Is Open-Air Preaching Recognized?
Preaching in cathedrals and church buildings has long been recognized and admitted to an honorable and privileged status. What is the status of open-air preaching?
VISITORS to London are often impressed by the frequent use of open-air preaching. They often see a clergyman, perhaps in the front yard of a church, preaching in the open air to a crowd standing about on the lawn or the sidewalk. In America and elsewhere the street-corner activity of Salvation Army preachers is well known. Some householders have had the experience of Mormon ministers or missionaries calling at their door. And who has not been visited by one of Jehovah’s witnesses calling from house to house to preach the good news of God’s kingdom? As open-air preaching increases in its scope and use, an interesting question arises.
Is open-air preaching recognized? By that we mean, How does this form of preaching stand in four vital respects? (1) Is it historically recognized and proved effective? (2) What is the need for it in this day and age when churches are seldom far away from anyone? (3) Is it legally recognized by government agencies and courts of law? And (4) where does open-air preaching stand in the light of God’s Word, the Bible?
A common, modern view of open-air preaching is that it is rather novel. A probing into history, however, changes one’s opinion about its supposed newness. “Open-air preaching is not one of the ‘new methods,’” wrote Edwin Hallock Byington in Open-Air Preaching. “It was the original way of extending among men the revealed will of God. Not only is it ‘as old as preaching itself’ but for centuries it was the only kind of preaching. ‘We are at full liberty to believe,’ says Spurgeon, ‘that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, when he prophesied, asked for no better pulpit than the hillside, and that Noah was a preacher of righteousness willing to reason with his contemporaries in the shipyard.’”1
USE DURING MIDDLE AGES AND REFORMATION
As a student of history probes deeper into open-air preaching he quickly realizes that here was a method used in no small measure during the Middle Ages. Historian Byington calls attention to the fact that St. Francis of the Roman Catholic Church began his missionary work preaching in the streets of Assisi. “Of St. Dominic,” Byington wrote, “it is said that he preached to whatever people he met . . . along the highway.”2
That “Morning Star of the Reformation,” the English theologian John Wycliffe, took a great interest in open-air preaching. He attracted many sincere men of his time, trained them as preachers and sent them forth to preach the gospel. Of Wycliffe’s ministers Professor Lechler says: “They wandered from village to village, from town to town, and from county to county, without stop or rest, preaching, teaching, warning, wherever they could find willing hearers, sometimes in church or chapel; sometimes in the churchyard when they found the church itself closed; and sometimes in the public street and market place.”3
Another authority writes of them: “Clothed in habits of peculiar simplicity, and without any license from the local ordinaries, it was their manner to preach their doctrine openly, not only in churches and church-yards, but also in the midst of markets and fairs, and indeed, in all places where multitudes were convened.”4
During the Reformation itself open-air preaching came in for extensive use. From the work Open-Air Preaching we learn that Martin Luther is reported to have had an audience of 25,000 at Zwickau’s market place. Another user of town shopping centers for preaching was John Huss. Throughout Europe during the Reformation missionaries preached by the roadside. How effective all this open-air preaching must have been! To counteract the effect of the Protestant’s open-air preaching the Catholic Church carried on open-air preaching of its own. “Rome sent forth her own open-air preachers,” wrote Byington,”who overcame their influence by opposing them before the people in the street and marketplace. . . . There was Robert, founder of the Cistercian order of monks, who received from Pope Urban II permission to preach everywhere. As he travelled from town to town and from province to province, he did not regard his permission as limited to Churches, and preached on the highways and in the forests.”5
And the Jesuits? They knew the advantage of open-air preaching. Wrote one historian: “Its members were a sort of field-monks, ready to be preachers, teachers, missionaries, traders, explorers or politicians. The order used any means to win, every method to rule, both nations and churches.”6
After the Reformation the Protestants did not forget the value of open-air preaching. The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, was an active open-air preacher. He preached in the parks and on the streets. Indeed, he considered the world as his parish.7 Wesley eventually organized a large body of preachers both local and itinerant. They preached outdoors, in private homes and wherever they could find an audience. One historian says of them: “The country was divided into circuits, in which the preachers itinerated, each for a given time. In 1765 there were twenty-five circuits in England, two in Wales, four in Scotland, and eight in Ireland, and numbers rapidly increased amid no small amount of persecution. Riots were not rare, and Wesley’s life was often in peril.”8
Not just the Methodists, but also, as the pamphlet Preaching in the Open Air tells us, the Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and other churches have from time immemorial employed street and park preaching.”9
What historical testimony there is, then, to the time-honored use and effectiveness of open-air preaching! And yet many persons have thought it to be something new.
WHAT NEED FOR IT TODAY?
Granted that open-air preaching has proved effective in turning people to religion, but what is the need for it in this day when a church steeple is hardly far from the sight of almost anyone in Christendom? And why the need for it when, in America at least, churches are often overflowing? This prompts some penetrating questions.
