You're here: » Articles Home » Edwin Hallock Byington » Open-Air Preaching » 3 - In the Reformation of the Church

Open-Air Preaching: 3 - In the Reformation of the Church

By Edwin Hallock Byington

      Ever since the establishment of the Church there have been men protesting against the error, corruption, or coldness which from time to time have crept into it. They have all been intense and determined men bent on a purpose and caring little where they preached if only the desired end was attained. It is not surprising, therefore, to find most of them open-air preachers.

      In the Dark Ages preaching had disappeared largely from the religious services. The ritual culminating in the mass occupied most of the time and attention. Neither was the service in the vernacular. Then there arose men who commenced to preach, using the language of the people. They were the forerunners of the Reformation, preaching repentance, and attacking corrupt practices rather than false beliefs. They demanded that people, priests, and pope should repent, should " cease to do evil, learn to do well." Their preaching was done in the open air; as the church was not considered the place for preaching, but for the mass, and its language must be Latin, not the common speech. The only proper places for the profane work of preaching in the vernacular were outside of consecrated buildings.

      Many of these men appeared independently in different places during the twelfth century. Among them was Peter of Bruys, an intense, narrow fanatic. He recognized deep-seated evils in the Church, and against these he buried his protests, fearlessly denouncing them in street and market-place. He said, "God may be worshiped just as well in the shop or in the market-place as in the church. God hears wherever He is called upon, and listens to the worthy suppliant whether he prays before an altar or in a stall." In his zeal he failed to distinguish between the good and the evil. The religion taught and practiced at that time by the Church consisted of devotion to things seen rather than to things unseen. That he knew was wrong, and therefore he attacked whatever was visible in religious life, even condemning church buildings, some of which were destroyed through his influence. He was as intolerant of indoor services as some are to-day of outdoor services. Going from place to place, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes driven by persecution, he preached wherever an audience would gather, exalting the Bible, and especially the four gospels, and demanding a discontinuance of the formal and corrupt practices of the Church.

      Perhaps associated with Peter of Bruys, certainly, following him closely, came the monk Henry of Clugny. Not so heretical, nor so fanatical and narrow, but as intense and fearless, he left his monastery to preach repentance. Clad in the dress of a monk, barefooted, and bearing a cross in his hand, he proclaimed his message with great fervor and eloquence, demanding that priests and people alike should forsake their sinful ways. His attacks on the corruptions of the Church created great excitement, and were received with enthusiasm. Wherever he went he made a deep impression, and ecclesiastics opposed him in vain. The people deserted the churches and flocked to him. "The churches are without people," it was reported to the Pope, "the people without priests, the priests without the reverence due them, and Christians without Christ. The voice of a single heretic silences all." He was twice imprisoned, the last time being condemned to imprisonment for life.

      About the same time came Arnold, pupil of Abelard, but possessed of a stronger character than his master. " In the garb of a monk and with a countenance which bespoke his decision and capacity, but which had already become marked with many cares, Arnold commenced his stormy career as a preacher in the streets of Brescia." Great was the impression made and the opposition aroused. Banishment resulted. But he could not be stopped. At Paris and afterward at Rome he thundered away at the evils within the Church of Christ. Attributing them all to the possession of wealth by the clergy and of temporal power by the Church, he demanded a return to Apostolic poverty, and a devotion to strictly spiritual work. At the close his preaching assumed a political aspect, but it had the same end in view. Certainly a street preacher at the gates of the Vatican denouncing the temporal power of the Pope is a dramatic figure. Neander says, " It was long since the voice of freedom had echoed among the seven hills, and her authority in the present instance was precarious and of short duration." Arnold soon exchanged the open air for the prison, and was finally put to death.

