John Albert Broadus was born January 24, 1827 to Major Edmund Broadus and Nancy Sims in Culpepper County, Virginia. His family was not wealthy in monetary terms but was enriched with love and devotion to God. John was taught by his family and later by his Uncle Albert G. Sims, when he returned home unexpectedly Major Broadus inquired the reason to which his son replied, “My uncle says he has no further use for me.” Unable to get more explanation from his son Major Broadus went immediately to see Mr. Sims. However the boy’s uncle assured him that there had been no difficulty, but rather he had taught John “all that he knew.”
When John was about sixteen, the young man surrendered himself to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. Though he had been surrounded by religious influences, he had not yet confessed faith in Christ. During a revival meeting at the Mt. Poney Baptist Church, a friend asked him if he would not accept the promise of the preacher’s text, “all that the Father giveth me shall come to me. And him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” In that moment he yielded his life to Christ. After this initial experience, he made a constant effort to grow in grace and knowledge of his Lord. He began immediately to witness, to study, and to serve.
In 1844, at the age of 17, he continued his education by teaching in a small school and engaging in disciplined independent studies, which included Greek. John was set on studying medicine and plans were made for him to enter the University of Virginia. However, before entering the University his vocational plans were completely changed. He attended an associational meeting and heard a powerful and impressive sermon on the parable of the talents by S. M. Poindexter, one of the most famous preachers in the South. Broadus gave this account of the experience.
“The preacher spoke of consecrating one’s mental gifts and possible attainments to the work of the ministry. He seemed to clear up all difficulties pertaining to the subject; he swept away all the excuses of fancied humility; he held up the thought that the greatest sacrifices and toils possible to the minister’s lifetime would be a hundred-fold repaid if he should be the instrument of saving one soul . . . when the intermission came, the young man . . . sought out his pastor, and with choking voice said: ‘Brother Grimsley, the question is decided; I must try to be a preacher.'”
In the fall of 1846, young Broadus entered the University of Virginia as he had planned. He received the M.A. degree in 1850 and later came to be considered the University of Virginia’s most famous alumnus. At the close of his University course, Broadus declined various offers because he desired to pursue theological studies. During the next year he taught in a private school in Fluvanna County, Virginia, preached in small country churches, and diligently studied church history, theology, sermons, and above all the Bible.
Calls of various kinds came to the young teacher, and he finally accepted the one to be tutor in Latin and Greek at his alma mater and pastor of the Baptist Church at Charlottesville. After one year he resigned his teaching position in order to devote his full time to his pastorate, which he did with the exception of two years when he was given a leave of absence to serve as chaplain at the University of Virginia. For the next thirty-six years, he was Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Homiletics at the seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.
During the first two years, the Seminary showed real promise, but then came the Civil War and the school was forced to close. Broadus preached in small churches and spent some time as chaplain in Lee’s army in Northern Virginia. When the Seminary reopened in 1865, its small endowment was gone, the students few, and the prospect one of struggle and sacrifice. During the darkest days in Greenville, Broadus revealed his spirit when he said to the other professors,
“Perhaps the Seminary may die, but let us resolve to die first.”
However, it was in this period of stress and strain, that Broadus did some of his best and most painstaking work, once carefully reworking his lectures on homiletics for a blind student. In 1870 he published A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, a book which was to become and remain a classic in its field.
In 1883, he delivered an address on the Confederate cause at Louisville’s famous Cave Hill cemetery. The address was an important part of reunion, for it argued that both sides were partly correct in their positions that led to war.
It is a long time since the war…. and many changes have come…. Thank God that now all is peace! It is due partly to the ample resources of our great country, giving to all employment and hope, and partly, notwithstanding all our imperfection and shortcoming, to the influence of Christianity. The great religion of peace has healed the wounds and softened the asperities of the great civil war. It is useless now to raise the question who was right. Perhpas in some respects each side would now acknowledge that the other was nearest right; perhaps in some respects both sides were wrong… The side that triumphs is not always thereby proven to have been superior in wisdom… Let us teach ourselves and our children to dray inspiration from these graves.
One factor which contributed to Broadus’ power in preaching came from his devotion to God’s message. His commission to preach was a commission to speak for God. He had a “profound personal belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible. . . . His reverence for the word of God was one of the deepest feelings of his nature.” So eager was he to know the meaning of the Scripture that he began independently the study of Greek and Hebrew. It was not unusual for him in the midst of a sermon to make a plea for the Bible, its worth, its spiritual guidance, its help in attaining holiness. He felt that the Bible was the source of the most potent and precious truth, and in discussing spiritual matters he would say, “We can learn about such a subject as this only from the Bible.” One could not do a nobler deed, he believed, than to share the truth of the Bible. In a sermon on the “Holy Scriptures” he said:
The greatest privilege of earthly life is to give some fellow creature the blessed word of God, and then try by loving speech and example, to bring home to the heart and conscience…the truths it contains.
