Remarks on preaching and praying in public

by Mr John Livingstone [1603-1672, minister in Killinchy, Stranraer and Ancrum]

[The first in a series of potential actually useful to somebody posts of things that aren’t available anywhere else]

It is most probable that no gift, no pains, a man takes to fit himself for preaching, shall ever do good to the people or himself, except a man labour to have and keep his heart in a spiritual condition before God, depending on him always for furnishing and blessing. Earnest faith and prayer, a single aim at the glory of God and good of people, a sanctified heart and carriage, shall avail much for right preaching. There is sometimes somewhat in preaching that cannot be ascribed either to the matter or expression, and cannot be described what it is, or from whence it cometh, but with a sweet violence it pierceth into the heart and affections, and comes immediately from the Lord. But if there be any way to attain to such thing, it is by a heavenly disposition of the speaker. A man should especially read the writings, and labour to follow the gifts of those who God hath, in the most eminent manner, blessed with the converting and confirming of their hearers, rather than those who seem to have rare gifts for learning and delectation, without such success.
It is very neefdul that a man prudently discern what is the nature and extent of the gift that God hath given him, that in offering to imitate others he does not stretch beyond his own line, but only corrects the defects of his own gift; and what is good therein, labour to improve and exalt that.
It is very fitting that a man have plenty and choice words, that as need requires, he may vary his expression; and sometimes the enforcing of the same thing with diverse words to the same purpose hath its own use, especially to a dull auditory; and so we find, that often in the Prophets and Psalms, and poetic Scriptures, the same thing will be twice expressed only in different words. But a custom of multiplying synonymous words and epithets, and sentences to the same purpose, is very unsavoury to an understanding hearer, that seeks matter and not words, and would feign to proceed from scarcity of matter, and a desire to fill the hour any way.
The light of nature, which is a spark of the will of God, hath taught many useful rules, even to Pagans, [concerning] the right way of making solemn speeches before others, the most of which are to be applied to preaching with due discretion; so that what is thought unseemly in the one is to be avoided in the other. But the best rulers are taken from the preachings of Christ, of the apostles and prophets.


I. For Matter.

1. A mediocrity should be kept, that there be not too much matter in one sermon, which but overburdeneth the memory of the hearers, and would seem to smell of ostentation [“pretentious display meant to impress others”]; and, on the other hand, that there be not too little, which hungers the auditory, and argues an empty gift.
2. The matter should not be too exquisite and fine, with abstruse learning and quaint notions, which go beyond the capacity of the vulgar, and also savoureth of ostentation; nor yet too common, and such as most of the auditory might themselves devise, for it procures careless hearing, and despising of the gift.

Moreover, these faults should be shunned:
1. Too many particular points, reckoned as 8, 10, &c., loads memory, and too few is flat.
2. Too exquisite method, and none almost at all.
3. Too much should not be left to [the Spirit’s] assistance in the time, and yet not all premeditated.
4. Ordinarily go not beyond the hour.
5. Not too much Scripture cited, nor too little.
6. Not to insist long in proving clear doctrines.
7. Not too few doctrines, nor too many.
8. Not to insist on points that may be spoken to on any text.
9. Neither too many similitudes, nor none at all.

II. Words.

1. Not too fine, nor too common.
2. Avoid many synonymous words and sentences.

III. Utterance and Voice.

1. Not like singing.
2. Not long-drawn words.
3. Not affect at a weeping-like voice.
4. Not too loud, nor too low.
5. Not to speak too fast, or too slow.
6. Not to interrupt with oft sighing.

Livingstone said, approaching his death, “I cannot say much of great services; yet if ever my heart was lifted up, it was in preaching of Jesus Christ”.

Taken from Thomas Houston, Life of Rev. John Livingstone, Works, iv, pp 320-3.

See also: Stuart Olyott – Reading the Bible and praying in public