John A. Broadus was born on January 24, 1827 in Culpepper County, Virginia. Time would prove it fitting that the man A. H. Newman later called “perhaps the greatest man the Baptists have produced” was born near the famous Culpepper jail.1 Only fifty years earlier numerous Baptist preachers had been imprisoned there for preaching the gospel. That county jail hosted a veritable who’s who of great Baptist pioneers including James Leland and James Ireland. A.T. Robertson observed that Culpepper County, Virginia, is “sacred soil for all lovers of religious freedom, and has become a nursery for Baptist preachers.” 2
Broadus not only was born in a great place but he was born to great parents. Though his mother was not baptized until late in life, she educated all of the children as best anyone could in those days. John’s father was Major Edmund Broadus. Major Broadus was a farmer, teacher and often time state legislature. There was no more respected leader and Christian in the whole county and his name was known far and wide.
Through his early years Broadus had an education that was typical of the era. Sometimes he was schooled at home for lack of a school near enough to attend. At other times he was educated in a boarding school run by his uncle, Albert G. Simms. In all of those educational experiences young John learned to love to read. By the age of thirteen he had read Shakespeare, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, and Parley’s History of the United States. He also had learned to love to read the Bible and a popular Christian paper of the day, The Religious Herald.
Broadus was still all boy. He dreamed of being a Mohawk chief, and living and dying in paint and feathers. He played for hours with other boys including one slave child by the name of Henry. Henry and John would argue playfully for hours over the information John brought back from school with him. He loved to fish and ride horses. In short John was what people today would call “a normal red-blooded American male.”
When Broadus was sixteen, a protracted meeting was held at the Mt. Poney Church.. One night while attending the meetings a friend came to him and quoted: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me. And him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” “Can’ you take hold of that?” pleaded his friend.3 John did take hold of that and received Christ as His Lord and Savior. His life was never the same after that!
John’s love for souls and his zeal for sharing the gospel was born almost the same time he was born again. A few months after his conversion, the pastor invited members to share Christ with those who were unconverted in the meeting. Broadus had never attempted to share his faith before but decided to give it a try. He went to a young simple-minded mind by the name of Sandy. Sandy was converted and never missed a chance to come to Broadus later and say, “Howdy, John? thankee John.” Broadus told of this experience throughout his life and often would add, “And if ever I reach the heavenly home and walk the golden streets, I know the first person to meet me will be Sandy, coming and saying again: ‘Howdy, John? thankee John.’”4 This sympathetic side of John Broadus became the genius of his preaching. He was a man who was grounded in the great doctrine of Scripture but was also moved with deep compassion for the people who needed those truths so desperately.
In his late teens, Broadus took up teaching as a means of supporting himself and preparing for his further education. Then in 1846, he entered the University of Virginia. The school founded by Thomas Jefferson was considered the best educational institution in the United States at the time. There he joined the Jefferson Society, a debating club and gained his skills as an orator and defender of ideas. University life was a happy time for Broadus. He grew in stature both as a student and a follower of Jesus Christ. But on June 22 of 1847 death touched the Broadus family for the first time. His mother grew ill and died quite suddenly from a heart attack. She had raised her son well and left to him a heritage of faith and faithfulness.
While still a student at the University of Virginia Broadus preached his first sermon. It was at Mount Eagle Presbyterian Church in Albermarle County. His text was from Psalm 62:8, “God is our refuge. Mrs. L.L. Hamilton was only eleven years old at the time but vividly recalled that first sermon of John A. Broadus in years to follow:
“There stood ,,, a slightly built, dark haired youth … who spoke as I never heard man speak before of our gracious Savior. There was something in his manner very entreating, very touching, very convincing … I well remember the impression made upon me by its charming simplicity. He had made comprehendible, even to the mind of a child, great Bible truths.” 5
That “charming simplicity” became a hallmark of the preaching John A. Broadus. Years later, in spite of his great theological training, his preaching retained a simplicity that drew people to it. He often later warned his seminary students not to flaunt their education. He knew it was a much harder task to present the deep truths in simplicity than it was to dazzle people with one’s much learning.
In 1850 , Broadus graduated from the University. It was a joyous time as Broadus was to deliver the graduation address. But once again a dark cloud came over his life as John’s father, Major Broadus, was taken to his eternal home. At first the younger Broadus considered not making the speech but his father’s dying request was that he continue on.
