THE USES OF ANECDOTES AND ILLUSTRATIONS.
THE uses of anecdotes and illustrations are manifold; but we may reduce them to seven, so far as our present purposes are concerned, not for a moment imagining that this. will be a complete list.
I. We use them, first, to interest the mind and secure the attention of our hearers. We cannot endure a sleepy audience. To us, a slumbering man is no man. Sydney Smith observed that, although Eve was taken out of the side of Adam while he was asleep, it was not possible to remove sin from men’s hearts in that manner. We do not agree with Hodge, the hedger and ditcher, who remarked to a Christian man with whom he was talking, “I loikes Sunday, I does; I loikes Sunday.” “And what makes you like Sunday?” “’Cause, you see, it’s a day of rest; I goes down to the old church, I gets into a pew, and puts my legs up, and I thinks o’ nothin’.” It is to be feared that in town as well as in country this thinking of nothing is a very usual thing. But your regard for the sacred day, and the ministry to which you are called, and the worshipping assembly, will not allow you to give yore’ people the chance of thinking of nothing. You want to arouse every faculty in them to receive the Word of God, that it may be a blessing to them.
We want to win attention at the commencement of the service, and to hold it till the close. With this aim, many methods may be tried; but possibly none will succeed better than the introduction of an interesting story. This sets Hodge listening, and although he will miss the fresh air of the fields, and begin to feel drowsy in your stuffy chapel, another tale will stir him to renewed attention. If he hears some narrative in connection with his village or county, you will have him “all there”, and you may then hope to do him good.
The anecdote in the sermon answers the purpose of an engraving in a book. Everybody knows that people are attracted by volumes with pictures in them; and that, when a child gets a book, although it may pass over the letterpress without observation, it is quite sure to pause over the woodcuts.
Let us not be too great to use a method which many have found successful.
We must have attention. In some audiences, we cannot get it if we begin with solid instruction; they are not desirous of being taught, and consequently they are not in a condition to receive the truth if we set it before them nakedly. Now for a bunch of flowers to attract these people to our table, for afterwards we can feed them with the food they so much need. Just as the Salvation Army goes trumpeting and drumming through the streets to draw the people into the barracks, so may an earnest man spend the first few minutes with an unprepared congregation in waking the folks up, and enticing them to enter the inner chamber of the truth. Even this awakening prelude must have in it that which is worthy of the occasion; but if it is not up to your usual average in weight of doctrine, it may not only be excused, but commended, if it prepares the audience to receive that which is to follow. Ground-bait may catch no fish; but it answers its purpose if it brings them near the bait and the hook.
A congregation which has been well instructed, and is mainly made up of established believers, will not need to be addressed in the same style as an audience gathered fresh from the world, or a meeting of dull, formal churchgoers. Your common-sense will teach you to suit your manner to your audience. It is possible to maintain profound and long-continued attention without the use of an illustration; I have frequently done so in the Tabernacle when it has been mainly filled with church-members; but when my own people are away, and strangers fill their places, I bring out all my store of stories, similes, and parables.
I have sometimes told anecdotes in the pulpit, and very delicate and particular people have expressed their regret and horror that I should say such things; but when I have found that God has blessed some of the illustrations I have used, I have often thought of the story’ of the man with a halbert, who was attacked by a nobleman’s dog, and, of course, in defending himself, he killed the animal. The nobleman was very angry, and asked the man how he dared to kill the dog; and the man replied that, if he had not killed it, the dog would have bitten him, and torn him in pieces. “Well,” said the nobleman, “but you should not have struck it on the head with the halbert; why did you not hit it with the handle?” “My lord,” answered the man, “so I would if it had tried to bite me with its tail.” So, when! have to deal with sin, some people say, “Why don’t you address it delicately? Why don’t you speak to it in courtly language?” And I answer, “So I would if it would bite me with its tail; but as long as ever I find that it deals roughly with me, I will deal roughly with it; and any kind of weapon that will help to slay the monster, I shall not find unfitted to my hand.”
We cannot afford, in these days, to lose any opportunity of getting hold of the public ear. We must use every occasion that comes in our way, and every tool that is likely to help us in our work; and we must rouse up all our faculties, and put forth all our energies, if that by any means we may get the people to heed that which they are so slow to regard, the great story of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come. We shall need to read much, and to study hard, or else we shall not be able to influence our day and generation for good. I believe that the greatest industry is necessary to make a thoroughly efficient preacher, and the best natural ability, too; and it’ is my firm conviction that, when you have the best natural ability, you must supplement it with the greatest imaginable industry if you are really to do much service for God among this crooked and perverse generation.
The fool in Scotland, who got into the pulpit before the preacher arrived, was requested by the minister to come down. “Nay, nay,” answered the man, “you come up, too, for it will take both of us to move this stiffnecked generation.” It will certainly take all the wisdom that we can obtain to move the people among whom our lot is cast; and if we do not use every lawful means of interesting the minds of our hearers, we shall find that they will be like a certain other congregation, in which’: the people were all asleep except one poor idiot. The minister woke them up, and tried to reprove them by saying, “There, you were all asleep except poor Jock the idiot;” but his rebuke was cut short by Jock, who exclaimed, “And if I had not been an idiot, I should have been asleep, too.”
II. I will leave the moral of that well-known story to speak for itself, and will pass on to my second point, which is, that the use of anecdotes and illustrations renders our preaching life-like and vivid. This is a most important matter. Of all things that we have to avoid, one of the most essential is that of giving our people the idea, ‘when we are preaching, that we are acting a part. Everything theatrical in the pulpit, either in tone, manner, or anything else, I loathe from my very soul. Just go into the pulpit, and talk to the people as you would in the kitchen, or the drawingroom, and say what you have to tell them in your ordinary tone of voice.
