Dabney on Preaching: Voice and Manuscripts

Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures of Preaching Should a pastor preach from a manuscript?  Should he use a special pulpit voice and tone that is different from his regular voice and tone?  R. L. Dabney said (emphatically), No and No!  I realize these two topics are debatable, somewhat subjective, and possibly even contextual, but I do have to say I agree with Dabney (even though I might not be quite as emphatic as he was!).

“Reading a manuscript to the people can never, with any justice, be termed preaching.  …How can he whose eyes are fixed upon the paper before him, who performs the mechanical task of reciting the very words inscribed on it, have the inflections, the emphasis, the look, the gesture, the flexibility, the fire, of oratorical action.  Mere reading, then, should be sternly banished from the pulpit, except in those rare cases in which the didactic (teaching) purpose supersedes the rhetorical, and exact verbal accuracy is more essential than eloquence” (p. 328).

What about the preaching voice and tone?  Should a preacher speak like a different person when he’s behind the pulpit?

“Nothing has caused more embarrassment to young speakers than the unfortunate notion that public speaking must be generically different from talking.  …Now one experiences no difficulty in stating or narrating, after his own customary way, what he thoroughly comprehends.  Why should rhetorical discourses be less easy, except as the embarrassment of publicity agitates the powers at the outset?  It is because of the perverse idea which is adopted, that when one speaks he must needs employ a contracted phraseology, a different structure for his sentences, an opposite turn of expression, to all which he is unaccustomed. …The facile (easy), direct, unpretending structure of sentences which we employ in our conversation is the proper one for the oration (sermon)” (p. 283-4).

For Dabney’s entire discussion, find the above mentioned page numbers in Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching by R. L. Dabney.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, WI

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