Everyone has his or her favorite, and here is mine–Alexander MacLaren. He is another of the great Victorian Age preachers. He pastored for many years, most notably in Manchester, England and died in 1910. He was no where near the pastor Spurgeon was, and perhaps Spurgeon outranked him in a simple Gospel message, but otherwise he is without peer. When it comes to preaching what the Bible actually says, which I hope you would agree is the actual job of the preacher, MacLaren stands at the head of the class among preachers in the English language.
Looking at his awesome sermons you will find them pretty evenly divided between textual and expository and always with faithfulness to the text. The text never suggests some subject to him where he feels the need to imbibe us with his soapbox opinions. It’s just the Bible. You always feel a “Thus saith the Lord” when reading him. That is not to say they lack creativity. In fact, they overflow with imagination. His artistry, though, always stayed within the confines of what the text said. You might say his preaching was the perfect marriage of the science of exegeting the passage and the art of preaching it.
His colleagues readily admitted that he was a master craftsman. W. Robertson Nicoll, a prolific editor of his day, said: “A man who reads one of MacLaren’s sermons must either take his outline or take another text”. He further said, “MacLaren touched every text with a silver hammer and it broke up into three natural and memorable divisions.”
We might learn from MacLaren. When asked the secret of his success, he would reply in a word: work. Not that he denied the divine enabling by the Holy Spirit, he just admitted that it is work to dig out sermons. A lack of hard work in preparing a message likely means you don’t have much of a sermon. He so believed this that he always wore work boots to his study. To read his sermons is to believe he lived what he advised. He never followed fads in preaching, or concerned himself with a message for the times, as he felt the Bible carried a message for the ages. When speaking of power in preaching he said personal godliness was the first and greatest criteria. He put preaching at the top of his ministry. He saw it as the answer to every conceivable issue we might face in the ministry. You might say that is taking it too far, but could you admit our emphasis on the power of preaching is lacking today? As one writer described it, MacLaren’s motto of ministry could be summed as “This one thing I do.” This could be a powerful corrective to the trends of our day of pastors often working on the most trivial things while the greatest thing lies languishing under the weight of their busy schedules.
He shared a trait with most of those I would put in my greatest preacher category–an unusual personality. I don’t know why but they all have the most distinct peculiarities. Those who would try to interview him would be bewildered by its end and would likely learn nothing. He leaned heavily on his wife and would agonize over his sermons and often think them pitiful failures even when others were greatly blessed by them. Still, his sermons were phenomenal. David Larsen in his delightful The Company of the Preachers tells of one of his most memorable sermons. It was entitled “Mahanaim: Two Camps” on Genesis 32. Here’s the outline:
I. The angels of God meet us on the dusty road of common life
II. The angels of God meet us punctually at the hour of need
III. The angels of God come in the shape we need.
Look at the text–it’s there. I don’t know about you, but I call that an outline.
His messages collected in a set called Expositions of Holy Scripture (in either 11 or 17 volumes) contain the full set of his sermons. His sermons were originally given in various volumes, but this collection conveniently gathers them all in scriptural order. He also wrote great commentaries on Psalms and Colossians printed in The Expositor’s Bible and the helpful The Life of David Reflected in the Psalms. His sermons are as moving in print as they must have been when he delivered them.
For further study you could look for Life of Alexander MacLaren by David Williamson and Dr. McLaren of Manchester by E. T. McLaren (there is debate about the spelling of his last name). Warren Wiersbe’s Walking With The Giants, Ernest Jeffs’ Princes Of The Modern Pulpit, and W. Robertson Nicoll’s Princes of The Church all contain a great chapter on MacLaren.
To let you know how much I admire this man. Three years ago (2009) when my wife, Alicia, became paralyzed while carrying a child and we realized he would be our last one, I talked her into letting me name him. His first name would be Elisha for one of my favorite Bible characters. His middle name? You guessed it. MacLaren. Here’s a namesake for the man who in my opinion is the greatest preacher you could ever read.