Let me conjure you, by everything that is good, to throw away all stilted styles of speech, and anything approaching affectation. Nothing can succeed with the masses except naturalness and simplicity.. Why, some ministers cannot even give out a hymn in a natural manner I “Let us sing to the praise and glory of God,” [spoken in the tone that is sometimes heard in churches or chapels] — who would ever think of speaking like that at the tea-table? “I shall be greatly obliged if you will kindly give me another cup of tea,” [spoken in the same unnatural way] — you would never think of giving any tea to a man who talked like that; and if we preach in that stupid style, the people will not believe what we say; they will think it is our business, our occupation, and that we are doing the whole thing in a professional manner. We must shake off professionalism of every kind, as Paul shook off the viper into the fire; and we must speak as God has ordained that we should speak, and not by any strange, out-of-the-way, new-fangled method of pulpit oratory.
Our Lord’s teaching was amazingly life-like and vivid; it was the setting out of truth before the eye, not as a flat picture, but as in a stereoscope, making it stand up, with all its lines and angles of beauty in life-like reality.
That was a fine living sermon when he took a little child, and set him in the midst of the disciples; and that was another powerful discourse when he preached about abstaining from carking cares, and stooped down, and plucked a lily (as I suppose he did) and said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” I can read fly suppose that some ravens were flying just over his head, and that he pointed to them, and said, “Consider the ravens; for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them.”
There was a life-likeness, you see, a vividness, about the whole thing. We cannot always literally imitate our Lord, as we have mostly to preach in places of worship. It is a blessing that we have so many houses of prayer, and I thank God that there are so many of them springing up all around us; yet I should praise the Lord still more if half the ministers, who preach in our various buildings, were made to turn out of them, and to speak for their Master in the highways, and byways, and anywhere that the people would go to listen to them. We are to go out into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature, not to stop in our chapels waiting for every creature to come in to hear what we have to say. A sportsman, who should sit at his parlor window, with his gun loaded all ready for shooting partridges, would probably not make up a very heavy bag of game. No, he must put on his buskins, and tramp off over the fields, and then he will get a shot at the birds he is seeking. So must we do, brethren, we must always have our buskins ready for field work, and be ever on the watch for opportunities of going out among the souls of men, that we may bring them back as trophies of the power of the gospel we have to proclaim.
It might not be wise for us to try to make our sermons life-like and vivid in the style in which quaint old Matthew Wilks sometimes did; as when, one Sabbath morning, he took into the pulpit a little box, and after a while opened it, and displayed to the congregation a small pair of scales, and then, turning over the leaves of the Bible with great deliberation, held up the balances, and announced as his text, “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” I think, however, that was puerile rather than powerful. I like Matthew Wilks better when, on another occasion, his text being, “See that ye walk circumspectly,” he commenced by saying, “Did you ever see a tom cat walking on the top of a high wall that was covered with bits of broken glass bottles? If so, you had just then an accurate illustration of what is meant by the injunction, ‘See that ye walk circumspectly.’” There is the case, too, of good “Father Taylor”, who, preaching in the streets in one of the towns of California, stood on the top of a whisky-barrel. By way of illustration, he stamped his foot on the cask, and said, “This barrel is like man’s heart, full of evil stuff; and there are some people who say that, if sin is within you, it may just as well come out.” “No,” said the speaker, “it is not so; now here is this whisky that is in the barrel under my foot; it is a bad thing, it is a damnable thing, it is a devilish thing, but as long as it is kept tightly bunged up in the barrel, it certainly will not do the hurt that it will if it is taken over to the liquor-bar, and sold out to the drunkards of the neighborhood, sending them home to beat their wives, or kill their children. So, if you keep your sins in your own heart, they will be evil and devilish, and God will damn you for them; but they will not do so much hurt to other people, at any rate, as if they are seen in public.” Stamping his foot again on the barrel, the preacher said, “Suppose you try to pass this cask over the boundaries of the country, and the custom-house officer comes, and demands the duty upon its contents.
You say that you will not let any of the whisky get out; but the officer tells you that he cannot allow it to pass. So, if it were possible for us to abstain from outward sin, yet, since the heart is full of all manner of evil, it would be impossible for ‘us to pass the frontiers of heaven, and to be found in that holy and happy place.” That I thought to be somewhat of a life-like illustration, and a capital way of teaching truth, although I should not like always to have a whisky-barrel for a pulpit, for fear the head might fall in, and I might fall in, too.
I should not recommend any of you to be so life-like in your ministry as that notable French priest, who, addressing his congregation, said, “As to the Magdalenes, and those who commit the sins of the flesh, such persons are very common; they abound even in this church; and I am going to throw this mass-book at a woman who is a Magdalenes” whereupon all the women in the place bent down their heads. So the priest said, “No, surely, you are not all Magdalenes; I hardly thought that was the case; but you see how your sin finds you out!” Nor should I even recommend you to follow the example of the clergyman, who, when a collection was to be made for lighting and warming the church, after he had preached some time, blew out the candles on both sides of the pulpit, saying that the collection was for the lights and the fires, and he did not require any light, for he did not read his sermon, “ but,” he added, “when Roger gives out the Psalm presently, you will want a light to see your books; so the candles are for yourselves. And as for the stove, I do not need its heat, for my exercise in preaching is sufficient to keep me warm; therefore you see that the collection is wholly for yourselves on this occasion. Nobody can say that the clergy are collecting for themselves this time, for on this Sunday it is wholly for your own selves.” I thought the man was a fool for making such remarks, though I find that his conduct has been referred to as being a very excellent instance of boldness in preaching.
