WHERE CAN WE FIND ANECDOTES AND ILLUSTRATION?
DEAR BRETHREN, after my last lecture to you, upon the uses of anecdotes and illustrations, you are probably quite ready to employ them in your discourses; but some of you may ask, “Where can we get them?” At the very beginning of this afternoon’s talk, let me say that nobody need make anecdotes in order to interest a congregation. I have heard of one, who called to see a minister on a Friday, and lie was told by the servant that her master could not be seen, for he was up in his study “making anecdotes.”
That kind of work will not do for a Christian minister. I would also bill you beware of the many common anecdotes, which are often repeated, but which I half suspect could not be proved to be matters of fact. Whenever I have the slightest suspicion about the truth of a story, I drop it at once; and I think that everyone else should do the same. So long as the anecdotes are current, and are generally believed, and provided they can be used for a profitable purpose, I believe they may be told, without any affirmation as to their truthfulness being made in a court of justice; but the moment any doubt comes across the mind of the preacher as to ‘whether the tale is at least founded on fact., I think he had better look for something else, for he has the whole world to go to as a storehouse of illustration.
If you want to interest your congregation, and keep up their attention, you can find anecdotes and illustrations in many channels, like golden grains glistening amongst the mountain streams. For instance, there is current history. You may take up the daily newspaper, and find illustrations there.
In my little shilling book, ‘The Bible and the Newspaper, I have given specimens of how this may be done; and when I was preparing the present lecture, I took up a newspaper to see if I could find an illustration in it, and I soon found one. There was an account of a man at Wandsworth, who was discovered, with a gun and a dog, trespassing on some gentleman’s preserves, and he said that he was only looking for mushrooms! Can you imagine what the gun and the dog had to do with mushrooms? However, the keeper felt in the man’s pocket, and laying hold of something soft, asked, “What is this?” “Oh!” said the poacher, “it is only a rabbit.” When it was suggested to him that the creature’s ears were too long for a rabbit, he said that it was only a leveret, whereas it proved to be a very’ fine and plump hare. The man, then said that he had found the hare lying near some mushrooms, but his intention was to get the mushrooms only! Now, that is a capital illustration. As soon as ever you lay hold of a man, and begin to accuse him of sin, he says, “Sin, sir! Oh, dear no! I was only doing a very proper thing, just what I have a perfect right to do; I was looking for mushrooms, I was not poaching!” You press him a little more closely, and try to bring him to conviction of sin; and then he says, “Well, perhaps it was hardly the thing, it may have been a little amiss; but it was only a rabbit!” When the man cannot any longer deny that he is guilty of sin, he says that it was only a very little one; and it is long before you can get him to admit that sin is exceeding sinful; indeed, no human power can ever produce genuine conviction in the heart of a single sinner; it must be the work of the Holy Spirit.
I also read, in the same newspaper, of a calamitous shipwreck, caused through the lack of lights. You could easily turn that incident to account by using it to illustrate the destruction of souls through the want of a knowledge of Christ. I have no doubt, if you were to take up any of this morning’s daily papers, you would very readily find an abundance of illustrations. Mr. Newman Hall, in addressing us once, said that every Christian minister ought to read regularly his Bible and The Times newspaper! should imagine, from the usual mode of his address, that he does so himself. Whether you read that particular paper, or any other, you should somehow keep yourselves well stored with illustrations taken from the ordinary transactions going on round about you. I pity even a Sundayschool teacher, much more a minister of the gospel, who could not make use of such incidents as the terrible burning of the church at Santiago, the great fire at London Bridge, the entrance into London of the Princess Alexandra, the taking of the census; and, indeed, anything that attracts public attention. There is in all these events an illustration, a simile, an allegory, which may point a moral, and adorn a tale.
You may sometimes adapt local history to the illustration of your subject.
