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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
or preaching in the open air, "a plan adopted by reformers in every age, in order to propagate more extensively and effectually their peculiar sentiments among the great masses of the people6. Christ and his apostles not only availed themselves of the privileges which the synagogues afforded of making known the ' Gospel of the Kingdom' to those who assembled therein from Sabbath to Sabbath, they also proclaimed the doctrines and precepts of the new dispensation on the highways and hedges, on the seashore and on the barren glade, on the mountain's side and in -the streets of the teeming city. Wherever men were found, and under whatever circumstances they were placed, if their ears could be reached, there the voice of the first teachers of Christianity was heard, warning sinners of coming danger, and pointing out the only way of escape the only medium of access unto God. So was it, too, with other reformers, whose labors our limits forbid our noticing, as we desire to add a few words on the field-preaching of Whitefield and Wesley. The practice was commenced by the former, and that without any misgivings as to the 'irregularity' of such a strange proceeding; whereas the latter, though a man of more highly cultivated intellect, and who, on that account, ought to have risen superior to the prejudices of his order, em-as, with much reluctance, induced to follow in the course so heroically opened up by the eloquent Whitefield. But having once commenced, there was no drawing back; he had taken to the field, and no man's face or frown should cause him to retire. John Wesley was not a man of a weak and shrinking spirit, as his whole life testifies; but he was a man who proved himself on all occasions to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ. When Whitefield was refused the pulpits of the London and Bristol churches, and after he had been threatened by the chancellor of the diocese of the latter place with suspension and excommunication if he persisted in preaching in his diocese without a license, be resolved in his mind whether it might not be his duty to preach in the open air. Indeed, he bad thought of this before he was refused permission to preach in the pulpits of the establishment, when he saw that thousands who sought to hear him could not gain admittance into the churches. He mentioned his thoughts to some friends, who pronounced the idea to be a mad one; but now, he believed that in Bristol his duty in this respect was no longer doubtful. Moreover, many persons said to him ''What need of going abroad?
Have we not Indians enough at home? If you have a mind to convert Indians, there are colliers enough at Kingswood. To these, therefore, he determined to preach the message of reconciliation. The colliers at Kingswood were without any means of religious instruction; they had no church in which to worship, no minister to teach' them the duties of religion, or to. pray with them hence they were notorious for their brutality and wickedness, and in times of excitement were a terror to all around them. On February 17, 1739, Whitefield proceeded to Rose Green, Kingswood (his first field-pulpit), where he preached to as many as the novelty of the scene collected, which were about 200. The ice being now broke to use his own observation on this first open-air sermon he determined to persevere in the same course. Accordingly, he visited Kingswood frequently, and every time he went there the number of his hearers increased; for, besides the colliers, thousands of all ranks flocked from Bristol and the neighborhood, and the congregation was sometimes computed at 20,000. With gladness and eagerness many of these despised outcasts, who had never been ins a church in their lives, received the instruction of this eminent follower of him who ‘ went about doing good.' 'The-first discovery,' says he, 'of their being affected was to see the white gutters made by their tears, which plentifully fell down their black cheeks, as they came out of their coal-pits… Sometimes, when 20,000 people were before me, I had not, in my own apprehension, a word to say, either to God (in prayer) or to them (by preaching).... The open firmament above me,' the prospect of the adjacent fields, with the sight of thousands and thousands, some in coaches, some on horseback, and some on the trees, and at times all affected and drenched in tears together, to which sometimes was added the, solemnity of the approaching evening, was almost too much for, and quite overcame me.' Whitefield was then- requested to preach in a bowling-green in the city, and he complied. Many of the audience sneered to see a stripling with a gown mount a table on unconsecrated ground; for field-preaching, since common enough in England, was then unknown, and therefore obloquy was poured upon it. His engagements so increased that he sought the help of Mr. Wesley. Without delay Mr. Wesley proceeded to Bristol, and on. his arrival was invited to preach in the open air. I could scarce reconcile myself at first,' says he, 'to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he (Whitefield) set me the example on the Sunday, 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 a sin if it had not been done in a church.'
