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Pulpits [1]

by C. H. Spurgeon
From the August 1877 Sword and Trowel


AULPITS HAVE MUCH to answer for in having made men awkward. What horrible inventions they are! If we could once abolish them we might say concerning them as Joshua did concerning Jericho—"Cursed be he that buildeth this Jericho," for the old-fashioned pulpit has been a greater curse to the churches than is at first sight evident. No barrister would ever enter a pulpit to plead a case at the bar. How could he hope to succeed while buried alive almost up to his shoulders? The client would be ruined if the advocate were thus imprisoned. How manly, how commanding is the attitude in which Chrysostom is usually represented! Forgetting his robes for the moment, one cannot but feel that such a natural posture is far more worthy of sublime truth than that of a person crouching over a sheet of paper, looking up very occasionally, and then revealing no more than his head and shoulders. Austin in his Chironomia [2] very properly says, "Freedom is also necessary to gracefulness of action. No gestures can be graceful, which are either confined by external circumstances, or restrained by the mind. If a man were obliged to address an assembly from a narrow window, through which he could not extend his arms and his head, it would be in vain for him to attempt graceful gesture. Confinement in every lesser degree must be proportionally injurious to grace; thus the crowded bar is injurious to the action of the advocate, and the enclosed and bolstered pulpit, which often cuts off more than half of his figure, is equally injurious to the graceful action of the preacher."
    The late Thomas Binney was unable to endure a platform, and was known to fetch gowns and other materials to hang over the rails of an open rostrum, if he found himself placed in one; this must have arisen solely from the force of habit, for there can be no real advantage in being enclosed in a wooden pen. This feeling will no doubt retain the close pulpit in its place for a while longer, but in ages to come men will find an argument for the divinity of our holy faith in the fact that it survived pulpits.
    Ministers cannot be blamed for ungainly postures and attitudes when only a very small part of their bodies can be seen during a discourse. If it was the custom to preach as Paul did at Athens public speakers would become models of propriety, but when the usual method is modeled upon our woodcut of "The Reverend Dr. Paul preaching in London" we cannot marvel if the ungainly and the grotesque abound. By the way, it is interesting to note that Raphael in his representation of Paul at Athens evidently had in his mind the apostle's utterance, "God dwelleth not in temples made with hands, neither is worshipped with man's hands": hence he delineates him as lifting his hands. I am indebted for this hint to G. W. Hervey, M.A., who has written a very able and comprehensive "System of Rhetoric." [3]
    Remarkable are the forms which pulpits have assumed according to the freaks of human fancy and folly. Twenty years ago they had probably reached their very worst. What could have been their design and intent it would be hard to conjecture. A deep wooden pulpit of the old sort might well remind a minister of his mortality, for it is nothing but a coffin set on end: but on what rational ground do we bury our pastors alive? Many of these erections resemble barrels, others are of the fashion of egg cups and wine glasses; a third class were evidently modeled after corn bins upon four legs; and yet a fourth variety can only be likened to swallows' nests stuck upon the walls. Some of them are so high as to turn the heads of the occupants when they dare to peer into the awful depths below them, and they give those who look up to the elevated preacher for any length of time a crick in the neck. I have felt like a man at the mast-head while perched aloft in these "towers of the flock." These abominations are in themselves evils, and create evils.
    While I am upon pulpits I will make a digression, and remark for the benefit of deacons and churchwardens that I frequently notice in pulpits a most abominable savor of gas, which evidently arises from leakage in the gas-pipes, and is very apt to make a preacher feel half intoxicated, or to sicken him. We ought to be spared this infliction. Frequently, also, a large lamp is placed close to each side of the minister's head, thus cramping all his movements and placing him between two fires. If any complaints are made of the hot-headedness of our ministers, it is readily to be accounted for, since the apparatus for the purpose is arranged with great care. Only the other night, I had the privilege, when I sat down in the pulpit, to feel as if some one had smitten me on the top of my head, and as I looked up there was an enormous argand burner with a reflector placed immediately above me, in order to throw a light on my Bible: a very considerate contrivance no doubt, only the inventor had forgotten that his burners were pouring down a terrible heat upon a sensitive brain. One has no desire to experience an artificial coup de soleil while preaching; if we must suffer from such a calamity let it come upon us during our holidays, and let it befall us from the sun himself. No one in erecting a pulpit seems to think of the preacher as a man of like feelings and senses with other people; the seat upon which you are to rest at intervals is often a mere ledge, and the door-handle runs into the small of your back, while when you stand up and would come to the front there is often a curious gutta-percha bag interposed between you and your pulpit. This gummy depository is charitably intended for the assistance of certain deaf people, who are I hope benefited; they ought to be, for every evil should have a compensating influence. You cannot bend forward without forcing this contrivance to close up, and I for my own part usually deposit my pocket-handkerchief in it, which causes the deaf people to take the ends of the tubes out of their ears and to discover that they hear me well enough without them.
    No one knows the discomfort of pulpits except the man who has been in very many, and found each one worse than the last. They are generally so deep that a short person like myself can scarcely see over the top of them, and when I ask for something to stand upon they bring me a hassock. Think of a minister of the gospel poising himself upon a hassock while he is preaching: a Boanerges and a Blondin in one person. It is too much to expect us to keep the balance of our minds and the equilibrium of our bodies at the same time. The tippings up, and overturnings of stools and hassocks which I have had to suffer while preaching rush on my memory now, and revive the most painful sensations. Surely we ought to be saved such petty annoyances, for their evil is by no means limited by our discomfort; if it were so, it would be of no consequence: but, alas! these little things often throw the mind out of gear, disconnect our thoughts, and trouble our spirit. We ought to rise superior to such trifles, but though the spirit truly is willing the flesh is weak. It is marvelous how the mind is affected by the most trifling matters: there can be no need to perpetuate needless causes of discomfort. Sydney Smith's story shows that we are not alone in our tribulation. "I can't bear," said he, "to be imprisoned in the true orthodox way in my pulpit, with my head just peeping above the desk. I like to look down upon my congregation—to fire into them. The common people say I am a bould preacher, for I like to have my arms free, and to thump the pulpit. A singular contretemps happened to me once, when, to effect this, I had ordered the clerk to pile up some hassocks for me to stand on. My text was, 'We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed' I had scarcely uttered these words, and was preparing to illustrate them, when I did so practically, and in a way I had not at all anticipated. My fabric of hassocks suddenly gave way; down I fell, and with difficulty prevented myself from being precipitated into the arms of my congregation, who, I must say, behaved very well, and recovered their gravity sooner than I could have expected."
    But I must return to my subject, and I do so by repeating the belief that boxed-up pulpits are largely accountable for the ungainly postures which some of our preachers assume when they get out of their cages and are loose upon a platform. They do not know what to do with their legs and arms, and feel awkward and exposed, and hence drop into ridiculous attitudes. When a man has been accustomed to regard himself as an "animated bust" he feels as if he had become too long when he is made to appear at full length.


  1. Extracted from the second series of "Lectures to my Students," by C. H. Spurgeon, now in the printers' hands.

  2. Chironomia; or, a Treatise on Rhetorica1 Delivery: comprehending; many precepts, both ancient and modern, for the proper regulation of the Voice the Countenance, and Gesture, and a new method for the notation thereof; illustrated by many figures.

  3. By the Reverend Gilbert Austin, A. M. London. [1806 Quarto.] A System Of Christian Rhetoric for the Use of Preachers and other Speakers. By George Winfred Hervey, M.A. Houlston and Sons, 1873.

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