Why Pastors Should Use More Historical Illustrations in Sermons

I once attempted to use an example from accounting in my sermon. No one understood me, and the accountants in the church said I mixed up my terms. Apparently, debits and credits are not as straightforward as I thought, which is why—I guess—accountants have jobs. 

Sermon illustrations are tricky. You try to be funny, but it falls flat. You try to be inspirational, but you’re cheesy. You try to be serious, and you have a booger in your nose. Sermon illustrations are the flavoring to the meat of the text. Without them, you’re bland. But too much, and you’re overbearing.

Most of us preachers tend to use real-life examples, current news, pop culture, or biblical examples more than historical illustrations. Likely, you need more historical illustrations in your sermons, not less. Here’s why: 

People are not as familiar with the past. Frankly, we don’t know our history like we once did—biblical history, family history, and our nation’s history. Preaching always has elements of teaching. Good teaching should include regular doses of history. 

History connects generations. When Millennials understand the attack on Pearl Harbor, they can better relate to the remaining members of the Builder generation. When Builders get to know Millennials, they can help put the 9/11 attack into perspective. When used properly, history is a bridge, not a wall.

History repeats. The adage is true. Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. The entire Old Testament is a case in point. Over and over again, the people in the Old Testament repeated the same offenses because they would not learn from historical sins. By the end of the Old Testament, you’re exhausted from reading it and ready for a solution. Thankfully, He is introduced in Matthew’s gospel. 

The Bible is historical. Why care about history? The Bible is history!

History has roots. Personal examples in sermons are great ways to connect with people. However, they can be fleeting, if not shallow. Everyone laughed at the story of my son and the half-eaten cupcake, but—like the cupcake—it wasn’t sustaining. With historical examples, you tell an enduring story, one that has stood the test of generations and has been validated by time. 

People need to know historical theology. Historical illustrations shine light on the reasons why we believe certain doctrines. 

People need to know church history. What’s with the white cloth at the Lord’s Supper? Why does the preacher stand down front at the end of every service? Why do people wear crucifixes? How come we always need motions and seconds at business meetings? Why do the ushers pass a plate for the offering? History gives meaning to traditions. History gives purpose to church practices. Otherwise, you’re just going through the motions mindlessly.

If you’re a preacher, then you’re a teacher. One lesson the church needs often is history.

Posted on May 5, 2021

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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  • Ron Prosise says on

    Thank you for this wonderful article! Preachers have a great opportunity to introduce history’s men and women of faith to their congregations through sermon illustrations. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “It is always essential for us to supplement our reading of theology with the reading of church history. . . . If we do not, we shall be in danger of becoming abstract, theoretical, and academic in our view of truth; and, failing to relate it to the practicalities of life and daily living, we shall soon be in trouble.” When I was studying for my Doctorate in Expository Preaching, I wondered if it would be possible to compile a volume of vignettes from Church history, indexed by subject, from original source documents for preachers to use. This led to a very rewarding time of research and a book for my fellow preachers, “Preaching Illustrations from Church History.”

  • Ernest D Cecil says on

    Loved the article. In our part of the country the practice of a white cloth covering the Lord’s Supper elements had a very practical purpose. Before electricity, windows and doors were left open for cooler temps in the summertime. With that, flies came to church. To keep them off the elements, the deacons would cover the elements with a white cloth.

  • Do you have a resource or two on historical sermon illustrations?

  • Thomas B says on

    This is a great article. Thank you for bringing this topic up. You have inspired me to start looking more for historical examples as I study. For a busy pastor, a book that linked Scriptures to lessons from history would be an awesome tool to have. It would not have to include all of the historical details but enough to show a connection. The reader could research the details for themselves. Thank you again for this article.

  • Bob Myers says on

    Props to you, Sam! One of our problems as evangelicals is our seeming aversion to history. (It’s actually a modern problem.) In reality, our faith is not only formed biblically and theologically, but historically. But you know all that.

    A fantastic source that was given to me is Robert Petterson’s “Book of Amazing Stories.”


    • Bob Myers says on

      I use historical illustrations frequently. I should add, though I suspect most everyone knows this, with the advent of projection and the availability of Google images, telling these historical stories with pictures is quite effective.

      • Sam Rainer says on

        Thanks Bob! A lot of historical images are public domain and do not carry a copyright. Wikipedia is a good place to find them.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    At one time ushers did not pass a collection plate at church services. From 1559 until 1662 English churches had a collection box in which people put their offerings. “Passing the plate,” or alms basin, was introduced during the Restoration. The Scottish bishops had attempted to introduce the practice in Scotland with the 1637 Scottish Prayer Book but the use of the 1637 Scottish Prayer Book caused a riot. The purpose of “passing the plate” was not to collect the people’s offerings but to enable the pastor to present the offerings at the Holy Table, the communion table set altar-wise against the east wall and surrounded by rails to keep men and dogs from excessive familiarity with the table. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes had introduced the practice earlier on his chapel. “Passing plate” was a disguised attempt to revive the practice of offering the people’s gifts at the altar., along with the bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper, a practice known as the Lesser Oblation, and associated with the medieval doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass. The Reformers did away with the practice for that reason. A collection box or basket at the back of sanctuary is perfectly acceptable practice and does not have these historic associations.

  • I really think that fear of any extra-Biblical information led to no historical illustrations. There are many writings and answers to questions from the saints, early church fathers, and rabbis that are very relevant today. Even if you don’t agree with them, they are worth study to understand events. Also, dates help put events in context. It took me ages to figure out the order of Abraham and Moses. If the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are read in order and Joseph is mentioned as Jacob’s son, then the timing starts to make sense. In Exodus 13:19 Moses carried the bones out of Joseph out of Egypt with him immediately after the Passover. I only learned this at a Seder and not from the pulpit or Sunday school.

  • Good article.. I’m happy to say that in my case, you’re preaching to the proverbial choir. I was a history major in college, and I’ve had a love for history since I was about eight or nine years old. As my wife often says, if the study of history does nothing else, it reminds us that human nature never changes!