There is a story told about myself, which, like very many of the tales told about me, is a story in two senses. It is said that, in order to show the way in which men backslide, I once slid down the banisters of the pulpit. I only mention this, in passing, because it is a remarkable fact that, at the time the story was told, my pulpit was fixed in the wall, and. there was no banister, so that the reverend fool (which he would. have been if he had done what people said) could not have performed the antic if he had been inclined to attempt it. But the anecdote, although it is not true, serves all the purposes of the life-likeness I have tried to describe.
You probably recollect the instance of Whitefield depicting the blind man, with his dog, walking on the brink of a precipice, and his foot almost slipping over the edge. The preacher’s description was so graphic, and the illustration so vivid and life-like, that Lord Chesterfield sprang up, and exclaimed, “Good God 1 he’s gone I” but Whitefield answered, “No, my lord, he is not quite gone; let us hope that he may yet be saved.” Then he went on to speak of the blind man as being led by his reason, which is only like a dog, showing that a man led only by reason is ready to fall into hell.
How vividly one would see the love of money set forth in the story told by our venerable friend, Mr. Rogers, of a man who, when he lay a-dying, would put his money in his mouth because he loved it so, and wanted to take some of it with him! How strikingly is the non-utility of worldly wealth, as a comfort to us in our last days, brought before us by the narrative in which good Jeremiah Burroughes speaks of a miser who had his money bags laid near his hand on his dying bed I He kept taking them up, and saying, “Must I leave you? Must I leave you? Have I lived all these years for you, and now must I leave you?” And so he died. There is a tale told of another, who had many pains in his death, and especially the great pain of a disturbed conscience. He also had his money bags brought, one by one, with his mortgages, and bonds, and deeds, and putting them near his heart, he sighed, and said, “These won’t do; these won’t do; these won’t do; take them away! What poor things they all are when I most need comfort in my dying moments!”
How distinctly love to Christ is brought out in the stow of John Lambert, fastened to the stake, and burning to death, yet clapping his hands as he was burning, and crying out, “None but Christ! None but Christ I” until his nether extremities were burned, and he fell from the chains into the fire, still exclaiming in the midst of the flames, “None but Christi None but Christi” How clearly the truth stands out before you when you hear such stories as these! You can realize it almost as well as if the incident happened before your eyes. How well you can see the folly of misunderstanding between Christians in Mr. Jay’s story of two men who were walking from opposite directions on a foggy night! Each saw what he thought was a terrible monster moving towards him, and making his heart beat with terror; as they came nearer to each other, they found that the dreadful monsters were brothers. So, men of different denominations are often afraid of one another; but when they get close to each other, and know each other’s hearts, they find out that they are brethren after all. The story of the negro and his master well illustrates the need of beginning at the beginning in heavenly things, and not meddling with the deeper points of our holy religion till we have learned its elements thoroughly. A poor negro was laboring hard to bring his master to a knowledge of the truth, and was urging him to exercise faith in Christ, when he excused himself because he could not understand the doctrine of election. “Ah I Massa,” said the negro, “’don’t you know what comes before de Epistle to de Romans? You must read de Book de right way; de doctrine of election is in Romans, and dere is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, first. You are only in Matthew yet; dat is about repentance; and when you get to John, you will read where de Lord Jesus Christ said dat God so loved de world, dat he gave his only begotten Son, dat whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but hub everlasting life.” So, brethren, you can say to your hearers, “You will do better by reading the four Gospels first than by beginning to read in Romans; first study Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and then you can go on to the Epistles.”
But I must not keep on giving you illustrations, because so many will suggest themselves. I have given you sufficient to show that they do make our preaching vivid and life-like; therefore, the more you have of them, the better. At the same time, gentlemen, I must warn you against the danger of having too many anecdotes in any one sermon. You ought, perhaps, to have a dish of salad on the table; but if you ask your friends to dinner, and give them nothing but salad, they will not fare very well, and will not care to come to your house again.
III. Thirdly, anecdotes and illustrations may be used to explain either doctrines or duties to dull understandings. They may, in fact, be the very best form of exposition. A preacher should instance, and illustrate, and exemplify his subject, so that his hearers may have real acquaintance with the matter he is bringing before them. If a man attempted to give me a description of a piece of machinery, he would possibly fail to make me comprehend what it was like; but if he will have the goodness to let me see a drawing of flute various sections, and then of the whole machine, I will, somehow or other, by hook or by crook, make out how it works. The pictorial representation of a thing is always a much more powerful means of instruction than any mere verbal description ever could be. It is just in this way that anecdotes and illustrations are so helpful to our hearers. For instance, take this anecdote as illustrating the text, “Thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” A little boy used to go up into a hay-loft to pray; but he found that, sometimes, persons came up, and disturbed him; therefore, the next time he climbed into the left, he pulled the ladder up after him. Telling this stow, you might explain how the boy thus entered into his closet, and shut the door. The meaning is not so much the literal entrance into a closet, or the shutting of the door, as the getting away from earthly sources of distraction, pulling up the ladder after us, and keeping out anything that might come in to hinder our secret devotions. I wish we could always pull the ladder up after us when we retire for private prayer; but many things try to climb that ladder. The devil himself will come up to disturb us if he can; and he can get into the hay-loft without any ladder.
