"The more of it the better. The more of it the better, the whole world around." These inspiring words of the great preacher, who has since passed from the scene of his earthly labors, lead naturally from a consideration of what has been to what should be. Little, comparatively, is being done. Preaching in the open air might be increased a thousandfold, if the Church adopted it heartily, as it has the Sunday-school and prayer-meeting. The wisdom of such an adoption and the pertinence of Mr. Spurgeon's words are to be ascertained in the light of the present opportunity and need.
THERE IS NO LACK OF OPPORTUNITY. The peculiar characteristics of modern life are favorable for open-air preaching. In these days houses are built closer together, their rooms are smaller, their yards are disappearing. Almost everybody is crowded, in town as well as city. Multitudes have in their private apartments no convenient place in which to enjoy their leisure time. As a consequence spare moments are naturally, perhaps necessarily, spent on the streets. At certain hours of the day these are filled with people chatting, laughing, visiting. The street is the poor man's reception-room.
Another cause sends people outdoors. The majority work in ill-ventilated, sunless offices, stores, factories, where they seldom enjoy the combination of fresh air and sunshine. For these they thirst as the "hart panteth after the water-brooks." Crowded in huge buildings by day and little rooms by night, they are eager to get outdoors. Vast multitudes spend their unemployed hours on the street and in other open places. Here they are at leisure, ready to hear and see anything. A public speaker is a diversion, and not an intrusion. In the past the preacher has generally called the people from tent and castle and cottage out into the open air to his service. Now, they are outdoors already. The audience is there before the preacher. There is no lack of opportunity.
Furthermore, the right to address people in public places has been extended. In Protestant countries local governments are growing more liberal, and the public are generally friendly. In missionary fields foreign influence at the native courts usually secures needed protection. This is not universal, and intense hostility is often manifested by both people and authorities. The Salvation Army and others many times have been treated shamefully. Still permission and protection for the open-air preacher are far more general than formerly; and more places and people are ready for his efforts. Certainly never before in the history of the Church have the opportunities for open-air work been so numerous, safe, and satisfactory as at the present time.
THE NEED IS AS GREAT AS THE OPPORTUNITY. It IS needed for the further extension of the Church of Christ. The greater part of the world still remains unconquered; but more of it is open for the entrance of the Gospel than ever before, and more countries are actually the scene of missionary activity. In almost every land, amid scores of languages, are thousands of men seeking to extend the Master's kingdom among the millions of heathendom. Far-reaching, systematic, and persistent are the efforts made. Every method valuable in missionary work is of more value to-day than at any previous time in the history of the Church. Of these, open-air preaching has proved most effective. Surely, it may be said, the more of it the better, in every missionary field the whole world around.
It is needed for the further reformation of the Church. There are more Roman Catholics to-day than in the time of Luther; and though, some gross abuses have been discarded, the supremacy of the Scriptures and the sufficiency of a simple faith in Christ, for which Luther contended, and which are the heritage of Protestantism, are not at all accepted. The cardinal errors remain. The work of reformation is still a need. The more the better the whole world around of every agency which has been successful in winning to a true and living faith in Christ those who are His in name only, and in compelling the Church to harmonize its teachings with the Master's.
This is needed in the normal life of the Church in Protestant lands. The very people who offer in public places material for open-air congregations are the ones who come the least under the ordinary ministrations of the Church. The educated classes are largely connected with the Church, as is shown by the remarkably large proportion of Christians in our higher schools and colleges. The family of wealth having no church relationship is the exception and not the rule. The people working in shops, living in little rooms, and spending their leisure on the streets, constitute the large majority of the nonchurch-going classes. The opportunity offered the open-air preacher enables him to reach the very ones he is eager to reach, and who need him. The opportunity is providential.
It may be thought that Mr. Spurgeon's words are too sweeping, and that while needed in general the whole world around, in Protestant countries open-air preaching is adapted only to peculiar localities and special circumstances which require extraordinary efforts; and that in the large majority of cases and places it can do little good. It is true that any particular form of open-air preaching is not adapted to all circumstances, but it is equally true that almost all Christians are called upon at times to face situations where the introduction of some form of it would be fruitful of good results.
