It can be argued, with small fear of refutation, that open-air preaching is as old as preaching itself. We are at full liberty to believe that Enoch, 'the seventh from Adam,' when he prophesied, asked for no better pulpit than the hillside, and that Noah, as a preacher of righteousness, was willing to reason with his contemporaries in the ship-yard wherein his marvellous ark was built. Certainly, Moses and Joshua found their most convenient place for addressing vast assemblies beneath the unpillared arch of heaven. Samuel closed a sermon in the field at Gilgal amid thunder and rain, by which the Lord rebuked the people, and drove them to their knees. Elijah stood on Carmel, and challenged the vacillating nation with the question, 'How long halt ye between two opinions?' Jonah, whose spirit was somewhat similar, lifted up his cry of warning in the streets of Nineveh, and in all her places of concourse gave forth the warning utterance, 'Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!' To hear Ezra and Nehemiah, 'all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the Street that was before the water gate.' Indeed, we find examples of open-air preaching everywhere around us in the records of the Old Testament.
Our Lord Himself, who is yet more our Pattern, delivered the larger proportion of His sermons on the mountain's side, or by the sea-shore, or in the streets. He was, to all intents and purposes, an open-air preacher. He did not remain silent in the synagogue, but He was equally at home in the field. We have no discourse of His on record delivered in the Chapel Royal, but we have the sermon on the mount, and the sermon in the plain; so that the very earliest and most Divine kind of preaching was practised out of doors by Him who 'spake as never man spake.' There were gatherings of His disciples, after His decease, within walls, especially that in the upper room; but the preaching was even then most frequently in the court of the temple, or in such other open spaces as were available.-- C.H.S., in Lectures to my Students.
Mr. Harrald will remember the truly wonderful open-air service at Stowmarket, in Suffolk. It was held in the garden grounds of Mr. Manning Prentice. The trees were full of people; and they looked like big birds roosting on the branches. I think it was in 1868, and I know the text was, 'With his stripes we are healed.' It was a marvellous sermon.--WILLIAM CUFF to Mrs. C. H. Spurgeon, in a letter.
If I had my choice of a place for preaching out of doors, I should prefer to front a rising ground, or an open spot bounded at some little distance by a wall. Of course, there must be sufficient space to allow of the congregation assembling between the pulpit and the limiting object in front, but I like to see an end, and not to shout into boundless space. I do not know a prettier site for a sermon than the one which I have many times occupied in the grounds of my friend, Mr. James Duncan, at Benmore. It was a level sweep of lawn, backed by rising terraces covered with fir trees. The people could either occupy the seats below, or drop down upon the grassy banks, as best comported with their comfort; and thus I had part of my congregation in rising galleries above me, and the rest in the area around me. My voice readily ascended, and I conceive that, if the people had been seated up the hill for half-a-mile, they would have been able to hear me with ease. I should suppose that Wesley's favourite spot at Gwennap Pit must be somewhat after the same order. Amphitheatres and hillsides are always favourite spots with preachers in the fields, and their advantages will be at once evident.
Fresh air, and plenty of it, is a grand thing for every mortal man, woman, and child. I have preached twice, on a Sabbath day, at Blairmore not far from Benmore, on a little height by the side of the sea; and, after discoursing with all my might to large congregations, to be counted by thousands, I have not felt one-half so much exhausted as I often am when addressing a few hundreds in some horrible 'black hole of Calcutta,' called a chapel. I trace my freshness and freedom from lassitude at Blairmore to the fact that the windows could not be shut down by persons afraid of draughts, and that the roof was as high as the heavens are above the earth. My conviction is that a man could preach three or four times on a Sabbath out of doors with less fatigue than would be occasioned by one discourse delivered in an impure atmosphere, heated and poisoned by human breath, and carefully preserved from every refreshing infusion of natural air.
