When a man has nothing to say, it generally takes him a long time to get to the end of it; like a man who is going nowhere he finds he has not reached his point, and thinks he may as well keep on. When the gutters of a town run with water, one would not be surprised if the current continued for a week; but when the conduit floods them with wine, even a king’s bounty cannot afford many minutes of it. Excellence enforces brevity: you cannot have a diamond as large as a pyramid, nor a pearl of the size of a Swiss lake. In some measure with a conscientious preacher the converse of the proposition is also inevitable, and brevity enforces excellence. If the minister is allowed only forty minutes for expounding a great truth he feels that he must not multiply words; but must compress much meaning into every sentence. If only a few pounds of provision can be carried by the members of an Arctic expedition, they are wise enough to secure the essence of meat, and not an ounce of mere bone or garnishing is tolerated. Give a man abundance of stowage in a vessel, and he will not spend time in close packing; but drive him hard in the matter of space, and it is quite wonderful how much he will contrive to get into it. A truss of hay brought upon a wagon to Whitechapel is one thing, but a truss compressed by hydraulics for ocean transit is quite another. Condensation requires labour: you cannot get an Australian sheep transformed into a pot of Liebig’s essence without careful cookery; neither can you distil a garden of roses into a drop of the precious otto without laborious art. The same holds good with thought, you cannot deliver it from the incumbrance and alloy of verbiage unless time and mental effort are given to the task. Of course a man can talk nonsense during the briefest period allotted to him, and it is to be feared that a great many do; but, at any rate, they cannot lay to their souls the flattering unction that the quantity made up for the quality; and the likelihood is that they will discover the nakedness of the land and endeavour to improve.
In general, a great sermon is a great evil. Length is the enemy of strength. The delivery of a discourse is like the boiling of an egg; it is remarkably easy to overdo it, and so to spoil it. You may physic a man till you make him ill, and preach to him till you make him wicked. From satisfaction to satiety there is but a single step; a wise preacher never wishes his hearer to pass it. Enough is as good as a feast, and better than too much.
Having learned by long experience that we exactly fill the 12 pages which our publishers allow for a penny sermon, when we speak for 40 or 45 minutes, we have come to adopt that period as our stint, and we usually find it neither too short nor too long. In occasional services, when we address persons who have no other opportunity of hearing us, we take more latitude, but our regulation allowance is three quarters of an hour. A man who speaks well for that length of time has told his people quite enough, and from him who preaches badly they have in that time heard too much. Most divines can deliver all their best thoughts upon a text in forty minutes, and as it is a pity to bring forth “afterwards that which is worse,” they had better bring the feast to an end. To men of prodigious jaw it may seem a hardship to be confined to time, but a broad charity will judge it to be better that one man should suffer than that a whole congregation should be tormented.
The speaker’s time should be measured out by wisdom. If he is destitute of discretion, and forgets the circumstances of his auditors, he will annoy them more than a little. In one house the pudding is burning, in another the child is needing its mother, in a third a servant is due in the family; the extra quarter of an hour’s prosiness puts all out of order. A country hearer once said to his pastor, “when you go on beyond half-past four, in the afternoon service, do you know what I always think about?” “No,” said the orator. “Well, then, I tell you plainly, it is not about what you are preaching, but about my cows. They want milking, and you ought to have consideration for them, and not keep them waiting. How would you like it if you were a cow?” This last remarkable enquiry suggested a good deal of reflection in the mind of the divine to whom it was proposed, and perhaps it may have a similar beneficial effect upon others who ought to confess their long preachings as among the chief of their shortcomings.