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Open-Air Preaching: 2 - Open-Air Preaching in the Extension of the Church

By Edwin Hallock Byington

      Christianity is spreading in successive waves, varying in frequency and force, over the earth. Each land in turn is the seat of foreign missionary labor. The methods by which the Gospel secures its foothold are substantially the same everywhere. Among them we find open-air preaching practically universal and seemingly indispensable. It almost might be said that in every land, as in Judea, the message, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy," was proclaimed for the first time to astonished hearers in the open air. In the first centuries, when persecution was often raging and always imminent, the Church extended her reign over men by personal rather than by public efforts. The Christians assembled in houses and halls, in caves and catacombs, where their gatherings would not attract attention. "The first unequivocal mention of buildings designed for public worship occurs," says Kurtz, "in the writings of Tertullian at the close of the second century." Ordinarily, to have gathered a crowd on the street or any public place for a preaching service would have been simply to have invited attack and rekindled the flames of persecution. In this era there were no missionary societies and no celebrated missionaries, but every Christian was a missionary preacher, and many were the open-air sermons preached to audiences of one. On the street, by the wayside, in the fields, as well as in their houses and at their work, were the Christians alert to declare Christ. "Justin Martyr was converted," says Schaff, " by a venerable old man whom he met walking on the shore of the sea." The wonderful growth of the Church, in those times of poverty and persecution, was possible because there were so many preachers like the old man by the sea. There is little to record of this period, but probably never were there so many foreign missionaries not even in this nineteenth century probably never since has the blue sky witnessed so many proclamations of peace on earth, good will to men. In the following centuries we find the great missionaries, Patrick, Augustine, Boniface, and besides these many, not as famous, but as fearless and consecrated. These men did not go to build the cathedrals now standing in the lands of their labors. Their monasteries were not retreats from the world, but centers of Christian activity; not places for gathering congregations, but starting-points for further advances. They did not, however, wait for the erection of these buildings before beginning their work. They always pressed forward rapidly, often with no visible means of support. They penetrated dark, dismal forests, inhabited by hostile warriors, and. beneath their shadows proclaimed the Christian faith. They sailed stormy seas, landed on rugged coasts, and before savage hordes held up the cross. Not more astonished were the pigmies of Africa at the sight of Stanley than were these barbarians at the appearance among them of the monks with their somber dress, their earnest manner, and their fearless though defenseless advance. The missionaries made no delay for the erection of buildings for religious services. That would have been fatal alike to their enterprise and their own lives. Quickly to the crowds questioning who they were, whence and why they came, they earnestly declared their message, sometimes struggling with the newly acquired language of their auditors, sometimes through an interpreter, sometimes through signs. Of course these men were open-air preachers. Circumstances made them such; their own earnestness made them such. Most monks dwelt in monasteries more concerned about their own souls than the perishing peoples of other lands; but some were consecrated to winning the masses for Christ and his Church, determined that in this "dark continent" of the first centuries the idols should be cast down and the cross uplifted. They traveled not in covered coaches, but often on foot, or at best on beasts of burden. In the open air they ate and slept, and there they preached. It was their house; it was their temple. They forgot themselves and their surroundings. They were intense; perhaps they were extravagant in their zeal, and intolerant in their beliefs, and superficial in their work, but they had a Pauline passion for preaching Christ to all men. They had little money, time, and strength for the erection of buildings; they ever pressed on into unconquered and unknown regions. To have limited these missionary monks to decorous in-door services would have been almost impossible. They were irrepressible. An example of their zeal is shown in St. Berard, a Franciscan, who was sent with four other monks to preach the Gospel to the Mohammedans of the West. They began in Spain and then went to Morocco, where they were advised by the resident Christians to moderate their zeal. But the first morning they were out on the streets preaching Jesus Christ to the followers of Mohammed. The king happened to pass them one day, and paused to hear what they were saying. The monk, instead of being awed into silence or moderation, was inspired to greater earnestness in his appeal. The king, thinking him mad, ordered him sent to a Christian country. On the way the missionaries escaped from their guards. Instead of using their liberty to choose another field of labor, they returned to Morocco, and commenced preaching in the public square. Again they were sent away, and again escaping they returned to preach in the same place. These missionaries were not all ignorant, narrow-minded men. Among them was Raymond Lull, "a man who, in the fourteenth century, traveled more than ninety-nine persons out of every hundred in these days of railroads and steamships; a man who wrote more books than almost any man would be able in a lifetime to translate." In his eightieth year he was engaged in missionary work. His friends advised his laboring with those known to be friendly to his cause. He tried this for a time, but it was contrary to the whole nature of the man, and he soon took his stand in the public square and commenced to preach that the only salvation is through Jesus Christ. A crowd gathered about him and commenced an attack when they heard what he was saying. Stones were thrown, and he was driven back out of the city. "Yet grandly he kept his face to the foe, and in a voice from which the enthusiasm of the apostle threw off the weight of four score years, he still proclaimed Christ, 'NONE BUT CHRIST.' At last he fell down on the sandy shore, but rallying his strength for one supreme effort, he raised himself on his hands and knees and shouted, 'NONE BUT CHRIST.' " A Roman Catholic priest, advocating open-air preaching and replying to an objector, says in The Catholic World: "Evidently the writer has small acquaintance with the lives of all renowned heroic and successful Christian missionaries from the Apostles down. Has he never heard of a St. Augustine, who did so much for the conversion of England, or of a St. Boniface, a St. Patrick, a St. Dominic, a St. Francis of Assisi, a St. Anthony of Padua, or a St. Vincent Ferrer ? Has he ever read of how, when, and where all these and thousands of other great missionaries preached to unbelievers? That holy Dominican monk whom I last named is credited with having converted in the kingdom of Spain eight thousand Moors, and thirty-six thousand Jews. Did he take his stand in one or another pulpit of some Catholic church, and from there deliver this miraculous proclamation of the Catholic faith? No, he did what all successful preachers have done. He went to those whom he sought to 'convert.' He did not wait for strange and lost sheep to come back of their own will; but he went where they were to be found and that was anywhere but within the four walls of a Catholic church."

