Book Review: The Faithful Preacher, by Thabiti M. Anyabwile
The contemporary preacher has no shortage of resources that remind him of the seriousness of his sacred task—both in and out of the pulpit. There are the standard classics like Spurgeon’s Lectures To My Students, Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor (although Baxter’s theology was far from reformed), Martyn Lloyd-Jones On Preaching And Preachers, William Perkin’s The Art of Prophesying, and Patrick A. Fairbanks Pastoral Theology. In addition to these gems the contemporary preacher has at his disposal great sermons from the past by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield, just to name a few. And if that were not enough, there are a plethora of biographies and books on sermon construction and expository preaching from past and present. In short, today’s gospel preacher is a bookstore or mouse-click away from a vast reservoir of material that will expose him to a far different quality of preaching than the drivel and fluff characteristic of so much preaching today.
So with all this material already available, do we really need more biographies and sermons from the past that highlight the difference between good preaching from yesteryear and much modern preaching? Thabiti M. Anyabwile’s The Faithful Preacher helps us to see that the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
Anyabwile offers us brief biographies of three African-American preachers and a sampling of their sermons. The fact that African-American preachers are the subject of this book is noteworthy by itself. But unlike much of the work available on the black church or its leaders, this book is more theological than sociological. Many have written about the black church’s central role in helping an oppressed people survive and paving the way for the civil rights movement. Those topics are helpful, but they have mostly concentrated on historical and sociological analysis. Not so with The Faithful Preacher. Each of the three men profiled were concerned about the social ills of their day and used their particulars gifts to aid in the relief of some of those ills, but all their social work aimed at advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Anyabwile introduces the reader to Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833), Daniel A. Payne (1841-1911), and Francis J. Grimké (1850-1937). Haynes was Congregationalist, Payne an African-Methodist Episcopalian, and Grimké a Presbyterian. But from these diverse backgrounds, eras, and denominations a single passion and commitment is revealed: to be faithful preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
At the same time, distinct aspects of the ministry of these godly men stand out. Haynes was not only an avowed Calvinist, he served as the pastor of an all white congregation for over thirty years. Payne was a Methodist-trained minister in a Lutheran seminary engaged in “a lifelong mission to improve the educational condition of his people.” He opened his first school in 1829 with three children and three adult slaves for a monthly income of three dollars. Francis Grimké graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1878 under the leadership of Charles Hodge. Anyabwile has greatly served the wider evangelical community by highlighting these little known or appreciated facts.
The sermons recorded in this volume are helpful if not always expository. More importantly they provide insight into the concerns of these African American men of God. Payne’s moralistic Methodism certainly comes through in his sermon “The Christian Ministry: Its Moral and Intellectual Character” (1859) from 1 Timothy 2:2. But what grabbed my attention was how all three men denounced the “style” of preaching much celebrated by many black Christians. Lemuel Haynes maintained that the manner of delivery ought to match the seriousness of the message. He writes,
The awful scenes of approaching judgment will have an influence on the Christian preacher with respect to the manner in which he will deliver the message. He will guard against the low and vulgar style that tends to degrade religion, but his language will in some manner correspond with those very solemn and affecting things that do engage his heart and tongue. He will not substitute a whining tone in place of a sermon that, to speak not worse of it, is a sort of satire upon the gospel, tending greatly to depreciate its solemnity and importance and bring it into contempt.
rudeness of behavior disgraces the minister’s character, for it lowers the dignity of the Christian ministry. So also does buffoonery, in which some men seem to pride themselves. I have seen some such men whom people fond of would just as soon pay twenty-five cents to hear as to see a clown in a circus.
One has to wonder what these men would have to say about the manner of preaching that characterizes many black churches today, with their particular emphasis on the “whoop.” The “whoop,” called by some “the celebration of black preaching,” is considered essential to authentic black preaching. If it’s absent, some say preaching has not taken place. As much as this sort of thing has been relished and preserved as sort of a cultural icon, these preachers from “our” past indicate a discomfort with such antics. In a sermon from 1892, Grimké says “If we turn now and examine carefully the character of the ministration of the Afro-American pulpit, its three leading characteristics will be found to be emotionalism, levity or frivolity and a greed for money.” These are tough statements, but it’s these kind of politically incorrect observations about the black church of their day that make these preachers so intriguing.
In his book Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, the congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis writes about his student days at the American Baptist Theological Seminary: “my goal in life was to become the best preacher I could, which meant working night and day on my ‘whooping.’” Referring to the famous black revival preachers during his school days, Lewis says “when shows like that came through Nashville, and they often did, we were there.” Gratefully, The Faithful Preacher shows us another side of black preaching—one that is based not on emotionalism or showmanship, but rather on a serious study of God’s Word and intentional fidelity to systematic theology.
I am grateful to Thabiti Anyabwile for introducing us to these fellow laborers of the gospel spanning many years, wars, and societal shifts in our nation at large and the black church in particular. The Faithful Preacher is indeed an important, insightful, and invigorating work that should benefit all who read it—whether Black or White, clergy or laity.