Learning Homiletics from Francis J. Grimké

By Matt Cohen    |    January 15, 2024


Francis Grimké was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on November 4, 1850. Grimké’s father took one of his slaves to be his wife, and from their marriage, Francis was born. At his death, Francis Grimké’s father freed his son from slavery and placed him under the care of his half-brother, Montague Grimké. After several years of caring for Francis and his brother Archibald, Montague sought to enslave Francis and Archibald. Francis fled north and, through providential circumstances, received a top-notch education, first at Howard University and then at Princeton Theological Seminary under Charles Hodge. Upon graduation in 1878, Francis Grimké became the pastor of 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, where he served until his retirement in 1928.

Throughout his nearly fifty-year tenure at 15th Street Presbyterian, Grimké was first and foremost a preacher. For Grimké, there was no higher pastoral priority than feeding the people of God by preaching the Word of God. About the priority of preaching in the local church, Grimké wrote,

The greatest source of power for good in a church is the pulpit, if it is properly filled—if it is occupied by a God-fearing man, a man who is qualified to teach the people, and who makes it his business, mainly, to feed the flock on the sincere milk of the word instead of on the husks of current happenings in newspapers and magazines. A pulpit well manned is always a source of power–is always an uplifting and ennobling influence. The more ministers themselves realize this, the more earnestly will they endeavor to qualify themselves to meet its great responsibilities and opportunities.1

Addressing pastoral priorities, Grimké wrote, “The main business of the minister each week is to be searching the Scriptures with a view of gathering food, spiritual food, for the members of his flock and all others who may be present at the public services.”2

Since Grimké believed that preaching was the greatest source of power for good in a church, he endeavored not simply to preach but to love preaching. One of Grimké’s recorded prayers shows this earnest desire for preaching:

Lord Jesus, make me earnest, make me enthusiastic in the work thou hast given me to do. May I love to preach the gospel and love to work for thee. Paul was never so happy as when he was trying to lift thee up before men and to persuade them to come over on thy side. That is the kind of life I want to live. I want to be so thoroughly in love with thee and thy work that I shall delight to speak of thee to others. Simply to do it from a sense of duty doesn’t satisfy me; I want to do it because I love to do it.3

Grimké’s Main Advice to Preachers

Grimké’s conviction that preaching is the greatest source of power for good in the church led him to write extensive meditations on preaching to edify and instruct other preachers. Grimké’s meditations on preaching are far-reaching. He was not shy about or short on convictions about preaching and preachers. However, there was one piece of instruction about preaching that Grimké returned to more often and more fervently than any other in his various meditations on preaching: every sermon should have one clear, forceful main point, and everything in the sermon should revolve around, be organized under that, and reinforce the application of that main point.

Grimké forcefully wrote,

Every sermon should have a definite subject for presentation and everything that enters into it should tend to fix attention upon it, to illuminate it, and to increase interest in it, so that as the discussion proceeds, the clearer will the subject become, the more will its importance be perceived and the purpose which it is intended to subserve be apprehended. . . . Every sermon should have a definite end in view, and that end should be kept steadily in mind in the preparation of the sermon.4

Not only did Grimké urge preachers to have one definite subject for every expository sermon and drive it home forcefully, but he was also outspoken in protest against sermons that were not organized around a singular center.

So often the message contains little of value and, apparently, has no definite, clear-cut end in view. The result is it counts for nothing, is of no value in character building. . . . Some sermons are made up largely of mere words, words thrown together without any center around which they gravitate—there is no central thought, no dominating idea; it is, at best, a mere conglomeration, a something loosely thrown together, an unorganized mass of anything that happens to be passing through the preacher’s mind. Against such poorly prepared sermons I wish to register my emphatic protest. It is bad for the preacher, and it is bad for the hearers.5

Grimké was so convinced that a sermon should have one central aim that he advocated building the church’s entire Lord’s Day service around the sermon’s main point.