It could be used advantageously in country and town during the summer in place of the regular church service. At the customary hour the congregation assembling in grove, or meadow, or churchyard, would find the service far more restful and inspiring than in a close, walled audience-room, A prayermeeting held some bright evening on lawn or piazza would prove more refreshing to body and soul than if held in the lecture-room with its heat and heavy atmosphere. In the life of Rev. John G. Paton, missionary to the Hebrides, occurs an account of such a gathering which would be as delightful in a Christian as in a heathen land. Mrs. Paton says in a letter: "Namakei never fails, when well, to take Mr. Paton's Bible and lay it on the desk every Sabbath and Wednesday before the service; and to get the people in the village assembled for worship, which we have every evening under a large banyan tree in the lmrai (the public meeting-ground), the great place of general rendezvous, which is close beside our house. I particularly enjoy this evening service, when all nature is at rest and looks so exquisitely beautiful, everything reflecting the gorgeous sunsets, and nothing heard but the soft rustle of the leaves, and what Longfellow calls the 'symphony of the ocean.' I think the natives too are inspired with it, for none of us seem inclined to move off after worship, and often, but especially on Sabbath evenings, we sit still and sing over all our hymns."
The church of which I formerly was pastor, the Eastern Avenue of Springfield, Mass., held some Sabbath evening services during July and August on the church grounds at about the hour of sunset. The audiences were larger than at our regular indoor services, and the spiritual life of the church was quickened and refreshed. As a consequence, the church was in a better condition at the close than at the beginning of the summer. Instead of spending the fall in preparation for active work, we were ready to put forth at once earnest hearty efforts. The mere change itself was beneficial. When we returned to the customary services, they seemed fresh and more attractive. Their monotony had vanished.
There is some ground for the claim of those who discontinue some or all the religious services during the summer. They believe the work will be taken up in the fall with vigor and enthusiasm, instead of wearily and listlessly after a monotonous and disheartening summer's efforts. A little change isindeed often the best tonic for soul as well as for body. But all these and many other advantages would be gained by a change instead of a cessation of work. Securing this, the remaining months would be more enjoyable and fruitful, and the summer would not be as barren as it often is. Most country and town churches would be profited greatly by a few open-air services during the summer.
Mr. Spurgeon is very hearty and emphatic on this subject, saying: "I am quite sure, too, that if we could persuade our friends in the country to come out a good many times in the year, and hold a service in a meadow, or in a shady grove, or on the hillside, or in a garden, or on a common, it would be all the better for the usual hearers. The mere novelty of the place would freshen their interest, and wake them up. The slight change of scene would have a wonderful effect upon the more somnolent. See how mechanically they move into their usual place of worship, and how mechanically they go out again. They fall into their seats, as if at last they had found a resting place; they rise to sing with an amazing effort, and they drop down before you have time for a doxology at the close of the hymn, because they did not notice it was coming. What logs some regular hearers are! Many of them are asleep with their eyes open. After sitting a certain number of years in the same old spot, where the pews, pulpit, galleries, and all things else are always the same, except that they get a little dirtier and dingier every week, where everybody occupies the same position for ever and for evermore, and the minister's face, voice, tone are much the same from January to December -- you get to feel the holy quiet of the scene, and listen to what is going on as though it were addressed to 'the dull cold ear of death.' As a miller hears his wheels, as though he did not hear them, or a stoker scarcely notices the clatter of his engine after enduring it for a little time, or as a dweller in London never notices the ceaseless grind of the traffic; so do many members of our congregations become insensible to the most earnest addresses, and accept them as a matter of course. The preaching and the rest of it get to be so usual that they might as well not be at all. Hence a change of place might be useful, it might prevent monotony, shake up indifference, suggest thought, and in a thousand ways promote attention, and give new hope of doing good. A great fire which should burn some of our churches to the ground might not be the greatest calamity which has ever occurred, if it only aroused some of those rivals of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, who will never be moved so long as the old house and the old pews hold together. Besides, the fresh air, and plenty of it, is a grand thing for every mortal man, woman, and child. I preached in Scotland twice on a Sabbath day at Blairmore, 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 did not feel one-half so much exhausted as I often am when addressing a few hundreds in some horrible black hole of Calcutta called a church."
