Foremost among preachers of “evangelical sermons” was John Leland who used to remark that “he preached some of his most interesting discourses when he took an Old Testament text, and preached a New Testament sermon” (183). “If I take my text in Genesis,” he said, “my conclusion carries me forward to the third chapter of John. If I start in Revelation, I must go back, and end my sermon in the same third chapter of John.” As General Briggs goes on to say, “I do not think I ever heard [Leland] preach a sermon in which this remark was not illustrated and verified—when the great truth uttered by the Saviour to Nicodemus, was not, in terms, proclaimed to and enforced upon his hearers” (182). Namely, “Ye must be born again!”
Finally, early American sermons were expositional. They took the text seriously and endeavored to explain it faithfully, as exhibited by John Tripp (1761–1846) who was remembered for always taking great “care to give the true meaning of his text” (279).
At the end of the day, many of these early American Baptists lacked the educational refinements of their peers and would have looked with understandable envy on the opportunities afforded to aspiring preachers to cultivate their gifts today. But what they possessed and what they exhibit on the worn pages of Sprague’s Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit is a zeal for the Word of God, the glory of God, and the souls of lost men and women. This zeal resulted in one of the greatest preaching movements in the history of the church and led to the growth of the Baptist denomination from just around 10,000 in 1776 to 100,000 by 1800 and then to 800,000 by 1848.
What would it look like for that zeal to characterize our churches today? What would it take?
On his death bed, Thomas Montanye (1769–1829) mentioned three reasons why it might be desirable for him to live longer: “One was that he might do something more for the benefit of his family.” Another was “that the affairs of others, entrusted to his care, might be finally adjusted.” But “the third and most important” was “that he might see the churches around him supplied with sound, pious, and faithful ministers” (267). May that same zeal be recovered in every pulpit today, and may what Montanye prayed on his deathbed be true of every minister of the gospel!
 “Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit” is Volume 6 in a series of nine volumes edited by William Buell Sprague (1795–1876) and published between 1858 and 1869. These volumes contain “commemorative notices of distinguished American clergymen of various denominations from the early settlement of the country to the close of the year eighteen hundred and fifty-five, with historical introductions.” As such, it is considered one of the great classics of biographical church history. Log College Press has graciously made the entire series available online at https://www.logcollegepress.com/william-buell-sprague/?rq=sprague.
 A “chaise” was a horse-drawn carriage for one or two people, typically one with an open top and two wheels.
 Thomas S. Kidd, Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 77. The same trajectory was true of England where Baptists grew from 20,000 in 1790 to 888,623 by 1851 (See John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism vol. 2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 223.