the power of preaching

Some good thoughts on preaching by Dave over here. It reminds me of a book I am reading.

It is called The Scotch-Irish: A Social History, by James G. Leyburn. I picked up during a recent vacation in Tennessee at one of the state’s excellent historical sites. (To my chagrin, I see I could have gotten it on Amazon for $6 less.)

I am a sucker for historical sites and for historical books that you find there. My kids make fun of me… (this time, one of my sons said, “Oh boy, get ready for more Civil War illustrations!”)

This particular book traces the American immigrants who became known in America as the Scotch-Irish from their time in Scotland to their first emigration to Ireland (Ulster) and from there to America. I am just finishing the description of life in Scotland prior to the great exodus.

The story is fascinating (OK, so I’m a nerd). Leyburn was a prominent sociology professor at Washington & Lee University. Their library is named after him. I don’t know if he professed to be a Christian or not, but the book seems to be written from a secular perspective. That’s what makes it’s comments on preaching and the Scottish Reformation so interesting.

The Scottish people before the reformation (1300s-1500s) lived in a Medieval society, dominated by feudal social structures. Their homes were poor, their living was barely subsistence, they used inefficient farming methods and implements, and had virtually no education. The lack of education extends from the poorest to the lairds and lords, the nobility of the land, such as it was. The culture was violent, much of the time was spent in wars with the English (or raiding their farms) or fighting one another. The church of the day was corrupt, offering no guidance to the moral or spiritual life of the people. As I read about it, the picture I have in my mind is little better than the mud huts of Africa (without the warm temperatures).

The Scottish Reformation, led by John Knox, brought about a dramatic change. Leyburn says that it is claimed that from effects of the Reformation “Scotland emerged within the span of a single generation from barbarism to civilization.”1 Why did this happen?

Whereas in England the Reform had been chiefly the work of the sovereign and the court party, in Scotland it immediately won the people to its ideals2

These ideals were communicated to the people in the sermons of the Presbyterian preachers. These men replaced the corrupt priests throughout the land, emphasized learning, and taught the people through their long sermons. The sermon was the centerpiece of Kirk worship. Even though the people listening to the sermons were at first mostly illiterate, they were not unintelligent and it was the preaching of these men that stirred a renaissance of learning in Scotland. (It was the ambition of the Kirk that schools should exist in every village.)

This zeal for learning, especially its democratic aspect, now became another characteristic of the Lowlander. What the new order makes clear is that the Scot had, as he must long have had, a fine, active mind — one that had been waiting only for stimulation. The Presbyterian Church, having discarded much ritual, laid its great emphasis on the sermon. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the sermon provided the necessary stimulus to the mind and was therefore a main cause of the new national respect for education.

To the modern man in a hurry it seems incredible that people were willing to make long journeys to devote practically a whole day to a series of sermons each of which might last for two or three hours. What these people found in the parish kirk, quite aside from the satisfaction of their religious yearnings, was for the first time in their lives an appeal made directly to their minds. That a man could not yet read did not mean that he could not grasp the point of a theological issue; unlettered as he was, he could see what was at stake and he could argue it with acumen. Theology was not a finespun argument about irrelevancies; it was a burning question about a man’s relation to God. One’s immortal soul depended on it. These were the days before journalism, the diffusion of literature,  and the ‘mass media’ of communication. To give one whole day out of seven to the topic that interested him most meant that one would continue to think and talk about it during the other days as well. The pulpit was a person’s one source of mental excitement, and a man delighted in his new experience. Centuries of illiteracy had not dulled the shrewdness of the mind, and a man delighted in his new experience. The sermon and what it did to a man proved to be an oasis in a desert.3

Isn’t that an incredible description? Leyburn mildly criticizes the Scottish Reformation for going too far and being too severe (and perhaps they were in some ways). But the picture he paints is of an entire people completely turned around, largely through the power of preaching alone.

Interestingly, he notes that the Council of Trent advised the priests of the Counter Reformation (Catholic) “to avoid ‘the more difficult and subtler questions, which do not tend to edification’ of ordinary folk.”4

I thought this was a striking description. It makes me think that what we need is not simpler preaching, easier for our people to take, but longer and more complicated preaching (not obtuse and dull), that feeds meat to our people.

Dave offers this good comment in his post (linked above):

Preaching was so central to the Lord’s earthly mission that He could turn away from needy people and say, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for” (Mark 1:38).


By the way, I am only a third of the way through this book, but I think I can highly recommend it if you have any interest in understanding people and how past ways of living and thinking affect the present. I have a particular interest in the Scots and the Scotch-Irish. My Grandmother emigrated to Canada from a little town outside Belfast and my Grandfather’s people came to Canada 150 years ago from a lonely rock off the west coast of Scotland. The people this book describes are my ancestors.



  1. p. 56. []
  2. Ibid, emphasis in original. []
  3. pp. 72-73, bold emphasis mine. []
  4. p. 73, footnote. []


  1. Brian Ernsberger says:

    A rather insightful look by this one who has written from the secular look at history. You have piqued my interest in the book. I too, so enjoy a good historical read. It gives us a good perspective often, as to why we are where we are today and we can then determine if the direction we are heading is the right direction. Thanks for the brief of this book.

  2. Jack W says:

    Back in those days people did not have all the other distractions like folks do today, they had more time for each other what with the barter system in place, they were not under the pressure of life today, on top of that how many preachers of today can hold the attention of the listeners for more than half an hour?

    What the church of today needs more than anything else is,” Get back to the book” reverence and worship for starters.

    • Thanks for the comments.

      It is true that “there was nothing else to do” in those days. But note this, in Scotland pre-Reformation the Church was held in low esteem and little thought of. Post-Reformation this secular observe says the people took it to heart. Previously, they had no intellectual stimulation. Subsequently, their minds were alive with the doctrines of the Reforming preachers.

      I think that it behooves us today to be able to stir minds at a higher level than current entertainment options do. (Admittedly not a high bar.) I think that if people could be stirred up about the Word of God and Christian theology we could yet make something of an impact in lives.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Brian Ernsberger says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily say they had more time to interact because of the barter system in place, we probably spend as much time in the “marketplace” as they did. To their credit, they started interacting with one another on a religous plane while, for the most part, we have remained mute.
    True, we need a reviving of a Bible-reading/study emphasis amongst our people. When the Word of God is alive, real, and relevant for daily living then it starts to be lived out vibrantly for all to see Christ in us.