Skip to main content

Hall of Fame heralds

We can learn a lot from history's storied street preachers

Hall of Fame heralds

(Krieg Barrie)

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).



You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  • Steven Soto
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:28 pm

    Very Inspiring article Andree. The Free Ticket To Heaven Ministry is a street preacher ministry at it's core. It's deepest belief is that everyone in the Body Of Christ is called "to go" and share Jesus. The problem for the most part of churches today is that there is very little, if any, training or equipping of their members on "how to" share Jesus with people or as Francis Chan states it, "Initiating the conversation". My careers in the military and fire service both stressed "classroom" and "practical"(going out and doing) training. The Lord now allows me to share Jesus with hundreds of people a year as I go and share Jesus. Our ministry now partners with about 8 churches locally in their community outreach events to train members and to share Jesus at their events. We also go out into secular Community Events, setting up our booth to share Jesus, as well as in our daily personal lives. The fields are truly plentiful and our hope is that The Church would be equipped by leaders with a heart to be a part of what God is doing and desiring to do through His children. 

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:28 pm

    This article reminded me of modern day street preachers who "Cry aloud, and spare not..." (Isaiah 58:1). My home pastor - Pastor Nathan Bemis of Bible Baptist Church in Kalispell, MT - has been preaching on the street weekly every summer for 30+ years in downtown Kalispell. Although he is often met with jeers, boos and other unmentionables, he has preached Christ courageously and has held high the light of Christ for all to see. Thank you for the article Andree!

  • Tony Miano
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:28 pm

    Andree,Thank you for writing this article. It was an encouragement to me.