      The most important open-air service since the days of the Apostles was held by some missionaries in the year 597, on the Isle of Thanet, near the mouth of the Thames in England. Pope Gregory, charmed by the sweet faces of the fair-haired Anglo-Saxon boys offered as slaves at Rome, desired to go as a missionary to England. Being prevented, he sent Augustine the monk. King Ethelbert, having married a Christian princess, was kindly disposed, and consented to give the new religion a hearing. They met in the open air. Prayer was offered; the litany was sung, and the Gospel preached. The king saw all the service, and by means of interpreters was enabled to understand what was said. He gave this decision : "Your words and promises are very fair; but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot forsake the religion I have so long followed with the whole English nation. Yet, as you are come from far, and are desirous to benefit us, I will supply you with the necessary sustenance, and not forbid you to preach, and convert as many as you can to your religion." Soon after the king accepted the new faith, received baptism, and gradually drew after him the whole nation. Had the missionaries refused to conduct their service out of doors, or had the king's verdict been unfavorable, the progress of the Gospel in England would long have been delayed. The missionaries of the Middle Ages did not limit their open-air work to the first proclamation. They erected the cross by the roadsides, in the fields, at the foot of which they stood while preaching, and where the people assembled regularly for services of worship. "They gathered around it for public and daily prayer, and were inspired by it with a veneration not less affectionate than that which attached to the sanctuary." These crosses have given names to many localities, and are monuments to the zeal and wisdom of those who were determined that Christ should be brought constantly before all men. Passing from mediaeval to modern missions, we find a marked change in the manner of conducting missionary work. Organizations, receiving the gifts of benevolent Christians, send and sustain the missionaries. The erection of buildings at the outset is possible. Open-air preaching is no longer a necessity in pioneer work. None the less do we find it used. Although at the present time foreign missionaries constitute a small proportion of the ordained ministry, they probably do more open-air preaching than all the rest of us combined. Perhaps the need of it is more apparent; perhaps they are more free from restraint ; perhaps they are more earnest and intense. At any rate, they are leaders in this direction.