When a minister is preaching in any particular district, he will often find it best to catch the ears of the people, and engross their attention, by relating some anecdote that relates to the place where they live. Whenever I can, I get the histories of various counties; for, having to go into all sorts of country towns and villages to preach, I find that there is a great deal of useful material to be dug out of even dull, dry, topographical books. They begin, perhaps, with the name of John Smith, laborer the man who keeps the parish register, and winds up the parish clock, and makes mouse-traps, and catches rats, and does fifty other useful things; but if you have the patience to read on, you will find much information that you could get nowhere else, and you will probably meet with many incidents and anecdotes that you can use as illustrations of the truth you are seeking to set forth.
Preaching at Winslow, in Buckinghamshire, it would not be at all amiss to introduce the incident of good Benjamin Keach, the pastor of the Baptist church in that town, standing in the pillory in the market-place in the year 1664:, “for writing, printing, and publishing a schismatical book, entitled, The Child’s Instructor; or, a New and Easy Primmer.” I do not think, however, that, if were preaching at Wapping, I should call the people” sinners”, as Rowland Hill is said to have done, when he told them that “Christ could save old sinners, great sinners, yea, even Wapping sinners!”
At Craven Chapel, it would ‘be most appropriate to tell the story of Lord Craven, who was packing up his goods to go into the country at the time of the Great Plague of London, when his servant said to him, “My lord, does your God live only in the country?” “No,” replied Lord Craven, “he is here as well as there.” “Well, then,” said the servant, “if! were your lordship, I think I would stop here; you will be as safe in the city as in the country;” and Lord Craven did stop there, relying upon: the good providence of God.
Beside this, brethren, you have the marvelous storehouse of ancient and modern history — Roman, Greek, and English — with are which, of course, you are seeking to become well acquainted. Who can possibly read the old classic tales without feeling his soul fire? As you rise from their perusal, you will not merely be familiar with the events which happened in “the brave days of old “, but you will have learnt many lessons that may be of service in your preaching to-day. For instance, there is the story of Phidias and the statue of the god which he had carved. After he had finished it, he had chiselled in the corner, in small letters, the word “Phidias”, and it was objected that the statue could not be worshipped as a god, nor considered sacred, while it bore the sculptor’s name. It was even seriously questioned whether Phidias should not be stoned to death because he had so desecrated the statue. How could he dare, they asked, to put his own name on the image of a god? So, some of us are very apt. to want to put our little names down at the bottom of any work which we have done for God, that we may be remembered, whereas we ought rather to upbraid ourselves for wishing to have any of the credit of that which God the Holy Ghost enables us to do.
Then there is that other story of an ancient sculptor, who was about to put the image of a god into a heathen temple, although he had not finished that portion of the statue which was to be imbedded in the wall. The priest demurred, and declared that the statue was not completed. The sculptor said, “That part of the god will never be seen, for it will be built into the wall.” “The gods can see in the wall,” answered the priest. In like manner, the most private parts of our life, those secret matters that can never reach the human eye, are still under the ken of the Almighty, and ought to be attended to with the greatest care. It is not sufficient for us to maintain our public reputation among our fellow-creatures, for our God can see in the wall, he notices our coldness in the closet of communion, and he perceives our faults and failures in the family.
Trying once to set forth how the Lord Jesus Christ delights in his people because they are his own handiwork, I found a classic story of Cyrus extremely useful. When showing a foreign ambassador round his garden, Cyrus said to him, “You cannot possibly take such an interest in these flowers and trees as I do, for I laid out the whole garden myself, and every plant here I planted with my own hand. I have watered them, and I have seen them grow, I have been a husbandman to them, and therefore I love them far better than you can.” So, the Lord Jesus Christ loves the fair garden of his Church, because he laid it all out, and planted it with his own gracious hand, and he has watched over every plant, and nourished and cherished it.
The days of the Crusaders are a peculiarly rich period for noble stories that will make good illustrations. We read that the soldiers of Godfrey de Bouillon, when they came within sight of the city of Jerusalem, were so charmed with the view that they fell on their faces, and then rose to their feet, and clapped their hands, and made the mountains ring with their shouts of joy. Thus, when we get within sight of the New Jerusalem, our happy home on high, whose name is ever dear to us, we will make our dying chamber ring with hallelujahs, and even the angels shall hear our songs of praise and thanksgiving. It is also recorded, concerning this same Godfrey, that, when he had entered Jerusalem at the head of his victorious army, he refused to wear the crown with which his soldiers wanted to deck his brow, “For,” said he, “why should I wear a crown of gold in the city where my Lord wore a crown of thorns?” This is a good lesson for us to learn for ourselves, and to teach to our people. In the world where Christ was despised and rejected of men, it would be unseemly for a Christian to be seeking to win earthly honors, or ambitiously hunting after fame. The disciple must not think of being above his Master, nor the servant above his Lord.
