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The importance of illustration for the purpose of enforcing truth is so obvious, that it seems a work of supererogation to say one word concerning it. Plach has been said in books of rhetoric in regard to the use of figures, tropes, metaphors, and so forth, to add animation to style, and vigour and beauty to eloquence. But the best rhetorical rules will be insensibly discovered and adopted by the mind itself, in familiarity with the most thoughtful, suggestive, and illustrative writers.
Principal Campbell, in his Philosophy of Rhetoric, observes, that the senator and the lawyer, in the matter of eloquence, have the advantage of the preacher, because their subject is generally persons, while his is mainly things. A preacher ought, therefore, to endeavour to personify, as far as possible, the things of his argument, the truths he is called to announce; putting them in the shape of persons, and showing them in action. Interesting relations of fact will sometimes accomplish this object with great power and success.
In the selection and use of such facts, there is need of judgment. A greater benefit can hardly be bestowed upon the cause of truth, than a good collection of authentic and interesting points in the current of man's life and God's providence. Such an encyclopædia may be a book of reference, in which a man may often find materials to enliven and render attractive a discourse which might otherwise have proved very dull, or to fasten on the conscience a truth or a warning, which otherwise would have fallen on the ear unnoticed, and glided past the mind unfelt. It is not enough that truth be pointed, like a straight, smooth piece of steel; it needs side points, as a dart, that it may not draw out, when it effects an entrance. Sometimes a discourse may be so smooth, so polished, and pointed so finely, that it may go quite through the understanding and the heart, without stopping in it, or leaving any trace of its passage. It is a great mistake to have truth go through its mark, and fall out and be lost on the other side.
Barbed arrows are good, not for the purpose of inflicting unnecessary pain, but of compelling notice; they may be barbed with anecdote and illustratiou, in
such a way that it shall be hardly possible for them to fail. But barbs alone are useless. An archer would be poorly off, if he had nothing in his quiver but arrow-heads or feathers. For an illustration to be useful or successful, there must be something to be illustrated. A sermon made up of anecdotes and flowers, is quite as deficient as a sermon of the driest abstractions.
Anecdotes and illustrations may not only illustrate a point, and make an audience see and feel the argument, but they may themselves add to the argument; they may be at once a part of the reasoning, and an elucidation of it. Indeed, a just figure always adds power to a chain of logic, and increases the amount of truth conveyed. It is also of great use in relieving the attention; as a stopping place where the mind is rested, and prepared to resume the reasoning without fatigue, without loss. Almost any expedient, which decorum permits, may be justified in order to prevent drowsiness, keep the mind awake, and fix the attention of an audience. Nevertheless, such attention, however it may
be gained by extraordinary expedients, cannot be kept but by truth worth illustrating.
We have heard of an eccentric preacher, who had a church member named Mark, in the habit of sleeping under the discourses of his pastor. One day, in the midst of his sermon, the preacher, being about to enunciate an important text, raised his voice, exclaiming, “ Mark! Mark! Mark !” The unfortunate church dreamer, taken suddenly in the depths of a profound nap, started bolt upright, in the midst of the congregation, at the call, when the preacher continued, “ Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace !"
Now a forcible illustration, a vivid, or pathetic, or exciting apologue, or incident, or fact, answers all the purpose of such eccentricities, in waking the mind from its slumbers. The hearer feels as if he were addressed by name, when the preacher sends the truth, thus clothed, thus armed, home upon him. Dr. Abercrombie speaks of the importance of illustrations and analogies, for assisting and training the memory of children. The same discipline is equally necessary for the hearers of sermons. Although they may have forgotten the text, the subject, and almost the whole design of the preacher; they will not unfrequently carry away the illustrations, and every thing in the train of thought lying immediately in their neighbourhood. And, indeed, a single illustration will sometimes flash the meaning of a whole 'sermon upon minds that otherwise would have departed scarcely knowing the application of a sentence.