      A missionary, having committed to him the spiritual welfare of many hundred, cannot give to each the personal supervision, the weekly instruction possible with the pastor of a few hundred. Still he feels the necessity of doing something to present and keep before them Christ. To accomplish this the system of touring or initiation is employed, and this is simply open-air preaching on a large scale. It is thus described by a missionary: "One or more missionaries and a few native assistants make their preparation to leave home and spend several consecutive weeks, or months, it may be, in itinerating the district. Tents, provisions, and books for distribution are sent in advance. A favorable spot is chosen as a center, and the camp is established in the shade, if it can be found, of some umbrageous grove. Every morning before the dawn lightens the east the missionaries, with their native attendants, sally forth ; and, leaving the nearer villages for evening work, go out to a distance of three or four miles from the encampment. Here they separate into couples, composed usually of one missionary and one catechist. Each party enters a village, and, a favorable position having been secured, a passage of Scripture is read, or a lyric in the vernacular is sung in a loud tone, with a view of collecting the inhabitants. In general, the visitors are almost immediately envisioned by a crowd of dusky auditors, who ordinarily listen with respectful attention to the message of truth. Opportunity is given for asking questions, and amicable discussion is not discouraged. At the close of the interview books and tracts are distributed among those who can read ; and the visitors, after inviting the people to seek further instruction at their tent, pass on to another street, or to a neighboring village, where the same process is repeated. When the circle is completed, and every inhabited spot within its circumference has heard the voice of the preacher, the tents are moved to a new locality. By this plan, systematically and perseveringly followed up year after year, the entire district, large as it is, has been toured over repeatedly, until, it is safe to say, there is no town or village in it which has not become more or less familiar with the teachings of Christianity. Three millions of people have by this agency been brought within Gospel influences." This kind of open-air preaching, though necessarily superficial, secures important results. It gives the people at large a conception of Christianity, which, though crude and imperfect, approximates to the truth. All who have been in mission lands know that the enemies of Christianity spread abroad horrible stories about the lives and teachings of the missionaries. If the natives believe one-half of what is said, it is no wonder that they call them "white devils," and shun their houses and chapels. In these free open-air gatherings they feel reasonably safe, and curiosity is able to overcome their fear. Thus they hear what is said by the missionaries themselves, and have for their thoughts and conversation some idea of the beauty of our faith. The missionary quoted above also says: "It is the simple proclamation of the Gospel that has diffused a knowledge of Christ and his religion throughout large sections. To hundreds of thousands of their inhabitants Christianity is no longer a thing new and strange, but a common and familiar topic of talk and discussion. The missionary is not so often as formerly met with a stare of blank amazement or idle curiosity. Intelligent questions about the leading doctrines of the Gospel prove that his message has been pondered and canvassed by thinking minds. Confidence in pagan myths and hoary superstitions is manifestly shaken." Thus is the field prepared for a more permanent and effective occupation. When, later, a missionary or a native catechist occupies such a village, when a school is started, a congregation sought, a chapel erected, opposition has largely spent itself, prejudice has been removed, and possibly some sympathy created. Says a missionary of the American Madura Mission: "These journeys have opened up the waste places of the field, and assisted materially in the extension of our work in the villages. Scarcely a year goes by in which congregations are not organized through these efforts, and frequently individuals are found who date their interest in Christianity from these visits."

      Another missionary relates this illustration of that very thing: "The first preaching tour I ever took in the Ellore district was signalized by showing me an open door, with which all subsequent increase was connected. I was preaching in a village twenty miles from Ellore to a group of weavers, and on the outskirts stood listening a little boy, not more than ten years old, whose heart the Lord opened to attend to the message, then heard for the first time. He was instantly convinced and sought opportunity to join me and make known his wishes, but he was foiled on that occasion. Six months afterwards I again approached the place, and then the boy insisted on his father going with him to my tent. A connection was then formed, which led to a large ingathering of souls." Conversions occasionally occur as a direct result of these open-air services; the way is prepared for larger and more permanent effort; but their greatest value, perhaps, lies in indicating the field ripe for the harvest, and the strategic points for occupation. Blindly to plant stations, erect buildings, would result often in a waste of time, strength, and money. These tours are guides in the future development of the work and save many a fruitless and discouraging experiment.

      The missionaries, however, by no means limit their open-air preaching to touring. In the vicinity of their established stations they constantly make shorter excursions, preaching in a place, not once a year, but frequently and regularly. Their coming is expected. The same persons are seen often in the audience. Impressions can be deepened; truths can be clinched; interest fostered and results gathered. This work is more satisfactory in that the harvest is more apparent and sooner ripe.

