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My Finger on the Hot Button

Lessons from the abolitionist era on addressing controversial social issues

Last year I took my wife to St. Louis on a holiday weekend, and mixing business with pleasure, we spent two half days in the Missouri Historical Research Library. My purpose was to research sermons from the mid-19 century, specifically those addressing the topics of slavery and gambling.

I wanted to see how preachers dealt with the hot button issues of the day, particularly in a border area like St. Louis. In the 1800s, Missouri was a slave state, while Illinois was free. I intended to compare and contrast those sermons with how contemporary preachers approach social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

I came to the library planning to research from a list of six preachers from that place and time. The only name known to me was Edward Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I searched books, personal letters, local newspapers, and other documents, many of them original manuscripts. The hunt failed to produce any sermons by those on my list of preachers, so I widened the search to all sermons from the mid-1800s. Amazingly, I was unable to unearth a single printed sermon given in a church that focused on slavery or gambling.

Apparently such sermons once existed. For example, microfilm copies of the 1830s newspaper The St. Louis Observer referenced two anti-slavery sermons. The editor called them bold and well-reasoned, but the degraded newsprint rendered the excerpts impossible for me to read.

Am I so wrapped up in correctly handling the text, being creative, relevant, clear, and likeable that I fail to be dangerous?

One sermon by H. B. Bascom touched on both subjects, but only by way of application. In a collection of messages printed in 1849, Sermons from the Pulpit (a curiously redundant title for those days), Bascom declared, "The pulpit must not shrink from its duty." He then went on to blast a multitude of sins in a colorful way, including gambling and perhaps slavery, if that is what he meant by "the bigot, who hunts his fellow-being with the bitterness and ferocity of a fiend, and when his heartless unkindness has murdered him, would further assure himself he is right, but scenting the fancied smoke of his victim's torment ascending up forever and ever."

In the end, I uncovered only one significant slavery sermon. It was not given in a church but at the Illinois State House, and it was a pro-slavery address. Rev. J. M. Peck delivered the message in Springfield on January 26, 1851. The fugitive slave law was the hot button issue of the moment. Although Illinois had become a free state about 25 years before, the state officials asked this pastor to prove to Christians that they should obey the government and return all fugitive slaves to their rightful owners. Peck responded with a stirring and Scripturally based speech against abolitionists.

Several observations about sermons and the impact of preaching surfaced from my research.

Most sermons are flashbulbs, not candles

Sermons themselves capture only a moment in time.Though they may reap eternal benefits in listeners' lives, most messages pass into earthly oblivion after the benediction. They provide a momentary flash for those present, and the bulb is discarded. Not that these sermons lack eternal significance; rather, God's purpose was served in that moment.

There was a reason the majority of sermons preached in 19 century Missouri did not find their way into the museum. They were time-stamped and culture-sensitive. Those messages that did make it to print owed their preservation more to a preacher's worthy life than to the singular greatness of the sermons. Mary Greene, for example, was urged to pay tribute to her husband's ministry. She published a number of Jesse's sermons along with a short account of his life. David Coulter and William Humphrey Parks received similar honors. One hundred and fifty years later, the sermons themselves seemed unremarkable.

Sermons will have their greatest intended impact on one specific congregation. The best sermons are delivered by a faithful pastor to the people he knows and loves. Directed by the Spirit, the pastor expounds a specific text, at a specific time, that addresses a specific problem, and meets a specific need. Even though that sermon could be preached in other churches, and the truths are true everywhere, most messages have the shelf-life of a bag of manna.

Recently a couple told me how sorry they were to have to miss my sermon the next week. The woman said, "We'll get the CD, but it's never the same as being there." There is something to that. The Holy Spirit works and moves in that initial setting, communicating a message that doesn't always translate to tape, print, or MP3 files. I want every one of my sermons to burn brightly and eternally in the minds of those who hear, but longevity is not the litmus test of effectiveness. The Spirit may use this sermon as a brilliant flash that momentarily illumines and instructs and inspires, before fading away.