However, on the following day, Mr. Wesley preached from a little eminence in an open ground adjoining the city to about 3000 people. In the days of Whitefield and the Wesley's field-preaching was not unfrequently attended with danger. Though they often met with a kind reception from the Multitudes, yet at other times they experienced the rudest and most determined opposition, and often their lives were in imminent peril from the violence of an ignorant, depraved, and excited populace. In his Earnest Appeal, Mr. Wesley asks, 'Who is there among you, brethren, that is willing (examine your own hearts) even to save souls from death at this price? Would not you let a thousand. souls perish rather than you would be the instrument of rescuing them thus? I do not speak now with regard to conscience, but to the inconveniences that must accompany it. Can you. sustain them if you would? Can you. bear the summer sun to beat upon your naked head? Can you suffer the wintry rain or wind, from whatever quarter it blows? Are you able to stand in the open air, without any covering or defence, when God casteth abroad his snow like wool, or scattereth his hoar frost like ashes? And yet these are some of the smallest inconveniences which accompany field-preaching. Far beyond all these are the contradiction of sinners, the scoffs both of the great vulgar and the small contempt and reproach of every' kind; often more than verbal affronts-stupid, brutal violence. sometimes to the hazard of health, or limbs, or life. Brethren, do you envy us this honor? What, I pray you, would buy you to be a field-preacher? When Mr. Wesley had been accustomed to field-preaching for more than twenty years, he made the following remarks: 'One hour in Moorfields might convince any impartial man of the expediency of field-preaching. What building, except St. Paul's church, could contain such a congregation? and if it would, what human voice could have reached them there? By repeated observations, I find I can command thrice the number in the open air that I can under a roof. And who can say the time for field-preaching is over, while,
1. Greater numbers than ever attend;
2. The converting as well as the convincing power of God is eminently present with them? One extract more, and this article must close. Mr. Wesley thus describes these open-air services: I cannot say I have ever seen a more awful sight, than when, on Rose Green or the top of Hannan Mount, some thousands of people were calmly joined together in solemn waiting upon God, while
"'They stood, and under open air adored The God who made both air, earth, heaven, and sky."'
And whether they were listening to his word with attention still as night, or were lifting up their voice in praise as the sound of many waters, many a time have I been constrained to say in nay heart, "How dreadful is this place!" This, also, "is no other than the house of God! this is the gate of heaven!"' (See Memoirs of Wesley, by Coke, 'Southey, and Watson; also Jackson's Centenary of Wesleyan Methodism.) Having now once adopted this mode of imparting instruction to the neglected classes of the community, Mr. Wesley never abandoned it to the end of his life; and in a short time his brother Charles followed his example in the same self- denying labor of love, being, urged thereto by the indefatigable Whitefield. Mr. Charles Wesley's first field-sermon was preached at Moorfields on June 24, 1739, his congregation amounting to about 1000, and in the evening of the same day- he preached to multitudes on Kennington Commons. A few weeks afterwards he preached to about 10,000 people in Moorfields; and for several years be followed with equal steps both his brother and Mr. Whitefield in laborious zeal and public usefulness. It is not to be supposed that Mr. Wesley had not preached in the open air till the time he was induced by Mr. Whitefield to do so at Bristol. He had done so in Georgia before Mr. Whitefield was ordained, but he had no intention of resuming, the practice in England until compelled to do so by the necessities of the case. He says, "Wherever I was now desired to preach (in churches), salvation by faith was my only theme. Things were in this posture when I was told I must preach no more in this, and this, and another church; the reason was usually added without reserve, " Because you preach such doctrine." After a time I determined to do the same thing is England which I had often done in a warmer climate-to preach in the open air.' 'Be pleased to observe,' he adds,
1. That I was forbidden to preach in any church "for preaching such doctrine."
2. That I had no desire nor design to preach in the open air till after the prohibition.
3. That when I did, as it- was no matter of choice, so neither of premeditation. There was no scheme at all previously formed which was to be supported thereby.
4. Field-preaching was therefore a sudden expedient-a thing submitted to rather than chosen; and therefore submitted to because I thought preaching even thus better than not preaching at all. Field-preaching, or, as it was called, tent-preaching, that is,' preaching from a tent, was common in Scotland on summer sacramental occasions up till a very recent period. The practice; still survives in some parts of the Highlands. Thousands from neighboring parishes used to assemble on the brae or in the quiet hollow, and listen to the word of life. But unhallowed scenes sometimes occurred, of which Burns's Holy Fair is an exaggerated picture; and such gatherings have been discontinued. Of late, however, field-preaching has been resorted to for a different purpose-that of evangelization-so that the masses may be reached which have given up attendance at the house of God. Everywhere the result seems to be satisfactory, and the practice is every year more: and more extensively followed in 'Great Britain." (See CAMP- MEETING).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Field-Preaching'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/f/field-preaching.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.