What a capital exposition of the fifth commandment was that which was given by Corporal Trim, when he was asked, “What dost thou mean by honoring thy father and thy mother? “and he answered, “Please, your honor, it is allowing them a shilling a week out of my pay when they grow old.” That was an admirable explanation of the meaning of the text. Then, if you are trying to show how we are to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, there is a story of a woman who, when asked by the minister what he had said on Sunday, replied that she did not remember the sermon; but it had touched her conscience, for when she got home she burned her bushel, which was short measure. There is another story which also goes to show that the gospel may be useful even to hearers who forget what they have heard. A woman is called upon by her minister on the Monday, and’ he finds her washing wool in a sieve, holding it under the pump. He asks her, “How did you enjoy last Sabbath’s discourses?” and she says that they did her much good. “Well, what was the texts.” She does not recollect. “What was the subject?” “Ah! sir, it is quite gone from me,” says the poor woman. Does she remember any of the remarks that were made? No, they are all gone. “Well then, Mary,” says the minister, “it could not have done you much good.’ Oh! but it had done her a great deal of good; and she explained it to him by saying,” I will tell you, sir, how it is; I put this wool in the sieve under the pump, I pump on it, and all the water runs through the sieve, but then it washes the wool. So it is with your sermon; it comes into my heart, and then it runs right through my poor memory, which is like a sieve, but it washes me clean, sir.” You might talk for a long while about the cleansing and sanctifying power of the Word, and it would not make such an impression upon your hearers as that simple story would.
What finer exposition of the text “Weep with them that weep,” can you have than this pretty anecdote? “Mother,” said little Annie, “I cannot make out why poor Widow Brown likes me to go in to see her; she says I do comfort her so; but, mother, I cannot say anything to comfort her, and as soon as she begins crying, I put my arms round her neck, and I cry, too, and she says that that comforts her.” And so it does; that is the very essence of the comfort, the sympathy, the fellow-feeling that moved the little girl to weep with the weeping widow. Mr. Hervey thus illustrates the great truth of the different appearance of sin to the eye of God and the eye of man. He says that you may take a small insect, and with the tiniest needle make a puncture in it so minute that you can scarcely see it with the naked eye; but when you look at it through a microscope, you see an enormous rent, out of which there flows a purple stream, making the creature seem to you as though it had been smitten with the ax that killeth an ox. It is but a defect of our vision that we cannot see things correctly; but the microscope reveals them as they really are. Thus you may explain to your hearers how God’s microscopic eye sees sin in its true aspects.
Suppose that you wanted to set forth the character of Caleb, who followed the Lord fully; it would greatly help many of your people if you said that the name Caleb signifies a dog, and then showed how a dog follows his master. There is his owner on horseback, riding along the miry roads; but the dog keeps as close to him as he can, no matter how much mud and dirt are splashed upon him, and not heeding the kicks he might get from the horse’s heels. Even so should we follow the Lord. If you wish to exemplify the shortness of time, you might bring in the poor seamstress, with her little piece of candle. stitching away to get her work done before the light, went out.
Many preachers find the greatest difficulty in getting suitable metaphors to set forth simple faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a capital anecdote of an idiot, who was asked by the minister, who was trying to instruct him, whether he had a soul. To the utter consternation of his kind teacher, he replied, “No, I have no soul.” The preacher said he was greatly surprised, after he had been taught for years, that he did not know better than that; but the poor fellow thus explained himself, “I had a soul once, but I lost it; and Jesus Christ came and found it, and now I let him keep it, for it is his, it does not belong to me any longer.” That is a fine picture Of the way of salvation by simple faith in the substitution of the Lord Jesus Christ; and the smallest child in the congregation might be able to understand it through the story of the poor idiot.
IV. Fourthly, there is a kind of reasoning in anecdotes and illustrations, which is very clear to illogical minds; and many of our hearers, unfortunately, have such minds, yet they can understand illustrative instances and stubborn facts. Truthful anecdotes are facts, and facts are stubborn things. Instances, when sufficiently multiplied, as we know by the inductive philosophy, prove a point. Two instances may not prove it; but twenty may prove it to a demonstration. Take the very important matter of answers to prayer. You can prove that God answers prayer by quoting anecdote after anecdote, that you know to be authentic, of instances in which God has really heard and answered prayer. Take that capital little’ book by Mr. Prime on the Power of Prayer; there, I believe you have the truth upon this subject demonstrated as clearly as you could have it in any proposition in Euclid. I think that, if such a number of facts could be instanced in connection with any question relating to geology or astronomy, the point would be regarded as settled. The writer brings such abundant proofs of God’s having heard prayer, that even men who reject inspiration ought, at least, to acknowledge that this is a marvelous phenomenon for which they cannot account by any other explanation than the one which proclaims that there is a God who sitteth in heaven, and who hath respect unto the cry of his people upon the earth.
I have heard of some persons who have had objections to labor for the conversion of their children on the ground that God would save his own without any effort on our part. I remember making one man wince who held this view, by telling him of a father who would never teach his child to pray, or have him instructed even as to the meaning of prayer. He thought it was wrong, and that such work ought to be left to God’s Holy Spirit.
The boy fell down, and broke his leg, and had to have it taken off; and all the while the surgeon was amputating it, the boy was cursing and swearing in the most frightful manner. The good surgeon said to the father, “You see, you would not teach your boy to pray, but the devil evidently had no objection to teach him to swear.” That is the mischief of it; if we do not try our best to bring our children to Christ, there is another who will do his worst to drag them down to hell. A mother once said to her sick son, who was about to die, and was in a dreadful state of mind, “My boy, I am sorry you are in such trouble; I am sure I never taught you any hurt.” “No, mother,” he answered, “but you never taught me any good; and therefore there was room for all sorts of evil to get into me.” All these stories will be to many people the very best kind of argument that you could possibly use with them. You bring to them facts, and these facts reach their conscience, even though it is imbedded in several inches of callousness.
