Preachers I Have Heard

By J.P. Thackway

Alexander Gammie’s Preachers I Have Heard – Introduction

When preparing for the ministry in the early 1970s, it was my privilege to collect many books. Among these were Bible commentaries, Puritan sets, church histories, biographies and autobiographies. In the course of building one’s library, all sorts get picked up, sometimes not much noticed. Among those almost forgotten was a volume with the above title: Preachers I have Heard, written by a Scot named Alexander Gammie and published by Pickering and Inglis during the last War.

This man is not well-known nowadays, but when he flourished in the 1930s, he was a popular writer. He was a regular contributor to a number of Scottish newspapers, including the Glasgow Evening Citizen, the Aberdeen Daily Journal and Evening Express. His main work, however, was as an author. Here is one citation concerning him,

He wrote biographies of several prominent ministers of the Church of Scotland, as well as histories of the Salvation Army in Scotland and William Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland. His main publications include: Dr George H. Morrison: his life and work (London: James Clarke, 1929); Dr John White: a biography and a study (London: James Clarke, 1929); Reverend John McNeill: his life and work (London: Pickering & Inglis, [1933]); Pastor D.J. Findlay: a unique personality (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1949); In Glasgow’s Underworld: the social work of the Salvation Army (London: Pickering & Inglis, [1942]); William Quarrier and the Story of the Orphan Homes of Scotland (London: Pickering & Inglis, [1940]); Souvenir of Union Assembly 1929 (Glasgow: British Imperial Publicity Service, 1929).

Well-placed

Gammie was well-placed to write the book mentioned above. He moved among the most prominent Christian leaders of his day, particularly in Scotland, and attended their ministry. No less than 57 preachers feature in the book. Most are ministers, but others are leaders of organisations, and others are academics and college Principals. All have in common the fact that they preached and Gammie heard them. Here is the complete list, some of whom will probably be familiar to you:

  • William Booth
  • Principal John Cairns
  • James Chalmers
  • Ralph Connor
  • Rev. W.J. Dawson
  • Principal James Denney
  • Dr. Marcus Dods
  • Principal A.M. Fairbairn
  • Pastor D.J. Findlay
  • Dr. Archibald Fleming
  • Dr. Donald Fraser
  • Rev. Donald McIntosh
  • Dr. D.M. McIntyre
  • Professor H.R. Mackintosh
  • Rev. John McNeill
  • Dr. George Matheson
  • Dr. F.B. Meyer
  • Professor James Moffatt
  • Dr. G. Campbell Morgan
  • Principal James Morison
  • Dr. George H. Morrison
  • Professor Robert Morton
  • Rev. George Gladstone
  • Dr. Alexander Grieve
  • Dr. James Hastings
  • Rev. C. Silvester Horne
  • Dr. R.F. Horton
  • Rev. Hugh Price-Hughes
  • Dr. John Hunter
  • Dr. George Jackson
  • Dr. J.D. Jones
  • Dr. J.H. Jowett
  • Dr. John Kelman
  • Rev. G.A. Studdert Kennedy
  • Dr. John Ker
  • Dr. Robert Laws
  • Rev. W.H. Lax
  • Dr. George Macdonald
  • Dr. James Macgregor
  • Principal W.M. Macgregor
  • Dr. Joseph Parker
  • Professor W.P. Paterson
  • John G. Paton
  • Dr. Ambrose Shepherd
  • Dr. Alexander Smellie
  • Professor David Smith
  • Dr. Walter C. Smith
  • Professor James Stalker
  • Rev. William Stoddart
  • Rev. J.P. Struthers
  • Dr. T. De Witt Talmage
  • Rev. T.N. Tattersall
  • Archbishop William Temple
  • Dr. John Watson
  • Dr. F.L. Wiseman
  • Rev. A.E. Whitham
  • Dr. Alexander Whyte
  • Dr. Dinsdale Young

Alexander Gammie gives a pen-portrait of each of these men, and then describes the character of their preaching. From first-hand experience he tells us what each of these was like to hear: the quality, length, depth and sometimes the theology of their sermons. There is little mention of the orthodoxy or otherwise of these preachers. Gammie seems not interested in this – rather what it was like to listen to them when at their best.

Journalist

Gammie writes more like a journalist than as a soul in need of having the word of God for himself. This is because, as he says in the Preface, these articles first appeared in the Glasgow Evening Citizen and afterwards published in book form. However, I think there is another reason for the almost detached nature of these accounts of the men’s preaching. It has to do with the era in which these men lived and ministered.