Then you might easily make an illustration out of that romantic story, which may or may not be true, of Queen Eleanor sucking the poison out of her husband’s wounded arm. Many of us, I trust, would be willing, as it were, to suck out all the slander and venom from the arm of Christ’s Church, and to bear any amount of suffering ourselves, so long as the Church itself might escape and live. Would not any one of you, my brethren, gladly put his lips to the envenomed wounds of the Church today, and suffer even unto death, sooner than let the doctrines of Christ be impugned, and the cause of God be dishonored?
What a fine field of illustration lies open to you in religious history! It is difficult to tell where to begin digging in this mine of precious treasure.
The story of Luther and the Jew might be ‘used to set forth the evil of sin, and how to avoid it. A Jew was seeking an opportunity of stabbing the Reformer; but Luther received a portrait of the would-be murderer, so that, wherever he went, he was on his guard against the assassin. Using this fact himself as an illustration, Luther said, “God knows that there are sins that would destroy us, and he has therefore given us portraits of them in his Word, so that, wherever we see them, we may say, ‘That is a sin that would stab me; I must beware of that evil thing, and keep out of its way.’” Stout Hugh Latimer, in that famous story of an incident in his trial before several bishops, brings out very clearly the omnipresence and omniscience of God, and the care that we ought to exercise in the presence of One who can read our most secret thoughts and imaginations. He says, “I was once in examination before five or six bishops, where I had much trouble; thrice every week I came to examinations, and many traps and snares were laid to get something ... At last, I was brought forth to be examined in a chamber hung with arras, where I was wont to be examined; but now at this time the chamber was somewhat altered. For whereas, before, there was wont always to be a fire in the chimney, now the fire was taken away, and an arras hung over the chimney, and the table stood near the fire-place. There was, amongst the bishops who examined me, one with whom I had been very familiar, and took him for my great friend, an aged man, and he sat next to the table’s end. Then, amongst all other questions, he put forth a very subtle and crafty one, and such a one, indeed, as I could not think so great danger in. And when I should make answer, ‘I pray you, Mr.
Latimer,’ said one, ‘speak out; I am very thick of hearing, and there may be many that sit far off.’ I marvelled at this, that I was bid to speak out, and began to suspect, and give an ear to the chimney; and there I heard a pen writing in the chimney behind the cloth. They had appointed one there to write all mine answers, for they made sure that I should not start from them; and there was no starting from them. God was my good Lord, and gave me answer, else I could never have escaped.” Preaching, some years afterwards, Latimer himself told the story, and applied the illustration. “My hearer,” said he “there is a recording pen always at work behind the arras, taking down all thou sayest, and noting all thou doest, therefore be thou careful that thy words and acts are worthy of record in God’s Book of Remembrance.”
You might aptly illustrate the doctrine of God’s special providential care of his servants by relating the story of John Knox, who, one evening, refused to sit in his usual seat, though he did not know any particular reason for so acting. No one was allowed to occupy that chair, and during the evening, a shot came in through the window, and struck a candlestick that stood immediately opposite where John Knox would have been sitting if he had taken his accustomed place. There is also the case of the godly minister, who, in escaping from his persecutors, went into a hay-left, and hid himself in the hay. The soldiers went into the place, pricking and thrusting with their swords and bayonets, and the good man even felt the cold steel touch the sole of his foot, and the scratch which was made remained for years: yet his enemies did not discover him. Afterwards, a hen came and laid an egg every day hard by the place where he was hidden, and so he was sustained as well as preserved until it was safe for him to leave his hidingplace.
