Introducing 13 Great Historical Preachers

There have been many men throughout history who have made an impact on the general population through their oration. Beginning with the Apostle Paul and coming right up to Billy Sunday, there have been a variety of men who changed the world through evangelism and spreading the Gospel of Christ.

Paul the Apostle (5-67), said, “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”

The earliest known great preacher of the Gospel is the Apostle Paul. An evangelist of the first century church, the Apostle Paul was a contemporary of Jesus Christ and, while we are not told if he ever actually met Jesus in person, it is likely. It is known that he experienced a visit with God on the road to Damascus, where his own conversion took place. Paul poured the rest of his life into serving Christ and spreading the Gospel, and his sermons were equally offered to beggars and kings, and everyone in between. Many were converted through the ministry of Paul. While we know little of his birth, it is believed that he died a martyr’s death, based on a letter from Dionysius of Corinth that indicates he and his fellow evangelist Peter were martyred in Italy.

John Wycliffe (1330-1384)

John Wycliffe (1330-1384)

Known as the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” Wycliffe was opposed to several of the doctrines of the Church of England, based on their lack of Biblical support. As he studied the Scriptures, Wycliffe preached and wrote against the Roman Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation, purgatory, and the sale of indulgences. Because the common people were not able to own a Bible in Wycliffe’s day – partly due to the fact that Bibles were only in Latin – Wycliffe undertook to translate the Bible into English. He succeeded in making the Bible available to people across England.


Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Martin Luther was raised by ambitious and hard-working parents, who wanted him to become a lawyer. He earned a master’s degree, but was displeased with the idea of becoming a lawyer; shortly after enrolling in law school, he dropped out due to the uncertainty that he believed the law represented. In a moment of fright during a thunderstorm, he committed to become a monk, and entered a monastery. He later said about his time in the Augustinian order, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of Him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.” He went on to earn a Doctor of Theology degree. Luther’s disputation regarding indulgences came to be known as “The Ninety-Five Theses” and these became a symbol of the Reformation that Luther began, based on the belief that men are justified by faith, rather than works.

Luther also wrote many hymns, of which the most well-known is probably “A Mighty Fortress.” It is not uncommon to find hymns by Luther included in most hymnbooks, regardless of denomination.


William Tyndale (1494-1536)

Sometimes referred to as “The Father of the English Bible,” Tyndale was instrumental in translating the Bible into English, even though such a translation was illegal at the time. Because he could not secure permission for the work in England, he traveled to Germany and worked on the project there. He narrowly escaped a raid of the press where his finished work was being printed, managing to carry with him the pages that had been printed. He had finished the New Testament, of which six thousand copies were printed and distributed. Many were destroyed – the archbishop of Canterbury bought copies in order to destroy them, and Tyndale used this money to print editions that had been improved. His translations are the primary ones used in both the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Tyndale was turned in to the authorities and imprisoned. His beliefs in salvation by the mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins caused him to go to trial for heresy, resulting in his death at the stake. His final prayer – “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” – was partially answered when the King, three years later, required churches to provide English copies of the Bible to parishioners.


John Calvin (1509-1564)

John Calvin’s father encouraged him to study for the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. He began to pursue this study at the age of 14, but many of his friends supported the reform of the church that was just beginning at the time, and his beliefs began to change. He switched from studying for the priesthood and began to study civil law instead.

Calvin believed differently about salvation than Martin Luther, although he still opposed the Roman Catholic view. His theology was that God chooses who will go to Heaven (the Elect), and who will go to Hell (the Reprobates), regardless of what man does or does not do. This is referred to as the doctrine of predestination. Calvin spread his doctrine both by preaching and by the establishment of schools – primary, secondary, and the University of Geneva.


John Bunyan (1628-1688)

John Bunyan’s popularity as a preacher began about the same time as Charles II’s Restoration. Freedom of worship, commonly enjoyed in the previous 20 years, was now over – if a worshipper did not conform to the Church of England, he would find himself under arrest. Since Bunyan identified with the Separatists, he soon found himself in the county jail. His imprisonment was hardest for him because of his family. His inability to support them from prison by making shoelaces fell short, and he trusted God and good people to care for them. Promising to stop preaching would have earned Bunyan’s release, but he refused.

