What makes the truly great preacher?

Posted in Blog, George Muller

If you were to enrol for a course at the City of Bristol College, and you were interested in art and design, or computers, or just wanted to relax in the college community café, you would find yourself in the Ashley Down Centre in Ashley Down Road which, according to the college website, provides an ‘airy, vibrant and welcoming environment’. The building was built in 1870 under the direction of George Müller, as the fifth of the large children’s homes he founded and directed in Bristol, so that he now cared for two thousand children and employed over 200 staff.

Müller (1805-1898) had arrived in Devon in 1829, where he became pastor of Ebenezer Chapel in Teignmouth and moved to Bristol in 1832 where, jointly with Henry Craik, he became pastor of Bethesda Chapel. When he needed a break he often spent weekends in Ilfracombe and was particularly fond of enjoying the view from the top of Capstone hill. I suspect that he worshipped with the Christians at what is now Encounter, although he did have links with the Rev. John Chanter, Vicar of Holy Trinity church for 51 years in the nineteenth century. John Chanter was a close friend of Edward Bouverie Pusey who sometimes visited Ilfracombe and preached at Holy Trinity, including in August 1844, a sermon as part of a campaign to raise funds for a new church in the harbour which eventually materialised in the shape of Pip and Jim’s. Pusey, in turn, was a close friend of August Tholuck , who had been Müller’s tutor when he studied Theology at the University of Halle from 1825 to 1828. Müller and Tholuck kept in touch until the latter’s death in 1877.

As well as establishing children’s homes, Müller was a renowned preacher and in 1875 he embarked on a series of international preaching tours travelling two hundred thousand miles and visiting forty-two countries. On 10 January 1878, Müller and his wife Susannah were invited to the White House where he had a half hour conversation with President Hayes after which Mrs Hayes took Müller and his wife on a tour of the house.

Since he preached in so many countries, his advice on preaching may be worth following. He believed that ‘simplicity of expression’ was of the utmost importance. His advice (given in 1869) reflects the attitude and tone of the nineteenth century: ‘It should be the aim of the teacher to speak so that children, servants and people who cannot read may be able to understand him, so far as the natural mind can understand the things of God. If they can understand, the well-educated or literary persons will also understand; but the reverse does not hold good.

‘It ought to be remembered that the expounder of the truth of God speaks for God, for eternity, and that it is not in the least likely that he will benefit the hearers, except he uses plainness of speech, which nevertheless needs not be vulgar or rude.

‘It should also be considered that if the preacher strive to speak according to the rules of this world, he may please many, particularly those who have a literary taste; but, in the same proportion, he is less likely to become an instrument in the hands of God for the conversion of sinners or the building up of saints. For neither eloquence nor depth of thought make the truly great preacher, but such a life of prayer and meditation and spirituality as may render him a vessel meet for the Master’s use, and fit to be employed both in the conversion of sinners and in the edification of the saints.’