Having this high regard for the Bible, he desired to interpret it rightly. In his textbook, he devoted a brief section to hermeneutics, suggesting ways and means by which the preacher can interpret correctly. One of his favorite injunctions to his class was,
“If you forget everything else I have told you, don’t forget to treat the Scripture in a common-sense way.”
Even in a sermon, Dr. Broadus would leave his main idea to make a plea for correct interpretation. In discussing Romans 9:3, “For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren,” a text which he said was difficult to interpret, he gave these three rules of interpretation:
Be willing to let the Scripture mean what it wants to mean…
Take good account of the connection.
Take good account of the state of the writer’s mind.
In his last New Testament class, in which he had lectured on Apollos, he appealed to his students to be “‘mighty in the Scriptures.”
In his own preaching, Dr. Broadus made excellent use of the Scripture. He used a text for every sermon; and the text was more than a springboard; it had a vital relation to the sermon. Sometimes the text would provide the outline of the sermon, sometimes only a portion of the outline, sometimes the subject of the discourse, or again the introduction. He used, never abused, the Scripture.
The texts which he used most frequently are some of the great preaching texts of the Bible. He followed his own advice, “Do not avoid a text because it is familiar.” Surprisingly, however, few of Dr. Broadus’ sermons were expository, i.e., drawing the divisions and explanation of the divisions from the text. In fact, he did not often take a long passage as a text. From 1857 to 1893, he kept a record in his “Day Book” of four hundred and sixty sermons which he preached in various places. Of these sermons, 344 were on single verses, 110 on two or more verses, and six were on multiple texts.
Nonetheless, Dr. Broadus was an expository preacher in the broad sense of that term. He rarely, indeed if ever, preached a sermon in which there was not some exposition. He wanted the Scripture to say what it meant; he wanted his listeners to know what God was saying to them. Because he let himself be a channel of God’s message, the intrinsic power of that message gave him unusual power.
A second factor which contributed to his power was the simplicity of his preaching. What he had to say was transparently clear. This does not mean that his sermons lacked worth-while thought. He gave to his preaching his best intellectual effort, but he invariably concealed the processes and brought to his congregations the results of his investigations in language which they could understand. One Sunday morning he preached on the “Practical Aspects of the Trinity,” and a ten-year-old boy came forward after the service to thank him for the helpful message.
A word that Dr. Broadus used quite often was perspicuity which refers to something that can be seen through.
In the practice of simplicity, Dr. Broadus’ practice was in accord with his theory. He named perspicuity, which refers to something that can be seen through, as “the most important property of style,” and felt the preacher had a responsibility to attain it.
“A preacher is more solemnly bound than any other person, to make his language perspicuous. This is very important in wording a law, in writing a title-deed, or a physician’s prescription, but still more important in proclaiming the word of God, words of eternal life.”
This teaching concerning clearness was practice before it became theory. Clarity was a prerequisite in his first pastorate. In the congregation at Charlottesville there were five distinct group-those from the University, the business people in the town, the country people, the children, and a large group of slaves. Consequently, “he had to give his audience high thinking in simple language.” The ideas had to be strong enough to interest the University teachers and clear enough for the others to understand. “He accomplished his feat and made each group, not to say each individual, feel that every sermon was a special message to that class.” This lesson once mastered became the rule of his later preaching. So simple were Dr. Broadus’ sermons that some people were disappointed the first time they heard him preach. His simple language did not match his great reputation. However, as they pondered his message, they were eager to hear him a second time.
A third factor which contributed to his power was his conscious purpose to lead his hearers to some spiritual decision. He was not content just to preach a sermon; he wanted the sermon to do something. In defining good preaching, he declared,
“There must be a powerful impulse upon the will; the hearers must feel smitten, stirred, moved to, or at least towards, some action or determination to act.”
This attitude also is seen in a plea which he frequently made to his students.
“A good speech is a good thing, but the verdict is the thing. Gentlemen, when you preach strike for a verdict.”
In his conception the supreme end of delivery was not to charm or delight the hearer, but rather to convince and persuade him. Therefore, every art of persuasion was studied and employed if by any means he might reach the heart and move to action.
Different means were employed to attain this meaningful objective. Broadus always sought to win the sympathy of his audience. It was his conviction that the success of a discourse depended largely upon “the sympathy which one succeeds in gaining from those he addresses.” Said he, “if I were asked what is the first thing in effective preaching, I should say sympathy; and what is the second thing, I should say sympathy; and what is the third thing, sympathy.
Perhaps the most effective means he used to win immediate verdicts, however, was direct appeal. Dr. Broadus knew how to make direct appeal-not in a bombastic, overbearing way, but in a quiet, winning way. Sometimes this appeal came within the body of the sermon, but generally it came as part of a conclusion.
The use of direct appeal is sometimes resented by an audience-but not when used in the spirit in which Broadus used it. His audiences felt a great soul yearning for their spiritual good. His appeals were motivated by love, and as genuine love always does, that love drew a response.