Unfortunately, some men are so habitually destitute of any thing approximating to the nature of illustration, so neglectful of it, so monotonous in the abstract mould of their discourses, that the unexpected introduction of a story, or even a pointed comparison or incident, would rouse the congregation, almost as thoroughly, as if the preacher were to carry a loaded pistol into the pulpit, and fire it off at the third head of his discourse. How is it possible for an audience
to be interested or stirred, even by the most important truth, if presented so monotonously, and in mere generalities ?
The hearers of the gospel, are like poor men coming to be clothed from a public charity. If you give them cloth in the piece, they will dispose of it as they can, and keep their own rags. But if you have it made up, and give them plain, well-fitting garments, they will be likely to put them on, and wear them. The truths of the gospel should as much as possible, come saying, thou art the
It is not necessary for this purpose to add, thou David, or thou Mark, unless it be by private expostulation, where this is needed. An authentic incident, a forcible illustration, a striking analogy, a recorded case, will often so point the moral, that the consciences of all may apply to it, without being afraid lest others should see them putting on the coat.
Illustrations from Divine Providence, especially in Christian biography, but also in history, in particular interpositions, and in marked steps in all men's lives, are a great help in fastening Divine truth. If a preacher merely say, I will tell you what such or such a person said to me, even that may fasten a sermon. It is like driving a nail into the mind, and hanging up the lesson upon it. “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies.” Cecil records the effect of a few such words driven unexpectedly into his own mind, by a plain man from the country, who said to him one day, as he was coming out of the church, that men might cheer themselves in the morning, and they might pass on tolerably well, perhaps, without God at noon; but the cool of the day was coming, when God would come down to talk with them. Cecil says that he had himself been some time in a dry, fruitless frame, but persuading himself that all was going on well, when it pleased God to shoot an arrow, by the hand of this simple but weak minister, into his heart. It was a message from God; he felt as though God had descended into the church, and was about to call him to his account.
Now this was a goad, a nail, unconsciously driven by one of his hearers, into the conscience of the master of the assembly himself. The hearer gave the preacher an illustration that fastened his own sermon. And how much good Cecil himself may have afterwards accomplished, simply by repeating that same message, none can tell. Sometimes, when we come upon such landing-places in the midst of a sermon, it is like anchoring at a verdant island, after a somewhat tiresome sail. You remember the lake itself more by the island in the midst of it, and by what happened there, than by the smooth expanse of water. We once heard the preaching of Rev. Christopher Anderson of Edinburgh, author of the Annals of the English Bible, and other works. Although the whole sermon was deeply interesting, we cannot now recall but one thing in it, and that was a striking saying of the eminent and excellent Andrew Fuller, which Mr. Anderson gave, as spoken by Mr. Fuller to himself. Ah, dear brother, said that man of God, there was never but one being in this world, who could say, when he died, It is finished! We have to leave all our works unfinished. But we must work on, and do what we can, while the day lasts, and then we shall know all.
Every one must have observed the effect of the introduction of such lights and illustrations, upon an audience. The whole assembly may have appeared up to that point uninterested, listless, even oppressed with stupor. But the moment the preacher says, I will illustrate this point, by a relation of what took place in the life of such or such a person, an entire nge comes on the whole congregation. Every countenance is lighted up with expectation, every mind is on the alert, every ear is open and attentive. Even if the preacher simply says—We will suppose a case, for the purpose of illustration; we will suppose a man placed in such or such a position, involved in snch or such an emergency, or having committed such or such a crime. Even then, the attention of the hearers is at once aroused. The presentation of actual facts, or cases of interest in point, is so attractive, that if real incidents are not at hand, it were better to snppose them, than leave the subject without such illustration, in instances where it admits of it. Accordingly, in the Scriptures, and in the discourses of our blessed Lord, it is evident that suppositions are made, and fables are related to illustrate and enforce truth, to give it life and action.