Shortly after his father’s death, Broadus was ordained as a Baptist minister and soon married Marie Harrson. Once again, Broadus took up teaching and also became the pastor of the Charlottesville Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1852. Later in that same year God visited the Charlottesville church in a mighty way. During a protracted meeting there were 40 professions of faith with 23 baptisms. This was a revival of a different ilk than what many think of when there is such a move of God. Broadus wrote of the meetings: “Our meetings were very quiet and solemn; and there was frequently felt a realizing of the Divine presence…”6
By 1855, Broadus had left the Charlottesville Church to become chaplain at the University of Virginia. While enjoying much of the work, Broadus often found himself growing weary at times of the spiritual dryness exhibited by many of campus. During the following years, he along with other close friends began to develop a vision for a new seminary for Baptist in the South. Finally in June of 1857 they met as a formal committee to finalize their commitment to this great calling. Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky that day was J.P. Boyce, Broadus, Basil Manly, Jr., E.T. Winkler, and William Williams. Together they developed a plan for establishing a new seminary that they hoped would one day become a great theological university founded on a belief in the authority of God’s Word and a commitment to Biblical evangelism.
Broadus and his wife, Marie, returned to pastor the Charlottesville Baptist Church for a second time. These were high times indeed. The seminary was beginning to seem to be more than just a dream and the church had acquired a parsonage for the young couple. They and three children moved in with great anticipation for what God before them. As in years gone by, the cloud of death came over Broadus during one of his brightest moments. Just months after moving into their new home, Marie Broadus fell ill and died within only a week’s time. As she lay dying, Broadus’ 26 year old wife whispered, “Tell me about Jesus.”7 She left him with three girls, Eliza, Annie, and Maria, the youngest being only a year old. Broadus was grief stricken and tempted to lay it all aside. God had other plans and sent encouragement through church members and friends. There was still much to do and God was not through with John A. Broadus!
On May 1st, 1858, Broadus attended the Educational Convention in Greenville, South Carolina and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was formally established. Four professors were named: John A. Broadus, J.P. Boyce, Basil Manly, Jr., and E.T. Winkler. In January of 1859 Broadus married Charlotte Eleanor Sinclair gaining a trusted helpmeet and a mother for his three girls. A few months later Broadus said farewell to his beloved church and prepared for the first semester at the seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. God had blessed in many ways during his pastorate at Charlottesville. During his ministry there, Broadus baptized 241 precious people including a young lady by the name of Lottie Moon. Now, however, God had something new for him to do.
At the same time an institution of Christian learning was being formed, a storm cloud was brewing that was about to change the world as all in the South knew it. We do no service to history or to our subject by ignoring some realities. It seems probable that John Broadus was a slave owner. Broadus displayed that strange and ironic mix of many Virginia Southerners of his time. Like Robert E Lee, he owned slaved and yet longed for the day when he would no more. He was no defender of the institution of slavery. He even wrote a rather favorable review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to his wife in which he said: “It is exceedingly well written, having some passages of rarely equaled power, and being altogether, as a far as I can judge, a very remarkable book.”8 Broadus had no desire to see the Union dissolved but he also reflected the sentiments of many Southerners toward Abraham Lincoln. He knew that if Lincoln was elected as President of the United States that South Carolina would surely succeed and Virginia would be soon to follow suit.
War did come and it nearly ended the life of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before it even began. Though not officially a chaplain, Broadus traveled many miles preaching to the Confederate troops. Stonewall Jackson personally sought him out to preach to his army. Through a mutual friend General Jackson wrote, “Tell him that he never had a better opportunity of preaching the gospel than he would have right now in these camps.” 9 Throughout the summer and fall, Broadus preached to the Army of North Virginia with Robert. E. Lee and his generals in attendance on many occasions. J. William Jones described one of Broadus’ sermons before the Army of North Virginia:
“There was an immense crowd – probable five thousand – in attendance. General Lee. A.P. Hill … and a number of other generals were there … The text was Proverbs 3:17, ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all the paths are peace.’ … At the close of the service they came by the hundreds to ask an interest in the prayers of God’s people, or profess a new-found faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and I doubt not that our beloved brother has greeted on the other shore not a few who heard him that day …”10
Finally the outdoor preaching took its toll on the preacher’s voice and he had to return home for a time.
At last the war was over but one could hardly say that things returned to normal. Civilization as the South had known had ceased to exist. The economy was ruined, outside forces ruled the political scene, and people in general had little will to rebuild their lives and fortunes. It seemed that the future held little for this devastated land. The seminary was in no better shape. Could the founders of the school even hope for its reopening? When Broadus, Boyce and the others met, discussion turned to the possibility of not even reopening. To that Broadus replied, “Suppose we quietly agree that the Seminary may die, but we’ll die first.” 11 Finally the Seminary relocated in Louisville, Kentucky and slowly grew until it was a viable theological institution.