I do not know of any reasoning that would explain the need of submission to the will of God better than the telling of the story, which Mr. Gilpin gives us in his Life, of his being called in to pray with a woman whose boy was very ill. The good ,man asked that God would, if it were his will, restore the dear child to life and health, when the mother interrupted him, and said, “No, I cannot agree to such a prayer as that; I cannot put it in that shape, it must be God’s will to restore him. I cannot bear that my child should die; pray that he may live whether it is God’s will or not.” He answered, “Woman, I cannot pray that prayer, but it is answered; your child will recover, but you will live to rue the day that you made such a request.” Twenty years after, there was a woman carried away in a fainting fit from under a drop at Tyburn, for her son had lived long enough to bring himself to the gallows by his crimes. The mother’s wicked prayer had been heard, and God had answered it. So, if you want to prove the power of the gospel, do not go on expending words to no purpose, but tell the stories of cases you have met with that illustrate the truth you are enforcing, for such anecdotes will convince your hearers as no other kind of reasoning can. I think that is clear enough to every one of you.
Anecdotes are useful, also, because they often appeal very forcibly to human nature. In order to rebuke those who profane the Sabbath, tell the story of the gentleman who had seven sovereigns, and who met with a poor fellow, to whom he gave six out of the seven, and then the wicked wretch turned round and robbed him of the seventh. How clearly that sets forth the ingratitude of our sinful race in depriving God of that one day out of the seven which he has set apart for his own service! This story appeals to nature, too. Two or three boys come round one of their companions, and they say to him, “Let us go and get some cherries out of your father’s garden.” “No,” he replies, “I cannot steal, and my father does not wish those cherries to be picked.” “Oh I but then your father is so kind, and he never beats you.” “Ah! I know that is true,” answers the boy, “and that is the very reason why I would not steal his cherries.” This would show that the grace and goodness of God do not lead his children to licentiousness; but, on the contrary, they restrain them from sin. This story, also, appeals to human nature, and shows that the fathers of the Church are not always to be depended upon as fountains of authority. A nobleman had heard of a certain very old man, who lived in a village, and he sought out and found him, and ascertained that he was seventy years of age. He was talking with him, supposing him to be the oldest, inhabitant, when the man said, “Oh! no, sir, I am not the oldest; I am not the father of the village; there is an older one, my father, who is still alive.” So, I have heard of some who have said that they turned away from “the fathers” of the Church to the very old fathers, that is, away from what are commonly called “the patristic fathers “, back to the apostles, who are the true fathers and grandfathers of the Christian Church.
Sometimes, anecdotes have force in them on account of their appealing to the sense of the ludicrous. Of course, I must be very careful here, for it is a sort of tradition of the fathers that it is wrong to laugh on Sundays. The eleventh commandment is, that we are to love one another, and then, according to some people, the twelfth is, “Thou shalt pull a long face on Sunday.” I must confess that I would rather hear people laugh than I would see them asleep in the house of God; and I would rather get the truth into them through the medium of ridicule than I would have the truth neglected, or leave the people to perish through lack of reception of the truth. I do believe in my heart that there may’ be as much holiness in a laugh as in a cry; and that, sometimes, to laugh is the better thing of the two, for I may weep, and be murmuring, and repining, and thinking all sorts of bitter thoughts against God; while, at another time, I may laugh the laugh of sarcasm against sin, and so evince a holy earnestness in the defense of the truth. I do not know why ridicule is to be given up to Satan as a weapon to be used against us, and not to be employed by us as a weapon against him.
I will venture to affirm that the Reformation owed almost as much to the sense of the ridiculous in human nature as to anything else, and that those humorous squibs and caricatures, that were issued by the friends of Luther, did more to open the eyes of Germany to the abominations of the priesthood than the more solid and ponderous arguments against Romanism. I know no reason why we should not, on suitable occasions, try the same style of reasoning. “It is a dangerous weapon,” it will be said, “and many men will cut their fingers with it.” Well, that is their own lookout; but I do not know why we should be so particular about their cutting their fingers if they can, at the same time, cut the throat of sin, and do serious damage to the great adversary of souls.
Here is a story that I should not mind telling on a Sunday for the benefit of certain people, who are good at hearing sermons and attending prayermeetings, but who are very bad hands at business. They never work on Sundays because they never work on any day of the week; they forget that part of the commandment which says, “Six days shalt thou labor’,” which is just as binding as the other part, “The seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.” To these people who never labor because they are so heavenly-minded, I would tell the story of a certain monk, who entered a monastery, but who would not work in the fields, or the garden, or at making ,clothes, or anything else, because, as he told the superior, he was a spiritually-minded monk. He wondered, when the dinner-hour approached, that there came to him no summons from the refectory. So he went down to the prior, and said, “Don’t the brethren eat here? Are you not going to have any dinner?” The prior said, “We do, because we are carnal; but you are so spiritual that you do not work, and therefore you do not require to eat; that is why we did not call you. The law of this monastery is that, if any man will not work, neither shall he eat.”
That is a good story of the boy in Italy who had his Testament seized, and who said to the gendarme, “Why do you seize this book? Is it a bad book?” “Yes,” was the answer. “Are you sure the book is bad?” he inquired; and again the reply was, “Yes.” “Then, why do you not seize the Author of it if it is a bad book?” That was a fine piece of sarcasm at those who had a hatred of the Scriptures, and yet professed to have love to Christ. That is another good story of our friend the Irishman, who, when he was asked by the priest what warrant an ignorant man such as he was had for reading the Bible, said, “Truth, but I have a search-warrant; for it says, ‘Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.’” This story would not be amiss, I think, as a sort of ridiculous argument showing what power the gospel ought to have over the human mind. Dr.
