Who’s the greatest preacher the world has ever seen?
Granted, it’s a subjective question, but that’s what makes it fun. One is tempted to offer the Sunday School answer, “Jesus”, which would be correct, but that would be taking the easy way out. Others might suggest Peter, the preacher of the first Christian sermon (Acts 2). Certainly, anyone that can see 3000 people added to the church in one sermon must be a great preacher. But perhaps we could keep our list to preachers whose names are not recorded in the Scriptures.
Preaching Magazine’s list of great preachers of the 20th century (see below) notes several prominent preachers who have had a significant impact on the church, particularly in the West. That, of course, is the list’s chief downfall – it is very white and it is bent entirely towards Americans and Brits. James Stewart’s name at the top of the list will surprise many. Those who have read his influential Heralds of God (recently republished by Regent) will understand why he is on the list. A few years ago, Newsweek published a similar list including people like Fred Craddock, Haddon Robinson, Barbara Brown Taylor, and James Forbes (a more politically correct listing).
For my part, I probably would have Billy on top. He is often maligned for not being a master of the homiletic craft, but for sheer impact, nobody touches him. God has used him to physically preach to more human beings than anyone else (possibly in the history of mankind) and he has personally ushered more people into the Kingdom through his preaching than anyone else.
But what if we extended the list further into the past. Who would show up? John Chrysostom probably. “The Golden Mouth” (4th century) was renowned for the eloquence of his preaching. Martin Luther, St. Augustine, there are many names worthy of inclusion.
Thinking about current preachers bring a whole new list of potential name. Time magazine recently offered up T.D. Jakes as potential candidate for the title of “the next Billy Graham. Is he worthy of such an accolade? Bill Hybels, Paul Yonggi Cho, and Rick Warren have certainly been influential, but are they great?
That is the challenge of the exercise, of course. What makes for great preaching? Numerical impact? Significant influence on the way that people preach?
How about faithfulness? Faithfulness to the Word and faithfulness to our Lord. A lofty standard still, but one perhaps we all can aspire to.
Preaching Magazine’s Greatest Preachers of the 20th Century:
1. James Stewart; 2. Billy Graham; 3. George Buttrick; 4. Martin Luther King, Jr.; 5. Harry Emerson Fosdick; 6. G. Campbell Morgan; 7. William Edwin Sangster; 8. John Stott; 9. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones; 10. Clarence Macartney; 11. Leslie Weatherhead; 12. George W. Truett; 13. R.G. Lee; 14. Norman Vincent Peale; 15. Peter Marshall; 16. E. Stanley Jones; 17. Donald Grey Barnhouse; 18. Ralph Sockman; 19. W. A. Criswell; 20. Gardner C. Taylor