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J. W. McGarvey: Missouri Christian Lectures, 1883

The duties of preachers are generally well know—

There are two ways of learning methods.
We learn them by experience and by precept—

The duties of preachers are usually well known. They lie on the very surface of the New Testament, and the preacher who does not know them is without excuse. But the best methods of discharging these duties are not so well known. They are not so easily learned, and but few of them are taught in the Scriptures.

There are two ways of learning methods. We learn them by experience and by precept. The latter should precede the former: for experience teaches largely by means of the mistakes which we make, and wise precept preceding experience, if heeded, must save us from many mistakes. But precept, however wise, is seldom accepted in its fulness until we have tested it by our own experience. Experience is the only guide that we are willing to trust implicitly, yet no man should ever consider himself too old or too wise to profit by the experience and the advice of others. The two teachers, experience and precept, should be heard continuously, and every preacher should continue to grow by the help of each until the inevitable decay of old age sets in.

The object of the present lecture is not to dictate, but to advise; not to suggest the only good method as though there were but one, but to state what appears to the speaker the best method of discharging the duties which come under notice. Precepts of this kind are calculated not to better the minds of preachers, but rather to set them free by waking up thought, concerning methods which have been adopted without thought.

It is impossible to satisfactorily discuss, within the space of a single lecture, all the methods included in the subject which I have chosen. These might be distributed in a general way into Methods of Study, Methods of Delivery, Methods of Conducting Public Worship, Methods of Church Work, usually called Pastoral Work, and Methods of Personal Advancement. I will confine my remarks to the first of these and consider the methods, first, of studying the Scriptures, second, of studying other books, third, of making special preparation for the pulpit, and fourth of maintaining system in study.

Study of the Scriptures—

There are four methods of studying the Scriptures,
all having their respective advantages and
all necessary to their highest attainment.

It is a common thought among the masses of the people that preachers pass their lives in studying the Bible. This appears to be their supreme work, requiring that they be freed from business cares and manual labor. It is doubtless true that they do study the Scriptures more than any other class of men, but no men know so well as preachers themselves, how woefully this duty is neglected. If I were to point out what I believe to be the greatest defect, not call it the greatest sin, in the lives of preachers, I think I would say it is their neglect of the word of God. The common thought of the people just mentioned is that which ought to be. They have a right to demand of every preacher, after he shall have spent some years in his calling, that he be well acquainted with all of God’s word, and that he be able to give an intelligent answer to the questions commonly arising on every part. In order to do this it is necessary that he shall have studied the Scriptures laboriously and systematically.

There are four methods of studying the Scriptures, all having their respective advantages and all necessary to the highest attainments. We may study them historically, by books, by topics and devotionally. We will speak of these methods separately and in the order named.


By the historical study of the Scripture we mean the study of its various events and records in the order of time. It aims at obtaining a knowledge of all the events recorded in it, including the composition of its various books, in the order of their occurrence. There are but few books in the Bible in which all the events which it mentions are arranged in chronological order, and there are many which cover the same period of time with other books. In all these instances the facts recorded must not only be known, but we must learn to know them as far as possible in the order of their occurrence. The books of Kings and Chronicles, for example, must be interwoven with one another on the warp of chronology, and all the events recorded as referred to in the contemporary writings of prophets and poets, must be assigned their proper places amid the events of the historical books. In this way alone can we know in full the history of ancient Israel. In like manner, we must not only become acquainted with the four Gospels separately, but we must know the recorded events in the life of Jesus in the order of time if we would understand them; and so of Acts and the Epistles. Those Epistles which are contemporaneous with Acts, fill up in a good degree the historical gaps in that book, while the later Epistles continue the history of the apostolic church beyond the close of Acts.

Such a study of the whole Bible is absolutely necessary to the attainment of general Scripture knowledge. It lies at the very beginning of a course of Scripture study, and it lays the only broad foundation for all subsequent study of Scripture topics. It is by this means alone that the gradual progress of revelation, and the consequent gradual elevation of mankind can be understood; and it may be doubted whether any one important event, or the composition of any one book of the Bible can be properly understood until it is viewed, as this method of study alone enables us to view it in the light of the events and the writings which precede it, and of those which follow it. I would advise every preacher, both old and young, who has never pursued such a course of study, to undertake it at once, and to prosecute it with vigor.


