When I entered seminary I signed up for the academic track. Pastoral ministry wasn’t really on my radar. I was planning to be a Hebrew or an Old Testament professor. God had other plans, but since he didn’t let me in on them until I was pretty well finished with my master’s degree I never took a course in homiletics. (I was privileged, while in Portland, OR, to spend a semester sitting in on a homiletic exegesis course taught by Dr. Jeff Iorg at Golden Gate seminary.) I learned to preach primarily by studying the great preachers of the past and then jumping into the pulpit myself. In my late teens I began reading sermons by the Reformers—Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli, not to mention Ridley and Latimer—and the Methodist Revivalists, especially George Whitfield. One of my professors introduced me to Charles Spurgeon, known for good reason as the “Prince of Preachers”, and to Charles Simeon, the great evangelical prophet of 18th and 19th Century Anglicanism. That was also when I began delving into the Church Fathers and discovered John the Golden-tongued (a.k.a. Chrysostom) and Augustine. In more recent years I’ve benefitted greatly from the marvellous sermons of the Victorian churchmen: Pusey, Keble, Newman, Williams, and Wescott. My library is packed with books of old sermons and anyone who benefits from my pulpit ministry is probably in greater debt to Chrysostom, Andrewes, and Simeon than to me. If a preacher isn’t reading (or listening) to great sermons preached by others his own pulpit ministry will be the poorer for not doing so.
But one thing that I wish I’d done many years ago was study the history of Christian preaching. The dramatic difference in style between Chrysostom and the mediaeval friars and Reformers is obvious. The difference between the mediaeval and Reformation preachers and the Victorians is equally dramatic, and that’s not even to mention the obvious fact that today’s “Plain Style” is entirely unique as well. An historical study of preaching helps to explain how preaching styles have changed and, most importantly, what ideas and philosophies underlay them. Such a study explains why Augustine’s allegorical style is different from Chrysostom’s much plainer style. It explains the often complex and formal structures used by mediaeval preachers to string together their “exempla”. And if you understand the “high and dry” moralistic preaching of Tillotson and the Latitudinarians of the 18th Century, you’ll have much greater appreciation for the Victorians, who otherwise often seem so “sensible”, but in comparison to the Tillotsonian sermons of the previous century, are really full of conviction and passion. A study of the history of Christian preaching gives context to all those different style and results in much greater appreciation for them. It also makes many of those styles–especially the allegorical sermons of the Fathers or the illustration-laden sermons of the mediaeval preachers and Reformers much more approachable.
Below I’ve linked to four books that I’ve found particularly helpful in studying the history of preaching. Sadly, the most recent was written in 1939. None of them covers the modern era and so none of them put today’s “Plain Style” into context. (Such a study would be very worthwhile.) Smyth’s history covers the English pulpit from the 8th Century up to the mid-20th. If your Latin is rusty you may find the two chapters on the Mediaeval pulpit difficult, but the book is still well-worth reading. Dargan’s two-volume history of preaching is much broader and runs from the Apostolic era to the end of the 19th Century. His shorter single-volume work is a more practical book in that it draws from the history of the pulpit to teach current preachers their task. Tolle lege.
Charles Smyth — The Art of Preaching: A Practical Survey of Preaching in the Church of England 747-1939
Edwin Charles Dargan — A History of Preaching, Vol. 1, A.D. 70 to 1572
Edwin Charles Dargan — A History of Preaching, Vol. 2, A.D. 1572 to 1900
Edwin Charles Dargan — The Art of Preaching in Light of its History