Thomas De Witt Talmage (1832-1902), the son of a missionary to China, began his pastoral career in (what is currently) the Reformed Church of America before joining the Presbyterian Church. He went on to become world-famous as a preacher, with newspapers reprinting his sermons and numerous volumes published all of which were read by an estimated 30 million readers in his day. His sermons were commended by Charles Spurgeon, and his ministry was compared to that of both Spurgeon and George Whitefield.
But his first sermon almost didn't happen after the manuscript he had written for it slipped under a sofa just at the appointed time for him to deliver it. He recounts the story in his autobiography T. De Witt Talmage As I Knew Him (this volume was edited with concluding chapters and published posthumously by his third wife), pp. 19-21:
But the first sermon with any considerable responsibility resting upon it was the sermon preached as a candidate for a pastoral call in the Reformed Church at Belleville, N.J. I was about to graduate from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and wanted a Gospel field in which to work. I had already written to my brother John, a missionary at Amoy, China, telling him that I expected to come out there.
I was met by Dr. Ward at Newark, New Jersey, and taken to his house. Sabbath morning came. With one of my two sermons, which made up my entire stock of pulpit resources, I tremblingly entered the pulpit of that brown stone village church, which stands in my memory as one of the most sacred places of all the earth, where I formed associations which I expect to resume in Heaven.
The sermon was fully written, and was on the weird battle between the Gideonites and Midianites, my text being in Judges vii. 20, 21: 'The three companies blew the trumpets, and brake the pitchers, and held the lamps in their left hands, and the trumpets in their right hands to blow withal; and they cried. The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon. And they stood every man in his place round about the camp; and all the host ran, and cried, and fled.' A brave text, but a very timid man to handle it. I did not feel at all that hour either like blowing Gideon's trumpet, or holding up the Gospel lamp; but if I had, like any of the Gideonites, held a pitcher, I think I would have dropped it and broken that lamp. I felt as the moment approached for delivering my sermon more like the Midianites, who, according to my text, 'ran, and cried, and fled.' I had placed the manuscript of my sermon on the pulpit sofa beside where I sat. Looking around to put my hand on the manuscript, lo! it was gone. But where had it gone? My excitement knew no bound. Within three minutes of the greatest ordeal of my life, and the sermon on which so much depended mysteriously vanished! How much disquietude and catastrophe were crowded into those three minutes it would be impossible to depict. Then I noticed for the first time that between the upper and lower parts of the sofa there was an opening about the width of three finger-breadths, and I immediately suspected that through that opening the manuscript of my sermon had disappeared. But how could I recover it, and in so short a time? I bent over and reached under as far as I could. But the sofa was low, and I could not touch the lost discourse. The congregation were singing the last verse of the hymn, and I was reduced to a desperate effort. I got down on my hands and knees, and then down flat, and crawled under the sofa and clutched the prize. Fortunately, the pulpit front was wide, and hid the sprawling attitude I was compelled to take. When I arose to preach a moment after, the fugitive manuscript before me on the Bible, it is easy to understand why I felt more like the Midianites than I did like Gideon.
Besides an exercise in humility, what lesson did Talmage learn?
"This and other mishaps with manuscripts helped me after a while to strike for entire emancipation from such bondage, and for about a quarter of a century I have preached without notes—only a sketch of the sermon pinned in my Bible, and that sketch seldom referred to."
A taste of his eloquence is found in the story above. Among his numerous published sermons, many can now be found on his author page and our Preaching page at Log College Press. Of Talmage, Spurgeon said: "His sermons take hold of my inmost soul. The Lord is with the mighty man. I am astonished when God blesses me but not surprised when He blesses him."