      Of all the open-air preachers of this century the most attractive in their character and lives and the most influential in their preaching, were the Poor Men of Lyons. Peter Waldo, a rich merchant, startled by the sudden death of a companion, changed the entire course of his life. He gave his wife part of his wealth for her support, provided for his daughters, and then distributed all the remainder to the hungry poor. Becoming interested in the Bible, he devoted much time to its study. He gathered others about him, and from the study of the Bible they turned easily and naturally to its exposition, and became street preachers. They attracted attention and then opposition, and finally were silenced. Peter Waldo appealed to the Pope, declaring they did not wish to preach, but simply to read and expound the Scriptures in public places. Permission was granted, subject to the approval of the ecclesiastic in whose territory they wished to labor. This was practically a refusal. They at last broke away from the Church, denied her right to forbid them, and two by two, in plain dress and with evidence of their poverty, they scattered in every direction. Their sincerity was apparent, their zeal unbounded, their devotion to the Scripture complete. They were not crushed easily and speedily, and their influence was wide and permanent. They almost brought the Reformation, and would have succeeded had not Rome sent forth her own open-air preachers, who overcame their influence by opposing them before the people in the street and market-place, and by attacking, in the name of the Church, some of the evils denounced by Peter, Henry, Waldo, and their followers.

      These preaching friars, being under the direct control of Rome, were not reformers, nor were they at all in the line of the subsequent Reformation; but they were revivalists. The leaders were generally consecrated and spiritually minded, sincere, and zealous, striving to live holy lives, and urging others to do the same. Their immediate followers caught their spirit and enthusiasm, but existing corruptions soon entered their ranks and destroyed their earnestness and spiritual power. Many might be named. There was Robert, founder of the Cistercian order of monks, who received from Pope Urban II permission to preach everywhere. As he traveled 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. Norbert, founder of the order of Premonstrants, received a similar privilege and used it for the same purpose. " With naked feet and clad in his sheepskins, Norbert proceeded even in the depths of winter, when snow reached his knees, to travel from town to town, from hamlet to hamlet, preaching repentance as he passed along." In the thirteenth century came St. Francis, among the heathen a missionary, among the Christians a revivalist, among the monks a reformer. He commenced his religious work preaching in the streets of Assisi, where he gathered about him a band of young men, the nucleus of his future powerful order. He always was an open-air preacher. Mrs. Oliphant, in her life of St. Francis, gives a charming little incident from the life of this austere and fearless preacher. " On another occasion when he was preaching in the town of Alva, the swallows, with their perpetual twittering, incommoded the audience. Francis had gone up to a high piece of ground that he might be seen of all, and had asked silence of the assembled people. But the birds were flitting about in airy circles, making their nests, chirping, and calling to each other overhead in the blue heavens of the Italian sky. When it became apparent that these sweet disturbers of the peace prevented their human companions from hearing the word of God, the preacher turned and courteously saluted the little nest builders : ' My sisters, it is now time that I should speak. Since you have have had your say, listen now in your turn to the word of God, and be silent till the sermon is finished.'"

      Of St. Dominic it is said that he preached to whatever people he met and could gather about him as he journeyed along the highway. The followers of these two great leaders were not slow in following the example given them. Vast numbers in the two orders have been street preachers. Some obscure, of limited talents and opportunities, preached to little groups scattered here and there in the villages; others, like Bethold and Anthony and Bernard, eloquent and popular, spoke to immense audiences numbered by the thousands. The Dominicans were more conservative than the Franciscans, who preached anywhere and everywhere; and we find one of the former, Hubert de Romanis, objecting to preaching at fairs, on account of the noise and confusion, but advocating its use in the fields and church-yards.

      Whatever we may think of its accuracy, the following statement by a Roman Catholic writer is suggestive: "He is not a very profound student of history who does not know that Christian society was saved from falling into Lutherism by Pope Gregory the Ninth sending the Dominican and Franciscan preachers to tramp around the cities and villages of Europe, with hearty encouragements to preach wherever they could, and with his full permission to set up an altar and say mass out of doors, indoors, by the roadside, under the trees, in a word, anywhere, if by such means they could readily assemble a crowd of people and preach to them." Whether their influence was for good or for evil, the open-air preachers sent forth by the Romish Church for several centuries certainly were a tremendous power.