The study of the Bible by books is involved, to a large extent, in the method of study just named, and especially is this true of the historical books. But a man may acquire a good knowledge of events recorded in a historical book without having studied the book as a book–without, in other words, having given attention to the specific design of the book, as to the plan on which it is constructed. No one understands a book until he has done this. And in regard to the books which are not historical, while the student of sacred history may have gleaned the facts mentioned in these, and may have given the book itself and the author of it their proper place in the procession of biblical events, he may as yet have learned very little of what the book contains. When we have gleaned, for example, the historical facts embodied in the book of Job, in the Psalms, in Proverbs, in any of the prophets or in any of the epistles, how much remains that is yet to be learned? How much, too, that is, if possible, of more importance than the facts–matter to which the facts sustain only such a relation as does the scaffold to the building, or the golden framework to the gem which glitters within its embrace. In order to reach and gather this rich fruitage of Bible knowledge, every single book in the Bible must be made, in the course of a preacher’s life, a subject of minute and patient study.

The method of studying a single book is simple and obvious. It requires that we first obtain a general conception of its design and its contents. This is obtained by reading it for that special purpose.

This prepares the way for the second step, which is to ascertain the general divisions of the book, together with the aim and contents of each. When this is accomplished the framework of the book, showing the plan on which it is constructed, is distinctly before the mind, and we are prepared for the more minute examination of its particular parts. While reading it for these purposes, we will usually have formed some acquaintance with its historical connections, such as the time and circumstances under which it was written, and the influences at work upon the mind of the author. Next follows an exegetical study of every part by sentences and paragraphs. Much of this information can be obtained by reading an introduction to the book, but this is to obtain information at second hand–a process never to be adopted by a student except when the original sources are beyond his reach. Read introductions after you have studied the books and not before. Thus read, they may correct or modify your own conclusions, but read in advance they may mislead you and at best you are not able to judge of their correctness.

In addition to the study of Bible books separately, many of them should be studied in groups, according to their subject-matter, or the time of their composition. For example, the books containing the scattered statutes of the Mosaic law are a group by themselves; the prophets before the captivity, the prophets of the captivity, and the prophets after the captivity are three other groups. In the New Testament the four Gospels are a group having common subject-matter, and yet John’s Gospel, if grouped according to time, would stand with his three epistles and the Apocalypse, as the latest writings of the New Testament. In like manner the apostolic Epistles should be studied in groups according to the time of their composition. Only in this way can we have before our minds the state of society which was before the minds of the writers, and possess the key to the vivid appreciation of these writings which these circumstances alone can furnish.


The study of the Scriptures by topics is the third method which I have named. While prosecuting the methods already mentioned, a general knowledge of leading topics will have been obtained; but the preacher should never be satisfied with a general knowledge of any topic treated in the Bible. Detached pieces of information are never satisfying, and the are very likely to prove misleading. Complete, systematic and exact information is what our calling demands, and this we must as soon as possible acquire.

I know of no method by which such a knowledge of topics can be acquired less laborious than the following: First, by means of your recollection from former readings, and by use of your Concordance, gather up all the passages which treat of the subject in hand, or which throw any light upon it. Second, classify these passages according to the different branches of the subject with which they are connected. The branches of the subject are often known in a general way before the investigation begins. They have come into notice by inquiries of your own mind, or they have been made familiar by religious controversy. When the divisions thus suggested are but a part, the passages themselves will suggest the remainder, so that there will seldom appear any difficulty in completely classifying the collected passages and obtaining exhaustive subdivisions of the topic. The next step is to arrange the thoughts and facts under each branch of the subject in some natural order of sequence, and thus obtain a systematic view of it as it stands in the Scriptures. Finally, the parts must be studied with reference to one another and the whole; and the whole must be studied with reference to all its parts. When this is done you are prepared, and not till then, to write or speak on the subject or any of its parts with the assurance of one who understands fully what he proposes to say.