These are the means which Dr. Broadus used to lead his listeners to make spiritual decisions. In a lesser man they could have been only techniques, ends in themselves; but as used by Broadus, they were means to achieve a high end-that of helping his hearers.
A fourth factor which contributed to Broadus’ preaching power was his method of preparation and delivery. Early in his ministry, Dr. Broadus determined to master the technique of preaching. Besides his own dedication to his task, the high standard for sermon delivery which had been established in Virginia, the demands of a university church, and perhaps the example set by Andrew Broadus, his famous kinsman, spurred him to attain his best. Consequently, long before he had thought of teaching homiletics, he began an analytic study of the great preachers and their sermons and sought to put the principles which he learned from them into practice.
Dr. Broadus had unique methods of making preparation for the pulpit. As a result of his severe discipline in independent study, he had, even as a young man, a large fund of general knowledge to draw upon. He not only sought to master his favorite studies, the Bible and ancient and modern languages, but he read widely in history, philosophy, art, literature, and current events. These studies strengthened and elevated the powers of mind and modes of expression and gave him a large mental store upon which to draw in sermon preparation. In his immediate preparation, he would take a text, seek to find its exact meaning, and then arrange its ideas under logical headings. Since Dr. Broadus “preferred speaking to writing as a mode of self-expression,” he wrote little. He would jot down introductory ideas, state his main points clearly, and indicate his illustrations. Such brief writing was usually done on a sheet of writing paper, folded length-wise, making four long, narrow pages. When typed, one of these sermons makes a manuscript three to six pages in length.
His method of preparation has often been criticized, the critics feeling that the sermons should have been fully written. However, Dr. Broadus wanted the freedom of choosing exact words in the act of delivery as the occasion and nature of the subject dictated. Thus he was left free for many striking asides and helpful thoughts which came to him as he spoke. This method proved quite advantageous to Dr. Broadus after he became a seminary professor. Before re-preaching a sermon, he would spend at least two hours trying to adapt it to the new situation and in seeking to make the sermon real to him again. Thus he recreated his sermons and gave them a freshness and vitality which they might not otherwise have had.
After this writing, Dr. Broadus would fix the sermon in his mind by thinking about it as he walked, a habit which he formed early in life. His daughter, Miss Eliza Broadus, recorded that near the University of Virginia he had worn a path by walking back and forth as he prepared to speak. And now he was ready for the sermon prepared to become the sermon delivered. In the essay written in 1854, he maintained that a “sermon becomes such only in the act of delivery. Whatever mode of preparing be adopted, it is not strictly a sermon, but only preparation until it is delivered.”
Dr. Broadus did not use the brief notes which he had prepared. He practiced what he called extempore delivery; in fact, he would not carry a “scrap of paper” into the pulpit with him. One Sunday morning as he was walking into the church, he discovered that he had his notes with him. He turned to his daughter, Mrs. A. T. Robertson and said, “Daughter, I forgot to leave my notes at home. Will you keep them until after the services?” However, extempore deliver did not mean extempore thinking. It meant a free delivery after careful preparation.
Freedom from a manuscript allowed him the freedom to look directly at his audience and establish excellent eye contact. He assiduously cultivated this habit and developed the ability to make each person in the audience feel that he was talking directly to him.
Contributing also to his directness was his conversational manner of speaking. Broadus always began quietly and easily and continued in a conversational tone. He often urged his students to “talk like folks talk,” and he tried to put that rule into practice. In keeping with his quiet delivery, he used few gestures, but these were always appropriate for enforcing his ideas. His voice, while not unusually strong, had wonderful carrying power. It was marked by a soft richness, fine flexibility, and often expressed deep pathos. He articulate carefully and there was a good distribution of emphasis. Though his sermons have been called “enlarged conversations,” he would occasionally burst forth spontaneously into intense and blazing declamation. He was capable of eloquence which carried his hearers to height of thought and emotion.
His quiet conversational delivery brought both critics and imitators. Some men, who equated “real preaching” with soaring in the oratorical stratosphere, accused Broadus of “ruining the preachers of the South” by his example. His students, however, saw his effectiveness and in spite of his warning, many of them tried to imitate his tones, his genuine pathos, his platform manner, failing to realize that they had only a few of his external characteristics and not the qualities of his success.
This method of delivery was deeply appreciated by the congregations which heard Broadus speak; for audiences have always appreciated preachers who look directly at them and speak directly to them. His Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching, which were delivered in this manner, were enthusiastically received by the students and faculty at Yale University. Since his unique method of preparing and delivering sermons won the same enthusiastic response from every group he addressed, it must be listed as an important element of strength in his preaching. It was, however, the total impact of man and message that made John A. Broadus such a tremendously popular preacher to his own generation. In Broadus, his audience sensed reality. One listener summarized and made articulate what many felt about Broadus’ preaching.
It was not so much what he said. It did seem that almost anyone might have said what he was saying. But it was the man behind the message. He spoke with the authority of one who tested and knew the truth.