      The natural result of all this preaching in the open air was its re-introduction into the regular ministrations of the Church. From occasional sermons by bishops it spread to frequent discourses by the priests. It is true these were often superficial and silly as well as erroneous in their teachings, but they opened the way for the work of the Reformation. At first much of the preaching was done from pulpits erected in the church-yards, but gradually the church edifice was used more and more for this purpose.

      Though the reformers of the fourteenth and later centuries preached from indoor pulpits, they by no means discarded work in the open air. Wicliff, realizing the value of popular preaching, sent forth two by two his "poor priests." Later in his work he took laymen as well as priests, and, having trained them, sent them to preach to the people. These men, dressed in long coarse red garments, barefooted, with staff in hand, went from village to village, preaching repentance and faith. It was their custom to read from Wiclif's translation of the Bible and then to expound its meaning. So great was the impression made and the opposition aroused that an act of Parliament in 1382 expressed the complaint of the clergy that persons in frieze gowns, without licenses, were going from place to place, preaching not only in the churches, but also in churchyards, at market-places, and fairs. Not only were they in favor with the people who flocked to hear them, but the soldiers mingling with the crowd stood armed ready to defend them from all assaults. The value placed by Wiclif himself on the work done by these open-air preachers is shown by what he wrote for their guidance and in their defense.

      We find open-air preaching practised by others whom he influenced, notably Huss in Bohemia. For years he had preached in Bethlehem church) where he enjoyed great freedom. In 1412 his enemies succeeded in dislodging him, and at the king's request he left the city. But he was not to be suppressed thus, and commenced preaching in the open air wherever he went. He thus speaks in defense of his action : " The command that forbids me to preach is opposed to the word and example of both Christ and His apostles. Christ preached to the people on the sea, in the desert, in the open field, in houses, in synagogues, in villages, in the streets; and the apostles preached everywhere, the Lord helping them. The command, moreover, is opposed to the interests of the Church in forbidding the word to have free course." Immense congregations gathered abo.ut him wherever he appeared, and the Gospel for a season did have fre6 course. How much he thus accomplished is shown by these words from one of his biographers: " The impression made was in many cases deep and abiding. Years did not efface it. When Huss afterward was enclosed by prison walls in the city of Constance, there were thousands of his Bohemian countrymen, far distant - from Prague, on whose hearts his memory was deeply engraven by the experience wrought within them through the words that were uttered now." When the Reformation at last burst the barriers which had so long restrained it and swept over North Western Europe, it was carried along by the enthusiasm of open-air preaching. Luther did his work mainly with the pen and before diets and dignitaries, but he did not hesitate to use this means also. At Zwickau he preached to 25,000 people gathered in the market-place and showed his power by deeply impressing the audience, though disturbed by the shrieks of a crazy woman. His followers went everywhere, proclaiming the truth. D'Aubigne says, " If not permitted to preach in the church, the preaching took place elsewhere, and every place became a temple. At Husum, in Holstein, Herman Tast, then on 'his way from Wittenberg, and to whom the parochial clergy denied the use of the church, preached to an immense multitude under the shade of two large trees adjoining the church-yard, not far from the spot where seven centuries before Anschar had first proclaimed the Gospel to a heathen auditory. At Armstadt Gaspard Gittel, an Augustine friar, preached in the market-place. At Dantzic the Gospel was proclaimed from an eminence outside the city. At Gosslar a student of Wittenberg opened the new doctrines, in a plain planted with lime trees, from which circumstance the evangelical Christians there obtained the appellation of the Lime-tree Brethren." I do not know a more vivid account of the persistent desire of both preachers and people for the proclamation of Gospel than this simple account by the same writer of what occurred at Worms : " The imperial decree overawed the magistrates ; the churches were all closed ; but a preacher, taking his stand on a rudely constructed pulpit in a square thronged with an immense multitude, proclaimed the glad tidings with persuasive earnestness. If the authorities showed a disposition to interfere, the people dispersed in an instant, hastily carrying off their pulpit ; but no sooner had the officers of authority passed by than they again erected their pulpit in some more retired spot, to which the multitude would again flock together. This temporary pulpit was every day set up in one spot or another, and served as a rallying point for the people."

