Not long ago while rummaging through Google books, I stumbled across a forgotten classic on preaching by J. C. Ryle. It is a little work entitled Simplicity in Preaching: A Few Short Hints. I call it a “forgotten” classic but that only means I had never heard of it before. Others may be well aware of it. For all I know, it is a book that has been on every good preacher’s shelf for the last two hundred years, just not on mine.
It is not a large work, but as you would expect from Ryle, very practical. Just the sort of thing you would expect from the author of Practical Religion and Knots Untied. Ryle begins by acknowledging that there is no lack of books on the subject of preaching. “The volumes which have been written in order to show ministers how to preach are enough to make a small library” he observes. “In sending forth one more little treatise, I only propose to touch on one branch of the subject.” His topic is the need for simplicity both in the language and the style of the sermon.
But simplicity, as any serious writer or preacher knows, is not easy. What is the secret to simplicity? The first, and according to Ryle the most important key, is to have a clear idea of one’s subject: “If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it that you will leave your people in darkness.” The second key is to use simple language. By this Ryle means to use words that are “in daily common use.” Third, simple preaching is marked by a concise sentence structure. “Beware of colons and semi-colons” Ryle warns. “Stick to commas and full stops, and take care to write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” Fourth, simplicity is a function of directness. Contrary to modern convention, Ryle urges preachers to say “I” and “you.” Finally, Ryle wants preachers to use illustrations and anecdotes: “You must regard illustrations as windows through which light is let in on your subject.”
Nothing groundbreaking, I suppose. Just good solid advice from someone whose writing still speaks clearly to readers today and who practiced what he preached.
Here is a link to the full text version of Ryle’s book: http://books.google.com/books?id=MgkDAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA5&dq=simplicty+in+preaching+ryle&lr=&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=&as_brr=1&cd=7#v=onepage&q=&f=false
3 thoughts on “A Forgotten Classic on Preaching”
Wow, this looks great. I have not come across it either. Thanks, John. I need to get all over this.
Oops. Sorry about the pseudonym. That comment above is me. I was playing with wordpress earlier.
Yes, I have been amazed by how many great old books are available on Google Books. I’ve been collecting old sermons in digital format. It is a real treasure trove.