It was either the same minister, or one of his persecuted brethren, who was providentially protected by such a humble agent as a spider. This is the story as I have read it: — “Receiving friendly warning of an intended attempt to apprehend him, and finding men were on his track, he took refuge in a malt-house, and crept into the empty kiln, where he lay down.
Immediately after, he saw a spider lower itself across the narrow entrance by which he had got in, thus fixing the first line of what was soon wrought into a large and beautiful web. The weaver and the web, placed directly between him and the light, were very conspicuous. He was so much struck with the skill and diligence of the spider, and so much absorbed in watching her work, that he forgot his own danger. By the time the network was completed, crossing and re-crossing the mouth of the kiln in every direction, his pursuers came into the malt-house to search for him. He noted their steps, and listened to their cruel words while they looked about.
Then they came close to the kiln, and he overheard one say to another, ‘It’s no use to look in there; the old villain can never be there: look at that spider web; he could never have got in ,there without breaking it.’ Without further search they went ~o seek elsewhere, and he escaped safely out of their hands.”
There is another story, I have somewhere met with, of a prisoner, during the American war, who was put into a cell in which there was a little slit through which a soldier’s eye always watched him day and night. Whatever the prisoner did, whether he ate, or drank, or slept, the sentinel’s eye was perpetually gazing at him; and the thought of it, he said, was perfectly dreadful ~o him, it almost drove him mad; he could not bear the idea of having that man’s eye always scrutinizing him. He could scarcely sleep; his very breathing became a misery, because, turn which way he would, he could never escape from the gaze of that soldiers eye. That story might be used as an illustration of the fact that God’s omniscient eye is always looking at every one of us.
I remember making two or three of my congregation speak out pretty loudly by telling them this story, which I read in an American tract. I suppose it may be true; I receive it as reliable, and I wish I could tell it as it is printed. A Christian minister, residing near the backwoods, took a walk one evening for silent meditation, he went much farther than he intended, and, missing the track, wandered away into the woods. He kept on endeavoring to find the road to his home; but failed to do so. He was afraid that he would have to spend the night in some tree; but suddenly, as he was going forward, he saw the glimmer of lights in the distance, and therefore pressed on, hoping to find shelter in a friendly cottage. A strange sight met his gaze; a meeting was being held in a clearing in the middle of the woods, the place being lit up with blazing pine-torches, lie thought, “Well. here are some Christian people met to worship God; I am glad that what I thought was an awkward mistake in losing my way has brought me here; I may, perhaps, both do good and get good.”
To his horror, however, he found that it. was an atheistical gathering, and that the speakers were venting their blasphemous thoughts against God with very great boldness and determination. The minister sat down, full of grief. A young man declared that he did not believe in the existence of God, and dared Jehovah to destroy him then and there if there was such a God. The good man’s heart was meditating how he ought to reply, but his tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of his mouth; and the infidel orator sat down amidst loud acclamations of admiration and approval. Our friend did not wish to be a craven, or to hold back in the day of battle, and therefore he was almost inclined to rise and speak, when a hale, burly man, who had passed the meridian of life, but who was still exceedingly vigorous, and seemed a strong, muscular clearer of the backwoods, rose and said, “I should like to speak if you will give me a hearing. I am not going to say anything about the topic which has been discussed by the orator who has just sat down; I am only going to tell you a fact: will you hear me?” “Yes, yes,” they shouted; it was a free discussion, so they would hear him, especially as he was not going to controvert. “A week ago,” he began, “I was working up yonder, on the river’s bank, felling trees. You know the rapids down below. Well, while I was at my employment, at some little distance from them, I heard cries and shrieks, mingled with prayers to God for help. I ran down to the water’s edge, for I guessed what was the matter. There I saw a young man, who could not manage his boat; the current was getting the mastery of him, and he was drifting down the stream, and ere long, unless someone had interposed, he would most certainly have been swept over the falls, and carried down to a dreadful death. I saw that young man kneel down in the boat, and pray to the Most High God, by the love of Christ, and by his precious blood, to save him. He confessed that he had been. an infidel; but said that, if he might but be delivered this once, he would declare his belief in God. I at once sprang into the river. My arms are not very weak, I think, though they are not so strong as they used to be. I managed to get into the boat, turned her round, brought her to the shore, and so I saved that young man’s life; and that young man is the one who has just sat down, and who has been denying the existence of God, and daring the Most High to destroy him!” Of course, I used that story to show that it was an easy thing to brag and boast about holding infidel sentiments in a place of safety; but that, when men come into peril of their lives, then they talk in a very different fashion.