This constituted a powerful charm in our Saviour's preaching, even for those who cared nothing for the spiritual lessons he was enforcing. The beauty and exceeding aptness of his cases and illustrations, may have caught many a careless soul, when the bare, dry truth, would have failed to touch the heart. The truth that a man is miserable, who layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God, might have been stated in ever so forcible language, without reaching the conscience of the hearers. But when our Lord proceeded to say, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully; with the solemn close of the apologue, Thou fool! this night thy soul shall be required of thee! what conscience could remain unmoved? It may have been under some such application, that Joseph of Arimathea himself was arrested and brought to repentance.
The hearers of our blessed Lord were so deeply interested and absorbed in such narratives, that sometimes they seem to have forgotten that they were merely illustrative relations; and interrupted him, carried away by their feelings, or desiring the thread of the narrative to unwind differently; as in the case when they broke in upou one of his parables with the declaration, Lord, he hath ten pounds already! One can see the company, their interest, their eagerness, the truth taking hold upon them; we can hear their exclamations, as if a drama of real life were enacting before them. And it was life, taken out of the form of abstract truth, and dramatized for their life, their instruction.
Much depends, we might almost say every thing depends, upon the manner, the feeling, the purpose, with which the parable, or illustration, or incident, is introduced and told. If it grows out of the subject and heart together, it makes a powerful impression. To use a familiar phrase, it tells. If well told it tells, and it is well told when it comes warm from the heart; and in that way, although gained from abroad, becomes like the mind's own creation, like an original part of the argument or persuasion of a mind glowing under the excitement of truth, and intent on fastening it upon others. Illustrations, incidents, experiences, which have deeply impressed ourselves, will make a deep impression upon others, if related in the simplicity and solemnity of the same feeling with which the Spirit and the providence of God invested them in our own consciousness. Old things become new; tame and common things become inexplicably and unexpectedly charged with life and interest; truisms become mighty discoveries, issuing from the mint of personal and deep feeling. And the feeling in such a case, is the best guide of the manner and the judgment.
One of the most remarkable preachers ever heard in England, was old Hugh Latimer, the venerable martyr of the early Reformation. No man, with such a fund of native humour and satire, ever went so deep and so familiarly into men's consciences. He owed not a little of his power to the use he made of anecdote and incident. He was like a master, converting the Scriptures themselves into a pictorial story-book for his children, and studying it with them. Sometimes his preaching consisted very much in personal recollections and experiences, with accounts of the dealings of God with individual consciences; so that some of the most interesting notices of the English Reformation, are now to be derived from his sermons. He knew how to seize hold of occurrences that were exciting interest among the people, and to turn them to their profit in the gospel.
John Bradford, Latimer's interesting convert, a child of God by some years after liim, but a martyr by some months before him, was another remarkable preacher, of great power in dealing with the conscience and the heart. He was full of penitence and prayer; and as it was Latimer's searching and personal appeals to the conscience, that were blest of God for his conversion, the mantle of his spiritual father seemed to have descended on the son; and in a still loftier style, but with much of Latimer's power of illustration, especially from the Scriptures, he poured the truth burning upon men's minds. One of his contemporaries tells us, that he used to make unto himself a journal, in which he used to write all such notable things as either he did see or hear each day that passed; but whatever he did hear or see, he did so pen it, that a man might see in that book the signs of his smitten heart; for if he did see or hear any good in any man, by that sight he found and noted the want thereof in himself, and added a short prayer, craving mercy and grace to amend. If he did hear or see any plague or misery, he noted it as a thing procured by his own sins, and still added, Lord have mercy upon me." Now, in this habit of close dealing with himself, and noting and applying the ways of God's providence and man's guilt, we see the secret of his power over others, and of his happy faculty in apt and quick Christian reproof, which, says one who knew him, he used with such Divine grace and Christian majesty, that ever he stopped the mouths of