Professor James M Stalker - Great Preachers I Have Heard
by Alexander Gammie, April 23, 1938
IT has always seemed a pity that we have had no biography of Professor Stalker, who was so much of a personality and whose gifts were so distinctive. He filled a large place in the religious life of this country [Scotland] and he was more widely known in America than any other Scottish preacher of his day.
Although he spent twenty of the later years of his life as a professor, it is as a preacher we still think of him. And it was by his two remarkable handbooks (still unsurpassed in their own way) on the "Life of Christ" and the "Life of St. Paul," and by his preach ing, that he made his name famous.
Of his ministries in St. Brycedale, Kirkcaldy, and St. Matthew's, Glasgow, there are many memories and traditions. Some can still recall how he made St. Matthew's resound with preaching which, in its boldness in regard to social and other questions, caused some douce hearers to become uneasy. In the pulpit in those days he was in the fullness of his strength and glorying in his work.
Of Stalker in St. Matthew's it has been written: "A smallish figure, with a squareness of shoulder underneath the draping gown, comes from a side door, and immediately, above red pulpit cushions, appears a face that carries out the suggestion already given. Man and manner, there is a sturdiness and seriousness, painstaking, absorbed, with some brusquerie, and again some nervousness. The face strikes you. It is an oblong, divided by two dark lines-the straight and marked eyebrows, the moustache turning iron-grey. The dark hair, also greying, lies flat upon and away from the head. Ill-hung, but vigorous, are the mouth and jaw, and the voice corresponds. It is weighty, but not sweet; nothing lingers in the ear, captivating you in spite of yourself. This man takes you as a man, more than an artist, although he is not without touches of the latter."
That voice of his had something of a bark in it; it was as brusque as his manner often was. The sort of shout with which he would begin a service was somewhat disconcerting to those hearing him for the first time.
A story is often told of his St. Matthew's days. It had been almost his invariable custom to begin the service with a prayer of thanksgiving. There came a wet, foggy day when Glasgow was at its worst, and he had been wending his way to church under the dreariest conditions. Everyone was feeling miserable and wondering what he would do that morning. Up the pulpit stairs he went, and, as the people waited anxiously, he began in his quick, abrupt way: "We thank Thee, 0 Lord, that every day is not like this."
Stalker, like Henry Drummond, was one of those who shared in the revival movement which followed the Moody and Sankey mission of 1873, and he was, after Drummond, perhaps the most active of the youthful enthusiasts of the time. The experience left a lasting effect upon him. "At that time," he said, "we had many experiences which have ever since made Christ intelligible; and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles especially has a meaning to those who have passed through such a movement which it could scarcely, I should think, have for anyone else."
The Evangelical glow of those early days remained with Stalker ever after. It was felt in all his preaching; it gave him an interest in every movement, however humble, to carry the Gospel to the people. Even in old age he maintained a keen interest in aggressive work of all kinds - religious and social.
In the pulpit he never had his full manuscript; he contented himself with half a sheet of notepaper which he lifted up to consult openly at the beginning of each of his "heads." To all intents he was an extempore preacher, facing his hearers and enjoying perfect freedom in manner and delivery. As a preacher he was once com pared to a blacksmith. "The dark, strong energy of the moderate figure," said Dean Cromarty, "was like that of a man at the anvil, using force but measuring it, driving at a point but guarding the blow."
I never heard Stalker preach without being impressed by his lucidity. He was, indeed, so lucid that he did not always get credit for the ability that was behind it all. There was "body" in his preaching; his diction could often be vivid and picturesque; but, above all, there was that steady sequence of thought, that orderly march of argument, to what seemed the inevitable conclusion. He was a great believer in the practice of "heads" or divisions-a practice which many of us regret is not so common to-day as it once was.
