A Sermon Delivered in the Dark

A. L. Todd: At the End of the Trail

The book, Christians on the Oregon Trail, describes the lives and labors of those who were part of the Restoration Movement during the time when settlers were first trekking across the continent to the Oregon Territory. These early pioneers faced many challenges in the Pacific Northwest. As these settlements grew, efforts were made to spread the gospel among those who were arriving in the area.

One of the men who endeavored to preach in Oregon during this time was A. L. Todd (1820-1886). In the book mentioned above, the author presented a picture of this man’s labor.

“A. L. Todd traveled far and wide in pursuit of souls for Christ, and often his audiences were very small. On one preaching tour through Coos County he sent word ahead that he would be preaching at Burton Prairie school house. It was a rainy afternoon in the wintertime, and only four persons came out to hear him preach. All four of his hearers were men, and none of them had thought to bring any matches for the candles. There was not enough time for any of the men to return home, so Todd began preaching in the fading light of a winter evening. The school house was cold, damp and dark, and as he preached the darkness deepened.” (Christians on the Oregon Trail, p. 319)

When we think of the old pioneer preachers, we may imagine them preaching before a large crowd of attentive individuals – much more attentive than people today – and at the close of the sermon, many would respond to the invitation and dozens (or more) would then be baptized in a nearby river. This did happen on various occasions, but there were also plenty of meetings like the one described above in which just a few individuals even came to hear the gospel message.

It can sometimes be discouraging to preach for smaller audiences.* We want more people to hear the gospel and are disappointed that there are not more who are interested in listening to the message being preached. However, we never know the good that comes from even these small gatherings. Notice what came of this small gathering when A. L. Todd preached on this cold, dark, winter evening:

“‘He therefore preached the light of the gospel in the darkness of that winter night, while the rain fell outside,’ wrote his daughter, ‘his voice being all that could be distinguished.’ One of the four hearers obeyed the gospel soon after that experience, and he developed into a song leader and a gospel preacher. Several years later he told Todd’s daughter about the sermon in the dark. ‘That earnest voice coming out of the darkness that night, I could not resist,’ he admitted, ‘and if ever any good comes from my work in the preaching of the gospel, it will be on account of that sermon delivered in the dark, in that little old school house at Burton Prairie.” (Christians on the Oregon Trail, p. 319-320)

A. L. Todd had no way of knowing the future results of his efforts on this occasion. Yet the Lord does not place the responsibility upon us – those who preach and teach – to ensure results. Paul told the church in Corinth, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).

Jesus told His disciples of their upcoming work in the “fields” that were “white for harvest” (John 4:35). He said, “For in this case the saying is true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor” (John 4:37-38). His apostles were going to see the results of this harvest, but those other laborers He mentioned worked and prepared the minds of the hearers without ever seeing the fruits of their work.

We may never see the results of our labors in the gospel in this life, but we must never let that discourage us. Instead we need to keep spreading the gospel and have the attitude of A. L. Todd:

“A. L. Todd continued to ride his circuit in southwestern Oregon for more than 30 years. No weather was too severe, and no appointment was too far, if at the end of the trail there were a few people hungering to hear the gospel of Christ.” (Christians on the Oregon Trail, p. 320)

If we have opportunities to preach before large crowds, it is certainly good to take advantage of those opportunities. But let us never disregard the small assemblies, home Bible studies, and other such gatherings where only a few are present. Our job is to plant and water the seed of the gospel. Regardless of whether we’re planting or watering among a large or small number, God is still able to give the increase.


Daniel SommerIn his book, Plain Sermons, Daniel Sommer (1850-1940) said this about preaching for small audiences: “The preacher of Christ, who labors for the glory of God more than to accomplish any other end, does not feel discouraged if he has a small audience, nor if he does not see any special results from his labors at certain times and places. He does not aim to make a show of success, but tries so to read and pray, preach and exhort, that his labors may be to God’s glory. As a result, he keeps his thoughts heavenward rather than earthward, and is not discouraged by unfavorable appearances. He does not speak in complaining terms to those who are present because those who are absent are not disposed to hear him preach.”

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