Maclaren of Manchester, as he was generally called, died just over half a century ago, after fifty-seven years as a British minister. During that long period he was twice elected president of the Baptist Union, and he was the first president of the Baptist World Alliance when it was founded at the turn of the century. The first twelve years of his ministry were spent in obscurity, in what was then the little town of Southampton; from there he went to Union Chapel, Manchester, where he reigned as a pulpit monarch for forty-five years. Maclaren often spoke of the twelve years of obscurity as having been of immense value as a preparation for what afterwards became his great period. “The trouble with you young men,” he said to a group of seminary students, “is that on graduation you get pitch-forked into a prominent position, and you cannot resist the temptation to attend this tea-meeting, serve on that committee, when you ought to remain in your study and do there the work that is of first importance in serving your day and generation according to the will of God.” The preacher certainly took his own advice in Southampton and did not stray far from it during his great ministry in Manchester.

Maclaren was first, foremost, and always a preacher of the Eternal Word of God, “mighty in the Scriptures” and pre-eminent as an expositor of biblical truth. Indeed, it is easy to see why Maclaren came to be known as the “Prince of Expositors.” He has been described as “the supreme example, the perfect type, of the classic Protestant tradition of expository preaching.” How true that statement is may be judged from his many sermon volumes, especially the three series of Sermons Preached in Manchester (containing some of his best efforts), and from his many volumes of Expositions of Holy Scripture (in which that on Genesis and that on Colossians are regarded as outstanding), as well as from his several contributions to The Expositor’s Bible (especially his three volumes on the Psalms).

John Brown, in his Yale Lectures on “Puritan Preaching in England,” offers a penetrating analysis of Maclaren’s preaching. He stresses the fact that Maclaren spoke with “crystal clearness” and that the preacher’s “great intellectual and literary qualities” were “suffused with intense spiritual earnestness.” But the qualities he emphasizes most of all about Maclaren are these:

1. His teaching is firmly based upon, and is a careful exposition of, the revelation God has given to us in the Scriptures.

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2. His intelligent reverence for the Scriptures is accompanied with, or rather grows out of, his firm belief in the historical facts related in Scripture.

3. His preaching is intensely practical in character, not in the sense of ethical instruction in the duties of daily life, though that is not absent, but of clear and definite instruction as to the rationale of the divine life in the souls of men—its nature, its beginnings, its after-developments, and the spiritual forces by which it is begun and carried on. In this teaching the contrast between the natural and spiritual man is emphasized; and the need for faith in Christ for the change from the one to the other is asserted.

In a general way this was true of most of his contemporaries, but Maclaren’s preaching had the stamp of genius upon it (as did that of Spurgeon and Parker). In fact, these men all did their work at a time when the task of the man in the pulpit was just that—the interpretation and application of God’s truth as found in the Scriptures. They regarded their task as that of opening the treasures of Holy Writ to the saints and to the sinners, if the latter would hear (as they did then in greater numbers than they do today). It was usual in the morning service to edify the believer by recounting and illustrating the precious promises of God’s Word, and in the evening it was the solemn task of the preacher to urge the sinner to realize his lost condition and to “flee from the wrath to come.” But in a very real sense the Bible itself was the preacher; the function of the man in the pulpit was to extract from the Sacred Volume, and exhibit for all to see, the inexhaustible riches of divine truth which otherwise might go unappreciated and unappropriated.

The Monarch And The Bible

Underlying this view of preaching was a very definite theory of the nature and purpose of the Bible as God’s message of redemptive love to mankind. Despite the impact of the scientific naturalism and the influence of the emerging higher criticism of the Scriptures, much in evidence in the latter half of the last century, most Christian people believed in the full inspiration of every part of Holy Writ and had no doubts of the Bible’s divine authority. Maclaren shared this fundamental conviction. To him the Sacred Volume was the divinely provided source of man’s knowledge of spiritual things.