Why is it that ministers and priests of orthodox religions have resorted to bingo, bazaars and other nonspiritual benefits? Why is it that ministers are so eager to have a Billy Graham crusade come to their town? Why is it that Billy Graham said, on beginning his New York crusade, “ministers have been discouraged and frustrated. . . . In talking with many of them we found almost a sense of desperation. Ministers who could not agree with us theologically . . . are willing to co-operate simply because there seems to be nothing else in sight”?10
Why are more than half of New York’s 8,000,000 inhabitants—or 54.9 percent—not affiliated with any religion? Why did a top-ranking Methodist official declare that Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam all consider America a fertile target for evangelistic work? Why does the recent book The New Ordeal of Christianity say this: “The most striking fact about Protestant churches in England today . . . is the emptiness of most of them. . . . The situation is even more dismal, if that is possible, in Scotland than England. And in Scandinavia it is appalling”?11
Why did historian Arnold Toynbee declare: “There is a spiritual vacuum in the world”?12 Why did priest John O’Brien, writing in the Catholic Herald Citizen, encourage “every Catholic, clerical or lay” to spend “at least one hour a week, going from ‘house to house’”?13 And why did Marcus Bach write in The Christian Century of Jehovah’s witnesses: “What should be our advice to those who insist that ‘somebody ought to put a stop to them’? . . . There is but one answer: Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a threat, but a challenge calling once more upon the traditional church to—witness!”?14
The answer is now obvious: Millions of people have failed to take to religion! They have failed to go to the traditional religious edifices, and church leaders see the need for some method besides conventional preaching in churches to attract them to religion. Aptly describing the state of affairs, J. Benson Hamilton writes: “For reasons that need no explanation a large class of our people have a prejudice against our churches. They will not attend divine service in them whatever may be the attraction. To such the gospel must be preached by the wayside, on the street corner, at the sea-shore, in the mountain, in the woods.”15
What a pressing need there is, then, for the most effective means of reaching the people to be put into use today! The need for what has been called by churchmen “aggressive Christianity” is even keener now than when a leading street preacher in New York, Dr. John W. Kennion, reported to the mayor of New York city in these words: “I have been engaged in lifting up Christ on the streets of our City . . . and during this time the public at large have almost unanimously conceded its necessity, utility and value as the mode best adapted to meet the requirements of the ‘masses’ who are without the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ, and are not in circumstances to attend those places where the sound of salvation’s trumpet is regularly heard. These street services reach that class of persons in the substrata of your community who are not approached or reached by any of our boards, associations, missionaries.”16
Yes, whether open-air preaching be on the streets, in the parks or from house to house, the need for this effective method is recognized. “It is the easiest and most effective way of pushing Christianity into new territory,” wrote E. H. Byington. “Without it missionary work would be crippled, and all advance would be slow and uncertain. It ever has been the speediest method of reaching those outside the influence of the Church.”17
LEGALLY AND JUDICIALLY RECOGNIZED
Something as vital as open-air preaching deserves legal recognition. That it has. Of the many instances wherein legal recognition has been extended to open-air preachers, few are as forceful as that expressed by the United States Selective Service System:
“The ordinary concept of ‘preaching and teaching’ is that it must be oral and from the pulpit or platform. Such is not the test. Preaching and teaching have neither locational nor vocal limitations. The method of transmission of knowledge does not determine its value or affect its purpose or goal. One may preach or teach from the pulpit, from the curbstone, in the fields, or at the residential fronts. He may shout his message ‘from housetops’ or write it ‘upon tablets of stone.’ He may give his ‘sermon on the mount’ . . . . He may walk the streets in daily converse with those about him telling them of those ideals that are the foundation of his religious conviction, or he may transmit his message on the written or printed page, but he is none the less the minister of religion if such method has been adopted by him as the effective means of inculcating in the minds and hearts of men the principles of religion.”18
That is a sensible, logical view of open-air preaching. How unreasonable it would be otherwise! How many of us could view Christ Jesus putting locational limitations on preaching? Did Christ deliver the most famous sermon of all time in a cathedral or religious building? No! He preached the sermon on the mount, of course, in the open air.
Did not Christ Jesus say: “Look! I am standing at the door and knocking”?19 But today few, if any, of the orthodox religious clergy preach from door to door. No wonder the need is so acute for house-to-house ministers.
