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John A. Broadus: shaper of Baptist preaching.

The nineteenth century produced many fine Baptist preachers, but none can share the spotlight with John A. Broadus.

The fact that he was a Southerner was incidental. The Mason-Dixon line was not a barrier to his words, printed or spoken. He was a Baptist of international stature, to be held above all others in his influence on preaching from his day and well into the twentieth century.

To support what must seem such an extravagant claim, one need only point to A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, written by Broadus and first published in 1870. No sooner was the book published than it became and remained the standard textbook for preaching among non-Catholic seminaries and theological schools in the English-speaking world. Words of praise for the book from many denominations could be piled up to the point of weariness. For seventy years or more, every work on preaching was merely a supplement to that of Broadus. Even today, over a century after he first published it, the work of Broadus stands ghost-like behind many "modern" approaches to preaching.

The Man Behind the Book

John Albert Broadus was born in Culpeper County, Virginia, on January 24, 1827. Like many Virginia farm boys, he wanted nothing more in life than to become an Indian chief and live and die in paint and feathers. But reality intruded and the boy from Culpeper County found himself in 1850 at the age of twenty-three the leading masters graduate at the University of Virginia and a popular young preacher.

With Georgetown College calling him to Kentucky to teach ancient languages, Broadus turned instead in 1851 to a pastorate: the Charlottesville Baptist Church in Virginia, where he could minister both to the town and the university. His congregation was remarkable in its variety. The profound and the ignorant shared pews, and it was that challenge which did much to prepare Broadus for his great life work. No Baptist preacher could be studied as a greater model for the superior blending of depth and clearness. The university, however, would not give him up; and after three years as pastor in Charlottesville, he accepted the position of chaplain to the University of Virginia in 1855.

Broadus seemed during those early years of ministry to struggle over the exact nature of his calling. He was pulled in two different directions: when in the pastorate, he longed for the classroom; in the classroom, he yearned for the pulpit. For a short time he tried to teach a university class in Greek while he was a pastor in Charlottesville, but the strain was too great. Both the pulpit and the classroom suffered, so he finally gave up his Greek class.

Only in 1857 did he begin to resolve his dilemma. At the meeting of an Education Convention held in connection with the session of the Southern Baptist Convention that year, Broadus was asked to be a member of a committee of five to plan the organization of an institution to be known as the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Joining Broadus were eminent fellow Baptists in the South: James P. Boyce, Basil Manly, Jr., E. T. Winkler, and William Williams.

When the committee met in August 1857, Boyce proposed an outline of legal arrangements. Manly had drawn up an "Abstract of Principles" for the professors to sign, and Broadus contributed a plan of instruction modeled on the elective system of the University of Virginia. In 1859, just two years later, Broadus accepted the invitation to be one of the original faculty members of the new institution. From that day on, his life was bound to the seminary.

The early years of Southern Seminary constitute a heroic story in themselves. Just as the institution showed every promise of success, the Civil War dashed all immediate hopes. Originally located in Greenville, South Carolina, the seminary was in the first state to secede. Broadus was opposed to secession, but nothing seemed capable of staying the bloody hand of war. The seminary lost virtually all of its students and had to close in hopes of better days.

Broadus preached where he could, and he served as chaplain in Lee's army for a time. But his mind was on the seminary--and his vision of a textbook for young preachers. At the close of the war, the seminary reopened its doors with almost no money and barely a handful of students.

The tremendous struggle of the early years of the seminary eventually took its toll on Broadus's health. In 1870, just when his book on preaching was being published, he became so exhausted that the seminary trustees sent him on an extended trip to Europe. He had worn himself out in teaching and trying to raise funds for the seminary. Not only was his health restored on the journey, but he also made many new friends among European Christian scholars. His mind was broadened and stimulated.

Upon his return to the seminary, Broadus was recharged with enthusiasm for the fields of New Testament and preaching. By the 1880s, he added to his competency in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew a working knowledge of German, French, Spanish, Italian, Gothic, Coptic, and modern Greek. He was a scholar of international stature in the classroom.

Broadus wrote many books. His Lectures on the History of Preaching, which appeared in 1876, was a lively journey through the history of the Christian church. As a biblical scholar he was fully versed in leading theories of biblical studies and was capable of forming his own judgments. His Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, published in 1886, was a brilliant demonstration of his ability to combine intellectual rigor and love of scripture. Also in 1886, his Sermons and Addresses appeared, providing for the first time a collection of his now famous preaching to be studied by preachers of all denominations. In 1890, he published a little book entitled Jesus of Nazareth, which was aglow with his love of Christ and served as a devotional guide, as well as a scholarly study of Jesus. Finally, in 1893 he published his memoir of James Petigru Boyce as an act of love for his lifelong friend who had founded Southern Seminary.

Broadus stood as a living witness against the false assumption that a precise scholar must be aloof, somehow separate from the common people. On the contrary, he took great delight in the common folk of his denomination. It was a rare Sunday when he was not preaching in some church, and during the summers he was sought after as a supply preacher from all parts of the country--north and south.

The esteem for Broadus continued to grow until Southern Baptists were jolted by his death in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 16, 1895. He was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. Words of praise for his life rushed in from all over the world. Broadus possessed a gracious spirit, a love for truth, and a breadth of learning which made him one of the greatest Baptist leaders of all time.

The Foundation of Modern Baptist Preaching

The life behind the book added luster to A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, but the book could have stood alone without knowledge of its author. For the last century, this work of Broadus has deservedly stood as the foundation of Baptist preaching. By 1900, the book had passed through twenty-five editions. Theological schools of many Protestant denominations were using it either as a required text or a highly commended supplement. TWo separate editions were published in England. It was translated into Chinese for the mission schools.