That was the foundation of his preaching, and every sermon had this vital principle as its suppressed major premise. He used the whole Bible—indeed, in view of the paucity of his extra-biblical references and illustrations, we may almost say that he used only the Bible—and any suggestion of a “Shorter Bible for Schools and Colleges” (an idea scarcely heard of in his time) would have got no support from him. As Ernest Jeffs puts it in his Princes of the Modern Pulpit:

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All Scripture was for edification: the sternness of God’s judgments, the wrath of the prophets, the philosophy of Paul. Christ was central, and the Cross was central in one’s thought of Christ; but the whole Bible had its rich and profound lessons for the human heart.… The charm of Maclaren’s preaching was intellectual and artistic. It lay in the logical closeness and firmness of his exposition, the architectural culmination of proof and argument, the warmth and richness of his metaphor and illustration; and under all this was the stern challenge to righteousness and repentance, breaking into sunshine, so to speak, when the emphasis changes from the God who judges to the Jesus who redeems.

The great Joseph Parker once said to an audience of preachers: “I haven’t written a sermon for years,” and his hearers began to applaud. Parker impatiently signaled for silence and then thundered, as only he could: “But, remember, for years I did little else save write sermons.” It is difficult to believe, but many of Maclaren’s best sermons were not written until after they were preached. Like Spurgeon, the Manchester preacher would put a few notes on a single sheet of paper and from this brief skeleton would deliver a discourse having on it all the marks of the most careful preparation. And it was carefully prepared, but indirectly rather than directly. He would write reams and reams of theological essays, many of which would be thrown into the wastepaper basket. But such strenuous toil and hard self-discipline paid handsome dividends. He did not need to write every sermon before delivery, and yet every discourse had on it all the marks of the finished literary and homiletic creation. Either by deliberate intention or by happy circumstance (perhaps a mixture of both), Maclaren was able to escape the ecclesiastical odd-jobbing in which so many American ministers of today have to engage. He was essentially a student. His study was a study, not a lounge, certainly not an office. He had no telephone to interrupt his “adventure of ideas” and thus was able to escape unnecessary calls upon his time.

Maclaren used to say, referring to an older contemporary: “Binney taught me how to preach.” Thomas Binney is hardly a name to ministers today. He was pastor of the King’s Weigh House Church in West London (in more recent years the scene of the ministry of the brilliant and erratic William E. Orchard) and may be remembered by some as the author of the hymn “Eternal Light.” In the year that Binney was chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales, Maclaren preached the annual sermon of the London Missionary Society. His theme was “The Secret of Power,” on the text: “Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said, Because of your unbelief” (Matt. 17:19, 20a). Binney said afterwards: “I went home and wept, for not only had I failed to live up to the ideal Maclaren set before us, I had not even tried to live up to it.” Another comment had reference to the preacher’s expressive and impressive pulpit gestures. Said Binney: “Never before did I understand the Old Testament text, ‘The Lord said by the hand of Moses.’ ”

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Clothing A Sermon Skeleton

A few years later Maclaren preached the Congregational Union sermon, the first time an outsider had been asked to do so. He spoke on “The Exhortation of Barnabas,” from Acts 11:23: “Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.” Most preachers would probably regard his divisions as threadbare:

1. What He Saw

2. What He Felt

3. What He Said

In Maclaren’s skillful hands, however, they became the framework of a most moving sermon on the work of the ministry.

One of the best of Maclaren’s earliest Manchester sermons is entitled, “Sons and Heirs,” on the text: “If children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17a). The divisions are:

1. No Inheritance without Sonship

2. No Sonship without Spiritual Birth

3. No Spiritual Birth without Christ

4. No Christ without Faith

Could anyone improve on that outline? One more sermon may be mentioned, that on “The Obscure Apostles” based on Matthew 10:5a: “These twelve Jesus sent forth.” The opening sentence would stab any lethargic spirit “broad awake”: “And half of these twelve are never heard of again as doing any work for Christ.” Then follows a most useful and encouraging discourse on the great worth of the forgotten and unrecorded work of the great number of humble believers.

