In 1882, J.C. Ryle published a little booklet entitled Simplicity in Preaching. In this excerpt, he makes some introductory remarks to preachers about how to preach clear and accurate sermons:1
King Solomon says, in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Of making many books there is no end” (12:12). There are few subjects about which that saying is more true than that of preaching. The volumes which have been written in order to show ministers how to preach are enough to make a small library. In sending forth one more little treatise, I only propose to touch one branch of the subject.
I do not pretend to consider what should be the substance and matter of a sermon. I purposely leave alone such points as “gravity, unction, liveliness, warmth,” and the like, or the comparative merits of written or extemporaneous sermons. I wish to confine myself to one point, which receives far less attention than it deserves. That point is simplicity in language and style.
I ought to be able to tell my readers something about “simplicity,” if experience will give any help. I began preaching forty-five years ago, when I first took orders in a poor rural parish, and a great portion of my ministerial life has been spent in preaching to laborers and farmers. I know the enormous difficulty of preaching to such hearers, of making them understand one’s meaning, and securing their attention.
So far as concerns language and composition, I deliberately say that I would rather preach before the University at Oxford or Cambridge, or the Temple, or Lincoln’s Inn, or the Houses of Parliament, than I would address an agricultural congregation on a fine hot afternoon in the month of August. I have heard of a laborer who enjoyed Sunday more than any other day in the week, “Because,” he said, “I sit comfortably in church, put up my legs, have nothing to think about, and just go to sleep.”
Some of my younger friends in the ministry may some day be called to preach to such congregations as I have had, and I shall be glad if they can profit by my experience.
Before entering on the subject, I wish to clear the way by making four prefatory remarks.
For one thing, I ask all my readers to remember that to attain simplicity in preaching is of the utmost importance to every minister who wishes to be useful to souls. Unless you are simple in your sermons you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you. It was a true saying of Quintilian, “If you do not wish to be understood, you deserve to be neglected.” Of course the first object of a minister should be to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but “the truth as it is in Jesus.” But the next thing he ought to aim at is, that his sermon may be understood; and it will not be understood by most of his hearers if it is not simple.
The next thing I will say, by way of prefatory remark, is, that to attain simplicity in preaching is by no means an easy matter. No greater mistake can be made than to suppose this. “To make hard things seem hard,” to use the substance of a saying of Archbishop Usher’s, “is within the reach of all, but to make hard things seem easy and intelligible is a height attained by very few speakers.” One of the wisest and best of the Puritans said two hundred years ago, “that the greater part of preachers shoot over the heads of the people.”
This is true also in 1882! I fear a vast proportion of what we preach is not understood by our hearers any more than if it were Greek. When people hear a simple sermon, or read a simple tract, they are apt to say, “How true! how plain! how easy to understand!” and to suppose that any one can write in that style. Allow me to tell my readers that it is an extremely difficult thing to write simple, clear, perspicuous, and forcible English. Look at the sermons of Charles Bradley, of Clapham. A sermon of his reads most beautifully. It is so simple and natural, that anyone feels at once that the meaning is as clear as the sun at noonday. Every word is the right word, and every word is in its right place. Yet the labor those sermons cost Mr. Bradley was very great indeed.
Those who have read Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield attentively, can hardly fail to have noticed the exquisite naturalness, ease, and simplicity of its language. And yet it is known that the pains and trouble and time bestowed upon that work were immense. Let the Vicar of Wakefield be compared with Johnson’s Rasselas, which was written off in a few days, it is said, under higher pressure—and the difference is at once apparent.
In fact, to use very long words, to seem very learned, to make people go away after a sermon saying, “How fine! how clever! how grand!” all this is very easy work. But to write what will strike and stick, to speak or to write that which at once pleases and is understood, and becomes assimilated with a hearer’s mind and a thing never forgotten—that, we may depend upon it, is a very difficult thing and a very rare attainment.
Let me observe, in the next place, that when I talk of simplicity in preaching, I would not have my readers suppose I mean childish preaching. If we suppose the poor like that sort of sermon, we are greatly mistaken. If our hearers once imagine we consider them a parcel of ignorant folks for whom any kind of “infant’s food” is good enough, our chance of doing good is lost altogether. People do not like even the appearance of ‘condescending preaching’. They feel we are not treating them as equals, but inferiors. Human nature always dislikes that. They will at once put up their backs, stop their ears, and take offence—and then we might as well preach to the winds.
Finally, let me observe, that it is not coarse or vulgar preaching that is needed. It is quite possible to be simple, and yet to speak like a gentleman, and with the demeanor of a courteous and refined person. It is an utter mistake to imagine that uneducated and illiterate men and women prefer to be spoken to in an illiterate way, and by an uneducated person. To suppose that a lay-evangelist or Scripture-reader, who knows nothing of Latin or Greek, and is only familiar with his Bible, is more acceptable than an Oxford first-class man, or a Cambridge wrangler (if that first-class man knows how to preach), is a complete error. People only tolerate vulgarity and coarseness, as a rule, when they can get nothing else.
Having made these prefatory remarks in order to clear the way, I will now proceed to give my readers five brief hints as to what seems to me the best method of attaining simplicity in preaching …
1 J.C. Ryle, Simplicity in Preaching: A Few Short Hints on a Great Subject (London, UK: William, Hunt and Co., 1882), 5-13.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He’s also an Investigations Program Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?