I am persuaded that, the more of open-air preaching there is in London, the better. If it should become a nuisance to some people, it will be a blessing to others, if properly conducted. If it be the gospel which is spoken, and if the spirit of the preacher be one of love and truth, the results cannot be doubted: the bread cast upon the waters will be found again after many days. The truth must, however, be preached in a manner worth the hearing, for mere noise-making is an evil rather than a benefit. I know a family almost driven out of their senses by the hideous shouting of monotonous exhortations, and the howling of 'Safe in the arms of Jesus,' near their door every Sabbath afternoon by the year together. They are zealous Christians, and would willingly help their tormentors if they saw the slightest probability of usefulness from the violent bawling; but, as they seldom see a hearer, and do not think that what is spoken would do any good if it were heard, they complain that they are compelled to lose their few hours of quiet because two good men think it their duty to perform a noisy but perfectly useless service. I once saw a man preaching with no hearer but a dog, which sat upon its tail, and looked up very reverently while its master orated. There were no people at the windows, nor passing by, but the brother and his dog were at their post, whether the people would hear or whether they would forbear. Once, also, I passed an earnest declaimer, whose hat was on the ground before him, filled with papers, and there was not even a dog for an audience, nor anyone within hearing, yet did he 'waste his sweetness on the desert air.' I hope it relieved his own mind. Really, it must be viewed as an essential part of a sermon that somebody should hear it; it cannot be a great benefit to the world to have sermons preached in vacuo.
Many years ago, I preached to enormous assemblies in King Edward's Road, Hackney which was then open fields. On those occasions, the rush was perilous to life and limb, and there seemed no limit to the throngs. Half the number would have been safer. That open space has vanished, and it is the same with fields at Brigton, where, in years gone by, it was delightful to see the assembled crowds listening to the Word. Burdened with the rare trouble of drawing too many together, I have been compelled to abstain from these exercises in London, but not from any lessened sense of their importance. With the Tabernacle always full, I have as large a congregation as I desire at home, and therefore do not preach outside except in the country; but for those ministers whose area under cover is but small, and whose congregations are thin, the open air is the remedy, whether in London or in the provinces.
My friend, Mr. Abraham, once produced for me a grand cathedral in Oxfordshire. The remains of it are still called 'Spurgeon's Tabernacle, and may be seen near Minster Lovell, in the form of a quadrilateral of oaks. Originally, it was the beau ideal of a preaching-place, for it was a cleared spot in the thick forest of Wychwood, and was reached by roads cut through the dense underwood. I shall never forget those alleys green' and the verdant walls which shut them in. When you reached the inner temple, it consisted of a large square, out of which the underwood and smaller trees had been cut away, while a sufficient number of young oaks had been left to rise to a considerable height, and then overshadow us with their branches. Here was a really magnificent cathedral, with pillars and arches: a temple not made with hands, of which we might truly Say
I have never, either at home or on the Continent, seen architecture which could rival my cathedral. Lo, we heard of it at Ephratah: we found it in the fields of the wood.' The blue sky was visible through our clerestory, and from the great window at the further end, the sun smiled upon us toward evening. It was grand, indeed, to worship thus beneath the vaulted firmament, beyond the sound of city hum, where everything around us ministered to quiet fellowship with God. That spot is now cleared, and the place of our assembly has been selected at a little distance from it. It is of much the same character, only that my boundary walls of forest growth have disappeared, to give place to an open expanse of ploughed fields. Only the pillars and the roof of my temple remain, but I am still glad, like the Druids, to worship among the oak trees. One year, a dove had built her nest just above my head; and she continued flying to and fro, to feed her young, while the sermon proceeded. Why not? Where should she be more at home than where the Lord of love and Prince of peace was adored? It is true, my arched cathedral is not waterproof, and other showers besides those of grace have sometimes descended upon the congregation, but this has its advantages, for it makes us the more grateful when the day is propitious, and the very precariousness of the weather excites a large amount of earnest prayer.
I once preached a sermon, in the open air, in haying time, during a violent storm of rain. The text was, 'He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth,' and surely we had the blessing as well as the inconvenience. I was sufficiently wet, and my congregation must have been drenched; but they stood it out, and I never heard that anybody was the worse in health, though, I thank God, I have heard of souls brought to Jesus under that discourse. Once in a while, and under strong excitement, such things do no one any harm; but we are not to expect miracles, nor wantonly venture upon a course of procedure which might kill the sickly, and lay the foundations of disease in the strong.
I well remember preaching between the Cheddar Cliffs. What a noble position! 'What beauty and sublimity! But there was great danger from falling pieces of stone, moved by the people who sat upon the higher portions of the cliff, and hence I would not choose such a spot again. Concluding a discourse in that place, I called upon those mighty rocks to bear witness that I had preached the gospel to the people, and to be a testimony against them at the last great day, if they rejected the message. Many years afterwards, I heard of a person to whom that appeal was made useful by the Holy Spirit.
