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Simplicity in Preaching

In his 1853 address to the Society of Alumni of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, R. L. Dabney advocated for simplicity in pulpit style. Dabney calls preachers to what I would call “immediacy.” The preacher must approach this serious task naturally, not by espousing some preaching persona. The sermon should be preached by the preacher from the heart, not mediated through artifice. It’s too often the case that artifice is expected to aid the reception of the word. But in his attempt to be eloquent in this manner, the preacher becomes the very opposite. Dabney writes,

The highest species of eloquence is that which is suggestive, where clear and vigorous phrases not only convey to the hearer’s mind distinct ideas, but point it to tracts of light which lead it along to higher conceptions of its own. But such phrases must be brief. Our language should, therefore, be pruned, till every word is an essential part of the clearly defined idea, which the sentence holds up, like a strong picture, to the mind of the hearer. If we wish to strike a blow which shall be felt, we will not take up a bough laden with foliage. We will use a naked club. (p. 85)

This is a lofty and formidable challenge but one preachers would do well to take on. Instead of focusing on turns of phrase, clever anecdotes, humor, or even tone of voice and body language, the simple preacher looks to grab his “naked club.” If our words and mannerisms do not flow naturally from the heart, in some measure they will inevitably become barriers to hearing.

It is only when the sentiment so fills and fires the soul of the speaker that he looks wholly at the thought, and not at all at the words in which it clothes itself, that the perfection of eloquence is approached. (p. 81)

There are enough barriers to hearing the word clearly. It’s best the preacher does not stengthen unnecessarily the competition.


R. L. Dabney, “Simplicity of Pulpit Style,” in Discussions by Robert L. Dabney, D.D., LL.D. edited by C. R. Vaughan. Volume III. Philosophical, (Harissonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1996), 80-90. 

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