Preaching and Singing the Gospel

by Rick Shrader

I just read an online article by a young man (by his own description) who went out of his way to criticize most gospel preaching and singing for the last two or three hundred years.  He believes that once preaching and singing left the Puritan and/or Reformation tradition, it was  down hill from there.  Interestingly, this was all to criticize contemporary Christian music to any who use it today.  His point was that CCM is totally pragmatic and shallow,  but that we should not be surprised because the precursors of this have been evident for hundreds of years in popular preaching and gospel singing.  His specific targets were D. L. Moody and his song leader Ira Sankey, Billy Sunday and his song leader Homer Rodeheaver, and especially the revivalist Charles Finney.  The writer’s own Baptist background was also roundly criticized as being non-theological, shallow, and entertainment based.

Interestingly, proponents of CCM heartily agreed with his assessment of the history and only disagreed that CCM is a direct result of it.  Both sides did the typical venting about growing up in dead, cold fundamental churches. But, of course, they have moved away from those things now that they’ve seen the error of the entire fundamental (especially Baptist),    gospel preaching, and gospel singing history.

One hardly knows where to begin to reply to these kinds of charges.  I also grew up in fundamental Baptist churches in the last half of the twentieth century and was not bored at all!  I was saved during a church     invitation at eleven years old in a fundamental, gospel preaching and singing Baptist church. After I learned some things, I was baptized there when I was sixteen.  God called me to preach and I started my ministry education directly out of high school.  I have had my disagreements even with my home church in which I was converted     because of its contemporary changes, but I have grown to love and appreciate my fundamental and Baptist      heritage more and more over the years.  I believe that the very history that the aforementioned writer described, has been the greatest force for the gospel of Christ in the last two to three hundred years.  Take away the souls saved, the churches built, the schools started, the missionaries sent, the revivals experienced by “gospel” preaching and singing over this period of time (in England and America alone), and it would be hard to estimate the spiritual carnage that would have resulted!

For many of this generation (who call  themselves “young” fundamentalists), there seems to be no place for the fundamentalism of the last  couple  of centuries even though it is their own history. Apparently, the only two options are to go back to a High Calvinistic, Reformed model of preaching and singing, or to go the other direction, totally beyond any historical roots to the current malaise of contemporary churches.  But one sure thing keeps coming back from these discussions; there is no love lost on the church that most of us have known and loved and in which we’ve served Christ.

This article is a result of my own reflection (after reading the online article) of things I have read and places I have visited as I have learned about my fundamental and Baptist history.  In England, especially, I have seen the truly dead liturgical Protestantism, as well as the cold history of High Calvinism.  But I have also experienced the worldliness and irreverence of the contemporary churches on both sides of the Atlantic.  Neither of these, in my opinion, is a viable alternative for gospel preaching and singing.

John Bunyan (1628-1688)

Best known for his classic book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan was also a powerful Baptist preacher in a time when nonconformists were persecuted by the Protestant Church of England.  Knowing God’s call upon him to preach, he refused to use the Book of Common Prayer instead of the Bible and for this he spent over 18 years in prison.  Born in poverty, Bunyan’s lowly job was that of a tinker, mending metal pots and utensils for whatever people could pay.

Despite misfortunes in life, and perhaps because of them, Bunyan knew his Bible well.  One historian says, “As in his Pilgrim he embodies more of the Bible than does Milton in his Paradise Lost, so in his sermons we find more true human nature than in Shakespeare.”1 On one of his preaching trips to London the learned Puritan John Owen heard him preach.  “When King Charles expressed wonder that a man of his learning could bear to listen to the ‘prate’ of a tinker, he answered, that he would gladly give all his learning for this tinker’s power.”2 God’s continued use of Bunyan’s preaching and writing is a fact of history.

Robert and James Haldane (1760s-1850s)

With John Knox long since dead and the Presbyterian Church long since established as the Church of Scotland, Baptists began to grow in small groups but with various forms of church order.  The Haldane brothers became Baptist by conviction regarding believer’s immersion and simple congregational church government.  Robert was the theologian and James, the pastor.  In their desire to reach the masses in central Scotland, especially Edinburgh, they established Baptist Tabernacles for preaching.  Some of these preaching centers were in a building called the “Circus.”  In his biography, son Alexander describes their services:

The Circus first, and then the Tabernacle, were crowded by thronging multitudes, hanging upon the preacher’s lips, joining with earnestness in the prayers, singing the praises of the Lord with their whole hearts, remaining during long services without wearying, and retiring in solemn silence, afraid, as it were to desecrate the place where the Lord himself was present, and that presence was felt.3

Their church, the Charlotte Baptist Chapel, is still a large gospel preaching church and has been pastored by such preachers as Graham Scroggie and J. Sidlow Baxter and Alister Begg.

D. L. Moody (1837-1899)

More people are familiar with this American evangelist than almost any other American religious figure.  He is well-known for his humble beginnings, that he was converted when he was just a shoe-shine boy, and that his mother was of New England Puritan stock.  Because of his zeal for soul-winning and direct style of preaching, hundreds of thousands of souls are in heaven today.  It is almost strange to hear of Moody’s motives and manners being questioned by young men desiring to preach the gospel.