      In the Netherlands field preaching played a prominent part in the spread of the Reformation. In 1562 there had been some public preaching near Ypres, but that was speedily suppressed. In 1566, however, the eagerness for the truth could not be restrained and manifested itself in huge gatherings in the fields to listen to the preaching. The audiences which assembled included all classes of people. "The gentry of the place, the rich merchants, the notables as well as the humbler artisans and laborers, all had received the infection." Some came on foot; others were on horseback. Many were armed to resist if there should be any opposition: Although Margaret had offered a reward of seven hundred crowns to the man who would bring her a preacher alive or dead, men of all classes were ready to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. Monks, like Modet and Peter Dalthenus, who had renounced their vows, took the lead. Theologians, like Francis Junius, joined in the field work. There were men of high rank like " Peregrine de la Grange, of a noble family in Provence, with the fiery blood of Southern France in his veins, brave as his nation, learned, eloquent, enthusiastic, who galloped to his field preaching on horseback, and fired a pistol shot as a signal for his congregation to give attention. To the ineffable disgust of the conservatives in Church and state, there were men of little education, utterly devoid of Hebrew, of lowly station, hatters, curriers, tanners, dyers, and the like, who began to preach also."

      Motley, in his " Dutch Republic," from which the above is quoted, tells of meetings held at a bridge near Tournay, where 6,000 people assembled June 28, 1566, at eleven o'clock at night. Two days later io,ooo came together to hear the preaching; and a week later the congregation numbered 20,000. At the hours of these open-air services Tournay was literally emptied of its inhabitants. The streets were as silent as if war or pestilence had swept the place. Motley continues thus : "Throughout Flanders similar scenes were enacted. Thus the preaching spread throughout the Walloon provinces to the Northern Netherlands. Toward the end of July an apostate monk of singular eloquence, Peter Gabriel, was announced to preach at Overeen near Haarlem. This was the first field preaching which had taken place in Holland. The people were wild with enthusiasm, the authorities beside themselves with apprehension. People from the country flocked into town by thousands. The services commenced with the singing of a psalm by the whole assemblage. No anthem from the worldrenowned organ in that ancient city ever awakened more lofty emotions than did those ten thousand human voices ringing from the grassy meadows in that fervid mid-summer noon. When all was silent again, the preacher rose, a little meager man, who looked as if he might rather melt away beneath the blazing sunshine of July, than hold the multitudes enchained by the magic of his tongue. His text was verses 8, <), and io of the second chapter of Ephesians; and, as the slender monk spoke to-his simple audience of God's grace and of faith in Jesus, who had descended from above to serve the lowliest and the most abandoned, if they would put their trust in Him, his hearers were alternately exalted with fervor or melted into tears. At times, according to one who was present, not a dry eye was to be seen in the crowd."

      So it was wherever the Reformation spread. Most interesting accounts might be given of Farel preaching in the secluded meadows and wooded ravines of that Alpine region where he had rambled when a boy ; of Wishart preaching at Mauchline in Scotland from a ditch-dike, and at Dundee, when the plague raged there, standing at the city gate, the infected persons on one side and those that were whole on the other; of young John Livingstone who preached in the church-yard, so that "not less than 500 of his hearers found Christ, though it rained in torrents during a considerable part of the time"; of John Welsh who gathered his congregations by the river Tweed, between England and Scotland, that he might escape if sought by the authorities of either; of John Bunyan and hosts of others who preached in the open qir. All are familiar with the thrilling accounts of the meetings held by the Scotch covenanters in the depths of the forests, in the fastnesses of the mountains, often by night, which kept alive the fire of the pure faith that Popery so eagerly and relentlessly sought to extinguish. But I must omit these and multitudes of accounts of other interesting open-air services held in those days of self-sacrificing loyalty to truth and righteousness.