      Open-air preaching is also sustained in the villages and cities where the work has been well established and is equipped with buildings. Here the circumstances are more like those in Christian lands. Still the missionaries reach out after the people. They go to them, because they can reach a class of hearers who would not be met in any other way. They come into personal contact with all classes and awaken an interest in the Gospel. The method and spirit of their work is well illustrated by the following account: "We have selected about a dozen places in different parts of the town, where a congregation can be secured without collecting a mob, and these we visit in regular order. We go out two and two. Hearers are easily obtained by singing a lyric, or reading a portion of Scripture, of which the Book of Proverbs catches the ear of the people soonest. The congregation is made up of those passing at the time and a few who come from the neighboring houses. Side by side are the Hindu and Muslim, the scavenger and the merchant, the official arrested on his way to office, and the Brahmin on his way to his morning ablutions --a motley throng and one difficult to please. After preaching, hand-bills are distributed in the immediate neighborhood, and with these, as occasion offers, a few kind and serious words are said. There is another way, and one, perhaps, more in keeping with the habits of the people--to sit down with a small company in a veranda, or under a spreading Banyan tree, and there in peace and quietness to discourse on sacred things.

      "There is for me something very touching and impressive in the sight of a crowd of Hindus, gathered in the streets of their own city and under the shadow of their ancient temples to hear a white-faced stranger from another continent speak to them of the Great Father from whom they have hopelessly wandered. I can never look such a concourse in the face without emotion. I almost feel that some apology is necessary. ' Friends,' I say, I come by command of the Almighty, to tell you something new--to tell you of One who died for His enemies. In your Shasta's it is said that the gods have visited the earth at different times: one, as when the sea was churned in quest of the lost nectar, to help their friends; again, as Rama, the hero of the solar line, to destroy the wicked; and many times to tamper with the virtue of the good; but never one to save their foes; never to help man, crouching like an over-burdened beast under the load of his iniquities. 'But God commendeth His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.' 'Yes,' they say, 'that is something new.' And this opens the way for speaking of man's sinfulness and Christ's willingness and ability to save."

      So great value is put on this work that the missionaries not only take their native helpers with them, but also train them to go out alone and conduct open-air services. Though the natives have not the assistance in securing an audience of that curiosity always aroused by a foreigner, they do succeed.

      In the report of the Marathi Mission, India, sent me by the Rev. Henry:

      Fairbank, I find the following interesting account of a tour by thirteen native Christians. They went to a village where was being held a fair in honor of the god Khandoba, at which 50,000 people were present. "The principal ceremonies are those connected with the marriage of young girls to the god Khandoba, thus, in the name of religion, devoting them to lives of public prostitution. Many parents bring their young and innocent daughters and present them as offerings to the vile gods. One of our preachers, in describing what they saw, says: 'The scene of credulous worshipers offering their daughters to the god Khandoba for immoral purposes, the throwing lavishly on the god of cocoanut kernels and tumeric powder, the licentious acts of the young people in connection with the "merry-go-round," the obscene songs of the worshipers, the loud discordant tones of different religious mendicants, the tinkling of cymbals, the pickpockets going about in the crowd to carry out their wicked designs, the jabbering of persons intoxicated, the shrill sounds of various kinds of drums and other musical instruments, and the excited talking of many shop-keepers and their customers, all these things made the place look like the stronghold of Satan. On witnessing such scenes, the spirits of our preachers were stirred within them, and with earnest prayer for God's help and direction they commenced singing a Christian hymn. Immediately a great crowd gathered around them, and listened in perfect silence while they preached to them the words of life. Speaking in turn they continued until all were weary, but even then the people were unwilling to let them go. They spoke plainly in regard to the abominations which were going on near by, but all assented to the truth, and no one objected to their plain speaking. Thus it was every time our preachers appeared during the three days of their stay. They were surrounded by large numbers of people, who seemed to be thirsting for the truth, and who eagerly drank in every word. Some also followed the Christians to their tent and were further instructed and prayed with there."

      Open-air preaching certainly has played a prominent part in the extension of the Church. It is the easiest and most effective way of pushing Christianity into new territory. 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.

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See Also:
   Open-Air Preaching: Introduction
   Open-Air Preaching: 1 - Open-Air Preaching in the Establishment of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 2 - Open-Air Preaching in the Extension of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 3 - In the Reformation of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 4 - In the Normal Life of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 5 - The More of It, the Better!
   Open-Air Preaching: 6 - As A Factor in City Evangelization
   Open-Air Preaching: 7 - Who Will Go For Us?
   Open-Air Preaching: 8 - The Best Methods


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