10. William W. Prescott "The Power of the Tongue"

Biographical Sketch

This sermon was given in the "Dime" Tabernacle in Battle Creek, Michigan, on Sabbath morning, August 6, 1887. At the time, Professor William Warren Prescott was president of Battle Creek College. He held that position from 1885-1894. In 1891 he also became president of the newly founded Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, an office he held until 1893. Even though he was already president of two colleges at the same time, when Walla Walla College in Washington State opened in 1892, he was made president of that college as well. He remained its president until 1894.

In 1901 Elder Prescott was elected a vice president of the General Conference. After Uriah Smith's death in 1903, Prescott was also made editor of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, a position he held until 1909. From 1915 until his retirement in 1937, he was a field secretary of the General Conference. During those years, Elder Prescott also served briefly as president of both Avondale College in Australia (1922) and once again of Union College in Nebraska (1924-1925). After stepping down as president, Prescott remained at Union College as head of its Bible Department (1924-1928), a position he later also held at Emmanual Missionary College (now Andrews University) in Michigan (1923-1934).

Elder Prescott had a burden for preaching. His own sermons were well thought out. That, combined with a full resonant voice and dynamic powerful delivery, made him one of the denomination's most popular speakers in the 1880's and 1890's. In fact, whenever it was announced that W. W. Prescott would be occupying the Tabernacle pulpit, the church was crowded. Especially after the 1888 General Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Elder Prescott's sermons became very Christ-centered. His admonition to young pastors was, "Christ must be the center of every sermon."

Describing a series of meetings held by Prescott in Australia in 1895, A. G. Daniells wrote that the sermons were ". . . well thought out and delivered in good language, yet simple and full of power. His theme from first to last and always is Christ."

Ellen White, who was also present at those meetings, reported that non-Adventists were saying of Elder Prescott, "that man speaks from the inspiration of the Spirit of God" (Letter 83, 1895). She herself said of his presentation, "The inspiration of God has been upon him" (Letter 24, 1895). She went on to pay him the highest compliment when she said, "Bro. Prescott has been hearing the burning words of truth such as I have heard from some in 1844" (Letter 25, 1895).

Through extended preaching series given at various General Conference sessions in the 1890's, Sabbath sermons in the Tabernacle, Ministerial Institutes, other public meetings at camp meetings and elsewhere, as well as circulation of printed copies of his presentations, the preaching of Elder W. W. Prescott made a real impact on the denomination for a number of years.

By William W. Prescott

Preached on August 6, 1887

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue." Prov. 18:21.

Every man who accepts the Bible as the revealed word of God, believes in a Judgment whose issues are life and death. It matters not that some believe that Judgment to be far in the future, and others that it is near at hand, and even now in progress; that some regard the life as that of an immaterial spirit, and others look forward to an immaterial spirit, and others look forward to an existence with just as tangible a body as we now possess; that some understand death to mean remorse of conscience which will continue throughout endless ages, and others make it to be a cessation of conscious existence; we are all agreed in believing that there is a "Judgment to come," and that "the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." The text shows us that the issue of that Judgment may depend upon the use made of the tongue.

It is true that Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians says, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal;" but it is equally true that, as a rule, one who has the heart of a demon does not speak with the tongue of an angel. This principle was plainly expressed by our Saviour when he said, "How can ye being evil speak good things?" These words, placed beside the text, indicate that as a general rule it is safe to judge of one's character by the use which he makes of the tongue.

We will consider first what uses of the tongue lead to death. In a general way, it may all be summed up in three words – talking too much. There are some of whom the psalmist says, "Their tongue walketh through the earth." There are no questions of philosophy too deep for them to discuss with perfect assurance of the correctness of their own opinions; there are no problems of science so perplexing that they are not ready to contribute the results of their thinking, or lack of thinking, at a moment's notice. Politics are a delight to them; the gossip of daily life is more to them than meat and drink; and, like the Athenians, they spend "their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing." In so much talk there must necessarily be much that is foolish and worse than foolish. He must be a wise man indeed who can talk all the time and not say much that might better be left unsaid. This truth is expressed by Solomon in Prov. 10:19: "In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin; but he that refraineth his lips is wise." We read that "sin is the transgression of the law," and so the thought is, In the multitude of words there wanteth not transgression of the law. It will readily occur to you how we may by our words transgress the law. There is the third commandment, which forbids our taking the name of the Lord in vain; and the fifth, which enjoins honor for father and mother; and the ninth, which directs us not to bear false witness against our neighbor; and when we read in the 58th chapter of Isaiah that a proper observance of the Sabbath means "not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words," we can see the danger of breaking the fourth commandment "in the multitude of words." If at the close of each Sabbath we should ask ourselves the question, Have I spoken my own words today? how many of us would be condemned by the answer!