"One of the earliest things that a minister should do when he leaves college and settles in a country town or village is to begin open-air speaking. He will generally have no difficulty as to the position -- the land is before him, and he may choose according to his own sweet will. The market-cross will be a good beginning, then the head of a court crowded with the poor, and next the favorite corner of the idlers of the parish. Cheap-Jack's stand will make a capital pulpit on Sunday night during the village fair, and a wagon will serve well on the green, or in a field at a little distance, during the week-day evenings of the rustic festival. A capital place for an alfresco discourse is the green, where the old elm trees, felled long ago, are still lying in reserve, as if they were meant to be seats for your congregation; so also is the burial ground of the meetinghouse, where 'the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.' Consecrate it to the living, and let the people enjoy ' Meditations among the Tombs.' Make no excuses, then, but get to work at once."
In many churches there would be little pleasure and profit in such open-air services because during the summer most of the congregation are absent, the rich having gone to summer resorts and the poor to the parks. This temporary desertion of the sanctuary would not be a cause for anxiety, for empty churches are harmless, and preachers can survive the stare of empty pews, if only all the absentees were enjoying regular spiritual instruction and inspiration. But they are not. Probably no prayer is more pertinent at the close of the summer holidays than "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done." People on their vacations, including religious leaders, who are as faithful in attendance on divine service as when at home, are exceptions. This is sometimes of choice, and sometimes of necessity, for in many summer resorts church accommodations are unsatisfactory or insufficient. People remaining in the city have the same feeling, and do practically the same thing. They are determined to go where the green grass grows all around, and if they cannot go for many days, they go for one; if they cannot have five dollars, for car fare, they pay five cents, and go just the same. In all classes are many who lose ground steadily during this period, and as a consequence most pastors feel in their churches at the end of the summer the loss of the previous season's spiritual momentum.
The church may utter a dignified protest and cling to its deserted courts, or may make, as some do, an unconditional surrender of all effort ; or else, becoming as weak to the weak, she may take the opportunity presented by open-air preaching, and carry the Gospel to them where they are. Open-air preachingis needed to cope with this evil. Though it cannot entirely make good the lack, it will help to keep alive and nourish spiritual life. Thus did Aldhelm, bishop of the Church in the seventh century. When the people would not come to receive his instructions and exhortations, he disguised himself as a harper and went forth. When with his minstrelsy he had collected an audience about him, he turned to loftier themes and sang a Saviour's love and the story of Redemption. Open-air services in parks and at summer resorts have been a great success in America, as well as in Britain, and have proved beyond a peradventure that multitudes will attend in an interested and devotional manner such meetings who cannot be persuaded to enter a closed building for the same purpose. People visit resorts to be in the open air, and it requires a strong sense of duty, or a great attraction, to bring them to an indoor gathering. But they can be easily drawn to an openair service.
Of course, no church goes in a body to any given place, and the minister is not usually in the same place with his flock. But if open-air services were instituted generally wherever people flock for the summer, many would be reached and benefited thereby, and would return to their churches with undiminished spiritual earnestness and sensitiveness. It is done in many places. It can be done in many more. The difficulties meeting many movements do not appear here. A large force of workers, though desirable, is not necessary, and little or no money is required. Private solicitation and public appeals for funds are not indispensable adjuncts. The gospel can be given without money and without price) as well as received in that way. Wherever there are people and a willing witness for Christ, then and there open-air services are possible if desirable. I do not see why this work cannot be introduced generally as a feature of summer vacations.
Of course, some will object. In one town the leading minister succeeded in stopping a plan for Sunday afternoon preaching on the parks because he thought it would draw people from his church, and justify his young people in going to the park at that time. And not many days after he sailed for Europe, and was gone all the summer. He strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel. Without doubt, had those services been held, some of his congregation, who, though in town, were away from his church about as long as he was, would have had their thoughts turned to higher and spiritual things while wandering through the parks, and he would have found his church in better spiritual condition on his return. Though there are objections to this work, it is by far the best, and in fact almost the only, way of meeting the difficulties presented to the church in the summer season.