Nevertheless, he had some opportunities to further the Gospel, even while imprisoned. He was allowed to have visitors, was allowed to spend the night at home occasionally, and was once allowed to travel to London. He was permitted by the jailer to occasionally preach to secretly gathered “unlawful assemblies,” and he had paper and pen available. This allowed him to write nine books, including his most well-known, Pilgrim’s Progress, which was not published until after his second imprisonment.

He was released when Charles II finally relented, in 1672, and Bunyan became a pastor. Persecution came again and caused Bunyan’s second stint in jail. The publishing of Pilgrim’s Progress when he was released brought him a great deal of fame, and the book – the bestselling book second only to the Bible – was owned by nearly every English home that also owned a Bible. Along with continuing to write books, Bunyan continued to preach until his death.


Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

Jonathan Edwards’s parents were a pastor, and the daughter of a pastor. He grew up in a Puritan home, in which he was schooled. He began college at Yale at the age of 13. He graduated at the age of 17, and studied divinity for the next two years, at which time he became a pastor himself for two years. He was the fifth of 11 children himself (and the only boy), and he and his wife Sarah had 11 children, as well.

Edwards was remarkably observant and analytic, as evidenced in his manuscripts “Of Insects” and “Of the Rainbow.” He had a very scientific mind and published documents to refute atheism (“Natural Philosophy,” for example). He often took notes while studying and had a wide variety of interests. However, he had some reservations about doctrines taught by his father, and only resolved these when he experienced his own conversion in 1721. The sovereignty of God became his central focal point of doctrine in his future preaching.

Edwards was instrumental in the “Great Awakening” in the colonies that was primarily preached by George Whitefield (Methodist) and Gilbert Tennent (Presbyterian). While their sermons leaned heavily on emotional response, Edwards believed the conversions were genuine. He tended toward calmer preaching himself, though one of his most famous sermons departed a bit from that. Titled “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” the sermon is still often read today.


John Wesley (1703-1791)

John Wesley was a natural organizer and a very diligent man. He and his brother Charles led a club they called the “Holy Club,” for studying and pursuing a Christian life. Their management of this club led to their manner of study and doctrine being called “Methodist.”

Much of Wesley’s preaching was done evangelist-style – traveling and outside. He traveled about North America, Great Britain, and Ireland preaching and organizing groups of Christians for discipleship, accountability, and instruction. He appointed fellow evangelists – itinerant and not ordained – to follow his example and care for these groups. Methodists became quite socially active, working toward reforming prisons and abolishing slavery.

Wesley opposed Calvinism’s predestination doctrine and believed that Christians could reach a state of holiness through allowing Christ’s love to reign in their hearts. He garnered much respect and, indeed, was known by the end of his life as “the best-loved man in England.”


George Whitefield (1714-1770)

George Whitefield was born in England, the youngest of seven children. His mother was widowed when Whitefield was two. At 15, Whitefield left school to help his mother provide for the family. He used his evenings to study the Bible. About a year later, a student from Oxford who worked his way through college encouraged Whitefield to plan to attend university, and he returned to school to prepare. He began college at age 17, where he became involved with the “Holy Club” run by the Wesley brothers. The three together were the inspiration for the movement which came to be called the Methodists.

Whitefield preached strong sermons from the beginning; it has been said that “his voice startled England like a trumpet blast.” He often preached to 20,000 people at a time in London, whose total population was less than 700,000. He traveled between England and the United States of America for 34 years, preaching the Gospel. He was called the “apostle of the British empire.” A member and clergy of the Church of England, Whitefield ministered to a variety of denominations. His preaching was unconventional, including a bit of theatrics as he acted out the Biblical people of which he spoke.

At 55, Whitefield stated that, “I would rather wear out than rust out.” He kept traveling and preaching. In 1770, he preached a sermon outside, standing on a barrel, regarding the inability of works to merit salvation. He died the following morning.


Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843)

Robert M. M’Cheyne was the youngest of five children and was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. During his first years of University, he spent his time in the party scene of the time, dancing, playing cards, and such. However, he had an elder brother who prayed fervently for his soul, whose death in 1831 aided in bringing M’Cheyne to the realization of his worldly condition. That winter, he switched to the Divinity Hall and began to learn about God’s redemption.

He began his ministry in 1835 and became pastor of St. Peter’s in Dundee in the fall of 1836. Though M’Cheyne preached for only seven and a half years, his ministry made an extensive impact on the lives of many – both during the years of ministry, and after, when people read the biography of his life written by his good friend Andrew Bonar. Convinced of the brevity of time, M’Cheyne’s messages were urgent, and his prayers were fervent. An illness two years later prompted a return to his parents’ home for recuperation, and he wrote some rich letters to his congregation from there. His recovery was slow, and during this time, he was chosen to accompany fellow preachers to Palestine regarding the state of Israel. He became interested in missionary work to the Jews, and became a member of the committee to determine what could be done for them. Still, his heart was with his congregation in Dundee, and he continued to correspond with them while absent. His replacement preacher, W. C. Burns, saw revival break out in St. Peter’s, which continued throughout the remainder of M’Cheyne’s ministry there.

M’Cheyne died of a fever that was passed around his parish. His last words were a prayer for the people of Dundee and Scotland.


Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910)

Alexander Maclaren’s father was a lay preacher in the Baptist denomination. His father traveled to Australia for several years while the family stayed in Edinburgh, Scotland, near Maclaren’s birthplace of Glasgow. Maclaren’s conversion took place during his father’s absence (between 1836-1841). When his father returned, the family relocated to London. Maclaren began attending the Baptist institution Stepney College in 1842, at age 16. He studied Greek and Hebrew, which allowed him to read the Bible in its original texts.

A major influence in his life was Principal Benjamin Davies, who taught Maclaren to be diligent in study. Maclaren developed a habit of spending half an hour each in Hebrew and Greek Biblical texts every morning. It was also his habit to change into work boots before his sermon preparation time in order to remind himself of the work involved. Along with the work involved in caring for his flock, Maclaren also held the presidency of the Baptist Union twice. These were the only outside ministries Maclaren undertook; his primary ministry – and only for most of his years – was the pastoring of his churches – first his twelve years in Southampton and then the 45 years in Manchester.

While Maclaren’s sermons were expository in every case, and included few, if any, illustrations, they did not feel, to listeners, like a lecture. He offered unique and simple, but deep, insights into the Scriptures. His final sermon, listed in the register he kept of his sermon notes and labeled #6860, was preached on November 21, 1904, which was 61 years after his first sermon, nearly to the day. He died seven years later.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Charles Haddon Spurgeon has been dubbed the “Prince of Preachers.” He followed the Reformed Baptist theological doctrines and was a prolific preacher. He pastored the New Park Street Chapel (later renamed the Metropolitan Tabernacle) for 38 years. He had a disagreement with the doctrines taught by the Baptist Union of Great Britain and ended up leaving due to them. He began his first pastorate at the age of 20, having been converted only four years earlier. It was not unusual for the congregation to which he preached to number more than 10,000. He was heard by all without the convenience of modern electronic amplification.

Spurgeon founded a charity organization which is still ministering globally today, and Spurgeon’s College, which was named to honor him after his death in 1892.

He was also a prolific author, writing a variety of books including commentaries, sermons, his autobiography, devotionals, poetry, hymns, and more. Most of his books are still available. Many of his sermons have been transcribed – both when he presented them and afterward – and are available in many different languages. It is possible to find audio recordings of his sermons and books on such sites as sermonaudio.


Dwight Lyman Moody (1837-1899)

D. L. Moody was the seventh of 9 children, the last two of which were twins born just after their father’s death. His mother had difficulty supporting the family and was forced to send some children to work, including Moody. He was unhappy with his situation, but when his mother discovered that he ate well there – cornmeal, porridge, and milk thrice daily – she required him to stay. All of the children were required by their mother to attend the Unitarian church regularly.