In 1870 Broadus published his book, On the Preparation and Deliver of Sermon. That work became an almost instant classic and is used to this day as primer on homiletics and sermon preparation. That work along with his preaching began to broaden the horizons of John A. Broadus. Christians in New York had come to know of Broadus and invited him to preach in New York City. Calvary Baptist Church of that city even asked Broadus to come and be their pastor; which he declined. On several occasions the little professor from Virginia shared a meal with Henry Drummond and Dwight L. Moody. He was “Mr. Baptist” in America.
The same year as the publication of his book John D. Rockefeller helped to finance a trip for Broadus to Europe. While in England Broadus visited with Bishop Ellicott, and professors Lighfoot, Westcott, and Hort. During this trip Broadus also had opportunity to attend The Metropolitan Tabernacle and hear Charles Spurgeon preach. Broadus wrote of that experience:
“I was greatly delighted with Spurgeon, especially with his conduct of public worship. The congregational singing has often been described, and is as good as can well be conceived. Spurgeon is an excellent reader of Scripture … The whole thing – house, congregation, order, worship, preaching, was as nearly up to my ideal as I ever expect to see in this life.” 12
On his return to the States there was much work to be done at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Though things were better in Louisville than Greenville it was still a struggle. Finances ran low often and the professors were overworked with the immensity of the task. Many seminaries were going the way of modernism and that influence even touched their faculty.
Broadus was first to warn of the effect modernism was having on Dr. Toy. Sensing the leanings of Dr. Toy, Broadus wrote to this wife: “It was hard for Doctor Toy to realize that such teaching was quite out of question in this institution. … He thought strange of the prediction made in conversation that within twenty years he would utterly discard all belief in the supernatural…” 13 Broadus’ prediction was correct. After leaving Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Toy soon turned to the Unitarian persuasion and eventually denied nearly every tenant that Abstract and Principles called for at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In spite of various problems, the Seminary flourished and established itself as the flagship of Biblical scholarship in the Southern Baptist Convention.
John Broadus had friends among many denominations but he was thoroughly Baptist. A pamphlet published by the American Baptist Publication Society called The Duty of Baptists to Teach Their Distinctive Views, (insert link) illustrates this fact. Some of the basic distinctives that Broadus recognized of Baptists were:
We hold that the Bible alone is a religious authority; and in regard to Christian institutions the direct authority is of course the New Testament.
We hold that a Christian Church ought to consist only of persons making a credible profession of conversion, of faith Christ.
We hold that the officers, government, and ceremonies of a Christian society, or church, ought to be such, and such only, as the New Testament directs.
We hold that these societies called churches were designed as shown in the New Testament, to be independent. They have no right to control one another.
Broadus makes the point in that pamphlet that a Baptist preacher should not avoid standing strongly for distinctively Baptist doctrines. He argues that too many have shied away from such preaching because of the accesses of a few.
While thoroughly evangelistic, Broadus had no problem in defending the doctrines of grace. He wrote: "The people who sneer at what is called Calvinism might as well sneer at Mont Blanc. We are not in the least bound to defend all of Calvin's opinions or actions, but I do not see how any one who really understands the Greek of the Apostle Paul or the Latin of Calvin and Turretin can fail to see that these latter did but interpret and formulate substantially what the former teaches."14 Doctrine is important to every age of the church. That is why Broadus said, “Brethren, we must preach the doctrines; we must emphasize the doctrines; we must go back to the doctrines. I fear that the new generation does not know the doctrines as our fathers knew them.”
Broadus had a high regard for the Bible. Edwin C. Dargan, who himself wrote a history of preaching, wrote that Broadus had a “profound personal belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible … his reverence for the word of God was one of the deepest feelings of his nature.” That high view of the Bible gives a desire to interpret correctly. One of his maxims was “Be willing to let the Scripture mean what it wants to mean.”15
Though he was a premiere theologian, Broadus was first and foremost a preacher of the Gospel. He wrote: “In every age of Christianity, since John the Baptist drew crowds into the desert, there has been no great religious movement, no restoration of Scripture truth, and reanimation of genuine piety, without new power in preaching, both as cause and as effect.” 16 Broadus was constantly teaching his students to realize the importance of preaching.