The Church needs open-air preaching as a means of meeting another responsibility -- that of caring for men temporarily gathered in some place for a specific purpose. Such communities are seen about mines and quarries, in lumber camps, where a railroad is being built, where sailors are numerous on the shore, or a regiment has gone into encampment. These men, away from the refining influences of home and woman, are in especial need of safeguards. Erection of churches would be an extravagance, for they soon might be entirely useless. Instead of trying a tent, or crowding a cabin, the preacher can often best accomplish his purpose of reaching the men by an open-air service. I have been greatly interested in reading accounts of such gatherings held during the War of the Rebellion. Some were in pine groves, others in grassy meadows; some were in the bright morning, and some at sunset ; some were held on the eve of a conflict, and others on the battlefield itself, while the conflict was raging all about. These were thrilling scenes and often blessed. The illustration of Jeremy Taylor preaching in camp is picturesque, and shows how such opportunities present themselves and may be seized.
In a different form it is needed in making good another lack. Upon the outskirts of our large cities are scattered communities, too small to erect buildings and sustain churches; and in their centers are sections similarly destitute, although for different reasons. These can be and have been reached by means of a Gospel Wagon, either one made expressly for this purpose, or temporarily adapted to the work. Such a wagon, holding a small organ, and a company of singers and speakers, can be driven in succession to places comparatively distant, without consuming the time and strength of the workers. There are numerous advantages in this plan. Good music is always possible, the speakers have anadvantageous position, and they enjoy an independence not otherwise attainable. Several of these Gospel Wagons are in use in different cities in the United States.
I have heard of a similar plan employed on Western plains, less elaborate, but equally effective, where a large farm wagon was put to this service and secured results as satisfactory as in its secular harvesting. I also have known of a party of young men starting in a less commodious wagon, and driving over sparsely settled hills, and accomplishing much good by holding services wherever a group of houses presented the opportunity of an audience.
The more the results actually attained are considered, and also the opportunities and needs of the times, the more pertinent do Mr. Spurgeon's words appear. The Church does need more and more open-air preaching to meet many difficulties constantly presenting themselves, and not easily compassed by the regular services.
Moreover, the time is ripe for the general introduction of this method of advancing the Master's kingdom. It is a period of forward movements. Though opposition will appear, without doubt the objectors will be reconciled as easily and quickly as they have been to scores of innovations introduced during the past half-century in forms of work and worship. In fact, the Church is peculiarly ready for open-air preaching, because it begins to feel a want which this can best supply. For a long time mental and spiritual activity ceased with the approach of summer, to be resumed only when it took its flight. Schools and colleges were closed and church work was reduced to a minimum. Intellectual and religious hibernation took place in summer. Education was the first to escape from this absurd notion. Summer schools are now the order of the day. Not only do pupils study the modern languages, but they wrestle with ancient languages and history, with science and philosophy. The summer has become a period of intellectual activity. Places and methods are different, but good work is done and the results are real. The Church also is commencing to feel that it too has possibilities of profit during this season. It is like a man clothed in summer with heavy winter garments, who is certain he cannot work in the harvest field, but who is wondering whether he cannot dress himself in garments suited to the season, and do some work after all. We wear clothes in summer as well as in winter, but of different material and cut; we eat food in summer as well as in winter, but of different kind and proportion; we continue our social life, but change the glowing hearth for the green hill ; but we make no accommodations in our religious life, and consequently it languishes. It is a significant fact that the denomination which has grown the most rapidly in the past century is the only one that has largely realized that summer spiritual work can be done. All may not need camp meetings, but all do need to follow the example of the Methodists in striving to make the summer a fruitful season. The Church is awakening to this fact, is looking about, is trying experiments. In open-air preaching is found the desired adaptation of religious work to summer circumstances. By it the barren season will become fruitful. The Church is ready and is welcoming it. Mr. Spurgeon's wish is prophetic. There will be more and more of open-air preaching the whole world around. It will be better for man and will be for the glory of God.