[Pastor T. B. Field has kindly furnished the following particulars relating to that memorable visit to Cheddar, on September 10, 1862. The spot chosen for the afternoon service was a natural amphitheatre at the entrance to the cliffs, and it was estimated that at least ten thousand persons were present. A temporary platform had been erected for the preacher, and Spurgeon commenced the service by saying, 'Let us make these old rocks resound to the praise of God.' The first hymn was, 'All people that on earth do dwell'; and another that was sung was, 'Rock of ages, cleft for me.'
The text--John 14:6, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me'--was written on a great scroll, and fastened to the side of a house, so that the whole congregation could see it. About fifteen hundred persons remained to tea in the Baptist Chapel and burial-ground; and, at the evening service, held in a tent on Bridge Hill just above the cliffs, there was again an enormous crowd. The sermon was upon 'The lifting up of the bowed down,' the text being taken from Luke 13:11-13. One sentence in the discourse has been remembered even to the present day: 'All the devils in hell could not make the woman crooked again after the Lord had made her straight.'
Mr. Field closes his account of the notable day by saying, 'Such crowds have never been seen in Cheddar since; and the good folks of that little town consider that they have been favoured above many, for the prince of preachers has been there. Mr. Spurgeon's visit has had great influence upon the place; and from that time the Baptist community there has been and still is the most influential church for miles round.']
It would be very easy to prove that revivals of religion have usually been accompanied, if not caused, by a considerable amount of preaching out of doors, or in unusual places. The first avowed proclamation of Protestant doctrine was almost necessarily in the open air, or in buildings which were not dedicated to worship, for these were in the hands of the Papacy. True, Wycliffe for a while preached the gospel in the church of Lutterworth; and Huss, and Jerome, and Savonarola for a time delivered semi-gospel addresses in connection with the ecclesiastical arrangements around them; but when they began more fully to know the gospel, and to publish it abroad, they were driven to find other platforms. The Reformation, when yet a babe, was like the newborn Christ, and had not where to lay its head; but a company of men, comparable to the heavenly host, proclaimed it under the open heavens, where shepherds and common people heard them gladly. Throughout England, we have several trees still remaining, which are called 'gospel oaks'. I have myself preached at Addlestone, in Surrey, under the far-spreading boughs of an ancient oak, beneath which John Knox is said to have proclaimed the gospel during his sojourn in England.
I preached at Bristol, many years ago, in the open air; and the service was specially interesting to me from the fact that I had a repetition in my own experience of the scene which Whitefield had there witnessed long before. He said, concerning one of his sermons to the colliers at Kingswood: 'The first discovery of their being affected was, seeing the white gutters made by their tears; which plentifully fell down their black cheeks, for they had come to the service straight from the coal-pits.' I also had a crowd of sailors and colliers--men with black faces--to listen to me, and when I began to talk to them about Christ's redeeming work, I saw the tears streaming down their cheeks; they put up their hands, as if to brush away something from their faces, but really it was in order to hide their tears. It was an affecting sight to behold those rough men, broken down under the preaching of the gospel, and I could fully sympathize with what Whitefield wrote concerning similar services: 'The open firmament above me, the prospect of the adjacent fields, with the sight of thousands and thousands of people, some in coaches, some on horseback, and some in the trees, and, often, all melted to tears--to which sometimes was added the solemnity of the approaching evening--this was almost too much for me to bear; and, occasionally, it quite overcame me.'
Supplementing Spurgeon's own records of preaching in the open air, many friends, in various parts of the country, supplied reminiscences of unforgettable services, but only a few of these can be inserted here. One enthusiastic Welsh brother compiled a list of the outdoor gatherings in Wales addressed by the Pastor. Many of them must have been very notable occasions; the congregations were so large that there was great difficulty in reckoning, with exactness, the number of hearers. Of one assembly, it is said that 'Mr. Spurgeon calculated that 28,000 persons were present;' and of another, the people estimated the crowd at 30,000 to 35,000; Mr. Spurgeon said 25,000.'
