In my kitchen sits a stack of old Westminster Seminary student directories. The cover of the 2001/2002 issue displays a 1978 photograph of Cornelius Van Til and Jack Miller drawing a crowd as they preached Christ on Wall Street.
I wonder how they would fare if they set up their soap boxes in 2013. Since July of this year, United Kingdom authorities have arrested three street preachers: Rob Hughes in Basildon, Essex; Tony Miano in London; and pastor Josh Williamson of Craigie Reformed Baptist Church in Perth, Scotland. They charged Williamson with “breach of peace” and held Hughes under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which proscribes speech that causes “harassment, alarm, or distress.”
Street preaching is an art form coterminous with the Judeo-Christian faith. Noah was perhaps the first street preacher (2 Peter 2:5), though he evidently convinced none of his hearers. Jonah, by contrast, won over all of Nineveh, from the king to the scullery maid (Jonah 3:5). Jeremiah preached outside (Jeremiah 7:2), not being particularly welcome inside. John the Baptist is so closely associated with outdoor preaching that one can hardly imagine the locust eater seated at table in a house. Jesus our Lord had no house (Luke 9:58) and delivered all the sermons we are familiar with under the big sky.
George Whitefield (1714-1770) started open-air preaching to coal miners near Kingswood in Bristol, England, and then got John Wesley to try it for the first time. The impetus: “Finding the pulpits are denied me, and the poor colliers are ready to perish from lack of knowledge, I went to them. … I believe I never was more acceptable to my Master than when I was standing to teach these hearers in the open fields. … I now preach to ten times more people than I should if I had been confined in churches.”
In America, Whitefield proclaimed the good news outdoors for months on end, sometimes to crowds of thousands, in what is known as the Great Awakening of 1740. Benjamin Franklin attended one such gathering out of curiosity and left us this vivid account:
“He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words … so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great distance. … He preach’d one evening from the top of the court house steps, which are in the middle of Market Street, and on the west side of Second Street which crosses it at right angles. Both streets were fill’d with his hearers to a considerable distance. Being among the hindmost in Market Street, I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the street toward the river; and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front Street. … Imagining then a semicircle, of which my distance should be the radius … I computed that he might well be heard by more than 30,000.”
Charles Spurgeon thought open-air preaching such a no-brainer for reaching the lost that he went so far as to draw up a list of needed qualifications for the job. They included a good voice, a natural manner, knowledge of Scripture and of “common things,” and total dependence on the Holy Spirit. He said: “Traders go to the markets, they follow their customers and go out after business if it will not come to them; and so must we.”
William Booth, like George Whitefield, finding himself on the outs with established churches, also took to the streets: “As I passed by the doors of the flaming gin-palaces tonight, I seemed to hear a voice sounding in my ears, ‘Where can you go and find such heathen as these, and where is there so great a need for your labors?’ And I felt as though I ought at every cost to stop and preach to those East End [London] multitudes” (William and Catherine: The Life and Legacy of the Booths, by Trevor Yaxley).
If the pattern of history holds, and courageous preachers find themselves out in the cold, they will doubtless do what courageous preachers have always done and make the best of it. For their Master, who set their paces, said: “Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).