There is a capital story, which exemplifies the need of going up to the house of God, not merely to listen to the preacher, but to seek the Lord. A certain lady had gone to the communion in a Scotch church, and had greatly enjoyed the service. When she reached her home, she inquired who the preacher was, and she was informed that it was Mr. Ebenezer Erskine.
The lady said that she would go again, the next Sabbath, to hear him. She went, but she was not profited in the least; the sermon did not seem to have any unction or power about it. She went to Mr. Erskine, and told him of her experience at the two services. ~’ Ah! madam,” said he, “the first Sabbath you came to meet the Lord Jesus Christ, and you had a blessing; but the second Sabbath you came to hear Ebenezer Erskine, and you had no blessing, and you had no right to expect any.” You see, brethren, a preacher might talk to the people, in general terms, about coming to worship God, and not merely to hear the minister, yet no effect might be produced by his words, for there might not be anything sufficiently striking to remain in the memory; but after such an anecdote as this one about Mr.
Erskine and the lady, who could forget the lesson that was intended to be taught?
Well now, supposing that you have exhausted all the illustrations to be found in current history, in local history, in ancient and modern history, and in religious history, — which I do not think you will do unless you are yourselves exhausted, — you may then turn to natural history, where you will find illustrations and anecdotes in great abundance; and you need never feel any qualms of conscience about using the facts of nature to illustrate the truths of Scripture, because there is a sound philosophy to support the use of such illustrations. It is a fact that can easily be accounted for, that people will more readily receive the truth of revelation if you link it with some kindred truth in natural history, or anything that is visible to the eye, than if you give them a bare statement of the doctrine itself. Besides, there is this important fact that must not be forgotten, the God who is the Author of revelation, is also the Author of creation, and providence, and history, and everything else from which you ought to draw your illustrations. When you use natural history to illustrate the Scriptures, you are only explaining one of God’s books by another volume that he has written.
It is just as if you had before you two works by one author, who had, in the first place, written a book for children; and then, in the second place, had prepared a volume of more profound instruction for persons of riper years, and higher culture. At times, when you found obscure and dill]cult passages in the work meant for the more advanced scholars, you would refer to the little book which was intended for the younger folk, and you would say, “We know that this means so-and-so, because that is how the matter is explained in the book for beginners.” So creation, providence, and history, are all books which God has written for those to read who have eyes, written for those who have ears to hear his voice in them, written even for carnal men to read, that they may see. something of God therein, But the other glorious Book is written for you who are taught of God, and made spiritual and holy. Oftentimes, by turning to the primer, you will get something out of that simple narrative which will elucidate and illustrate the-more difficult classic, for that is what the Word of God is to you.
There is a certain type of thought which God has followed in all things.
What he made with his Word has a similarity to the Word itself by which he made it; and the visible is the symbol of the invisible, because the same thought of God runs through it all. There is a touch of the divine finger in all that God has made; so that the things which are apparent to our senses have certain resemblances to the things which do not appear. That which can be seen, and tasted, and touched, and handled, is meant to be to us the outward and visible sign of a something which we find in the Word of God, and in our spiritual experience, which is the inward and the spiritual grace; so that there is nothing forced and unnatural in bringing nature to illustrate grace; it was ordained of God for that very purpose. Range over the whole of creation for your similes; do not confine yourself to any particular branch of natural history. ‘The congregation of one very learned doctor complained that he gave them spiders continuously by way of illustration.
It would be better to give the people a spider or two occasionally, and then to vary the instruction by stories, and anecdotes, and similes, and metaphors drawn, from geology, astronomy, botany, or any of the other sciences which will help to shed a side light upon the Scriptures.