      As time passed, the ardor of the Reformation diminished, coldness entered the Church, and the use of open-air preaching gradually grew less and less ; but in the eighteenth century it again sprang into prominence and importance in the time of the revival of which Methodism was born. " It was by field preaching and in no other possible way," remarks a thoughtful critic, "that England could be roused from its spiritual slumber, or Methodism spread over the country and rooted where it spread." "The men who commenced and achieved this arduous" service and they were scholars and gentlemen displayed a courage far surpassing that which carries the soldier through the hailstorm of the battlefield. Ten thousand might more easily be found who would confront a battery, than two with the sensitiveness of education about them, could mount a table by the roadside, give out a psalm, and gather a mob." Wesley was not a rough, rude radical, but a sensitive, reverent man. He says in his diary, " I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, having been all my life till very lately so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in a church." In reality, Wesley followed Whitefield in taking up open-air preaching, who in turn may have been influenced by the leaders of the revival in Wales, both clergymen and laymen having commertced to practice it.

      Whitefield had been refused access to the churches, and desiring to preach to the rough colliers of Kingswood determined to address them in the open air. His first audience consisted of 200 colliers to whom he spoke from Matt. v. 1, 2, and 3, - a most pertinent text, as he had taken his stand on Hannan Mount. In his diary are these words written after this service : "Blessed be God, the ice is now broke and I have now taken the field. Some may censure me, but is there not cause ? Pulpits are denied, and the poor colliers ready to perish for lack of knowledge." At his next service 2,000 were present. The numbers continued to increase until as many as 20,000 were reported as present at one time. Whitefield deeply moved his rough auditors, upon whose blackened cheeks the falling tears marked their path.

      Here it was that Wesley came to Whitefield and went with him one Sunday to these services. On Monday morning Whitefield started for London, and that afternoon Wesley commenced. He says he made himself more vile than he had been on the preceding day, by preaching on the highway. The next Sunday he determinedly entered upon the work of open-air preaching.

      Whitefield went on his way to London, preaching at different places, including Stonehouse, where three thousand people stood during the entire service outdoors, though it rained the whole time. At London some of his friends feared he would do the same thing there. He says, "We knelt down and prayed that nothing might be done rashly," It soon became a necessity, and then commenced those most remarkable open-air services at Moorfields and Kennington Common, the former reaching the roughest element in London, and the latter attracting the higher grades of society. In each place the audiences numbered thousands, and the spiritual results were far-reaching and permanent.

