Most Presbyterians know the name Samuel Miller (1769-1850) for his work as a member of the faculty of Old Princeton Seminary (1812-1929). Unfortunately, Miller is often overshadowed by other men of his era, especially his colleagues at Princeton in the theology department such as Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), Charles Hodge (1797-1878), or B. B. Warfield (1851-1921). Historians of American Presbyterianism have often left the general impression that the dogmaticians more significantly impacted the seminary and its students than did Miller or other professors in different theological disciplines. In reality, however, Miller played a pivotal role in the seminary—that of teaching ministerial students how to preach. No doubt, as to influencing the local church, this proves one of the most significant professorates of the seminary. Miller performed this function for thirty-five years and trained approximately 1,600 ministerial students!
What exactly did he teach his students? Thankfully, Miller meticulously preserved manuscripts of his thirty-lectures on preaching, which are preserved in the Princeton Theological Seminary Library Archives. Unfortunately, however, these are not readily available apart from a trip to New Jersey. For that reason, beginning with this essay, we will relay a few things from Miller’s lectures that appear to be relevant, challenging, and helpful to modern preachers. In this first essay, we will consider what Miller teaches on the Importance of Preaching.
In his homiletical lectures, Miller covers a full gambit of topics including a history of preaching along with all the nuts and bolts of delivery. However, before doing this, Miller reminded his theological students of the centrality of the pulpit to the Christian ministry. We could summarize this portion of his lecture under three headings: 1. The Importance of Preaching to the Purpose of the Seminary; 2. The Importance of Preaching to the Minister’s Work; and 3. The Importance of Preaching to the Salvation and Comfort of God’s People.
- The Importance of Preaching to the Purpose of the Seminary
Miller begins his lecture by urging his pupils to remember that the very reason that the seminary exists and the reason that they attended such a theological institution was “that you may be duly qualified to preach the everlasting gospel.” This general principle informs the student in three ways.
First, this means that every branch of study should come to bear on this purpose. Old Princeton required advanced courses in the biblical languages, exegetical, systematic, and polemical theology, church history, as well as polity. According to Miller, however, the learning of these skills and completion of these courses were all intended to facilitate this one overarching purpose—to preach the gospel of Christ.
Second, this means that the sermon is not meant to be a display of learning, talent, or rhetorical skill. Pulpits are not platforms for the self but for Christ. These advanced skills and learnings are meant thirdly, to exhibit, “more clearly, skillfully, affectionately, and powerfully, the truth as it is in Jesus.”
- The Importance of Preaching to the Minister’s Work
Miller maintained, “This is the grand, momentous work in which you are to spend your lives and to the able and faithful performance of which your attainments ought to be made subservient.” He adds further, “Let me entreat you to recollect that preaching is the most eminent and the most important part of a minister’s work.” Many other responsibilities remain such as catechesis, visitation, participation in the church courts, or social endeavors, but nothing supersedes the work of the pulpit. This is stressed by both Jesus and the apostles. Miller confirms this by referring to Mark 16:15; 1Cor.1:17; Acts 6:2, 4; and Gal.3:8. Miller then offers one final reason why the pastor should consider his preaching role so significant.
- The Importance of Preaching to the Salvation and Comfort of God’s People
Miller summarizes the important of preaching for his people in the following way:
In a word, convening men in assemblies and addressing them on the great truths of the Gospel, by the voice of the living teacher, is God’s grand ordinance for the conversion of the world. It has pleased God “by foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” No other mode of addressing mankind can supersede the necessity of this. There is a life and a power in it, when accompanied by the saving energy of the Holy Spirit, which all history has served strikingly to attest.
In reminding these pastors and ministerial students of the importance of preaching Miller intended to reorient their studies and labors to this singular focus. We too may be prone to distraction. Perhaps we too need our responsibilities reoriented. If called by God to this office, of the many things that we are called to do, none is more important to our work and the good of souls than the faithful proclamation of his word. Furthermore, these reflections must inspire a sobriety and appropriate reverence that will accompany the preacher in his work. He urges them:
I trust you have done it [ascended the pulpit] with something of the heartfelt sense of the solemnity and responsibility connected with it which ought to fill the minds of those who appear as the bearers of a message of mercy to rebel men.
He who does not enter the pulpit with trembling, must have a “slight impression, indeed, of the infinite importance of the message which he bears.”
We who have preached for a lengthy period of time should be particularly aware of this. We would do well to regularly remind ourselves of the importance of this task so that we might not have “slight” views of the pulpit, and that we might prayerfully ascend the pulpit with the appropriate sobriety and reverence. May God bless our pulpits as we give to them the proper place of prominence.
The authoritative biography of Samuel Miller was written by his son, Samuel Miller, The Life of the Samuel Miller, D. D., LL.D Second professor in the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church, At Princeton, New Jersey (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, and Haffefinger, 1869). Hereafter and in subsequent essays LSM. You might also see my article: “Samuel Miller: The Forgotten Founder and Shaper of Old Princeton,” The Journal of Presbyterian History 91, no.1 (Spring, 2013).
See Peter Wallace and Mark Noll, “The Students of Princeton Seminary, 1812-1929: A Research Note,” American Presbyterians 72 (1994): 203-215.
The Samuel Miller Manuscript Collection. Special Collections, Princeton Theological Seminary Library box 8 folder 26. Hereafter SMMC. For those who don’t have access to the archival material, for our benefit, a few of these have been published in James M. Garretson’s recent work, An Able and Faithful Ministry: Samuel Miller and the Pastoral Office, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2014). However, he only includes transcriptions of a few of the 30 lectures.