William E. Sangster: In the Wake of the Wesleys

David L. Larsen

At the heart of London is Wesminster, with the houses of Parliament and four commanding churches: Wesminster Abbey, the national church (Anglican); Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic); Westminster Chapel (Congregational); and Westminster Central Hall (Methodist), across from the Abbey. The latter has been a great preaching palace; and in his 24 years as pastor, Dinsdale T. Young, a preacher of redemption and an evangelist, filled its 3,000 seats with the largest audiences in London (Oswald Chambers was his protege). He died in 1938; and the next year, William E. Sangster was appointed pastor.

Sangster (1900-1960) was born into the established church but converted in London at the Radnor Street Mission (Methodist). He served in the army in World War I and afterward felt the call of God to preach and prepared for the ministry at Richmond College, Surrey, where his gifts were in early evidence. With his beloved wife, Margaret, he served Methodist charges under the signal blessing of the Holy Spirit in Wales, Liverpool, Scarbourough and then Leeds (following Leslie Weatherhead), where he had a most unusual ministry of evangelism and Bible teaching.

At Westminster Central Hall, God gave him 16 marvelous years, including five years in the Nazi blitz on London, most of which he spent living and witnessing in bomb shelters.

A strong backer of the Billy Graham Crusades, he worked with Stephen Olford, Alan Redpath and the Bishop of Barking in spearheading these significant post-war outreach efforts. His son Paul has not only given us an outstanding volume on pulpit communication but a candid study of his father’s ministry entitled Doctor Sangster.

Tall, always gesticulating, very manly, he was old-fashioned in his dress (like Dinsdale Young) and quite Puritanical. On the impatient order, he entered every church he passed. The onset of a fatal disease was apparent in 1957, and in his last year he could not speak at all. After his departure, Central Hall lurched into radical politics with Donald Soper and has since declined, along with much of Methodism in England. Three characteristics of Sangster merit attention:

Effectiveness as a pulpit communicator

Sangster’s short introductions and conclusions, saving sense of humor and emotional intensity (he was always dramatic) gave thrust and entre into human hearts in need. He had the gift of terse but memorable sermon titles like “Christ Has Double Vision” on John 1:42 and “Remember to Forget!” on Genesis 41:51. His books of sermons circulated widely on both sides of the Atlantic.

His wide reading was apparent but not “showy.” He explored “The Grammar of Grace” and “The Revenge of a Saint” in probing depth but practical warmth. He inspired me once to a series on “The Emotions of Christmas.” Advent, like Easter, is always a special challenge. His epigrams gripped as when he showed that “worship disinfects us from egotism.”

His exquisite little book of sermons entitled He Is Able begins with a gem simply entitled “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” His message when he was president of the Methodist Conference—on “Offering Christ to the People”—left his hearers breathless but buoyant. In my nominations for the “Fifteen Most Significant Sermons in Church History” I have included his powerful “This Britain: What Would a Revival Do for Britain,” which made front-page headlines in large type at an especially vexing time for the nation. Sangster was unquestionably part of the royalty of the pulpit in the last century; and though long silenced, we would profit by reading him.

Reflectiveness on the preaching craft

Not all gifted preachers are self-conscious about their craft. They just do it! But Sangster was an avid student of the art and gave us two sterling volumes that were widely circulated.

In his The Craft of Sermon Construction, Sangster analyzes why preaching and preachers were moving into the shadows of the culture. Anchored strongly in Scriptural authority, he takes after weak theology and stoutly defends evangelistic preaching. He is most uneasy with topical and life-situation preaching; he champions the teaching sermon and fidelity to the text. He warns against “the fatal plague of saying something new” and warns against the “what the text really means” approach as a discouragement to reading the Scripture. His strictures on “stealing other people’s sermons” and the dangers of irony are much needed in our time. His attention to the emotional outline of the sermon is most refreshing. There was little output on homiletics in Britain in the last century; but this is abiding, quality stuff and merited publication.

The companion volume, although now supplanted by the work of Bryan Chappell in our time, was titled The Craft of Sermon Illustration. He was a master at illustration, a talent we would all seek (although a few have been utterly indifferent to it). In 1950 he was already seeing the reduced value of biblical illustration because of mounting biblical illiteracy. His work on sources and variety of illustration and the dangerous illustration are most helpful, and his practical suggestions on gleaning illustrations from our reading are trenchant and relevant. Who of us couldn’t improve here?

Incisiveness as a theologian

Adding luster to the constellation of his giftedness was his theological perspicacity. While in the bomb shelters, he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation for London University on The Path to Perfection: An Examination and Restatement of John Wesley’s Doctrine of Christian Perfection. He excavates the 30 biblical passages which gave shape to Wesley’s doctrine of “Perfect Love” (showing that Wesley himself never claimed to have attained it). He honestly faces the counter-arguments that Warfield detonated in his Perfectionism.

He is troubled that the average Christian’s experience is so far below normal and is convincing to the point that Christ would not leave us wallowing in sin. “He breaks the power of cancelled sin!” Sensitive to some inconsistencies in Wesley, he comes close to the “moment by moment life,” which many of us have found congenial in the Keswick message. He adroitly interacts with both philosophy and psychology in his rejection of eradication. He builds a wise and balanced theology of experience out of careful handling of Scripture and “sound doctrine.” “Our permanent address is ‘in Christ,’” he demonstrates.

Bottom line: Sangster was a remarkably versatile servant of Christ for his times and may well be, more than we realize, something of a man for our times as well. Ad Gloriam Dei.