At age 17, Moody moved from Northfield, MA, to Boston where his uncle had a shoe store. His uncle required him to attend his church – the Congregational Church of Mount Vernon – as one of his requirements. Through the ministry of its pastor, Dr. Edward Norris Kirk, and Edward Kimball, who taught his Sunday school class, Moody converted from Unitarianism to evangelical Christianity. The following month, he applied for church membership and was denied; however, he was received into the membership a year later.

Moody was a conscientious objector during the Civil War; however, he visited the battlefront as a part of the United States Christian Commission of the YMCA. He married his wife Emma in 1862, and they had three children. He continued to work with Sunday school, and, as it grew, built a church building to house it. This building was destroyed during the Great Chicago Fire, and Moody was quoted as saying that he saved nothing but his reputation and his Bible. Within three months, the Chicago Avenue Church was built to replace Moody’s chapel. Though his work in Chicago was important to Moody, he also had supporters in New York, Philadelphia, and other places vying for his presence. He chose to retain his home in Northfield, MA, where he founded the Northfield School for Girls and the Mount Hermon School for Boys (now merged into the Northfield Mount Hermon School, a co-ed institution).

Moody also traveled to Europe with Ira D. Sankey, where he preached and met Hudson Taylor, fueling his desire to aid missionaries. He became well known as a revivalist throughout Europe – even in countries, he did not visit, such as Sweden, where “Moody fever” was prevalent from 1875 to 1880.

Many of Moody’s sermons are available online at Project Gutenberg.

Billy Sunday (1862-1935)
Billy Sunday (1862-1935)

Billy Sunday grew up in Iowa, the grandson of German immigrants. His grandparents’ surname was Sonntag; the spelling was changed to Sunday when they moved to Pennsylvania. Sunday’s father worked as a bricklayer, and eventually ended up in Iowa, where he married Mary Jane. He served in the Volunteer Infantry for four months, and died five weeks after the birth of William Ashley (“Billy”) was born. Sunday and his mother and siblings lived with her parents until he was ten, when he and one of his older brothers were sent to Soldiers’ Orphans Homes until he was 14. He developed habits of order, a good education, and discovered his athletic ability while in the orphanages.

He began playing baseball for the town team in 1880, in Marshalltown, Iowa. He signed with the Chicago White Stockings in 1883; was sold to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys in 1888, and was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1890. He left baseball in 1891, though he always loved the game and acted as umpire frequently when he traveled, as well as attending games when he was able.

Sometime in 1886 or 1887, Sunday and some teammates wandered about Chicago and paused to listen to a Pacific Garden Mission preaching team. Recognizing some of the hymns from his mother’s singing, he began to attend the mission services. After his conversion, he switched to the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church, partly because of its convenient location. He rarely drank before his conversion, and after it he denounced gambling, swearing, and drinking, and refused to participate in any. He also began speaking at YMCAs and in churches.

Sunday refused a baseball contract in order to accept a job with the Chicago YMCA, in which he was ministering to others. Three years later, Sunday became an apprentice evangelist, working with J. Wilbur Chapman, who taught him how to develop a sermon and how important it is to pray. Sunday took over the evangelistic meetings when Chapman took a pastorate in 1896, and he spent the next 12 years preaching in the Iowa and Illinois area. He used his baseball fame to encourage attendance at his meetings, and often had crowds larger than the venue could accommodate. During the first 11 years of his evangelism career, his wife and children stayed at home while he traveled; however, this took a toll on both Sunday and his wife. They decided to hire a nanny so his wife, Nell, could accompany him and aid him. This may be why his older children departed from his beliefs and practiced many of the vices against which he preached.

Still, Sunday had large crowds whenever he preached right up until his death in 1935 from a heart attack.

This is only a small sampling of the influential preachers throughout history. There are many more who could be included, and some people may have favorites that are not listed here. Still, it is undeniable that these men had an impact on humanity during their lifetimes, and many of them continue to influence people today.