Moffat tells us of a certain Kaffir, who came to him, one day, saying that the New Testament, which the missionary had given him a week before, had spoiled his dog. The man said that his dog had been a very good hunting dog, but that he had torn the Testament to pieces, and eaten it up, and now he was quite spoiled. “Never mind,” said Dr. Moffat, “I will give you another Testament.” “Oh I” said the man, “it is not that that troubles me, I do not mind the dog spoiling the book, for I could buy another; but the book has spoiled the dog.” “How is that?” inquired the missionary; and the Kaffir replied, “The dog will be of no use to me now, because he has eaten the Word of God, and that will make him love his enemies, so that he will be of no good for hunting.” The man supposed that not even a dog could receive the New Testament without being sweetened in temper thereby; that is, in truth, what ought to be the case with all who feed upon the gospel of Christ. I should not hesitate to tell that story after’ Dr.
Moffat, and I should, of course, use it to show that, when a man has received the truth as it is in Jesus, there ought to be a great change in him, and he ought never to be of any use to his old master again.
When the priests were trying to pervert the natives of Tahiti to Romanism, they had a fine picture which they hoped would convince the people of the excellence of the Church of Rome. There were certain dead logs of wood: whom were they to represent? They were the heretics, who were to go into the fire. And who were these small branches of the tree? They were the faithful. Who were the larger ones? They were the priests. And who were the next? They were the cardinals. And who was the trunk of the tree?. Oh, that was the pope! And the root, whom did that set forth? Oh, the root was Jesus Christ! So the poor natives said, “Well, we do not know anything about the trunk, or the branches; but we have got the root, and we mean to stick to that, and not give it up.” If we have the root, if we have Christ, we may laugh to scorn all the pretensions and delusions of men.
These stories may make us laugh, but they may also smite error right through the heart, and lay it dead; and they may, therefore, lawfully be used as weapons with which we may go forth to fight the Lord’s battles.
V. Fifthly, another use of anecdotes and illustrations lies in the fact that they help the memory to grasp the truth. There is a story told — though! will not vouch for the truth of it — of a certain countryman, who had been persuaded by some one that all Londoners were thieves; and, therefore, on coming to London for the first time, he tried to secure his watch by putting it into his waistcoat pocket, and then covering it all over with fish-hooks. “Now,” he thought, “if any gentleman tries to get my watch, he will remember it.” The story says that, as he was walking along, he desired to know the time himself, and put his own hand into his pocket, forgetting all about the fish-hooks. The effect produced upon him can better be imagined than described. Now, it seems to me that a sermon should always be like that countryman’s pocket, full of fish-hooks, so that, if anybody comes in to listen to it, he will get some forget-me-not, some remembrancer, fastened in his ear, and it may be, in his heart and conscience. Let him drop in just at the end of the discourse, there should be something at the close that will strike and stick. As when we walk in our farmer friends’ fields, there are certain ‘burrs that are sure to cling to our clothes; and brush as we may, some of the relics of the fields remain upon our garments, so there ought to be some burr in every sermon that will stick to those who hear it.
What do you remember best in the discourses you heard years ago? I will venture to say that it is some anecdote that the preacher related. It may possibly be some pithy sentence; but it is more probable that it is some striking story which was told in the course of the sermon. Rowland Hill, a little while before he died, was visiting an old friend, who said to him, “Mr.
Hill, it is now sixty-five years since I first heard you preach; but I remember your text, and a part of your sermon.” “Well,” asked the preacher, “what part of the sermon do you recollect?” His friend answered, “You said that some people, when they went to hear a sermon, were very squeamish about the delivery of the preacher. Then you said, ‘Supposing you went to hear the will of one of your relatives read, and you were expecting a legacy from him; you would hardly think of criticizing the manner in which the lawyer read the will; but you would be all attention to hear whether anything was left to you, and if so, how much; and that is the way to hear the gospel.’” Now, the man would not have recollected that for sixty-five years if Mr. Hill had not put the matter in that illustrative form. If he had said, “Dear friends, you must listen to the gospel for its own sake, and not merely for the charms of the preacher’s oratory, or those delightful soaring periods which gratify your ears,” if he had put it in the very pretty manner in which some people can do the thing, I will be bound to say that the man would have remembered it as long as a duck recollects the last time it went into the water, and no longer; for it would have been so common to have spoken in that way; but putting the truth in the striking manner that he did, it was remembered for sixty-five years.
An American gentleman related the following anecdote, which just answers the purpose I have in view, so I will pass it on to you. He said, “When I was a boy, I used to hear the story of a tailor who lived to a great age, and became very wealthy, so that he was an object of envy to all who knew him. His life, as all lives will, drew to a close; but before he passed away, feeling some desire to benefit the members of his craft, he gave out word that, on a certain day, he would be happy to communicate to all the tailors of the neighborhood the secret by which they might become wealthy. A great number of knights of the thimble came, and while they waited in anxious silence to hear the important revelation, he was raised up in his bed, and with his expiring breath uttered this short sentence, “Always put a knot in your thread” That is why I recommend you, brethren, to use anecdotes and illustrations, because they put knots in the thread of your discourse. What is the use of pulling the end of your thread through the material on which you are working? Yet, has it not been the case with very many of the sermons to which we have listened, or the discourses we have ourselves delivered] The bulk of what we have heard has just gone through our minds without leaving any lasting impression, and all we recollect is some anecdote that was told by the preacher.