      When Whitefield returned to America he continued working in the same way. Ten thousand persons stood for an hour and a half during his farewell sermon on leaving Philadelphia Franklin's newspaper contained this account of what followed: "On Thursday last the Rev. Mr. Whitefield left this city and was accompanied to Chester by about i$oh0rse, and preached to about 7,000 people. On Friday he preached at Willings Town to about 5,000 ; on Saturday at Newcastle to about 2,500; and the same evening at Christiana Bridge to about 3,000. On Sunday at White Clay Creek he preached twice, resting about half an hour between the sermoris, to about 8,000, of whom 3,000, it is computed, came on horseback. It rained most of the time, and yet they stood in the open air." Wesley, once launched in this work in England, and recognizing its necessity and value, pressed forward vigorously. One of the most interesting services he ever held was in the home of his youth at Epworth. He offered to assist in the service of the parish church where his father had labored so many years) but his proffers were declined. As the people came from the church in the afternoon, John Taylor stood at the door and announced that as the church had been refused Wesley would preach in the church-yard that evening at six o'clock. A large audience assembled. Wesley preached standing on his father's. tomb. His text was, "The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost." It must have been a strange sight, a son standing on his father's tomb and preaching there the words of eternal life because refused admission to his father's church. He says of this time, "I am well assured that I did far more good to my Lincolnshire parishoners by preaching three days on my father's tomb, than I did by preaching three years in his pulpit." (Seepage 71.) Another interesting service, described in all the lives of Wesley, was held at Bath, where Beau Nash, a gambler, called "King of Bath," possessed almost absolute authority. While Wesley was preaching, Nash came along, and making his way through the crowd, asked the preacher by what authority he did these things. "By the authority of Jesus Christ." "This is contrary to Act of Parliament ; this is a conventicle," rejoined Nash. "Sir," said Wesley, "the conventicles mentioned in that act are seditious meetings, but this is not such ; here is no shadow of sedition; therefore, it is not contrary to that act." " I say it is," retorted Nash, "and besides your preaching frightens people out of their wits." " Sir," said Wesley, "did you ever hear me preach?" "No." "How then can you judge of what you never heard ?" "Sir, by common report," was the answer. "Common report is not enough," replied Wesley; " give me leave, sir, to ask, is not your name Nash?" "My name is Nash." "Sir, I dare not judge of you by common report," was Wesley's keen answer. The disturber was taken back by this attack, and, finding popular feeling against him, soon withdrew.

      Wesley, however, did not always rid himself so quickly of his opponents, who often broke up the meetings. Sometimes the mob, sometimes the authorities attacked him. He often received treatment similar to that which befell his followers, and which is thus described : "A string of pack horses is so driven as to break up a congregation, and a fire engine is brought out and played over the throng to achieve the same purpose. Handbells, old kettles, marrow bones and cleavers, trumpets, drums, and entire bands of music, were engaged to drown the preachers' voices. In one case the parish bull was let loose, and in others, dogs were set to fight. The preachers needed to have faces set like flints, and so, indeed, they had." Protection was not secured by the authorities, nor justice given in the courts. The press and the pulpit sent forth fierce and bitter attacks. Dr. Trapp preached four sermons against Wesley and his followers, i~which he says : "For a clergyman of the Church of Englandto pray and preach in the fields in the country or in the streets of the city, is perfectly new. I am ashamed to speak upon a subject which is a reproach not only to our Church and country, but to human nature itself. Can it promote the Christian religion to turn it into riot, tumult, and confusion ? to make it ridiculous and contemptible, and expose it to the scorn and scoffs of infidels and atheists ? Go not after these imposters and seducers, but shun them as you would the plague." He calls them hypocrites, enthusiasts, novelists, ignis fatui, glaring meteors, in the bonds of iniquity, in the gall of bitterness. "They met," says a writer, "the opposition of vulgar mobs, fiery priests, lampooning pamphleteers, unjust magistrates and grand juries." But Wesley persevered in this kind of work during all his life, and a short time before his death, when 87 years of age, he preached at Winchelsea in the open air under an ash known afterwards as "Wesley's Tree."

      Spurgeon thus estimates the open-air preaching of this period: "Glorious were those great gatherings in fields and commons which lasted throughout the long period in which Wesley and Whitefield blessed our nation. Field preaching was the wild note of the birds singing in the trees, in testimony that the true spring-time of religion had come. Birds in cages may sing more sweetly, perhaps, but their music is not so natural, nor so sure a pledge of the coming summer. It was a blessed day when Methodists and others began to proclaim Jesus in the open air; then were the gates of hell shaken, and the captives of the devil set free by hundreds and thousands."

      These few selections from many possible, make it evident, that without open-air preaching, some movements of world-wide spiritual influence in the reformation of the Church would have "been smothered in their infancy, many would have been simply local in their sphere, and all would have failed to secure the results actually attained; and that it has been par excellence the reformer's method of winning the masses to his cause.

Back to Edwin Hallock Byington index.

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


Like This Page?

© 1999-2019, All rights reserved.