Monday, 6 December 2010

What Wesley didn't say about sermons!

Last week, I threw out a load of my old sermons and I thought back to John Wesley’s oft-quoted comment about getting rid of his sermons after seven years as surely he could preach better ones by now. Except that it turns out Wesley did not say it! Here’s the entry in his journal of 1778, which must be one of the most misquoted of all time!

Tuesday, September 1 — I went to Tiverton. I was musing here on what I heard a good man say long since—"Once in seven years I burn all my sermons; for it is a shame if I cannot write better sermons now than I could seven years ago." Whatever others can do, I really cannot. I cannot write a better sermon on the Good Steward than I did seven years ago; I cannot write a better on the Great Assize than I did twenty years ago; I cannot write a better on the Use of Money, than I did nearly thirty years ago; nay, I know not that I can write a better on the Circumcision of the Heart than I did five-and-forty years ago. Perhaps, indeed, I may have read five or six hundred books more than I had then, and may know a little more history, or natural philosophy, than I did; but I am not sensible that this has made any essential addition to my knowledge in divinity. Forty years ago I knew and preached every Christian doctrine which I preach now.’

Not being an avid reader of Wesley’s sermons, I really cannot comment on whether he might have done better with the examples that he mentions. There is, though, a clear implication that he repeated sermons previously preached and was satisfied with the doctrine he presented therein. It gets me wondering who was right – the man who destroyed his sermons every seven years, or Wesley who did not? Can we preachers be content (I recognize that not all of my potential readers are preachers, but many are) with re-using old sermons (or classic sermons, as I like to call them!), or should we do better?

As I looked back through some of the old sermons, I had different reactions. How did I preach that?! That was good, but it was for a particular time. That was great (occasionally!) and is relevant for any time, any place, anywhere! That was OK, but I could do better.

Let me come clean: I have revisited old sermons for use in different places. As a wise church secretary used to say, at a church I visited often as a lay preacher, ‘If it’s God’s Word, it’s worth saying again.’ I have to say, though, that it needs to speak to me again before I can preach it to others. Also, I doubt that it is really the same sermon when preached again. You see, I do have to adapt it to reflect changes in my thinking, and to update it to acknowledge changes in the world. And hopefully, it is better at the second time of preaching than the first.

A few words of warning. It does not do to repeat the same sermon at the same place it was originally preached. Someone always remembers! My father, who was pastor at the same church for 27 years, once tried it after a time lapse of ten or more years and yes, someone remembered!

PS I confess: the paper copies of the old sermons were thrown out, but I have retained the electronic copies. I doubt that I’ll use them again.


  1. Being a Lay Preacher, and therefore in lots of different pulpits, I can 're-visit' sermons in a shorter space of time than a pastor in one fellowship. I am also conscious that sometimes as I drive home after preaching a sermon in a particular place, on the journey back I go over it and I realise there are parts I can develop/omit - and next time, in another place, the content may be 20% changed from Draft #1.
    Furthermore, I think the 'burn it after seven years' approach is rather drastic - if there WAS good content then, then it remains good content NOW - and can be of personal benefit if not for public preaching.
    I have my sermon notes dating back to the early 1970s [on paper - no PCs back then!] but I wouldn't DREAM of preaching those exact sermons again - although I am not ashamed of their content or theology. I think all gifts develop with use and practice, and those teenage offerings were fine for what they were then, but inappropriate now.
    I'm intrigued that you have no other comments on this post - it is such a thought provoking piece!
    Are your clergy friends all too busy writing Fresh Christmas Sermons - or is it that none dares admit to sermon recycling?
    And although your father [and mine] had pastorates of twenty-plus years, that IS unusual these days. Surely if someone moves on to a fresh pulpit, it is useful to have a store of old sermons to provide a reservoir for those weeks when the workload has been heavy, and they can at least provide the bare bones of a fresh message?
    blessings x

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Angela. My first sermon goes back only to 1990, but I can still remember it and would be reasonably happy to preach it again! As a lay preacher, developing my gifting, I used to restrict myself to preaching twice a month - once in my own church and once elsewhere - and it was usually the same sermon. After critical analysis from my wife, I often changed it the second time!

    I'm not repeating any old Christmas sermons this year - I've used them up already! But yes, it's good to have some in reserve.