If you keep your eyes open, you will not see even a dog following his master, nor a mouse peeping up from his hole, nor will you hear even a gentle scratching behind the wainscot without getting something to weave into your sermons if your faculties are all on the alert. When you go home to-night, and sit by your fireside, you ought not to be able to take up your domestic cat without finding that which will furnish you with an illustration. How soft are pussy’s pads, and yet, in a moment, if she is angered, how sharp will be her claws I How like to temptation, soft and gentle when first it cometh to us, but how deadly, how damnable the wounds it causeth ere long!
I recollect using, with very considerable effect in a sermon in the Tabernacle, an incident that occurred in my own garden. There was a dog which was in the habit of coming through the fence, and scratching in my flower-beds, to the manifest spoiling of the gardener’s toil and temper.
Walking in the garden, one Saturday afternoon, and preparing my sermon for the following day, I saw the four-footed creature, — rather a scurvy specimen, by-the-by, — and having a walking-stick in my hand, I threw it at him with all my might, at the same time giving him some good advice about going home. Now, what should my canine friend do, but turn round, pick up the stick in his mouth, and bring it, and lay it down at my feet, wagging his tail all the while in expectation of my thanks and kind words?
Of course, you do not suppose that I kicked him, or threw the stick at him any more. I felt quite ashamed of myself, and I told him that he was welcome to stay as long as he liked, and to come as often as he pleased.
There was an instance of the power of non-resistance, submission, patience, and trust, in overcoming even righteous anger. I used that illustration in preaching the next day, and I did not feel that I had at, all degraded myself by telling the story.
Most of us have read Alphonse Karr’s book, A Tour round my Garden.
Why does not somebody write A Tour round my Dining-table, or, A Tour round my Kitchen? I believe a most interesting volume of the kind might be written by any man who had his eyes open to see the analogies of nature. I remember that, one, Jay, when I lived in Cambridge, I wanted a sermon very badly; and I could not fix upon a subject, when, all at once, I noticed a number of birds on the slates of the opposite house. As I looked closely at them, I saw that there was a canary, which ‘had escaped from somebody’s house, and a lot of sparrows had surrounded it, and kept peeking at it. There was my text at once: “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her.”
Once more, brethren, if you cannot find illustrations in natural history, or any of the other histories I have mentioned, find them anywhere. Anything that occurs around you, if you have but brains in your head, will be of service to you; but if you are really to interest and profit your congregations, you will need to keep your eyes open, and to use all the powers with which the Lord has endowed you. If you do so, you will find that, in simply walking through the streets, something or other will suggest a passage of Scripture, or will help you, when you have chosen your text, to open it up to the people so as really to arrest their attention, and convey the truth to their minds and hearts.
For instance, the snow to-day covered all the ground, and the black soil looked fair and white. It is thus with some men under transient reformations; they look as holy, and as heavenly, and as pure as though they were saints; but when the sun of trial arises, and a little heat of temptation cometh upon them, how soon do they reveal their true blackness, and all their surface godliness melteth away!
The whole world is hung round by God with pictures; and the preacher has only to take them down, one by one, and hold them up before his congregation, and he will be sure to enlist their interest in the subject he is seeking to illustrate. But he must have his own eyes open, or he will not see these pictures. Solomon said, “The wise man’s eyes are in his head,” and addressing such a man, he wrote, “Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee.” Why does he speak of seeing with the eyelids? I think he means that the eyelids are to shut in what the eyes have perceived. You know that there is all the difference in the world between a man with eyes and one with no eyes. One sits down by a stream, and sees much to interest and instruct him; but another, at the same place, is like the gentleman of whom Wordsworth wrote, — “A primrose by a river’s brim A yellow primrose was to him, And it was nothing more.” If you find any difficulty in illustrating your subject, I should strongly recommend you to try to teach children whenever you can get an opportunity of doing so. I do not know a better way of schooling your own mind to the use of illustrations than frequently to take a class in the Sunday-school, or to give addresses to the scholars as often as you can; because, if you do not illustrate there, you will have your lesson or your address illustrated for you very strikingly. You will find that the children will do it by their general worry and inattention, or by their talk and play. I used to have a class of boys when I was a Sunday-school teacher, and if I was ever a little dull, they began to make wheels of themselves, twisting round on the forms on which they sat. That was a very plain intimation to me that I must give them an illustration or an anecdote; and I learned to tell stories partly by being obliged to tell them. One boy, whom I had in the class, used to say to me, “This is very dull, teacher; can’t you pitch us a yarn?” “Of course he was a naughty boy, and you may suppose that he went to the bad when he grew up, though I am not at all sure that he did; but I used to try and pitch him the yarn that he wanted in order to get his attention again. And I dare say that some of, our hearers, if they were allowed to speak out during the sermon, would ask us to pitch them a yarn, that is, to give them something to interest them. I believe that one of fife best things you can do to teach either the old or the young is to give them plenty of anecdotes and illustrations.
