By J. Wallace Hamilton
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
For years, this book of sermons occupied its important place in my collection of 10-12 volumes that I deem most significant in my intellectual and spiritual development. Others in that protected class include the unabridged edition of Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo, The Word of Truth by Dale Moody, and The Historical Geography of the Holy Land by George Adam Smith.
“I bought this with money donated by an anonymous church member,” I have explained numerous times, “soon after I announced my call to gospel preaching.” I was about 15 years old at the time. Other books I bought with that money included William Barkley’s Daily Study Bible and two volumes of Peter Marshall’s sermons. I remember the shock when I read in the latter a prayer nestled between each sermon; it was the first time I was exposed to a prepared, written prayer. Who knew such a thing existed?
But then this happened. In the year of our Lord two thousand twenty-three, a man known to me only by reputation (Rev. Bob Hill of Kansas City) published on Facebook a short piece about J. Wallace Hamilton. The date was May 4, because that was the date of birth for Rev. Hamilton, in 1900, in Canada. The article described his Canadian roots, his call to the Pasadena Community Church in the greater Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area, and the 36 people who showed up that day in 1929.
It sparked my imagination. It motivated me to pick up that book and read it again. But before beginning, I discovered the distinctive strokes of my dad’s name on the flyleaf of the book, together with our childhood telephone number: “G. T. Moody, Murray, KY, 753-0172.” Which meant my story was wrong, my memory was faulty. My dad, himself a minister, must have bought the book shortly after its publication in 1965; and I must have come into possession of it by his gifting it to me, perhaps shortly after my graduation from high school in 1968.
My re-reading of the book of sermons shook my memory again. What was it about this book of sermons that so gripped my imagination as an 18-year-old preacher boy? The sermons themselves hardly appeal to me now, and there is only one thing about it that might have gripped me then—the very idea of serendipity. Hamilton traces this word and idea to an ancient Persian fable, about the travels of “The Three Princes of Serendip” (the latter being the island now known as Ceylon). The travelers were constantly finding things of value while searching for other things entirely.
Hamilton calls it the “principle of indirection” and, throughout the book, illustrates it with story after story from the history of science, exploration, and literature. Sir Horace Walpole coined the word, Serendipity. It stuck, and the idea also stuck with me; and that is no doubt what sealed this book as one of significance for me.
Because, indeed, the book lacks many other qualities I prize in a book of sermons, like real exegesis of texts, attention to the geography of the Holy Land, or engagement with the political and social issues of the day. There is a mountain of material from ancient and modern literature—I can’t believe the number of literary quotes this man infuses into every sermon; ether he had a prodigious memory or a fabulous filing system. And there is a persistent focus on the human experience of life, how it can be enhanced and enriched, and the role religion plays in all that.
There is, in these sermons, none of the deep biblical searching that is found in similar material from G. Campbell Morgan, none of the carefully reasoned defense of the Christian faith that came from the pen of another contemporary Elton Trueblood, or even the invigorating drama of personal discipleship to Jesus so pervasive in the preaching of Peter Marshall. And even though the last 15 years of his preaching ministry overlapped with the first 15 years of Martin Luther King, Jr., there is little awareness of wider social issues stirring the country.
I’m left with this single idea, this solitary word—serendipity. Hamilton connects it to the famous saying of Jesus “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33 KJV) and rightly so. The whole book—and my experience of the book—illustrates wonderfully how a single idea can capture the imagination and linger in the memory in a powerful way. I could write my own book, or preach my own sermons, on how many times this principle of indirection has been illustrated by my own experience. Finding something good while searching for something else—the idea and the book stuck with me and shed light on much that has happened.
I give thanks, but I also have decided to give it away. I called my young friend Rev. Tanner White, AoP’11, like Hamilton a United Methodist minister in the greater Tampa region, and said, “I am sending this book to you. I hope it inspires you in at least some of the ways it inspired me when I was a few years younger than you are now. God bless you.” He sent his mailing address, and I took a walk to the post office.