Although Gammie wrote these articles in the 1930s and 1940s, none of the men were then alive. In his Preface he stated, “It would have been invidious to make a selection from living preachers: hence their omission.” Therefore the men under review had flourished in an earlier generation, toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. This makes many of them come after the time of C.H. Spurgeon and preachers of his generation.

Significant

This is important because by the time these men were at their height, profound changes had taken place in evangelicalism. Changes that had gathered huge momentum by the time Gammie wrote. I refer to the effects of higher criticism or theological liberalism. Spurgeon called it the “New Theology” and “Modern Thought,” because it was sharply at variance with the orthodoxy he and his forebears had stood for in their day.

It created an era that challenged everything and affected almost everyone. Its effects upon those with any religion is well summed up in these words,

The nineteenth century was a self-conscious time of transition. John Stuart Mill observed in 1831 that “mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones.” Bulwer-Lytton moaned, “The age is then of destruction! … Miserable would be our lot were it not also an age of restructuring.” Charles Kingsley offered the opinion that “few of us deeply believe anything.” The rationalism and the romanticism of the Enlightenment were making hash out of accepted belief.

The likes of David Hume and Herbert Spencer were drawing many to doubt and denial. Tennyson’s In Memoriam is not belief or unbelief; it is doubt. Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach is a melancholy review of the recession of faith. George Eliot cut off her evangelical roots because of biblical criticism and went on to be an advocate of free love.1

In addition to the unbelieving pronouncements of liberal scholars was the tremendous advance in science, engineering, the inventions and discoveries, the new philosophies – all seemed to question confidence in a divinely-inspired Bible that laid sinners low and exalted God on high.

It was bad enough that liberal unbelief was challenging orthodox faith. Far worse was that evangelicals failed to stand firm under the authority of Scripture. Catching the new mood, they imagined that the Faith must be presented differently to avoid being thought outdated and irrelevant. Therefore they began to preach from a Bible shorn of its infallible teaching, its miracles, its authority in the realm of geology, history, and the nature of man, and its insistence upon salvation by sovereign grace and substitutionary atonement. And, they assured everyone, it was still the Bible and still the gospel! In reality, only the Bible’s lofty moral teaching formed much of the “Christianity” of the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

No saving message

Such a Bible, of course, had no saving message, no power to change lives and build churches. Therefore, over the generations unbelief and man-centeredness increased, and church-going declined. Yet, still the liberals spoke of “progress”! Even the cataclysmic events of another world war from 1939 to 1945 did not seem to shake confidence in their “social gospel.” Over all this time, those who contended for the old Faith and the Old Paths were dismissed as a throwback from a bygone age. Yet it was preachers of this stripe who were knowing the Lord’s blessing on their ministries and churches.

Few such preachers feature in Alexander Gammie’s book. Some notable ones will be familiar to us: men like William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army), F.B. Meyer, Alexander Whyte and G. Campbell Morgan. Yet even these men did little to stem the tide of the liberalism that was the inveterate enemy of what they held dear. In fact, upon closer reading, some of them made concessions to liberalism that proved the last thing their generation needed.

Ironic

It might seem ironic, therefore, that in this climate preaching was nonetheless of a high standard and popular. It must be remembered, however, that those were days when public speaking was highly regarded anyway. It was long before the days of the broadcast media and social media – and before our present generation of “hollow men” for whom style does for substance. Those were days of optimism, confidence in man, national pride and expectation of greater things to come. As one writer put it:

… the era of colonial expansion, and Victorianism created a milieu for heroic preaching. Here we shall see much maturity and pulpit potency, but here we shall also see the seeds of apostasy and a disappointing hesitancy.2

In other words, remarkable preaching continued after the divine message was being lost.

