I recently gave a lecture (sermon?) on the fascinating and inspiring story of Thomas Chalmers’ West Port Experiment in the slums of Industrial Edinburgh, from 1844-1847. You can listen to it here. Ad urbem!
One of my personal heroes is Scottish Presbyterian minster, Aeneas Sage (1694-1774). I’m not quite sure if everything written about him is totally accurate; I get a whiff of the hagiographic if not the legendary in some of the stories. Yet, something in my gut tells me it is too good and so must be true! (Like a historian friend of mine quipped, ‘If it ain’t true, it should be!’) Whatever the case, Aeneas Sage captivates me, for as a pastor he knew how to captivate an audience – in more ways that one.
I’ve retold the following story countless times, from John Kennedy’s The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire. I still remember first hearing it by an idiosyncratic minister having his wispy locks trimmed by his wife in his living room. How his eyes sparkled as he struggled to repress laughter! As I remember it again, it also gives me some tantalizing ideas in drawing a crowd for open air preaching, and of course, to win hearts for King Jesus in an increasingly secular age. I already know one friend whose church has had good success gaining a crowd by basketball. Then they preach a solid, Reformed sermon for 45 minutes – to public schoolers. Maybe they took a chapter out of Aeneas Sage’s playbook.
If you like the following, you’ll no doubt appreciate this piece about him too. Now, without further audieu …
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Mr. Munro was preceded by the famous Mr. Aenas Sage —”a man of an undaunted spirit, who did not know what the fear of man was. He had, however, the fear of God, and great zeal for the good cause in its highest perfection. He was the determined enemy of vice, and a true friend of the gospel.” Such, according to Mr. Lachlan, was the character of Mr. Sage, the first minister who is known to have preached the Gospel in purity and with success in Lochcarron. At the time of his induction, the state of the parish was very much the same as it was found by the Presbytery to be in 1649, when after visiting it, they reported that “there were no elders in it, by reason of malignancy; swearing, drunkenness, cursing, Sabbath profanation, and uncleanness prevailed.” As to the church, there was found in it “ane formal stool of repentance, but no pulpit nor desks.” The stool, if the only, was truly the suitable seat for all the people of Lochcarron in these days; but the more it was required, the less power there was to make it aught else than “ane formal” thing, as the solitary occupant of the church.
Matters continued in this state till the induction of Mr. Sage, nearly eighty years after. He was just the man for the work of breaking up the fallow ground of a field so wild, and a rich blessing rested on his labours. On the night of his first arrival at Lochcarron an attempt was made to burn the house in which he lodged, and for some time after his induction his life was in constant danger. But the esteem he could not win as a minister, he soon acquired for great physical strength. The first man in Lochcarron in those days was the champion at the athletic games. Conscious of his strength, and knowing that he would make himself respected by all if he could only lay big Rory on his back, who was acknowledged to be the strongest man in the district, the minister joined the people on the earliest opportunity at their games. Challenging the whole field, he competed for the prize in putting the stone, tossing the caber, and wrestling, and won an easy victory. His fame, was established at once. The minister was now the champion of the district, and none was more ready to defer to him than he whom he had deprived of the laurel. Taking Rory aside to a confidential crack, he said to him, “Now, Rory, I am the minister, and you must be my elder, and we both must see to it that all the people attend church, observe the Sabbath, and conduct themselves properly.” Rory fell in with the proposal at once. On Sabbath, when the people would gather at their games in the forenoon, the minister and his elder would join them, and each taking a couple by the hand, they would drag them to the church, lock them in, and then return to catch some more. This was repeated till none were left on the field. Then, stationing the elder with his cudgel at the door, the minister would mount the pulpit and conduct the service. One of his earliest sermons was blessed to the conversion of his assistant, and a truly valuable coadjutor he found in big Rory thereafter. Mr. Lachlan thus describes the result of his ministry: —”Mr. Sage made the people very orthodox.” They “seem to have a strong attachment to religion.” “There is a great appearance of religion in Lochcarron; and as the fire of God’s Word is hereafter to try every man’s work, there is cause to hope that some of it will bear the trial.’
The following comes from a report of the Committee of Local Evangelism in the OPC in which Professor John Murray played a major role prior to World War II. It was drawn from this source.
There is an acute problem that confronts the open-air preacher in our day and age. The great problem is to get and hold a sizeable audience. In Whitefield’s day the masses thronged to hear his message. This is not true today; the multitudes pass us by. What is the cause? What can be done to assist in the solution of the problem?
