The Living Pulpit (Mary Alice Mulligan) -- A Review

THE LIVING PULPIT: Sermons that Illustrate Preaching in the Stone-Campbell Movement 1968-2018. Mary Alice Mulligan, General Editor. St. Louis: CBP Press, 2018. Viii + 280 pages.

Disciples (my denomination) call ourselves “people of the Table.” While this may be true, preaching plays a leading role in our life together. Along with the Table, at which we gather weekly, preaching serves a foundational role in our worship. Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and Walter Scott (the acknowledged founders of the Stone-Campbell Movement) all were preachers, with Stone and Scott being evangelists. They proclaimed the word, believing that it would lead to redemptive purposes. The movement has been marked by strong preaching down through the years. This commitment to preaching within the movement has been recorded by the movement through published volumes reproducing representative sermons. The first of these compilations was published in 1868. Another was published in 1918, and a third volume titled The Vital Pulpit of the Christian Church was published in 1969. These anthologies of sermons published about every fifty years provided historical snapshots of preaching in the Movement, illuminating style and concerns of each era. The Living Pulpit, published in 2018, continues that tradition.

The 2018 edition of The Living Pulpit brings together forty sermons offered by preachers from each of the three branches of the Stone Campbell Movement. While the general editor, Mary Alice Mulligan (a preaching professor at Christian Theological Seminary), and the publisher, are Disciples, an effort has been made to be inclusive of the entire stream of the spiritual descendants of the Campbells, Stone, and Scott. This gives us an opportunity to see the breadth of a movement. Each branch was accorded thirteen preachers/sermons, which were selected by a team of eight contributing editors— three Disciples, three from the Churches of Christ, and two from the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. They were tasked with selecting sermons preached sometime between 1968 and 2018. And an attempt was made by each team to choose representative (not necessarily best) sermons from across the time span. This gives us a taste of how preaching has changed over time, in each of the three branches of the movement. There is a fortieth sermon in the collection, and that is a sermon from Fred Craddock, who is acknowledged by preachers from across the movement and beyond, to be one of most influential figures in homiletics over the past half-century. His book As One Without Authority, published in 1971, served to revolutionize preaching for the next generation. So, it’s fitting to begin the book with a sermon from Craddock.

While I have connections to all three branches of the movement, as Disciple pastor I am most familiar with the Disciples choices. I am familiar with ten of the thirteen and have heard maybe six of them preach. Of the persons in the other two groups, I am familiar with some, and have heard a few of them preach at some point. One of them, Rubel Shelley has filled the pulpit at Central Woodward Christian Church, where I serve as pastor. Comparing this list with the preachers chosen for the earlier volume (1969), I noticed a couple of things. First, all of the preachers were Disciples. Second, Ronald Osborn has a contribution in both volumes, suggesting his importance across both time periods, third, two of the preachers are my predecessors—Perry Gresham and James Hempstead, which leads me to wonder why Edgar Dewitt Jones didn’t get included in that volume! (update on Jones; he appeared in the prior volume published in 1918, while he was the senior minister at First Christian Church of Bloomington, Illinois.)

Regarding this volume, in her preface, Mary Alice Mulligan notes that these are not intended to be understood as "best" sermons. Rather they are "typical" sermons. One thing one must always keep in mind when reading sermons is that they are written for the ear not the eye. So, as we read the sermons, we miss crucial elements in the sermon. We miss voice tonality and inflection and body movement. We’re reminded that in this day and age visuals are often used in preaching, and they are noted but not seen or experienced. Nevertheless, the words on the page give us a sense of purpose and design and theology. This last piece is important, because there are differences in theology that exist between the three branches and within them. The Disciples offerings are on the more liberal end of the spectrum, but even here there are differences. While the other two branches are considered to be more conservative, there is a spread of views there as well.

I can make a few important observations about the choices of preachers and sermons. This could have as much to do with the interests of the contributing editors as the preachers themselves.  The first thing I noticed in that the Disciples selections seemed more expressive of Disciple identity. That is, many of the sermons addressed unity, baptism, and the Table. In addition, explicit reference was made to denominational identity. In that regard, I found it interesting that Cynthia Hale, whom I have heard preach, acknowledged the Disciple commitment to the Table, and then gave a rationale for why her church moved to have communion once a month. Heritage seemed less evident in the selections from the other two groups, but that may be reflective of their less institutionalized existence. Again, it also might say something about the editors and their concerns.

The second observation has to do with diversity in preachers. The Disciples preachers are much more diverse in ethnicity and gender. Six of the fourteen preachers (counting Craddock) are women. Two of the preachers are of Asian descent, while a third is the daughter of an Indian father and a Scottish mother. Three are African American, and one is Puerto Rican. There is a strong social justice element to these sermons, which is representative of Disciple commitments. The thirteen preachers from the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ are white, though two of the preachers are women (though neither serves as a senior pastor). Finally, while there is ethnic diversity among the Churches of Christ preachers, all thirteen are men. Two are African American and one hails from Ghana. The theology of these latter two groups is more conservative than the Disciples, and we see less emphasis on social issues among these selections. However, we see more emphasis on the evangelistic side of the equation among the Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ selections. 

I can imagine that it was difficult to narrow down the list to thirteen representative preachers from across a fifty-year time span. I expect there were some preachers who stood out and were easy selections, but especially as they moved into the current generation that must have proven challenging. Readers might question certain choices and wonder why others are not included. I will admit, I had my own questions at certain points. But, they were tasked with selecting thirteen sermons from across five decades. I must respect this process that drew from local pastors, educators, and denominational leaders. There are some big church pastors here, and some who serve small congregations. Some of the sermons were preached in the context of local church worship and others at larger gatherings, such as a General Assembly or a conference.

While I respect the choices made by the editors, I do have one criticism to make. That has to do with the absence of a woman preacher from the Churches of Christ. I happen to know that there is a growing number of excellent preachers in this branch of the movement who are women. Several of them have preached at Central Woodward Christian Church and have been well-received by my congregation. While several women could be named, I shall name one in particular, because she is at the vanguard of the movement among women preachers in the Churches of Christ, and that is Sarah Barton of Pepperdine University. I could name others, but I’ll let her name suffice as a challenge to the folks from the Churches of Christ to recognize the gifts that are present in their branch.

So, if you are a preacher from any of the three branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, or you are interested in the history of the movement, or you are interested in how preachers think in the other branches of the movement, this is a book for you. You may not decide to read it cover to cover, but it is worth working through. Who knows, you might find a word preached by a preacher from another branch of the movement that inspires or encourages or surprises you. You might also find a word preached several decades in the past that helps you discern the present realities. 

I’ll close with words from a friend, who has a sermon included in the book. Reflecting on the words of Revelation 10, in a word given to a group of preachers, Jose Morales pronounces: "We are called to comically preach a scandalous word, a revolutionary word, and that word is a word of hope. Oh, church, let me tell you about hope! Hope ain't pretty, cuddly or cute. The hope we proclaim is dangerous, crazy, scandalous. Hope unsettles the stomach" (p. 263). So, take and eat! Be fed with the Word for the journey ahead might be tricky—but worth the effort. 


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