There is an authenticated case of a man being converted by a sermon eighty-five years after he had heard it preached. Mr. Flavel, at the close of a discourse, instead of pronouncing the usual benediction, stood up, and said, “How can I dismiss you with a blessing, for many of you are ‘Anathema Maranatha’, because you love not the Lord Jesus Christ?” A lad of fifteen heard that remarkable utterance; and eighty-five years afterwards, sitting under a hedge, I think in Virginia, the whole scene came vividly before him as if it had been but the day before; and it pleased God to bless Mr. Flavel’s words to his conversion, and he lived three years longer to bear good testimony that he had felt the power of the truth in his heart.
VI. Sixthly, anecdotes and illustrations are useful because they frequently arouse the feelings. They will not do this, however, if you tell the same stories over and over again ever so many times. I recollect, when I first heard that wonderful story about “There is another man,” I cried a good deal over it. Poor soul, just rescued, half-dead, with only a few rags on him, and yet he said, “There is another man,” needing to be saved. The second time I heard the story, I liked it, but I did not think it was quite so new as at first; and the third time I heard it, I thought that I never wanted to hear it again. I do not know how many times I have heard it since; but I can always tell when it is coming out. The brother draws himself up, and looks wonderfully solemn, and in a sepulchral tone says, “There is another man,” and I think to myself, “Yes, and I wish there had not been,” for I have heard are that story till I am sick and tired of it. Even a good anecdote may get so hackneyed that there is no force in it, and no use in retailing it any longer.
Still, a live illustration is better for appealing to the feelings of an audience than. any amount of description could possibly be. ‘When Mr. Beecher brought a beautiful slave girl, with her manacles on, into his pulpit, he did more for the and-slavery cause than he might have done by the most eloquent harangue. ‘What we want in these times is not to listen to long prelections upon some dry subject, but to hear something practical, something matter-of-fact, that comes home to our every-day reasoning; and when we get this, then our hearts are soon stirred.
I have no doubt that the sight of a death-bed would move men much more than that admirable work called Drelincourt on Death, a book which, I should think, nobody has ever been able to read through. There may have been instances of persons who have attempted it; but I believe that, long before they have reached the latter end, they have been in a state of asphyxia or coma, and have been obliged to be rubbed with hot flannels; and the book has had to be removed to a distance before they could recover. If you have not read Drelincourt on Death, I believe I know what you have read, that is, the ghost story that is stitched in at the end of the book. The work would not sell, the whole impression was upon the shelves of the bookseller, when Defoe wrote the fiction entitled, “A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs. Veal after her death to Mrs. Bargrave,” in which Drelincourt on Death is recommended by the apparition as the best book on the subject. This story had not a vestige or shadow of truth in it, it was all a piece of imagination; but it was put in at the end of the book, and then the whole edition was speedily cleared out., and more were wanted. It may be something like that very often with your sermons; only you must tell the people of what has actually occurred, and so you. will retain their attention, and reach their hearts.
Many have been moved to self-sacrifice by the story of the Moravians, in South Africa, who saw a large enclosed space of ground, in which there were persons rotting away with leprosy, some without arms and some without legs; and these Moravians could not preach to the poor lepers without going in there themselves for life to rot with them, and they did so.
Two more of the same noble band of brethren sold themselves into slavery in the West Indies, in order that they might be allowed to preach to the slaves. When you can give such instances as these of missionary disinterestedness and devotedness, it will do more to arouse a spirit of enthusiasm for foreign missions than all your closely-reasoned arguments could possibly do.
Who has not heard and felt the force of the story of the two miners, when the fuse was burning, and only one could escape, and the Christian man cried out to his unconverted companion, “Escape for your life, because, if you die, you are lost; but if I die, it is all right with me; so you go.”
The fool’s plan, too, I have sometimes used as a striking illustration. There was a little boat which got wrecked, and the man in it was trying to swim to shore, but the current was too strong for him. After he had been drowned an hour, a man said, “I could have saved him,” and when they asked him how he could have saved him, he described a plan that seemed to be most excellent and feasible, by which the man might, no doubt, have been saved; but then, unfortunately, by that time he was drowned I So, there are some who are always wise just too late, some who may \rove to say to themselves, when such and such a one is gone the way of all living, “What might I not have done for him if I had but taken him in time!”
Brethren, let that anecdote be a reminder to us all that we should seek to be wise in winning souls before it is too late to rescue them from everlasting destruction.
VII. Seventhly, and lastly, anecdotes and illustrations are exceedingly useful because they catch the ear of the utterly careless. Something is wanted in every sermon for this class of people; and an anecdote is well calculated to catch the ear of the thoughtless and the ungodly. We really desire their salvation, and we would bait our trap in any way possible by which we might catch them for Christ. We cannot expect our young people to come and listen to learned doctrinal disquisitions that are not at all embellished with anything that interests their immature minds. Nay, even grown-up people, after the toils of the week, some of them busy till early on are the Sunday morning, cannot be expected to attend to long prosaic discourses which are not broken by a single anecdote.
Oh, dear, dear, dear I How I do pity those unpractical brethren ‘who do not seem to know to whom they are preaching! “Ah!” said a brother once, “whenever I preach, I do not know where to look, and so I look up at the ventilator.” Now, there is not anybody ‘up in the ventilator; there cannot be supposed to be anybody there, unless the angels of heaven are listening there to hear the ‘words of truth. A minister should not preach before the people, but he should preach right at them; let him look straight at them; if he can, let him search them through and through, and take stock of them, as it were, and see what they are like, and then suit his message to them.
I have often seen some poor fellow standing in the aisle at the Tabernacle.