Authentic

It could not long continue, however. With the loss of the authority of Scripture, the authentic ring of truth faded. In the place of anointed preaching came preaching represented by most of the men in Gammie’s book. They were literary men, enthralling speakers, filled with the greatness of the times in which they lived. With the exception of a few, they were the last gasp of anything like prophetic preaching. The next generation would reap the fruits of their failure. Dr. Lloyd-Jones blames such men for the eventual decline in respect for the pulpit itself,

I believe that there has been a reaction against what were called “the great pulpiteers,” especially of the second half of the last century (the 19th – Ed) … The term itself is very interesting, and I believe it is a very accurate one. These men were pulpiteers rather than preachers. I mean that they were men who could occupy a pulpit and dominate it, and dominate the people. They were professionals. There was a good deal of the element of showmanship in them, and they were experts at handling congregations and playing on their emotions. In the end they could do almost what they liked with them. Now this, I am sure, has produced a reaction; and that is a very good thing. These pulpiteers were to me – with my view of preaching – an abomination; and it is they who are in many ways largely responsible for this present reaction.3

Our day

Fast forward to our day, we now find that real preaching is at a discount.4 It continues, of course, with men and congregations who revere God’s Word and know the dew of heaven upon their ministries. But generally speaking, among liberals and New Evangelicals, sermons are brief and shallow. Liberals have lost the divinity of Scripture and have no message; New Evangelicals have lost the authority of Scripture and give more time to singing, drama, puppets and comedy – and are left with little message either.

How we long and pray for a new generation of divinely-called, godly, gifted and anointed preachers! May the Lord raise them up and restore “sons of the prophets” to us. Back in May 1974 when I purchased Gammie’s book I wrote in the flyleaf these words: “Great preachers are God’s gift to His Church – may He raise up many more of like calibre with the best of those written about in this volume!” Certain it is that if He does, we shall have more than “pulpiteers,” or polite men-pleasers, or those seeking a reputation. We shall have men of God – those who are like Haggai, “the LORD’S messenger in the LORD’S message unto the people, saying, I am with you, saith the LORD” (Haggai 1:13).

Marcus Dods

He is the first of Alexander Gammie’s pen-portraits that we give here. In the following issues of the Quarterly I hope to give one each time for the interest of our readers. It is appropriate to make Dods the first because he represents in many ways the worst of those whom Gammie heard and praised. It was Dods, who in a letter to his friend John Grant, on 8 January 1902 said,

I wish I could live as a spectator through the next generation to see what they are going to make of things. There will be a grand turn up in matters theological, and the churches won’t know themselves fifty years hence. It is to be hoped some little rag of faith will be left when all’s done. For my own part, I am sometimes entirely under water and see no sky at all.5

These revealing words show that the liberals knew what they were doing. And in the case of Dods, as with others, the poison was taking a toll on personal faith. In his earlier days, Dods was more conservative in his outlook and writings. However, a number of influences radically changed him, including Darwin’s Origin of Species, Essays and Reviews, and the writings of Bishop Colenso and John Macleod Campbell. By 1889 when he was appointed professor of New Testament Exegesis in the New College, Edinburgh, his liberal unbelief was established beyond recovery.

In 1890 Dods was summoned before the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, but the charge of unorthodoxy was dropped by a large majority. This showed the way things were going. Far from counting against him, in 1907 he became Principal of the Free Church’s New College, Edinburgh. By the time Gammie wrote about Dods’ preaching the following century, men’s views on the inerrancy of the Bible hardly mattered. And yet it was Dods, along with a select group of scholars and ministers who did so much in their day to destroy evangelicalism in Scotland and beyond! How much harm lack of discernment does in any generation!

Here, then, is Alexander Gammie’s report of Dr. Marcus Dods.

No man who afterwards rose to fame was ever so near being a “stickit minister” as Marcus Dods. After he had completed with high distinction his course of training he wandered in the wilderness for six years as a probationer preaching in vacancy after vacancy without success. He wrote to his friend, Mr. Taylor Innes, with a touch of sardonic humour, that he was meditating a discourse on the sick man at the Pool of Bethesda, adding: “He, however, had thirty-eight disappointments; I only twenty-one as yet.”

But there were others still to follow. As a matter of fact, he had twenty-three distinct chances of more or less attractive charges and twenty-three times he lost. Dods had indeed come to be the chronic probationer of whom it has been said that “his worn bag with its two ‘dried tongues’ is the jest even of railway porters, his successive failures are known to every beadle in the land, and as the churchless years go by he becomes the shunned of sessions, the despised of Presbyteries, and the despair of ecclesiastics.”

It said much for the audacity and faith and vision of a Glasgow congregation that it “took to its arms the disheartened residuum of three and twenty vacancies.” But its reward was as great as its discernment. For a quarter of a century Marcus Dods made Renfield Church (in Bath Street at the corner of Elmbank Street) a great centre of light and leading in the religious life of the community. And he left it only when he was appointed a professor in New College, Edinburgh, where later he also became Principal.