David seemed to realize the necessity of carefulness in his speech, and so he prayed, "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips." Just as a sentry is placed at the door of a fortress that no one should pass who could not give the countersign, so he would have a watch set at the door of his lips that no words should escape him which could not give a sufficient reason for being uttered. If we were to follow his example, what would the result be? Such a watch would certainly exclude impure words. Not merely words which are openly vulgar or obscene, but all impure allusions, and all stories or jests whose force depends upon the suggesting more than they really express. Certainly if "purity" were one of the countersigns, many words would be repressed which now rise to the lips for utterance.

Such a watch would surely exclude untrue words. We are commanded not to bear false witness against our neighbor, and if we scrupulously obey his command we shall not only refrain from saying what we know to be untrue, but also from saying anything which we do not know to be true. H ow much gossip would die an early death, how circumscribed would be the limits to which many false reports would extend, if this rule were followed! I might go further, and say that this command, if obeyed in its broadest sense, would often forbid our saying that which we know to be true. This may seem to be a strange assertion, but consider for a moment. A recent article which I have read presents the thought something in this way: Suppose a man has fallen into a grievous sin for which he has sincerely repented and been forgiven, but in spite of this a neighbor persists in repeating to every listening ear the story of his fall. He may state the facts just as they occurred, but is he really telling the truth? Is he not creating in the mind of the listener the thought that such is the present condition of the man whose experience he is relating? And even if the teller of these stories does not know that repentance and forgiveness have followed the commission of the sin, yet he may not be sure that they have not, and so there is always danger of misrepresenting the present character of a man by dwelling upon his past sins. It has been well said that "when lies are easily admitted, the father of lies is not easily excluded." From these considerations, it seems plain that with “truth” as a countersign, silence would often take the place of speech.

No one defends profane words. They are without excuse, and would, of course, be excluded by such a watch before the mouth.

Take not His name, who make thy mouth in vain;
It gets thee nothing and has no excuse.
Lust and wine plead a pleasure, avarice gain;
But the cheap swearer, through his open sluice,
Lets his soul run for nought.

But you will perhaps think it strange that I should regard it necessary to refer to this subject in this audience. The reason is found in the breadth of the command not to take the name of the Lord in vain. Turn to the fifth chapter of Matthew, and read what our Saviour says on this point: "But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communications be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." Simply "Yea, yea; Nay, nay."  Only a plain affirmation or denial. No attempt to strengthen the expression by something "more than these."

What are called by-words always seemed to me to be a very poor substitute for a very poor thing. Some act as though they must have a vent for their feelings in some way, and, not daring to indulge in open profanity, they interlard their speech with such words as good taste and good breeding, if not the moral law, would forbid. Such words indicate a heart full of cursing. Remembering that "the Lord seeth not as man seeth," and that "the Lord looketh on the heart," can we think that those who thus attempt to technically avoid the use of profane language will be held to be any less guilty in the sight of God than as though they had given word to their thoughts? "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall."

Slanderous words would certainly never pass the lips of one who had set a watch before his mouth. Even the civil law recognizes the injury which may be inflicted by slander, and provides a redress for it. How much injury is done by the tongue of slanders in the family, in the neighborhood, and in the church! The slanderer goes about stirring up strife among friends, neighbors, and brethren. As some birds prefer carrion to the sweetest meat, so a bit of ill flavored gossip is to him a dainty morsel. It is more than his meat and drink to hear or to tell the latest scandal either in the family or the church.

Solomon must have had such an one in mind when he said,  "The words of a tale bearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly." Sharp words, cutting words, how they wound!

The wounds of a sword injure the body, but the words of the tongue injure the soul. How many are not carrying in their souls the scars of such wounds received years ago, more or less fully healed over! How easy it is for these tale-bearers to carry evil reports about our cause, our institutions, and those who are placed in positions of responsibility in their management! Embellishing them a little with each repetition, and having a little more confidence in their truth themselves every time they tell them, they soon assume large proportions, and are rehearsed as the literal truth. But the talebearers are not the only guilty ones in the case. We regard the receiver as bad as the thief, and surely the listener should stand in for his share of the blame. "Ill tongues would be idle if ill ears were not open," and so the ancients had a saying that "both the teller and hearer of false stories ought to be equally hanged, but one by the tongue, the other by the ears;" and if out of pity any one desired to cut down these offenders, he should do so by cutting off those organs. The remedy was severe, but such cases require vigorous treatment. There is a passage in Testimony No. 16" which, although personal, has so general an application that I desire to read a short extract from it:

She has a desire to do right, but has failings which cause herself and her friends much trouble. She talks too much. She lacks experience in the things of God, and will be unable to stand amid the perils of the last days, unless she is converted, and transformed by the renewing of the mind. Heart work is needed. Then the tongue will be sanctified. There is much talking which is sinful and should be avoided. She should set a strict watch before the door of her lips, and keep her tongue as with a bridle, that her words may not work wickedness. She should cease talking of others' faults, dwelling upon others' peculiarities, and discovering others' infirmities. Such conversion is censurable in any person. It is unprofitable and positively sinful. It tends only to evil. The enemy knows that if this course is pursued by Christ's professed followers, it is opening a door for him to work. I saw that when sisters who are given to talk get together, Satan is generally present, for he finds employment. He stands by to excite the mind and make the most of the advantage he has gained.

He knows that all this gossip, and tale-bearing, and revealing of secrets, and dissecting of character separates the soul from God. It is death to spiritually and a calm to religious influence. Sister ___ sins in her words greatly. She ought in her words to have an influence for good. But this sad failing has been indulged in until she does not know what she is stating herself. She talks frequently at random, and does not always state things correctly. Sometimes her words put a different construction upon things than they will bear. Sometimes there is exaggeration. Then there is misstatement. There is not an intention to misstate, but the habit has been so long cherished of much talking, and upon thigns that are unprofitable, that she has become careless and reckless in her words, which destroys any influence she might have for good. It is time there was an entire reform in this respect. Her society has not been prized as it would have been, had this sinful talking not been indulged in. Christians should be careful in regard to their words. They should never carry unfavorable reports from one of their friends to another, especially if they are aware that there is a lack of union between their mutual friends. It is cruel to hint and insinuate as though you knew a great deal in regard to this friend or that acquaintance, that others are ignorant of. Such hints go father, and create more unfavorable impressions, than to frankly relate the facts in an unexaggerated manner. What harm has not the church of Christ suffered from these things! The inconsistent, unguarded course of her members has made her as weak as water.

Confidence has been betrayed by members of the same church, and yet the guilty did not design to do mischief. The lack of wisdom in the selection of subjects of conversation has done much harm. The conversation should be upon spiritual and divine things; but it has been otherwise. If the association with Christian friends is chiefly devoted to the improvement of the mind and heart, there will be no after regrets, and they can look back upon the interview with a pleased satisfaction. But if the hours are spent in levity and vanity, and the precious time has passed off with those who unite with you in dissecting the lives and characters of others, the friendly intercourse will prove a channel of evil, and your influence will be a "savor of death unto death."

There is in these words a lesson for each one of us. The experience of Peter, as recorded in the 26th chapter of Matthew, contains much instruction on this subject of the right use of the tongue. He had twice been accused of being with Jesus of Nazareth, but had as often denied it, and the second time "he denied it with an oath;" but "after awhile came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee." Alas, poor Peter! His denial was the strongest evidence against him; for the peculiarity of his pronunciation proved that he was a Galilean. Thus it is often with professed Christians. They claim to be the followers of Jesus, and perhaps refer to their church-membership in proof of the assertion; but their impure words given unmistakable evidence that they are the servants of Satan. Their speech bewrayeth them. They may say that they are of those who "keep the commandments of God," but their slanderous words, their untrue words, nay, even, in the light of our Saviour's explanation of the third commandment, their profane words, prove that they are "of the synagogue of Satan." Their speech bewratheth them. The words of James are applicable to such persons as these: "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain." The meaning is that if any man puts on the outward forms of religion ever so faithfully, and yet fails to control the "little member," although he may deceive his own heart, as he is quite likely to do, it is all of no avail to him. Silence is better than inappropriate speech. I have often thought that the most satisfactory part of the record of the doings of Job's so-called comforters is found in the thirteenth verse of the second chapter of Job: "So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights and none spake a word unto him." If at the end of that time they had quietly left him, he would never have had occasion to exclaim, "Miserable comforters are ye all."