This is a laborious process. It is one which only the few have the industry to pursue; but the few who do pursue it are the masters in Israel, they are the teachers of teachers; while those who lack this industry must remain contented with very imperfect knowledge, and must obtain their knowledge in the main at second-hand. I suppose myself to be addressing men who wish to rank with the former of these two classes. It may be well to add, however, that a young preacher, in the beginning of his ministry must necessarily discuss some subject before he can have had time and opportunity for this exhaustive study; but all such should remember that this necessity is one of the disabilities of inexperience which must be put away as soon as possible.


In the last place, I am to speak of studying the Scriptures devotionally. The preacher who has not a devotional spirit, lacks the chief elements of power with the people both in the pulpit and out of it. He is utterly incapable of cultivating a devotional spirit in his hearers; and without this the entire service of the church becomes an empty form. No man who is to lead the people in the way of life can afford to neglect this element of the Christian character, this source of religious enjoyment, this element of pulpit power. Apart from frequent prayer and much meditation, there is no way to cultivate this spirit except by the thoughtful reading of those portions of Scripture which are especially designed to awaken devotional sentiments. The preacher, therefore, should study these portions a great deal. They should be in his hand every day.

When we speak of devotional parts of the Scriptures, the mind turns at once to the book of Psalms; for in it are collected the richest poetic effusions of pious hearts throughout the period of Jewish inspiration, from Moses to the poets of Babylonian captivity. But only a certain portion of these is well adapted to the cultivation of devotion. Some of them are descriptive, some didactic, and a few are vindictive, giving utterance to that sentiment of the Mosaic law which allowed the demand of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. By frequent reading of all the Psalms, the preacher will make himself acquainted with those which contain pure devotional feeling according to the Christian standard, and these should be his sources of inspiration.

But besides the Psalms, there are many passages in Job, in Eccelesiastes, in Proverbs, in the prophets, and even in the historical books of the Old Testament, the study of which lifts up the soul to the loftiest sentiments, while in the New Testament, which contains not a single book of poetry, there are passages in the Gospel, [91] in Acts, in the Epistles, and in the Apocalypse, fully equal to the sublimest poetry for filling the soul with every holy emotion. The preacher, while studying the Scriptures historically, by books and by topics, will have found all these passages. He should mark them as he discovers them, and should subsequently revert to them, for devotional reading until both their contents and their places in the book became familiar to him.

In order to the best effect upon our hearts, our devotional study should not consist in a mere dreamy reading of the parts referred to; for in this way the impression made is likely to be shallow and transitory. We should study these passages exegetically, searching into the significance of every figure employed, and trying to paint before imagination’s eye every image projected by the writer. If we read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” we do not feel full force of the metaphor until we learn all about the work of a Palestine shepherd, as it is alluded to throughout this Psalm, and as it is literally described by Jesus in the tenth chapter of John. So of all the metaphors, tropes and historical allusions throughout the poetry of the Bible.

But the best effects of devotional study will still lie beyond our reach, if we do not commit many of these inspiring passages to memory, so that we can meditate upon them in the night watches, call them up amid our labors and our journeyings, and make them subjects of conversation when the Bible is not at hand. It is in this way that the word of God is to dwell in us richly in all wisdom. If you will inquire you will find it almost universally true of men and women eminent for piety, that their Memories were vast storehouses for the most precious portions of God’s Holy Book.

As a kind of concluding note I must append to this part of my lecture the remark, that in all of our study of the Scriptures we must constantly consult the original if we can, and that we must by all means use the best version. The Canterbury revision of the New Testament should now totally supplant the King James version, not only because it is a great improvement as a version, but because it is the only representative in English of the corrected Greek text. A man is not safe in venturing upon the exegesis of a single passage by the aid of the old version until he shall have compared it carefully with the new; and rather than be continually making those comparisons, it is better to at once adopt the new into exclusive use.

Preachers’ Methods, a lecture by J. W. McGarvey, Missouri Christian Lectures, Independence, Missouri, July 1883.  This posting in El Conquistador represents the opening segment of that lecture.  For the complete text, see:

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