I think it would be very useful to some of you who are not yet adepts at the art of illustration if you were to read books in which there is an abundance of metaphor, simile, and emblem. I am not going fully into that subject on this occasion, because this lecture is only preliminary to the next two that I hope to deliver, in which I will try to give you a list of cyclopaedias of anecdotes and illustrations, and books of fables, emblems, and parables; but I advise you to study such works as Gurnall’s Christian in Complete Armor, or Matthew Henry’s Commentary, with the distinct view of noticing all the illustrations, emblems, metaphors, and similes that you can find. I should even select non-comparisons; I like Keach’s Metaphors where he points out the disparity between the type and the Anti-type.
Sometimes, the contrasts between different persons or objects will be as instructive as their resemblances.
When you have read the book once, and tried to mark all the figures, go through it again, and note all the illustrations you missed in your first reading. You will probably have missed many; and you will be surprised to find that there are illustrations even in the words themselves. How frequently a word is itself a picture I Some of the most expressive words that are found in human language are like rich gems, which have passed before your eye very often, but you have not had time to handle or to value them. In your second examination of the book, you will notice, perhaps, what eluded you the first time, and you will find many illustrations which are merely hinted at, instead of being given at length. Do as I have recommended with a great many books. Get copies that you can afford to mark with a colored pencil, so that you will be sure to see the illustrations readily; or put them down in one of your note-books.
I am sure that those brethren who begin early to keep a record of such things act wisely. The commonplace books of the old Puritans were invaluable to them. They would never have been able to have compiled such marvelous works as they did if they had not been careful in collecting and arranging their matter under different heads; and thus, all that they had ever read upon any subject was embalmed and preserved, and they could readily refer to any point that they might require, and refresh their memories, and verify their quotations. Some of us, who are very busy, may be excused from that task; we must do the best we can, but some of you, who go to smaller charges, in the country especially, ought to keep a commonplace-book, or else I am afraid you will get to be very commonplace yourselves.
Your selection of similes, metaphors, parables, and emblems will not be complete unless you also search the Scriptures to find the illustrations that are recorded there. Biblical allusions are the most effective methods of illustrating and enforcing the truths of the gospel; and the preacher who is familiar with his Bible will never be at a loss for an instance of that which “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” The Lord must have meant us thus to use his Word, otherwise he would not have given us, in the Old Testament, such a number of types and symbols of truths to be afterwards more fully revealed under the gospel dispensation.
Such a collection of illustrations as I have suggested will come very handy to you in future days, and you will be reminded, by the comparisons and figures used by others, to make comparisons and figures for yourself, familiarity with anything makes us au fait at it; we can learn to do almost anything by practice. I suppose that I could, by degrees, learn to make a tub if I spent my time with a man engaged in that business. I should know how to put the staves and the hoops if I stayed long enough in the cooper’s yard; and have no doubt that any of you could learn anything you desired provided you had sufficient time and opportunity. So, if you search for illustrations, you will learn to make them for yourselves.