A memorable incident, connected with an open-air service at Rowlands' Castle, near Havant, Hampshire, is thus reported by Rev. D. A. Doudney, for fifty-three years the Editor of The Gospel Magazine. On July 12, 1859. Spurgeon preached twice, in a beautiful valley, to large congregations, and, towards the end of the evening sermon, he made a powerful appeal to his hearers in the manner that Mr. Doudney thus described: 'The valley in which we were assembled was a lovely one. It was surrounded by hills clothed with woods and verdure, and on that evening the atmosphere was perfectly calm and still. The sun, which had been shining brightly all day, was sinking in the West; and the large concourse of people, listening with fixed attention to the earnest pleadings of the young preacher, made altogether a scene which one could not easily forget; but although Mr. Spurgeon had spoken with considerable force and energy during the day, and used his noble voice so that every one of his auditors must have heard him distinctly, I, for one, had not noticed that there was a remarkable echo at the spot. The preacher, however, had evidently observed it, and he used the fact in a most effective way. When he came to the close of his last appeal, he exclaimed, with great deliberation and impressiveness, "Yea, even Nature herself confirms and repeats these gracious invitations, for she too says, again and again (here he raised his voice to its highest pitch, and shouted with wonderful power the words) Come--Come--COME." And, instantly, amidst the breathless silence of the congregation, the words were echoed from the hills around, again and again, until they softly died away in the distance--Come--Come--Come--Come--Come. A thrill, like an electric shock, passed through the audience, and probably most of those who were present will remember the circumstance as long as they live.'
William Cuff writes as follows of a service in a meadow at Naunton, on the Cotswold Hills:
'The first time I heard Mr. Spurgeon preach in the open air was in the year 1862. The place was at Naunton, eighteen miles from (Cheltenham. I was but a lad, just then converted to God. Of course I had heard of the mighty man, and went to hear him full of wonder and expectation. The service was held in a lovely meadow, through which meanders the famous Naunton Brook. It was a faultless day, and crowds gathered from all parts round about. All classes came. Work in the fields was suspended and smock frocks were plentiful in the audience. Horses were tethered everywhere and the roads seemed blocked with all kinds of vehicles, from a four-wheel waggon to a brougham. The pulpit was a waggon. Thousands had gathered long before the time to commence the service. We waited eagerly, and so we prayed fervently for saving power to be upon preacher and people. One old man standing near me scarcely ceased praying all the time we waited. When Mr. Spurgeon stood up to commence, he said a fervent 'Amen' and Lord, help him'. It thrilled me.
I shall never forget the ring and tone of that musical though powerful voice as the words fell on our ears, Let us pray'. A profound and holy hush fell on the crowd. It was as still as death. The prayer was simple, short, mighty. Every word was heard. Every tone was felt. It lifted the mass nearer God, and transmuted the meadow into a very house of God. Sinners must have trembled, while saints rejoiced in the presence and power of the Lord. But the prayer was calm and measured. So was the pleader. Mr. Spurgeon did not look or seem the least excited. He stood there as ever he did, like a master of assemblies. The reading and exposition were very powerful, yet most simple and unaffected. Another prayer, not long, but a tender intensely earnest plea that souls might then and there be saved. Then came the text and the sermon-Acts 14:9, 10, 'The same heard Paul speak: who steadfastly beholding him and perceiving that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, Stand upright on thy feet. And he leaped up and walked'. Oh, how he did preach! His rich melodious voice seemed more mellow and musical than ever as it sounded and swelled over the audience in sweetest cadences, rising and falling in rousing and melting tones. It swayed and moved the mass of people, and rang round the meadow, and echoed back from the little hills above the valley with majesty and power both human and Divine, for the Lord was there. It was heaven on earth to be there. Ah me! it is only a memory now; but it is very vivid and it abides amongst the most precious treasures of my life. It stirred my soul to its very depths and I there and then vowed that I would preach Jesus Christ as he did, if that could be possible to me.'
William Cuff subsequently became a student at the Pastors' College and then minister of Shoreditch Tabernacle. His testimony, written after Spurgeon's death, is representative of the many Christians whose lives were profoundly influenced by hearing the Word of God through Spurgeon: 'I loved our glorified President from the first time I met him, and I have always said that, under God, I owe to him everything I have done in the Lord's work. The Shoreditch Tabernacle is his far more than it is mine, for it would never have been built but for C. H. Spurgeon. What could I have been, or done, but for the Pastors' College? Those who knew me in my early days know best what the College did for me. I can only lovingly and gratefully revere the memory of Mr. Spurgeon, and bless the Lord that I ever knew him.'