Preaching was always Broadus’ passion. He was ever reminding pastors of the influence they held over people. In his address, How Can We Help Our Pastors?, he said:
Will you pardon an illustration here, even if it be a personal one? Last year in a city in Texas, I was told of the desire on the part of a lady for conversation, and when we met by arrangement she came in widow's [clothes], with a little boy of ten or twelve years old, and began to tell this story: Her husband was once a student at the University of Virginia, when the person she was talking to was the chaplain there, more than twenty-five years ago. He was of a Presbyterian family from Alabama, and said he never got acquainted with the chaplain, for the students were numerous, but that he heard the preaching a great deal, and in consequence of it, by God's blessing upon it, he was led to take hold as a Christian, and went home and joined the church of his parents.
After the war he married this lady, and a few years ago he passed away. She said he was in the habit, before she knew him, she learned, of talking often in the family about things he used to hear the preacher say; the preacher's words had gotten to be household words in the family. And then when they were married he taught some of them to her, and was often repeating things he used to hear the preacher say. Since he died she had been teaching them to the little boy--the preacher's words.
The heart of the preacher might well melt in his bosom at the story. To think that your poor words, which you yourself had wholly forgotten, which you could never have imagined had vitality enough for that, had been repeated among strangers, had been repeated by the young man to his mother, repeated by the young widow to the child--your poor words, thus mighty because they were God's truth you were trying to speak and because you had humbly sought God's blessing! And through all the years it went on, and the man knew not, for more than a quarter of a century, of all that story.17
Another element in Broadus’s preaching was his objective to lead hearers to a decision. He wrote, “The preacher’s aim is to convince the judgment, kindle the imagination, move the feelings, and give a powerful impulse to the will in the direction of truth’s requirements … the highest compliment of a sermon is not that it is ‘homiletical’ but that it moves souls toward the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.”18 Broadus stressed the need for practical application in sermon delivery. "The application in a sermon,” he said, “is not merely an appendage to the discussion or a subordinate part of it, but is the main thing to be done." Broadus then quotes Spurgeon's statement, "Where the application begins, there the sermon begins." 19
On March 16th, 1895, God called his faithful servant, John A. Broadus, home to his final reward. It is hard to estimate the significance of the preacher’s life on Baptists around the world. Just three years earlier Broadus’ great counterpart, Charles Spurgeon had gone on to be with the Lord and now Broadus’ life was stilled as well. There can be little doubt that the two of them stand as the most powerful force among Baptists in the last 200 years. When Thomas Armitage published his HISTORY OF THE BAPTISTS in 1887, he placed an embossed portrait of John A. Broadus on the cover as the representative Baptist. No Baptist in America in the 19th century was held in higher esteem than Broadus, and rightly so.
It is said that Spurgeon pronounced Broadus as the “greatest of living preachers.”20 Had he occupied the pulpit of a church in New York City he may have been remembered that way. Instead, Broadus dedicated his life to instilling the passion of deep, Biblical, doctrinal, and vibrant preaching into the hearts of a generation of Baptist preachers who helped to change the world. Perhaps Broadus has already heard those words in heaven, “Howdy, John? thankee John.”
1 For preaching the gospel, Nathaniel Saunders, a Baptist was imprisoned in Culpepper County jail (1773). Baptists were frequently imprisoned at that time for preaching without authority of the state church of Virginia. Among others who suffered for the cause of Christ in Culpepper were James Ireland, Elijah Craig, William McClannahan, John Corley, Thomas Ammon, Anthony Moffett, John Picket, Adam Banks, Thomas Maxfield, and John Dulany.
2 Archibald Thomas Robertson, Life and Letters of John Albert Broadus (Gano Books, 1987), p. 12.
3 Robertson, p. 33.
4Clyde E. Fant, Jr. and William M. Pinson, Jr.., 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Volume Five (Word Books
5 Robertson, p. 71.
6 Robertson, p.. 104
7 Robertson, p. 146.
8 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. 5, p. 47.
9 Robertson, p. 197.
10 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. 5, p. 58.
11 John A. Broadus, Memoir of J.P. Boyce, p.. 200.
12 Robertson, p. 243.
13 Robertson, p. 314.
14 Robertson, p. 397.
15 Vernon Latrelle Stanfield, Editor, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus (Harper & Brothers, 1959), p. 6.
16 John A. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, revised by Edwin Charles Dargan in 1898 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1926), p. 3.
17 Quote from an article in The Founders Journal, Issue 11, Winter 1993.
18 Ibid., p.11.
19 John A. Broadus, 0n the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (1870; 4th reprint ed., Vernon L. Stanfield, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 165.
20 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. 5, p. 53.
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