Early Methodists on Preaching With Notes

I recently came across some writings by Adam Clarke, posted on Craig Adams’ blog, which included the following statement on preaching …

Get a thorough knowledge of your subject: understand your text in all its connection and bearings, and then go into the pulpit depending on the Spirit of God to give you power to explain and illustrate to the people those general and particular views which you have already taken of your subject, and which you conscientiously believe to be correct and according to the word of God. But get nothing by heart to speak there, else even your memory will contribute to keep you in perpetual bondage. No man was ever a successful preacher who did not discuss his subject from his own judgment and experience. The reciters of sermons may be popular; but God scarcely ever employs them to convert sinners, or build up saints in their most holy faith. I do not recommend in this case a blind reliance upon God; taking a text which you do not know how to handle, and depending upon God to give you something to say. He will not be thus employed. Go into the pulpit with your understanding full of light, and your heart full of God; and his Spirit will help you, and then you will find a wonderful assemblage of ideas coming in to your assistance; and you will feel the benefit of the doctrine of association, of which the reciters and memory men can make no use. The finest, the best, and the most impressive thoughts are obtained in the pulpit when the preacher enters it with the preparation mentioned above.

I’m also reading American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists by John Wigger. In discussing one of the early Methodist preachers in America, Wigger writes …

Like all Methodist preachers, Watters preached extemporaneously, without notes (70).

My sense is that not only did early Methodist preachers preach without notes, they had a disdain for notes. Clarke calls those who use notes, or a manuscript, “reciters of sermons.”

During my preaching journey, I’ve moved toward using fewer and fewer notes. A couple of years ago, I wrote about this part of my journey. Right now, my sermon notes (usually) fit on a single 3×3 post-it note. But I’m still trying to get to the point where I use no notes!

While I’m not militant about the use of notes, I do think it’s important. I once heard John Maxwell talk about the difference between “speakers” and “communicators.” Speakers focus on the content. Communicators focus on the audience. The purpose of notes (especially manuscripts) is to cover all of the content. The objective in preaching without notes is to make a point and give a call to action, not cover all of your material.

If I understand Clarke correctly, he advises preachers to internalize the text (“your understanding full of light”) and be fully prepared, spiritually (“your heart full of God”). What’s not clear to me, though, is whether Clarke simply advises preaching without notes or if he’s saying that the message itself should be formed as it is being preached. In other words, how much of the sermon is formulated ahead of time?

He does talk about ideas and words coming together while preaching, but he doesn’t say whether or not he goes to preach with an outline or map in mind.

Clarke also appears to speak poorly of “memory men.” Clarke argues, “your memory will contribute to keep you in perpetual bondage.” He adds, “The reciters of sermons may be popular; but God scarcely ever employs them to convert sinners, or build up saints in their most holy faith.”

Those may be fighting words for those who rely on notes or manuscripts when they preach!

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Early Methodists on Preaching With Notes”

  1. Randy,
    I think that the manner in which a person is a reflection of that person. The first pastor I that I worked with worked without notes, though I know that he had written out the entire sermon before hand and perhaps memorized. When he preached back to back services, the messages were the same though not spoken identically. It helped that he was a drama and music major in college and his theaterical background had a lot to do with his preparation.

    The next pastor I worked with was a lawyer in his earlier life. His sermons were ordered as a prosecutor would present a case to the jury. He wrote his notes out on 8-1/2 x 14 paper.

    I find it better to write out what I am thinking. Now, will I say what I wrote or will I go with the idea. More times than not, I go with the idea behind what I wrote.

    I haven’t gotten to point of memorizing the message or preaching without notes though I have come close on a couple of occassions.

    Wesley was, I believe, a strong believer in the well-prepared and written manuscript. But when he went into the fields to preach, he found himself preaching far more freely and without notes. He adjusted to the situation.

    In the end, it is what is said, not how it is said that is the important thing and it depends on the person on how that will get done. Know the message and find what works best for you.

    In peace and with Christ,

  2. I Agree. When I came to my current appointment, the last pastor was preaching extemporaneously and SPRC told me they expected the same of me. I figured this was my opportunity to step up. I’m so glad I did.

    I try to begin by reading the passage and listening for the whisper of the Holy Spirit. Once I have an idea of where I’m supposed to go, I turn to sound commentaries and subject matter expertise to build content. I look for engaging illustrations that will inspire, and then try to write an exemplary manuscript. I read it over and over until I have it in my head. I force myself to freeze it by Thursday –no further changes allowed. My memory is such that there are usually 2-3 spots I need a cue. I will underline a few words from the paragraphs where I tend to get stuck or for which I want surgical accuracy to the wording.

    I don’t preach behind a pulpit but out in front of the chancel, which works great in our sanctuary. I have a small portable music stand off to the side. I often set my manuscript there and refer to it only as needed. I seem to remember when I’m coming up on a spot where I’ll need a cue and I walk over, flip a page of the manuscript and continue. Sometimes it creates a bit of a pause, but not a bad pause. I love looking into peoples eyes while preaching.

    I will say that this takes me about twice as much time as the manuscript preaching I used to do. Still, I rarely go back unless I have many sermons in a week. Then, for some, I become a reciter.

  3. Thanks for the comments and input, Tony and Bob!

    Everyone has to find what works best for them and their gifting/wiring. For most of us, I’d guess, moving to fewer (or no) notes, is a stretch. In fact, as I alluded to above, I’m still struggling to get to no notes.

    But it’s a step I’m glad I took. For me, the worst feeling in preaching is feeling tied to a script (especially when what I’ve prepared isn’t clicking/flowing).

  4. Randy, as a Baptist preacher who follows John Wesley and who preaches alot on street corners, I have found it to be the norm to preach from the pulpit on sunday without notes.
    The bottom line is, is God in it? I am a good storyteller from a long line of storytellers and I find it easy to expound a text and comment from memory. But as I said it all comes down to this, is God dealing with the peoples hearts? Is he using me or am I using him?
    Amen, In his grip, Abishai

    • You mentioned storytelling. Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it. If you can tell a story, that goes a long way toward being able to preach without notes.

      Thanks for the comment!


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