Maclaren’s sermons were not short; most of them ran to about 4,000 words, and some were longer. Every one must have taken at least forty minutes to deliver. But so intense and skillful was the preacher in presenting his message that when he finished, his hearers were disappointed that the sermon was ended.

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Nor were Maclaren’s sermon titles striking—at least, they would not be thought so today. They have the virtue of keeping close to the biblical passages on which the sermons are based. It is interesting to speculate on the titles that might be used today by the preacher who wished his press advertising to catch on. Maclaren’s sermon on “The Obscure Apostles” might be captioned: “The Importance of Being a Nobody”; the one on “The Exhortation of Barnabas” could be called: “Give Your Visitor a Break”; and that on “Sons and Heirs” might be headed: “You’ve Got a Fortune—Spend It.” He has a striking sermon on “Anxious Care” (Matt. 6:24, 25) in which, after pointing out the difference between foresight and foreboding, he affirms that anxiety is (1) unnecessary, (2) heathenish, and (3) futile. It is difficult to think of Maclaren giving this sermon the title: “How to Handle Your Anxiety Neurosis.”

Maclaren was a gospel preacher in the highest sense of the phrase, and he rejoiced in the description. But he is better described as a Bible scholar than as a biblical scholar. His biblical scholarship was, of course, more than adequate. He was familiar with the literary and historical problems of Holy Writ, and he was a first-class Greek and Hebrew scholar. But he never allowed consideration of the problems to spill over into the pulpit; and though he believed in sound exegesis, he would not permit exegesis to overpower exposition. He believed that it was his sole business in the pulpit to expound the Word of God, and that this was something more than explaining the meaning of a scriptural passage: it meant the application of divine truth to the spiritual needs of the hearer.

It may also be said of Maclaren that he was more of a Bible scholar than a theologian. Of course, he knew his theology. But he was not a theologian in the technical sense. He could not have preached a series of sermons like those contained in Dale’s Christian Doctrine, nor written a book on the Atonement like Denney’s The Death of Christ. But he knew the great truths of the Gospel, and it was his joyous task to set forth those truths in the context of the Sacred Word.

He was certainly not interested in the philosophical type of sermon. He knew the philosophies, knew how they came and went; but he could never be accused of “hanging on to the skirts” of any philosopher, no matter how distinguished or how well disposed to the Christian faith. He used to tell with great gusto of the old verger of St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Oxford (the university church in which the Bampton Lectures are given), who said to a party of visiting tourists: “I’ve heard every sermon and every lecture given in this ere church for the past forty years, and thank God I’m a Christian still.”

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There is much of permanent value to the contemporary preacher in Maclaren’s sermons and expositions, even though it might be inadvisable to imitate his style. As William Robertson Nicoll put it in his obituary notice of his friend:

It is difficult to believe that his Expositions of the Bible will be superseded. Will there ever be again such a combination of spiritual insight, of scholarship, of passion, of style, of keen intellectual power? He was clearly a man of genius and men of genius are rare. So long as preachers care to teach from the Scriptures they will find their best guide and help in him.

Exaggeration? A little, it may be! But Robertson Nicoll was no mean judge of greatness in preaching, or of the essentials of the Christian faith. At any rate, there is enough truth in what he said of Alexander Maclaren for us preachers today—even though we live in a very different world—to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”

A Prayer In Bed

Dear Lord, one day

I shall lie thus and pray

Stretched out upon my bed,

Within few days or hours

Of being dead.

And I shall seek

Then for the words to speak,

And scarce shall find them,

Being very weak.

There shall be hardly strength

To say the words if they be found, at length.

Take, then, my now clear prayer,

Make it apply when shadowy words shall flee;

When the body, busy and dying,

May eclipse the soul.

I pray Thee now, while pray I can,

Then look, in mercy look,

Upon my weakness—look and heed

When there can be no prayer

Except my need!


John Pitts has held pastorates in London and Liverpool, England; Montreal, Canada; Bloomfield, New Jersey; and Nassau, Bahamas. A minister of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., he now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He holds the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from the University of London and is a graduate in theology from Spurgeon’s College, London.

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