Times change, but hermeneutical and homiletical mistakes remain constant

Most of the sermons I viewed for my research never left the biblical world. Using ornate and picturesque language, they described the experiences of the Israelites, the beauties of the temple, and justification by faith. The content was highly doctrinal, assuming a broad knowledge of the Bible and other classic literature. At times, the allusions, idioms, and quotations were effective, while some read like stilted, empty rhetoric. I found no reference to personal experiences, local events, national news, or current literature, and nothing that hinted at problems the hearers faced.

It reminded me of times my sermons surveyed the biblical territory and built a tower there, rather than a bridge to today's world. The opposite problem—never truly entering the biblical world while fully exegeting the modern one—is more common in our day, but no less mistaken.

Several of the preachers sounded much like the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who was shaking the world from his London pulpit during the last half of the 19 century. Of those, some seemed eerily similar in style, but without Spurgeon's passion or color or accessibility.

Yet, who among us has not, consciously or unconsciously, emulated another preacher? Their speech patterns, style, or structure creep into our sermons. We do poor imitations of Ortberg or Warren or Piper, expressing truth through split personality.

In his pro-slavery sermon at the State House, Peck called for his Abolitionist opponents to use a proper hermeneutic. "We must employ and interpret all language pertaining to laws, whether divine or human, according to the common use of words, and sound principles of interpretations." Referencing texts Abolitionists were using, Peck attempted to rescue those Scriptures from what he believed was a misapplication. His prime example was Acts 4:17-20, which he considered a "perversion" if applied to laws regulating the relationship of man-to-man. Peck said, "It was only when the government interfered with their religious rights—the duty they owed to God, that they were to resist, by patient endurance of persecution, even unto death."

I am personally familiar with this type of Scriptural impropriety. Sadly, my record is not spotless when it comes to twisting the text to make a point, justify my position, or lessen my obligation to obey.

True preaching is courageous enough to offend

I am passionate about taking the text seriously. I am passionate about personal authenticity and transparency. I am passionate about creativity and relevance. Preaching must be all that and more. Even so, one thing that can become diluted is courage. Not courage based on a misapplied text, or instigated by a vocal majority; but courage to address difficult issues firmly, fully, and faithfully.

As I read Peck's sermon, I received a sudden stab of conviction. Praising a certain class of Baptists in the state, he talks of them being inoffensively anti-slavery. Among the plaudits he gives: "They never interfered, in an objectionable way, with the legal and political rights of slaveholders. They preached the gospel in an acceptable and successful manner, in slaveholding states." God help me, I never want to preach the gospel in an accepted and successful manner, by that definition. I wondered, If I am not directly addressing the biggest problems of my time, can I truly be preaching the gospel?

I don't believe it took much courage for Peck to preach his sermon. Invited by the government, he addressed a supportive audience, saying exactly what they asked him to say. Surely, even that Sunday there were other pastors who spoke forcefully against the Fugitive Slave Law. Preachers did address this issue. Minds were changed about slavery, and Christians led the way, some suffering for their unpopular stand. Across the river from St. Louis, Rev. Elijah Lovejoy was murdered for his outspoken anti-slavery views. But none of those sermons are found in the Missouri Historical Research Library. Only a hermeneutically self-serving address, supporting the acceptable view, remains.

I wonder. Do I have the courage to forgo historical preservation for courageous anonymity? Most pastors want to be liked. I'm no different. Am I so wrapped up in correctly handling the text, being creative, relevant, clear, and likeable that I fail to be dangerous? As a warning to myself I noted, "Avoid any and all temptation to preach for posterity, print, or praise."

My research was all too brief, uncovering little that related to my intended topic. Still, I found comfort in one thought. No temptation has seized me except what is common to preachers, even those of the 19 century.

I plan to return to St. Louis and revisit the research library. My wife will join me again and I will treat her well. After all, someday she might want to publish some of my sermons.

John Henry Beukema is pastor of Cypress Bible Church in Cypress, Texas, and author of Stories from God's Heart (Moody). He served as associate editor of PreachingToday.com.

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