In 1898, E. C. Dargan, a student of Broadus and his successor as teacher of preaching at Southern Seminary, revised the book. Half a century later, in 1944, J. B. Weatherspoon, professor of preaching at Southern Seminary, revised it again to serve another generation. Vernon L. Stanfield, associate professor of preaching at Southern Seminary, completed another revision of Broadus's work in 1959. Generation after generation of Baptist preachers have studied and can still study an edition of A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons.

Broadus influenced Baptist preaching in significant ways, and his stamp on preaching bore certain characteristics. He staked preaching firmly in the informed interpretation of scripture. To say that he emphasized scripture as the basis of truth in preaching is nothing new. Baptist leaders had been doing and teaching the same since the seventeenth century. The great difference was that Broadus lived in a new era. Biblical criticism had spread from Germany to America, terrifying many Baptists.

Afraid that the foundations of their religious experience were crumbling beneath them, some Baptist preachers moved subtly to take away the Bible as source of truth and to set up the Bible as object of faith. The mood was shifting from the free proclamation of truth to the fearful defense of truth. Some began to substitute preaching from the Bible with preaching about the Bible. The result was a new direction in faith: what one said about the Bible was becoming more important than what one experienced of Christ.

Baptists needed someone to steer them into a new day. He would have to earn the confidence of the very people who were most afraid of biblical scholarship. At the same time, he must rise to a position of respect among the leading biblical scholars of the theological world. Broadus stood between both worlds and spoke eloquently to each. With mind and heart all aglow, he showed through his life and preaching that intellectual rigor and evangelistic warmth could be woven out of the same cloth.

Broadus was less concerned that preachers teach a system of doctrines than that they proclaim the experience of Christ. Experience was to precede doctrine; only then could doctrine make sense and be held with conviction.

His understanding of the centrality of Christ underlined the need to interpret the Scriptures with intelligence and precision. He was an avowed enemy of rampant spiritualizing and irresponsible allegory. Preachers often broke away from the laborious study of text and context and imaginatively took flight to find symbols of Christ in every dusty corner of the Old Testament; but Broadus drew preaching back down to the common earth and virtually forced preachers to say what a passage actually meant. To do otherwise, he claimed, was inexcusable.

Broadus gave the Baptist sermon a distinctive shape. He once described a sermon which seemed to have as little congruity as "the human head, a horse's neck, a body composed of parts brought from all directions and covered with many kinds of feathers, and the who ending in a fish's tail." (1) Such lack of organization was unfortunately all too common among preachers of his day. Too many preachers were simply not trained to use logic and order in sermons. Preaching was sometimes splattered over a congregation with no sense of unity, resulting in an ill-defined understanding of the gospel.

Broadus's teaching helped give logical organization and progression to Baptist preaching. His aim was not to make it possible for a person to understand the text, but to make it impossible for one not to understand it.

Broadus invested Baptist preaching with a distinctive style. Baptist preachers tended toward one of two extremes. Either they gave no preparation to a discourse and depended upon the inspiration of the moment, or they prepared a manuscript and read it. Broadus taught a middle course. He rarely wrote out an entire manuscript sermon. Rather, he meticulously prepared a "skeleton" of his sermon, including a fully written introduction and conclusion, and then left it in his study when he went to preach.

The result was extemporaneous preaching based on careful preparation. He did not memorize, but the wealth of preparation fed his mind as he preached. He refused to take notes into the pulpit because he wanted eye contact with the people and, more important, wanted to remain open to spiritual leadership as he preached. Baptist preaching largely followed his lead, thus creating a certain style which one elderly woman once said she could always recognize.

The Broadus style included more than a method of delivery, however. There was a decorum, a manner of respect, which came from his influence. Broadus was a decided enemy against show and arrogance in the pulpit. For him, the sacredness of the preaching task excluded exhibitionism of any kind. Rhyming outlines, bold clothing, kneeling before the pulpit, the use of the "royal we" (the plural of majesty), artificial display of voice or tears--all these, in his view, were merely signs of egoism and therefore hurtful to the gospel.


A true story about Broadus that still circulates among many Baptists relates to his influence on a slightly retarded man named Sandy, who lived near the Broadus farm. Broadus, at the age of sixteen and only a few months after his conversion, ventured to speak to Sandy about his salvation; eventually, Sandy professed his faith in Christ. Soon Broadus left for college and the brilliant calling that lay before him. But whenever he returned to his home community, he could always count on hearing Sandy running to meet him. Sandy always had the same greeting: "Howdy, John? Thankee, John. Howdy, John? Thankee, John."

Broadus would sometimes tell that story and would add: "And if I ever reach the heavenly home and walk the golden streets, I know the first person to meet me will be Sandy, coming and saying again, "Howdy, John? Thankee, John."

Sandy would not be the only one to rush toward Broadus in gratitude. Baptists--indeed many denominations--are largely in debt to him. Broadus distilled the best traditions of preaching from his own denomination, added a knowledge and understanding of the scriptures drawn from nineteen centuries of Christian thought, combined a genuine affection for common folk, and produced a work which still nourished the pulpit ministry of many churches in this country and abroad.

This article was originally prepared as a pamphlet published in 1987 by the Historical Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Portions of that pamphlet were adapted from McKibbens's book, The Forgotten Heritage: A Lineage of Great Baptist Preaching (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986). Used by permission.

(1.) John A. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (Philadelphia: Smith, English, and Co., 1874), 270.

Thomas R. McKibbens, Jr., is pastor of First Baptist Church, Worcester, Massachusetts.
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Author:McKibbens, Thomas R., Jr.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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