Moody met Ira Sankey in a most unique way.4 In 1870 Moody was in Indianapolis to speak at a local church.  At the same time, Sankey was in Indianapolis to attend a pastors’ conference on evangelism which was being held nightly at 7:00pm at the Academy of Music.  Sankey wanted to hear Moody while he was in town, so one night he went to that church      service and the two met for the first time.  Moody asked Sankey to meet him downtown the next afternoon.  When they met, Moody placed a large box on the street corner and asked Sankey to sing a song, to which Sankey obliged.  Then Moody stepped on the box and began to preach to the multitude of factory workers leaving the factories.  The crowd was so large that they had to move into the Academy of Music. Thousands heard Sankey sing and Moody preach and many were  converted.  A humorous anecdote is that Moody’s “congregation” was forced to leave before 7:00pm so the ministers’ meeting on how to evangelize could begin on time!

When Moody and Sankey  traveled in Scotland, the reception was initially cold until the people attended the services, then “his simple and scriptural style of preaching soon won them.”5 Sankey, of Scotch-Irish stock himself and born in Edinburgh, was  allowed to use an organ with which to sing.  He wrote his “Ninety and Nine” just for the Scottish meetings.  When   I preached in a Scottish Baptist church just outside Edinburgh in the summer of 2004, the congregation was asked for favorites to sing.  Immediately, a woman said, “Sing our song, the ‘Ninety and Nine.’” It is no wonder that when Moody died, Lord Overtoun sent a telegraph to Chicago: “All Scotland mourns.”

John A. Broadus (1827-1894) and A. T. Robertson (1863-1934)

Broadus and Robertson were the two greatest American Greek Scholars of their day.  They were early Southern Baptists and largely responsible for starting Southern Baptist Seminary.  Robertson became Broadus’ son-in-law when he married his youngest daughter, Ella.

Because of their well-known scholarship, their evangelistic desires are often over-looked.  Both men carried on extensive preaching ministries in churches, meetings and, in Broadus’ case, to the troops during the Civil War.  Stonewall Jackson himself invited Broadus to come and preach among the troops in the evening camps.  Broadus described himself as “a missionary in General Lee’s army.”  In those evenings, Robert E. Lee and other dignitaries often attended.  And, of those meetings, a few letters have survived:

Many wept during the sermons, and not at allusions to home, but to their sins, and God’s great mercy. . . . Gilmer is dreadfully opposed to inviting men forward to prayer, etc., though Lacy, Hoge, and most of the Presbyterians, do it just like the rest of us. . . . The songs, simple old hymns, containing the very marrow of the gospel, were sung ‘with the spirit and the understanding,’ and stirred every heart. . .  At the close of the service they came by the hundreds to ask an interest in the prayers of God’s people, or profess a new-found faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and I doubt not that our beloved brother has greeted on the other shore not a few who heard him that day or at other points in the army.6

Robertson, largely responsible for organizing the London Baptist World Congress and other such preaching meetings, was himself a   motivating speaker.  By his own     testimony, “the greatest single evangelistic service” of his life was in the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City.  His biographer describes it:

The soul of the great scholar was manifestly filled and swept along by the Spirit of God.  He was telling the story of the life of Christ.  At length he left the pulpit.  He walked the aisles.  He lifted his face and voice to the    galleries.  Back and forth he went pleading with his hearers to come to Christ.  The result was that about ninety young people and others gave their hearts and lives to the Lord that day. . . .  When asked by a friend what his text was, Dr. Robertson replied simply: ‘I had no text.  I told them the story of Jesus.’  That day was reward enough for a life-time’s labor.7

And So . . . .

I would not propose for a  minute that any of us would agree  with everything any of these preachers and singers did or said.  I myself would have to separate from many     of their associations.  I was prepared also to tell similar true stories of    Billy Sunday, C. H. Spurgeon, George Whitfield, and even John and Charles Wesley.  If one wants to find points of disagreement with these men, he will not need to look far.  Almost all of them were considered unpolished and unorthodox in their day.  But for young men today, sitting behind their computer screens, to write them off as   uneducated, shallow, and simply entertaining is to shut themselves off from the history of the Gospel itself.  While reading these histories and biographies, I have often thought that these styles and methods would not be     unusual in today’s world at all.  What would be unusual is the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s power and moving upon sinners, and the earnest, direct singing of the church’s (not the world’s and not the priest’s) music.  God help us to find our own path back to true gospel preaching and singing.

1. Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists (Minneapolis:  Klock & Klock, 1976) 476.
2. Ibid.  This story appears in most Bunyan biographies.
3. Alexander Haldane, The Lives of Robert & James Haldane (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990) 244.
4. A.P. Fitt, The Life of D.L. Moody (Chicago:  Moody Press, nd) 71.
5. Ibid
6. A.T. Robertson, The Life and Letters of John A. Broadus (Philadelphia:  American Baptist Pub. Soc., 1910) 208-209.
7. Everett Gill, A.T. Robertson, A Biography (New York:  MacMillan, 1943) 104-105.