Perhaps one of the best examples of Stalker's style of preaching was found in his sermon on Christ as "The Advocate," which was afterwards published. It was founded on the incident when Mary, the friend of Christ, "had performed one of those actions which, scattered at rare intervals along the tracts of time, indicate the emergence of new powers in human nature; but so much was it misunderstood and misjudged that, had not Jesus intervened, it would either have been consigned to oblivion or remembered as a scandal. The Advocate, however, was on the spot. It was a woman that had been attacked; and all the chivalry of His nature rose up to protect her. There is unmistakable heat in His first words, 'Let her alone; why trouble ye her?' And then His strokes fall, blow after blow of argument and rebuke, on the heads of her opponents, till she is not only vindicated, but raised on a pedestal for the admiration and imitation of all generations."
Then there came his characteristically striking divisions.
(1) In thus vindicating His friend, Jesus was vindicating the Beautiful against the Useful. "She hath wrought a good work on me," for the word translated "good" is literally "beautiful."
(2) In defending His friend, Jesus was vindicating the Original against the Conventional. "The poor ye have always with you, but me ye have not always."
(3) In defending His friend, Jesus was vindicating the Particular against the General. "She hath done what she could."
(4) In defending His friend, Jesus was vindicating the Conscious against the Unconscious. "She is come aforehand to anoint My body to the burying."
The sermon closed with these sentences: "Thorny was the bed on which Jesus lay down, yet it was smoothed to roses by love. Thus did the fragrance of Mary's ointment float round the cross, and that was fulfilled which had been written of old, 'He shall see of the travail of his soul and shall be satisfied'."
Stalker was never afraid to speak his mind fearlessly and frankly. At the settlement of a friend to the pastorate of a wealthy West-End congregation in Glasgow he said: "If you make my friend a typical West-End minister, great at dinner-parties and in smoking rooms, and a preacher of smooth things to them that are in ease in Zion, this will be the saddest day of his life."
He had a high conception of the ministry. In an induction charge he once said: "I like to think of the minister as only one of the congregation set apart by the rest for a particular purpose. They say to him: Look, brother, we are busy with our daily toils, and confused with cares, but we eagerly long for peace and light to illuminate our life, and we have heard there is a land where these are to be found, a land of repose and joy, full of thoughts that breathe and words that burn, but we cannot go thither ourselves. We are too embroiled in daily cares. Come, we will elect you, and set you free from toil, and you shall go thither for us, and week by week trade with that land and bring us its treasures and its spoils."
Powerful in the pulpit, he could at times be thrilling on the platform, as Glasgow had reason to know on many a memorable occasion. Once he even surpassed Lord Rosebery. It was at a great gathering held in Glasgow in connection with social work. "The speakers on that occasion," it was said, "were carefully chosen, but the two speeches of the evening were those of Lord Rosebery and Dr. Stalker. There were deep notes of passion and of pathos in the address of the statesman which were absent from that of the minister, but there was no speech that reached the great audience and roused it as Stalker's did."
Personal ambition did not seem to trouble him. He declined a Principalship on the ground of age, and gladly worked under a younger man; and he refused nomination to the Moderatorship. Tales are told of his brusque manner, but beneath the seemingly gruff exterior there was a warm heart. Speaking for myself, I always found him the soul of courtesy, and I have grateful memories of his kindness. He often went out of his way to do a brotherly deed.
I conclude with what Dr. George Jackson said of Stalker's "Life of Christ"-words as true as when they were written many years ago: "The ease, the lucidity, the crystalline clearness with which the familiar story is retold are the last result of years of patient study and deep meditation. Dr. Stalker writes clearly because he sees clearly. The dead past has lived again before him; and it lives still for us in these graphic, vivid pages. Yet, through out, the imagination works under wise restraints. The small canvas is never overcrowded. The leading facts of the history are seized and fixed with a master hand; the rest is forgotten. In nothing is the touch of the true literary artist more clearly seen than in the skill with which the writer has first selected and then grasped his materials. His book is a miracle of condensation, a miniature masterpiece."
From: "Great Preachers I Have Heard" By Alexander Gammie