That brings me to my last point. I began this lecture by warning you against the practice of making anecdotes; I close it by advising you often to set yourself the task of making illustrations. Try to make comparisons from the things round about you. I think it would be well, sometimes, to shut the door of your study, and say to yourself, “I will not go out of this room until I have made at least half-a-dozen good illustrations.” The Chinese say that the intellect lies in the stomach, and that the affections are there, too. I think they are right on the latter point, because, you know, if you are ever very fond of anybody, — your wife, for instance, — you say that you could eat her; and you also say that such and such a person is very sweet. So, too, the intellect may lie in the stomach; and consequently, when you have been shut in for two or three hours, and begin to want your dinner or tea, you may be quickened into the making of the six illustrations! have mentioned as a minimum. Your study would be a veritable prison if you could not make as many useful comparisons as that from the different objects in the room. I should say that a prison itself would furnish suggestions for making many metaphors. I do not wish you to go to prison for that purpose; but if you ever do get there, you ought to be able to learn how to preach in an interesting manner upon such a passage as this, — “Bring my soul out of prison;” or this, “He was there in the prison. But the Lord was with Joseph.”
If you cannot get your brains to work in the house, you might take a walk, and say to yourself, “I will wander over the fields, or I will get into the garden, or I will stroll in the wood, and see if I cannot find some illustration or other. You might even go and look in at a shop-window, and see if there are not some illustrations to be discovered there. Or you might stand still a little while, and hear what people say as they go by; or stop where There is a little knot of idlers, and try to hear what they are talking about, and see what symbol you can make out of it. You should also spend as much time as you can visiting the sick; that will be a most profitable thing to do, for in that sacred service you will have many opportunities of getting illustrations from the tried children of God as you hear their varied experiences. It is wonderful what pages of a new cyclopaedia of illustrative teaching you might find written out with indelible ink if you went visiting the sick, or even in talking with children. Many of them will say things that you will be able to quote with good effect in your sermons. At any rate, do make up your mind that you will attract and interest the people by the way in which you set the gospel before them. Half the battle lies in making the attempt, in coming to this determined resolution, “God helping me, I will teach the people by parables, by similes, by illustrations, by anything that will be helpful to them; and I will seek to be are thoroughly interesting preacher of the Word.”
I earnestly hope you will practice the art of making illustrations. I will try to prepare a little set of exercises for you to do week by week. I shall give you some subject, and some object, between which there is a likeness; and I shall get you to try to see the resemblance, and to find out what comparisons can be instituted between them. I shall also, if I can, give you some subject without an object, and then say to you, “Illustrate that; tell us, for instance, what virtue is like.” Or, sometimes, I may give you the object without the subject, thus, — “A diamond; how will you use that as an illustration?” Then, sometimes, I may give you neither the subject nor the object, but just say, “Bring me an illustration.” I think we might, in this way, make a set of exercises which would be very useful to you all.
The way to get a mind worth having is to get one well stored with things worth keeping. Of course, the man who has the most illustrations in his head, will be the one who will use the most illustrations in his discourses.
There are some preachers who have the bump of illustration fully developed; they are sure to illustrate their subject, they cannot help it.
There are some men who always see “likes”; they catch a comparison long before others see it. If any of you say that you are not good at illustrating, I reply, “My brother, you must try to grow horns if you have not any on your head.” You may never be able to develop any vast amount of imagination or fancy if you do not possess it at the first, just as it is hard to make a cheese out of a millstone, — but by diligent attention to this matter, you may improve upon what you now are. I do believe that some fellows have a depression in their craniums where there ought to be a bump. I knew a young man, who tried hard to get into this College; but he never saw how to join things together unless he tied them by their tails. He brought out a book; and when I read it, I found at once that it was full of ray stories and illustrations; that is to say, every illustration or story in the book was one that had used, but there was not one of them that was related as it ought to have been. This man had so told the story that it was not there at all; the very point which I had brought out he had carefully omitted, and every bit of it was told correctly except the one thing that was the essence of the whole. Of course, I was glad that I did not have that brother in the College; he might, have been an ornament to us by his deficiencies, but we can do without such ornaments, indeed, we have had enough of them already.
Finally, dear brethren, do try with all your might to get the power to see a parable, a simile, an illustration, wherever it is to be seen; for to a great extent this is one of the most important qualifications of the man who is to be a public speaker, and especially of the man who is to be an efficient preacher of the gospel of Christ. If the Lord Jesus made such frequent use of parables, it must be right for us to do the same.