It is fortunate for the people that judges of high courts have extended judicial recognition to the house-to-house minister. In an outstanding decision in 1943 the Supreme Court of the United States said in its majority opinion:
“This form of religious activity occupies the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the Churches and preaching from the pulpits. It has the same claim to protection as the more orthodox and conventional exercises of religion. . . . We only hold that preaching one’s religious beliefs or preaching the Gospel through distribution of religious literature and through personal visitations is an age-old type of evangelism with as high a claim to constitutional protection as the more orthodox types. . . . The mere fact that the religious literature is ‘sold’ by itinerant preachers rather than ‘donated’ does not transform evangelism into a commercial enterprise. If it did, then the passing of a collection plate in church would make the church service a commercial project. . . . We can restore to their high, constitutional position the liberties of itinerant evangelists who disseminate their religious beliefs and the tenets of their faith through distribution of literature.”20
THE RECOGNITION THAT COUNTS
Even if open-air preaching did not have the legal recognition of men, what really counts in the final analysis is what God’s Word has to say about it. The Founder of Christianity, we learn by a study of the Bible, used every method possible to spread the good news of the Kingdom. Sometimes he preached in synagogues; more often he was out in the open, for he “went round about to the villages in a circuit, teaching.”21 Wherever Christ found people, that is where he preached: “When he saw the crowds he went up into the mountain; and after he sat down his disciples came to him; and he opened his mouth and began teaching them.”22
On another occasion “Jesus, having left the house, was sitting by the sea; and great crowds gathered to him, so that he went aboard a boat and sat down, and all the crowd was standing on the beach. Then he told them many things.”23
Jesus sent out his apostles and disciples to preach as he did. Of Paul we read: “He began to reason in the synagogue with the Jews and the other people who worshiped God and every day in the marketplace with those who happened to be on hand.”24 “I did not hold back from telling you any of the things that were profitable nor from teaching you publicly and from house to house.”25 And of the apostles it is written: “Every day in the temple and from house to house they continued without letup teaching and declaring the good news about the Christ, Jesus.”26
With all this authoritative recognition extended to open-air preaching, it is strange indeed that no small number of persons believe that religion should be confined—limited to cathedrals and church buildings. Why should God’s Word be confined, when the Son of God said: “Man must live, not on bread alone, but on every utterance coming forth through Jehovah’s mouth”?27 Spiritual food is essential. Material food is also, and material food is dispensed everywhere, in stores, out in the open, in market places, on street corners and from house to house. Should vital spiritual food be dispensed by less effective means, especially when we are face to face with what one clergyman called a “religious vacuum on a scale never seen before”?28 And should anyone, no matter how high his station in life, look down on a method enjoying such overwhelming recognition? In the words of A. F. Schauffler comes the irresistible conclusion:
“Now if this matter of outdoor preaching were a new or an unscriptural thing we might well pause and think it over very carefully before trying it. But since it is ‘as old as the hills’, and has abundant scriptural warrant, and the personal sanction of our Master, why under the sun should anyone pause for a moment?
“I fancy I see the Apostle Paul in a modern ministers’ meeting . . . his remarks . . . ‘I made a great mistake, and if I had my work to do over again I would not preach from the steps of the Tower of Antonia, or from Mars’ Hill.’ Perish the thought! I rather fancy he would utter some burning words about the lethargy of the modern Church in not taking advantage of every opportunity to make known the gospel of the blessed Lord. . . . This I do with all my heart . . . commend the practice to all who wish to obey their Master’s injunctions, and ‘go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.’”29
1 Open-Air Preaching, by Edwin Hallock Byington (Hartford, Connecticut, 1892: Hartford Theological Seminary), p. 9.
2 Ibid., p. 30.
3 John Wyclif, by Professor Lechler (London, 1878: Kegan Paul & Co.), Vol. 1, p. 310.
4 Life of John Wycliffe, by Robert Vaughan (London, 1881: Holdsworth and Vaughan), Vol. II, p. 163.
5 Open-Air Preaching, pp. 29, 30.
6 History of the Christian Church, Blackburn (New York, 1879: Cranston & Stowe).
7 Open-Air Preaching, p. 71.
8 History of the Christian Church, p. 629.
9 Preaching in the Open Air, a pamphlet by George Charles Smith (London, 1829: W. K. Wakefield), pp. 4, 9, 10, 12, 25-28.
10 The Nation, May 11, 1957.
11 The New Ordeal of Christianity, by Paul Hutchinson (New York, 1957: Association Press).
12 The Christian Century, February 20, 1957.
13 Catholic Herald Citizen, January 5, 1957.
14 The Christian Century, February 13, 1957.
15 Empty Churches and How to Fill Them, by J. Benson Hamilton (New York, 1879: Phillips and Hunt), p. 64.
16 Report of Four Years’ Labor of Love and Deeds of Mercy, a pamphlet by Dr. John W. Kennion (Brooklyn Job and Book Printing Department, 1880), p. 3 of introduction.
17 Open-Air Preaching, p. 25.
18 Selective Service in Wartime, Second Report of the Director of Selective Service, 1941-42, pp. 239-241, under heading “Special Problems of Classification.”
19 Rev. 3:20, NW.
20 Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105 (May 3, 1943).
21 Mark 6:6, NW.
22 Matt. 5:1, 2, NW.
23 Matt. 13:1-3, NW.
24 Acts 17:17, NW.
25 Acts 20:20, NW.
26 Acts 5:42, NW.
27 Matt. 4:4, NW.
28 New York Times, January 21, 1957, Presbyterian minister David H. C. Reed.
29 Open-Air Preaching, introduction to book by A. F. Schauffler.