Princeton Seminary Congratulates Professor LaRue on Retirement - Princeton Theological Seminary

They have been gone for many years now, but Cleophus J. LaRue Jr. vividly remembers them: The dignified tone of their voices, the conviction in their words, and the selflessness with which they lived their lives. LaRue, a longtime professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, is speaking of the gifted pastors he encountered while growing up Black and Baptist in mid-20th century Texas.

“They were giants,” LaRue said. “When I am up there trying to preach, I can hear them.”

A pastor himself in his early days, LaRue eventually left full-time ministry and built a distinguished academic career at Princeton Seminary. But his chosen field of study kept him connected to his spiritual forebears. LaRue became a scholar of African American preaching and worship, developing new insights into the movements and traditions of the Black church and helping generations of seminarians find their voice as preachers of the Gospel.

LaRue, MDiv ’90, PhD ’96, retired at the end of 2023 as the Francis Landey Patton Professor of Homiletics. His influence looms among a swath of former students who are now successful ministers and scholars, including Seminary President Jonathan Lee Walton who adds, “Multiple generations of students at Princeton Seminary have entered Professor LaRue’s classroom full of anxiety and anticipation. Yet we left transformed. In Professor LaRue we learned the importance of preparation, dedication to the craft, and respect for the grand tradition of preaching that came before us.”

The Rev. Vito Aiuto, whose previous ministry at the Resurrection Presbyterian Church drew acclaim in The New York Times for drawing young Brooklynites to church, said LaRue was a vital influence on his work.

“Cleo helped me see sermons as a work of art,” said Aiuto MDiv ’98, “not as a work of art meant to be held up as an object in and of itself, but as an instrument that God uses to speak to people.”

LaRue, 70, grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, emulating the pastors of the National Baptist Convention whose preaching and kindness reached his heart and mind. “It was their spirituality and their sincerity,” LaRue said. “They loved the work. They loved the people. But you had the sense they had been with God. There was a sense of: ‘I am not my own, I belong to a higher power.’”

His hometown pastor, the Rev. Henry Clay Dilworth, would drive through Black neighborhoods after hurricanes struck, stopping in front of each house, sounding his horn, and shouting out residents’ names to see if they were okay. The Rev. Paschal Sampson Wilkinson, the head of the of the state Baptist convention, was known for sermons so eloquent that white churches would invite him just to hear him preach. And the Rev. Albert Louis Patterson Jr. was known as the “godfather of expository preaching.”

“I was just taken aback by his ability to proclaim those scriptures in a way that was educated, knowledgeable, and progressive,” LaRue said of Patterson. “I wanted that in my own life.”

“I always tell students, ‘I am mindful of where I came from, and I am mindful of where you are going. There is a church out there in desperate need of educated, young clergy people and I am trying to prepare you for that.’”

By the time he was 20, LaRue was pastoring True Light Baptist Church in Alice, Texas. He left to attend Baylor University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and theology, and a master’s degree in theology. Making time to preach every Sunday, at the Toliver Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Waco.

“They called me to be the pastor after a year at Baylor,” LaRue said. “They said, ‘We will work with you, and you can continue your studies,’ which I did.” LaRue continued preaching at Toliver after graduating, but eventually decided to attend seminary. At the time, however, a rising conservative movement was taking over the seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention, targeting theological progressives throughout the South.

“My professors at Baylor said, ‘Cleo, why don’t you go to Princeton Seminary where you can study and not be punished for thinking freely and openly,’” LaRue said. “I enrolled there in 1987, and it was the most wonderful thing I ever experienced.”

LaRue joined the Seminary faculty in 1996, beginning a 27-year academic career specializing in the theory and method of African American preaching and worship. He has written on the topic, authoring books such as The Heart of Black Preaching, I Believe I’ll Testify, and Power in the Pulpit.

He also developed courses that have become Seminary staples, such as “Sermons from the Civil Rights Movement,” which showed students how biblical and theological themes formed the moral underpinning of the movement, and how ministers made the Gospel relevant to their times.

In class, LaRue enjoyed shaking students up by noting that the ministers who marched in the streets with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were under the age of 30. “I’d say to them: ‘Most of you are under the age of 30, and what are you doing? Why are you sitting in this Seminary classroom. Why aren’t you in the streets?’”

But LaRue was also mindful that aspiring pastors need to know how to deliver an effective sermon every Sunday. So, he developed courses like “When Sundays Come Quicker Than Sermons.”

His first bit of advice to students is simple: Don’t wait until the night before to start writing the sermon. “Saturday night specials are dangerous in the pulpit,” he said. “You could actually hurt somebody.”

“It felt like, here is someone with all these chops and intellectual capabilities, yet he is also a follower of Jesus, encouraging others to follow Jesus, and to find their own way of doing it,” said Aiuto, now a pastor at Renaissance Church in Springfield, New Jersey.

In retirement, LaRue plans to continue doing his share to help inspire others. He is currently writing Sunday School lessons for adults for churches throughout the National Baptist Convention, the oldest and largest African American religious convention.

Looking back, LaRue said he is proud to have upheld the example set by his mentors, the great preachers of his youth, and to have advanced and elevated their work as he prepared future generations for ministry. “I always tell students, ‘I am mindful of where I came from, and I am mindful of where you are going. There is a church out there in desperate need of educated, young clergy people and I am trying to prepare you for that.’”