Yet it was not altogether surprising that Dods had such a long period of waiting, for it must be admitted that his style as a preacher was not attractive. Anyone more motionless in the pulpit it would have been difficult to imagine. Even when preaching his great sermons he used to stand apparently as immovable as a rock. The story is told of how a friend once urged him to introduce a gesture now and then. In his next sermon he managed to raise his hand at a certain point, but there it remained; he was unable to get it down again until the sermon as at and end!

It was also easy for his hearers at first to mistake the massiveness of his thought for heaviness. He was singularly devoid of artifice of any kind; even literary embellishment, though within his reach as within the reach of few, he disdained to use.

No better pen-picture of Marcus Dods has ever been given than by Professor Henry Drummond when he wrote: “He stands squarely in the pulpit, without either visible motion or emotion, reads his sermon from start to finish, without a pause, begins without awakening any sense of expectation, gives no hint throughout of either discovery or originality, however much the discourse may seem to teem with both, passes at a pace which never changes, in a voice without passion, or pathos, or cadence, or climax, through each of the half-dozen massive paragraphs of which every sermon is composed, and finishes bluntly when the last thing has been said, as if he were now well out of it for the week.

“But, on thinking over it when you go home, you perceive that the after-result is almost in proportion to the unconsciousness of the effect at the time. You know exactly why the sermon stopped just then; there was nothing more to be said; the proof was final. You discover easily why the appeal did not move you more. You have been accustomed to the sounds of passion vibrating in the chords of another soul. Now your own soul seethes and trembles. These effects are not the work of a man: they are the operating of the Spirit of Truth.

“You know at last why the man was so hidden, why he had no cunning phrases, why beautiful words do not linger in your memory, why a preacher so impersonal, and to whom you were so impersonal, a preacher so wholly uninterested in you, so innocent himself of taking you by the throat, has yet taken his subject by the throat and planted it down before your inmost being, so that you cannot get rid of it. You know that you have heard no brilliant or awakening oratory; but you feel that you have been searched and overawed, that unseen realities have looked you in the eyes and asked you questions and made you a more humble and a more obedient man.”

There never was a more diligent worker than Marcus Dods. Charles Wesley complained in his diary that he fell from his horse and was sore injured, “which prevented me writing hymns till next day.” The friends of Dods would have been alarmed to think of the consequences if he had been denied his favourite blue-grey quarto and broad-nibbed pen for two successive mornings. By his own admission, he loved to write; he said the exercise of the pen was a pleasure to him. Even before he got a church he had published two books, and he continued to produce volume after volume until his working days were done. His notable contribution to theological literature made other preachers his debtors, but it is with his own preaching we are here concerned.

As long as he was in the ministry he allowed nothing to interfere with the duty he owed to his congregation. He toiled on methodically, preparing as faithfully for his week-night prayer meeting as for the Sunday services. What may seem surprising is that a special feature of his Glasgow ministry in its later years was his monthly talk to children.

The heresy hunts in which Marcus Dods figured are now happily almost completely forgotten. He had his critics, but the fact an Evangelical stalwart like Dr. Alexander Whyte, of St. George’s Edinburgh, was all along his most intimate friend counted for a great deal. His sincerity was always transparent. Sir William Robertson Nicoll declared that he was the most Christlike man had ever known.

No one could desire a finer epitaph than that pronounced on Marcus Dods when it was said: “What his people remember, his students bless him for, was the impression he left with them of the tremendous reality of the spiritual life, the grandeur and inexhaustible glory of Christianity, the necessity and urgency of consecrated service, the stimulus to holy living to be found, and found alone, in personal contact with Christ crucified and risen.”

February 23, 1940

1. David L. Larsen, The Company of Preachers. A History of Biblical Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era, Kregel 1998, volume 2, pages 84,85.

2. Ibid., pages 2,3.

3. Preaching and Preachers, Zondervan, 1972, pages 13,14.

4. For a treatment of this subject, see the editor’s Where have all the Preachers Gone? in Bible League Quarterly, April-June 2002, pages 56-68.

5. Later Letter of Marcus Dods D.D. Selected and edited by his son, Marcus Dods M.A., Hodder and Stoughton, 1911, page 67.

6. David Larson in The Company of Preachers says of Andrew Bonar that his confidence in the integrity of Scripture knew no bounds – while in his eighties he became deeply troubled over Marcus Dods’ theological slippage” (page 6).

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