I believe that the most important part of public worship is the preaching of the Word, and that everything should be made subservient to it, that nothing should be allowed to enter that would lessen in any way the effect of it. Every service should point definitely in some one direction, and it should never be lost sight of from the beginning to the close. The people should go away carrying with them some vital truth, some thought or suggestion that will enable them the better to meet the duties and responsibilities, the trials and temptations that await them the actual struggles of life. The aim of every service should be to help people to be better, to live truer, nobler lives.6

At this point, it should be said that Grimké was committed to expository preaching, to exposing and applying a particular text to God’s people in each sermon. Therefore, we conclude that Grimké’s most earnest instruction to preachers in his day and ours is to make the main point of our sermons the main point of one passage and impress that point as profoundly on the hearts of our hearers as possible.

Adopting Grimké’s Practice

Grimké not only instructs pastors to preach sermons with one clear, unifying truth, he also models and teaches pastors how to do it themselves. To preach sermons that present one central truth and organize the rest of the sermon under that truth, Grimké carefully wrote his sermons in manuscript form. Grimké urges preachers to carefully map out the structure of their sermons so that each part reinforces the main point.

How important it is in preaching (I am impressed with this more and more as I have listened to sermons) that we preachers should know definitely what we wish to preach about and that we carefully map out the lines along which we desire to develop the subject and under each head just what we want to say. In other words, the subject should develop and develop orderly if we are to hold the attention of the hearers and produce unity of impression. . . . If a man hasn’t learned how to think clearly and how to present the truth clearly, the ministry is no place for him.7

Once the preacher has studied the text and grasps its meaning, Grimké advises writing every part of the sermon manuscript with its definite end in view. “Every sermon should have a definite end in view, and that end should be kept steadily in mind in the preparation of the sermon.”8

Finally, Grimké instructs pastors to stick to the plan laid out during their sermon preparation when preaching.

Plan your sermon. Make the plan simple. Follow the plan. Don’t stray from it; don’t mix things up, and so muddle the minds of the hearers, confuse their thoughts, leave them with no clear definite idea to take away with them.9

Grip your subject, get a firm hold upon it; then plunge into it; go at it as if you meant business. Keep it well in hand; don’t lose sight of it for a moment; and don’t let anything intrude that will tend to divert your attention, or the attention of your hearers. Let your treatment be fresh, which will always be the case where the subject grips you, where you are really interested in what you are talking about. Where your utterances are merely formal, merely perfunctory, it is impossible to impart life, to give freshness to what you are saying. I listened to a sermon this afternoon (Bordentown, N. J., Aug. 23, 1914), by a Rev. gentleman, which failed of the effect which it might have produced, because, while the matter was good, he did not have it well in hand. It was not sufficiently compact and pointed. He failed to grip the subject, and the subject to grip him. He did not go at it as if he meant business and knew what he was driving at. It was a flat failure.10

The Legacy of Faithful Preaching

The impact of Francis Grimké’s preaching over the course of fifty years cannot be overstated. His impact on his church, Washington DC, higher education, and the redress of racism in American society can all be traced back to his commitment to preaching sermons with one forceful, biblical end in view.

Every godly pastor wants their preaching to glorify God and impact the world in ways similar to Francis Grimké. Such preaching requires learning from great preaching mentors. As Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” May the Lord equip us to preach great sermons through the instruction of one of America’s greatest preachers, Francis Grimké. “A great sermon is one that sets forth a great or important truth, and powerfully sets it forth, carrying conviction with it, stimulating the intellect, arousing the conscience, and moving the will.”11

  1. Francis Grimké, Meditations on Preaching (Madison: Log College Press, 2018), 95.
  2. Grimké, Meditations on Preaching, 354.
  3. Grimké, Meditations on Preaching, 22.
  4. Grimké, Meditations on Preaching, 614, 630.
  5. Grimké, Meditations on Preaching, 332, 360.
  6. Grimké, Meditations on Preaching, 285.
  7. Grimké, Meditations on Preaching, 329.
  8. Grimké, Meditations on Preaching, 630.
  9. Grimké, Meditations on Preaching, 619.
  10. Grimké, Meditations on Preaching, 6.
  11. Grimké, Meditations on Preaching, 182.
Matt Cohen

Matt Cohen is pastor of Citylight Church in Philadelphia, Penn.

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