JAMES PARSONS, (1799-1877)
from
A History of Preaching
by
F. R. Webber

James Parsons, the noted Congregationalist, was born in 1799 at Leeds, Yorkshire. He is called "Parsons of York" to distinguish him from his famous father, "Parsons of Leeds." James Parsons was educated at Little Woodhouse School, Leeds. In 1814 he entered the office of a firm of barristers, intending to study for the bar. In 1818 he went to London for further legal studies, and for the study of oratory. Two years later he decided to study theology, and he entered Idle, later called Airdale College.

He was ordained in 1822 and called to Lendal Chapel. Here the experience of his famous father was repeated, for the chapel was soon overflowing, and was enlarged two or three times until the plot of ground made further enlargement impossible. Then, in 1839, the spacious Salem Chapel was built on a different site, where James Parsons preached to congregations that filled the large church. In 1870, when 71 years of age, his eyesight failed, and he retired, spending the last seven years of his life in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

"Parsons of York" has been called the barrister of the pulpit. His training in a school in London where men are prepared for legal oratory was never forgotten. He made it his practice to plead with a great congregation as though he were an attorney and they the jury. Possessed of rare gifts of persuasive oratory, he has been called the most remarkable pulpit orator of his time. However, he did not permit excellency of voice and manner to obscure his message. His sermons were prepared with a thoroughness that has been excelled by few, and they reveal a detailed acquaintance with Bible teachings, incidents and characters that makes their reading most stimulating. Few men have had such a power over an audience. A century ago, a visitor to the ancient city of York was told to do three things: see the Five Sisters windows in the north transept of the great minster church, make a circuit of the city on the top of the old city walls, and then go to Salem Chapel and hear a sermon by "Parsons of York." Dargan says that Parsons had a peculiar voice, yet "he was a man of rare powers in the pulpit, who had the art of compelling attention by the clearness of his thought and the intensity of his convictions."

In 1850 there was hardly a large city in the British Isles where James Parsons was not known, and his talents held in high esteem. Before he was 30 years old, he was in great request as a speaker at gatherings where some worthy cause was to be presented, and the appearance of the pale, frail young man on the platform was said to have caused prolonged and excited applause, even among people so noted for their reserve as the English. In his early days he suffered from a nervous disorder which caused a rapid blinking of his eyes, and a twitching of the facial muscles. His voice was weak at the beginning of the sermon, and the sentences were jerked out nervously. In but a matter of moments all signs of weakness disappeared, and the congregation sat almost breathlessly throughout the flood of oratory that often lasted for two full hours.

A quarter of a century later it is a different James Parsons who appears in the pulpit. He is still pale, and there is still the nervous twitching of his facial muscles, but the preacher himself is stout and broad-shouldered. His opening words are still faint, and uttered in a sharp, staccato manner. As in his younger days, his preliminary weakness of voice disappears, and the congregation is amazed once more at his powers. A man who heard him preach says: "So onward he goes, brilliantly and effectively, and at length terminates his discourse by a powerful appeal, whose effects are at times overwhelming. No man can produce more startling results by appeals to the passions than James Parsons; his style in this respect sometimes approaches to the terrible; and frequently shrieking females, and terror-stricken men, bear witness to his powerful eloquence.


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