Review: Thoughts on Preaching: Classic Contributions to Homiletic By James W. Alexander

James Waddel Alexander (1804–59) was a Presbyterian pastor and professor who served churches in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York, and labored for a time as a professor at the College of New Jersey. Like his father Archibald, James also served as a professor at Princeton Seminary. But his chief passion and pastoral legacy has to do with preaching. He had hoped to write a book about homiletics, but the Lord took Alexander home before he was able to do so. Not long after his death in 1859, one of Alexander’s friends gathered his notes, essays, and letters about preaching and published them with the title Thoughts on Preaching. The book has been republished twice since its first publication in 1864.

Thoughts on Preaching (TOP) consists of three main parts spanning just over three hundred pages. The first part, “Homiletical Paragraphs,” includes Alexander’s personal journal reflections about pastoral ministry and preaching. These notes address topics such as Scripture citation in sermons, the need for pastors to interact with their congregations, self-discipline in the ministry, the necessity of deep thought in sermon preparation, and insights about sermon writing, just to name a few.

The second part of TOP is a collection of Alexander’s letters to young pastors. The subjects Alexander covers in these letters include devotion to the work of ministry, cultivating personal piety, the joy of preaching, the need for study (but not too much study!), the importance of knowing Scripture, insights from other godly preachers, and practical instructions about study and preaching. Additionally, the second section of TOP includes excerpts from Alexander’s letters to his son who was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary at the time.

The final part is a collection of essays on homiletics. These include, “Studies and Discipline of the Preacher,” “The Matter of Preaching, “Expository Preaching,” and two essays summarizing preaching from the early church up to the time Alexander wrote the essay. The final essays include insight into the preaching of Gregory the Great, Augustine, the Scottish church, as well as notes about English and French preachers and preaching.

In some ways, TOP is dated. Alexander mentions preachers and theologians of his day who are unfamiliar to modern readers. Modern readers might also find some parts of Alexander’s writing difficult to read. It includes occasional Latin phrases and older English words that are out of use today. Unfortunately, there is no topical index to use for further study. This is one of those books I will certainly reference in the future. But a topical index would make it easier to utilize TOP for ongoing study and reference.

I did very much appreciate TOP. As a pastor who preaches on a weekly basis, I found Alexander’s insights into study, sermon writing, and preaching extremely beneficial and relevant for my own ministry. As a student finishing up post-grad work on preaching and application, I found Alexander’s homiletic wisdom one of the better resources on the topic. One might think of TOP as the nineteenth-century equivalent to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preachers and Preaching. TOP contains a balanced discussion of study, piety, prayer, preaching and other aspects of the pastoral ministry.

One aspect of this book I especially appreciated was Alexander’s counsel for the pastor to get out of his study. Alexander firmly exhorts pastors to avoid becoming recluses who never leave their books. He writes, “Recluse habits tend to sadness, moroseness, selfishness, timidity, and inaction. . . . To read always is not the way to be wise. . . . Iron sharpeneth iron. Part of every day should be spent in society” (47, 52). This is helpful advice to pastors who spend too much time in their studies and not enough time with their fellow Christians. In fact, Alexander even calls this a duty for pastors: “To go abroad [out into society] is, therefore, a Christian duty. I never went from my books to spend an hour with a friend, however humble, with out receiving benefit” (52). This might remind one of the apostle Paul, who often longed to see and be with his Christian brothers and sisters (c.f. Phil 4:1).

Another takeaway for me was Alexander’s repeated call for pastors to read and know the Bible. He emphasized the need for a pastor to know what Scripture teaches and to understand its doctrines: “Constant perusal and re-perusal of Scripture is the great preparation for preaching” (39). A pastor’s personal growth in understanding the beautiful truths of Scripture will benefit his own Christian life and his preaching. This is related to another of Alexander’s homiletic insights: the need to exercise the mind by spending dedicated time thinking about truth. I appreciated Alexander’s explanation of what it means for a pastor to muse over the text. He also said writing helps a pastor’s thinking. I agree. Thinking and meditating upon Scripture, and then writing those thoughts and meditations, is a beneficial spiritual and homiletic exercise.

As is perhaps evident by now, I do believe Thoughts on Preaching is a homiletics book that pastors should read, mark, and study. There is much Christian wisdom in this book. It is an encouraging resource on homiletics, but it is at the same time challenging and convicting. My pastoral practice has been to read at least one book on preaching each year. If you are a pastor looking for a preaching book to read this year, get Thoughts on Preaching. Alternatively, if you want to give your pastor a gift, consider giving him this book. But if you give this book to your pastor, tell him you are not giving it to him because his preaching is mediocre. Tell him you are giving it to him because you heard another pastor say it is a good resource for preachers. And, if I may share more advice, give him a coffee shop gift card along with this book so he can also get out!

©Shane Lems. All Rights Reserved.

James W. Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching, Classic Contributions to Homiletics (Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2009).


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Posted by Shane Lems | Thursday, March 7, 2024 | Categorized in Books, Preaching the Word, Reviews. Shane Lems. Bookmark the permalink.

About Shane Lems

Shane Lems graduated from Westminster Seminary California in 2007. He has been a church planter and pastor in the URCNA. Since 2013 he’s been serving as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, WI. He is married and has four children. Shane has written numerous articles for Modern Reformation, New Horizons, and other publications. He is also the author of Doctrines of Grace: Student Edition and manages a book blog, The Reformed Reader.

One comment

  1. Sounds good. One thing I don’t understand is why men travail over sermon writing like I’ve heard Spurgeon did when the text is the sermon, or the sermon is in the text. So the important thing is to understand the context of the text using hermeneutics day proper exegetical skills and preach what’s there.
    I’m a context nut, but I’m no English major for sure, (it wasn’t a good class for me), but I know better than to base a truth out of a sentence I pulled out of a paragraph or start at the word
    “ Therefore “ without review of what the therefore is there for or the context of the passage a verse coms out of.

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