John Newton on the length and volume of sermons

John Newton, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is one of my favorite writers. Currently I am reading through the 6 volume set by Banner of Truth titled, The Work of John Newton. It is a collection of various writings that include letters, sermons, and hymns. Newton was a tendered hearted pastor and had a prolific letter writing ministry. Last night I laughed out loud as I read his letter to an unnamed pastor (edited out for publication) who had written Newton. Newton, after a few pleasantries writes,

I am not sure that the length and vehemence of your sermons, which you tell me astonish many people, may not be rather improper and imprudent, considering the weakness of your constitution; at least, if this expression of yours be justly expounded by a report which has reached me, that the length of your sermons is frequently two hours, and the vehemence of your voice so great that you may be heard far beyond the church walls.

Newton continues his concern for the volume of the pastor’s sermons, writing,

Permit me to remind you of the Terentian adage, ne quid nimis. The end of speaking is to be heard; and if the person farthest from the preacher can hear, he speaks loud enough. Upon some occasions a few sentences of a discourse may be enforced with a voice still more elevated, but to be uncommonly loud from beginning to end is hurtful to the speaker, and I apprehend nowise useful to the hearer…If I was a good Grecian I would send you a quotation from Homer, where he describes the eloquence of Nestor, and compares it, if I remember right, not to a thunderstorm or hurricane, but to a fall of snow, which, though pressing, insinuating, and penetrating, is soft and gentle.

Newton then refers back to the length of the sermon, stating,

There is still in being an old-fashioned instrument called an hour-glass, which in days of yore, before clocks and watches abounded, use to be the measure of many of good sermon, and I think it a tolerable stint…If an angel was to preach for two hours, unless his hearers were angels likewise, I believe the greater part of them would wish he had done. It is a shame it should be so: but so it is; partly through the weakness and partly through the wickedness of the flesh, we can seldom stretch our attention for spiritual things for two hours together without cracking it, and hurting its spring: and where weariness begins, edification ends. Perhaps it is better to feed our people like chickens, a little and often, than to cram them like turkeys, till they cannot hold one goblet more.

I do so enjoy reading John Newton!

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Categories: Preaching, Shepherding

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