Why, he looks just like a sparrow that has got into a church, and cannot get out again! He cannot make out what sort of service it is; be begins to count how many people sit in the front row in the gallery, and all kinds of ideas pass through his mind. Now I want to attract his attention; how shall I do it? If I quote a text of Scripture, he may not ‘know what it means, and may not be interested in it. Shall I put a bit of Latin into the sermon, or quote the original Hebrew or Greek of my text? That will not do for such a man. What shall I do? Ah! I know a story that will, I believe, just fit him.
Out it comes, and the man does not look up at the gallery any more; but he is wondering whatever the preacher is at. Something is said that so exactly suits his case that he begins to ask himself ‘who has been telling the minister about him, and he thinks,” Why, I know; my wife comes to hear this man sometimes, so she has been telling him all about me!” Then he feels curious to hear more, and while he is looking up at the preacher, and listening to the truth that is being proclaimed, the first gleam of light on divine things dawns upon him; but if we had kept on with our regular discourse, and had not gone out of our way, what might have become of that man, I cannot tell. “They say I ramble,” said Rowland Hill, in a sermon I have been reading this afternoon; “they say I ramble, but it is because you ramble, and I am obliged, to ramble after you. They say I do not stick to my subject; but, thank God, I always stick to my object, which is, the winning of your souls, and bringing you to the cross of Jesus Christ!”
Mr. Bertram aptly illustrates the way in which men are engrossed in worldly cares by telling the story of the captain of a whaling ship, whom he tried to interest in the things of God, and who said, “It is no use, sir; your conversation will not have any effect upon me. I cannot hear what you are saying, or understand the subject you are talking about. I left my home to try to catch whales, I have been a year and nine months looking for whales, sir, and I have not caught a whale yet. I have been. ploughing the deep in search of whales; when I go to bed, I dream of whales; and when I get up in the morning, I wonder if there will be any whales caught that day; there is a whale in my heart, sir, a whale in my brain, and it is of no use for you to talk to me about anything else but whales.” So, your people have their business in their heads, and in their hearts, they want to make a fortune, and retire; or else they have a family of children to bring up, and Susan must be married, and John must be got into a situation, and it is no use for you to talk to them about the things of God unless you can drive away the whales that keep floundering and splashing about.
There is a merchant, perhaps, who has just thought of some bad bill; or another has looked across the building, and noticed a piece of ribbon of a particular color, and he thinks, “Yes, I ought to have had a larger stock of that kind of thing, I see that it is getting fashionable!” or it may be that one of the hearers has caught sight of his neighbor, and he thinks he must pay him a visit on the morrow; and so people’s thoughts are occupied with all sorts of subjects beside that of which the preacher is speaking. You ask me how I know that this is the ease. Well, I know because I have been guilty of the same offense myself; I find this occurs when I am listening to another brother preaching. I do not think, when I am preaching, that I get on very well; but sometimes, when I go into the country, and take the morning and evening services, and then hear some one else in the afternoon, I think, “Well, really, when I was up there, I thought I was a stick: but now! I only wish I had my turn again!” Now, this is very wrong., to let such thoughts come into our minds; but as we are all very apt to wander, the preacher should carry anecdotes and illustrations into the pulpit, and use them as nails to fasten the people’s attention to the subject of his sermon.
Mr. Paxton Hood once said, in a lecture that I heard him deliver, “Some preachers expect too much of t, heir hearers; they take a number of truths into the pulpit as a man might carry up a box of nails; and then, supposing the congregation to be posts, they take out a nail, and expect it to get into the post by itself. Now that is not the way to do it. You must take your nail, hold it up against the post, hammer it in, and then clinch it on the other side; and then it is that you may expect the great Master of assemblies to fasten the nails so that they will not fall out.” We must try thus to get the truth into the people, for it will never get in of itself; and we must remember that the hearts of our hearers are not open, like a church door, so that the truth may go in, and take its place, and sit upon its throne to be worshipped there. No, we have often to break open the doors with great effort, and to thrust the truth into places where it will not at first be a welcome guest, but where, afterwards, the better it is known, the more it will be loved.
Illustrations and anecdotes will greatly help to make a way for the truth to enter; and they will do it by catching the ear of the careless and the inattentive. We must try to be like Mr. Whitefield, of whom a shipbuilder said, ,’ When I have been to hear anybody else preach, I have always been able to lay down a ship from stem to stern; but when I listen to Mr.
Whitefield, I ,cannot even lay the keel.” And another, a weaver, said, “I have often, when I have been in church, calculated how many looms the place would hold; but when I listen to that man, I forget my weaving altogether.” You must endeavor, brethren, to make your people forget matters relating to this world by interweaving the whole of divine truth with the passing things of every day, and this you will do by a judicious use of anecdotes and illustrations.
Now, gentlemen, these seven reasons — that they interest the mind and secure the attention of our hearers, that they render the teaching vivid and life-like, that they explain some difficult passages to dull understandings, that they help the reasoning faculties of certain minds, that they aid the memory, that they arouse the feelings, and that they catch the ear of the careless — have reconciled me for many a day to the use of anecdotes and illustrations, and I think it is very likely that they will reconcile you to the use of them, too.
At the same time, I must repeat what I before said, we must take care that we do not let our anecdotes and illustrations be like empty casks that carry nothing. We must not have it truthfully said of our sermons, as was said by a certain lady, who, after having heard a clergyman preach, was asked what she thought of the sermon, and whether there was not much spirit in it. “Oh, yes!” she replied, “it was all spirit; there was no body to it at all.”
There must be some “body” in every discourse, some really sound doctrine, some suitable instruction for our hearers to carry home; not merely stories to amuse them, but solid truth to be received in the heart, and wrought out ‘in the life. If this be so with your sermons, my dear brethren, I shall not have spoken to you this afternoon in vain upon the uses of anecdotes and illustrations.