Various factors may be said to contribute to the listlessness of those whom we seek to reach with the gospel. There are the many attractive forms of pleasure. No age of ministers has had to compete with as many enticing modes of pleasure as has the minister of the twentieth century. It is reported of Moody that he looked with apprehension on the popularity of the bicycle, fearing its effect upon evangelistic meetings in America. The automobile, the radio, the moving picture, and television have done much to make the average open-air meeting appear unattractive. Another factor that has engendered a spirit of indifference to the open-air preacher is the attitude of the average educated person. He considers such a method as beneath his intellectual level and personal dignity. Even Wesley at first recoiled before the thought of open-air preaching for this reason. He knew that immediately he would be branded by many as an “ignorant and unlearned” man. But perhaps the most basic reason for the average American’s antipathy toward open-air preaching is that he has been educated, however unwittingly, into a prejudice against the Christian gospel. America’s antitheistic public school system and the deadening influence of modernism within the visible church have had their deadly effect upon the souls of men.
These difficulties, however, are not to be taken as valid reasons for not engaging in open-air preaching. God is sovereign, and has enabled His servants to devise methods whereby the problem of drawing a crowd has to a degree at least been overcome. We present at this point the recommendations that have come to us from ministers who have had some degree of success in obtaining a good hearing in open-air preaching. They are as follows:
Go where the people are, not where we hope they will come. In most places where we have churches, the spring and summer are the only times that weather will permit the holding of outdoor services. During these seasons the people will be found in public parks and squares, at seashore and mountain resorts, by places of public amusement, and outside factories during lunch hours. Recently provision has been made in England to have chaplains for defense industries. In at least one large industrial plant in America permission has been granted for the preaching of the gospel to the men during their lunch hour. These examples may be straws in the wind indicating a tendency to recognize the need and the worth of bringing the Word of God to the working men of our nation. Here may be an opportunity to reach the heads of families whose very souls are being crushed out of them by long hours and Sunday work. In every city and town there are areas where large numbers of under-privileged and spiritually neglected people can be found. These areas should be sought out and surveyed with a view to securing a commodious meeting place. Most important of all, pray for an open door.
Go in absolute confidence in the truth and power of the gospel and in complete reliance upon the Holy Spirit to bless. Only as the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit can we proclaim boldly, convincingly, and winsomely the everlasting gospel. To this end, we need to pray that we might be filled with the Spirit. Nothing can draw and hold so well and so surely in an open-air service as the preaching of the Word in the power of the Spirit.
There are successful ways of gathering a good audience. One way is to have a nucleus of Christians to go with the minister. A crowd draws a crowd. When the passers-by observe that a goodly number are listening they will stop to satisfy at least their curiosity. From that point on you may depend upon the Word to elicit and maintain their interest. A method that has been used by some Roman Catholics with real success in drawing a crowd is the question and answer method. The minister seeks out a passer-by and requests him to ask questions from a specified distance. The minister then proceeds to answer the man’s questions. As others gather they, too, are requested to ask questions. When a sizeable group has been attracted by this method the minister may discourse on a subject of his choice.
“Who cares about the Free Church, compared with the Christian good of the people of Scotland? Who cares about any Church, but as an instrument of Christian good? for, be assured that the moral and religious well-being of the population is of infinitely higher importance than the advancement of any sect.”
-Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)
In this quote, we see that while Chalmers’ was deeply concerned to alleviate poverty, yet there is a benevolence that is higher still!
“Does it never occur to you, that in a few years this favourite will die—that he will go to the place where neither cold nor hunger will reach him, but that a mighty interest remains, of which, both of us may know the certainty, though neither you nor I can calculate the extent. Your benevolence is too short—it does not shoot far enough a-head—it is like regaling a child with a sweetmeat or a toy, and then abandoning the happy unreflecting infant to exposure. You make the poor old man happy with your crumbs and your fragments, but he is an infant on the mighty range of infinite duration; and will you leave the soul, which has this infinity to go through, to its chance? How comes it that the grave should throw so impenetrable a shroud over the realities of eternity? How comes it that heaven, and hell, and judgment, should be treated as so many nonentities; and that there should be as little real and operative sympathy felt for the soul, which lives for ever, as for the body after it is dead, or for the dust into which it moulders? Eternity is longer than time; the arithmetic, my brethren, is all on our side upon this question; and the wisdom which calculates, and guides itself by calculation, gives its weighty and respectable support to what may be called the benevolence of faith.”
Here is a new site that looks rather promising. It advocates a rediscovery and application of the precious truths and attainments of the first and second Scottish Reformations.