A special reform for carefulness in our words is found in the fact that Satan does not know our thoughts. In one of the practical addresses of sister White, as printed in Sketches of Foreign Missions, p. 146, I read as follows:

"When we feel the least inclined to commune with Jesus, let us pray the most. By doing so we shall break Satan's snare, the clouds of dankness will disappear, and we shall realize the sweet presence of Jesus. Let us here resolve that we will not sin against God with our lips, that we will never speak in a light and trifling manner, that we will never murmur or complain at the providence of God, and that we will not become accusers of our brethren. We cannot always hinder the thoughts that come as temptations; but we can resist the enemy so that we shall not utter them. The adversary of souls is not permitted to read the thoughts of men; but he is a keen observer, and he marks the words and actions, and skillfully adapts his temptations accordingly. If all would labor to repress sinful thoughts and feelings, giving them no expression in words or acts, Satan would be defeated; for he would not know how to prepare his specious temptations to meet their cases . . . We want to form the habit of talking of heaven, beautiful heaven. Talk of that life which will continue as long as God shall live, and then you will forget your trials and difficulties."

These words have bene a very great help to me. If any thoughts would "come as temptations," I have often said to myself, Satan shall never know from any words of mine that such thoughts were ever in my mind. If any discouragement or any inclination to doubt or unbelief would arise, I would try not to give Satan any advantage in adapting his temptations to my special weakness. But how easy it is to talk out our thoughts and our feelings of doubt or unbelief, if we have them! And thus we given Satan the advantage, and it may be we are overcome. He would be thought a strange general who, just before an impending battle, should send over to the opposing lines some of his best soldiers, to be used in fighting against himself. But we show about the same degree of wisdom in our conflict with Satan when we knowingly give him the advantage by telling him of our weak points. If David found reason to say, "I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me," much more should we take heed to our ways that we do not assist Satan in his efforts to destroy us, by putting into words feelings of which he would otherwise be ignorant.

But while there are these uses of the tongue which lead to death, I am glad that there are also such as lead to life. Christ was our example in this as in other respects. When at the very beginning of his ministry he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, all "wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth." When the officers who had been sent to arrest him were asked, "Why have ye not brought him?" they answered, "Never man spake like this man." the apostle Peter, in speaking of Christ as "leaving us an example," bears this testimony: "Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again." Here is one of the severe tests of Christian attainment. "Not rendering evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing." How much more in accordance with the promptings of the natural heart to return bitter words for bitter words! "But ye have not so learned Christ." When in the wilderness and assailed by Satan, our Saviour met temptations by quoting appropriate texts of Scripture. If we were so familiar with the word of God that when suggestions of doubt or unbelief or any special temptation should come to us, we could readily call to mind such passages of scripture and such promises as would be specially adapted to our needs, how often might it be said of us, as it was of Jesus, "Then the Devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him"! The Saviour was often in prayer. On the mountain, in a solitary place, "rising up a great while before day," in the wilderness, in the garden, even on the cross, he used his tongue in prayer. What an example is this for us in these days, when prayer is so much neglected; and it is even a controverted question whether there is any virtue whatever in prayer. The benefits to be derived from secret prayer, family prayer, and public prayer have been greatly lost sight of, and so we lose our spiritual strength accordingly. What great advancement we might make in the divine life, if it cold often be said of each one of us, as it was of Saul just after his remarkable conversion, "Behold, he prayeth"!

It tends to life if we use the tongue in publicly confessing Christ. "For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation." We should believe, we should meditate; but we should also say with the psalmist, "My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation." It is plainly our duty also to speak words of encouragement to each other as we journey on in the way of life. There is one company mentioned in the Scriptures as talking much, and yet they are not rebuked for it: "Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord harkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord and that thought upon his name." The last clause indicates the subject of their conversation. They "thought upon his name." We are instructed by the great apostle to be found "exhorting one another, and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching." Thus the nearer we approach to "the day of the Lord," the more zealous should we be in the performance of the duty here enjoined upon us.

It requires much tact, yes, much grace, to make a right use of the tongue in our social intercourse. The wise man says that "a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver." How beautiful is the figure! Not words spoken with just the right accent, or with extreme care in articulation, but words that fit the occasion,"words that are appropriate to all the circumstances," are like the golden fruit in silver baskets. How do some, in their efforts to comfort bleeding hearts, tear open the wounds afresh, because their words are not "fitly spoken"! How do others cast deep shadows over the sunshine of life by their ill-timed though well-meant words! Happy is that man to whom nature has imparted, and in whom grace has cultivated, the gift of saying the right thing in the right manner and at the right time.

The importance attached to the tongue arises from the fact of its being an index of character. As the shadow on the sun-dial marks the course of the sun in the heavens, and indicates to us whether it is rising or setting, so do the utterances of the tongue bear witness to the character of our Christian experience. The Saviour teaches this in the words found in Matt. 12:34-37: "O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of Judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." So we find Solomon in the old, and Christ in the new dispensation bearing witness to the same truth, that "death and life are in the power of the tongue." Well might we adopt as our daily prayer the words of David: "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer."

From the Review and Herald, August 23, 1887.