In the previous two blog posts, we examined Biblical arguments for only having qualified men preach in the open-air. In this third installment, we will study the teaching and practice of George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon.
Before we look at their ministry, we must remember their historical context. These men lived in a day where the question of women preachers was rarely addressed. I have not found in their writings or secondary sources where the question of women open-air preachers is specifically answered. Since they lived in a period before the prevalence of feminism, they either did not think about this question, or it was not important enough to address.
If Whitefield and Spurgeon did not address this question, then why are we reviewing their material? Both men had clear teachings on who should preach in a worship service in a church. Nowhere did they argue that women could preach. Also in their writings, they referred to open-air preaching as a service. In their understanding, preaching outdoors is the same as the worship on Sunday morning in a church. Therefore, it is appropriate to apply their understanding that only men can preach in church to open-air preaching as well.
I am arguing that these men would apply the principles of 1 Timothy 2:12 to open-air preaching since they considered it to be a worship service. To support this position, we will review the reasons why these men preached outdoors and examine their understanding of the open-air service.
A. Reasons Why Whitefield and Spurgeon Open-Air Preached
1. Did the location have a church building?
In Arnold Dallimore’s biography on George Whitefield, he referred to The Church of England’s policy on preaching outdoors. It “did not entirely prohibit out-of-doors preaching, but actually allowed it where no church was available, and it was on this principle that missionaries to primitive peoples, had always acted” (George Whitefield Vol. 1, pg. 250).
On this basis, Whitefield preached his first open-air sermon at Kingswood to two hundred people. Since the location did not have a church, then Whitefield did not have to ask permission from church authorities to preach there.
2. Did the churches refuse to allow Whitefield to preach in them?
After using the previous principle to start preaching outdoors, Whitefield expanded it to areas where the local churches declined to open their buildings to him. Dallimore wrote, “…he had developed the idea that in any instance in which he requested the use of a church for his evangelistic and charitable purposes and it was refused, he might look upon that area as in the same category as Kingswood, and that he would be within his rights in entering it and preaching there out of doors” (George Whitefield Vol. 1, pg. 257).
If God did not give Whitefield the use of a church building, then He gave him the use of the open-air to conduct services.
3. Was the crowd too large for the church building?
Griffith Jones, a Welsh pastor in the 18th century, was a trailblazer in open-air preaching. Many times he took his church services outdoors due to the crowds. Dallimore commented, “…whenever they were too many to be accommodated within the building he transferred the service to the churchyard or an adjacent field” (George Whitefield Vol. 1, pg. 260).
God blessed Charles Spurgeon with the same problem. Spurgeon’s autobiography recounts a visit to Scotland. The editor wrote, “The new church could not hold the multitude of people who came to hear, so Mr. Spurgeon kindly said that he would preach in the open air, and the 17th of May proved to be the first lovely summer day of the season. (C.H. Spurgeon Autobiography: Volume 2, pg. 254).
4. Are there people who would not come to church to hear the gospel preached?
In Spurgeon’s Lectures to His Students, he references to people “who have not fit clothes to worship in…” with garments “so filthy, so odorous, so unapproachable, that the greatest philanthropist and the most leveling democrat might desire to have a little space between himself and their lively individualities” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 269). These citizens either do not have appropriate clothes to meet their standard for attending church, or their filthy rags would embarrass them.
Spurgeon gives another reason for why a person may not come to the service. “There are others who, whatever raiment they wear, would not go into a chapel upon any consideration, for they consider it to be a sort of punishment to attend divine service” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 269). These individuals had distasteful memories from their previous church attendance.
What was his solution? Take the service to the people. “The open-air evangelist frequently picks up these members of the ‘no church’ party, and in so doing he often finds some of the richest gems that will at last adorn the Redeemer’s crown…” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 269). This is why Spurgeon recommends a young pastor to start open-air preaching when he moves to a town to take his charge (Lectures to His Students, pg. 274-275). He proposes that pastors in large towns should “find a vacant spot where you can obtain a right to hold services at your pleasure” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 274-275).
In Whitefield and Spurgeon’s minds, open-air preaching is a service. For the reasons listed above, a preacher takes the service outdoors. He leads the worship of the people through the preaching of the Word. Since it is a worship service, then their prohibition of women preaching in a worship service would apply.
B. Whitefield and Spurgeon’s Understanding of the Open-Air Preaching Service
1. Both men incorporated congregational singing.
Whitefield chronicled in his journal about a service he held at Kennington Common. He wrote, “All stood attentive, and joined in the Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer most regularly” (George Whitefield Vol. 1, pg. 289). Whitefield took Psalm singing and reciting the Lord’s Prayer outdoors since he considered the gathering to be a worship service to God.
When Spurgeon preached outdoors on September 10, 1862 in Cheddar, he began the service with a hymn. Pastor T. B. Field wrote down his eye witness account. “A temporary platform had been erected for the preacher, and Spurgeon commenced the service by saying, ‘Let us make these old rocks resound to the praise of God.’ The first hymn was, ‘All people that on earth do dwell’; and another that was sung was, ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me.’” (C.H. Spurgeon Autobiography: Volume 2, pg. 90). Spurgeon viewed his open-air preaching as being a service. He approached the worship as if he was leading the congregation at The Tabernacle.
2. Whitefield only allowed ordained men to preach with one exception.
George Whitefield applied the same standard to preaching indoors and outdoors. Only ordained men could preach. Dallimore wrote, “Whitefield did not favour lay preaching. In the exalted views that he held of the Christian ministry, he placed strong emphasis on the necessity of the Divine call, on adequate preparation and on ordination” (George Whitefield Vol. 1, pg. 304). Whitefield only made one exception to this rule. His friend, Howell Harris, sought ordination several times through the Church of England, but they denied him since he was with the Methodists. Whitefield declared that God had ordained him even if the church would not recognize it.
While I do not take Whitefield’s strict view on who can preach, it shows that he did not have separate standards. He had the same qualifications for preaching in a church building or for preaching outdoors. Since he viewed both as worship services, then he applied the same credentials. During this time, The Church of England did not ordain women to preach. Therefore, we can conclude that Whitefield would not permit women to open-air preach since they are not allowed to preach in a church.
3. Spurgeon referred to the open-air meetings as a service.
In a chapter on open-air preaching, Spurgeon gave advice on the preacher’s placement in respect to the sun. “Practiced preachers do not care to have the sun directly in their face if they can help it, neither do they wish their hearers to be distressed in like manner, and therefore they take this item into consideration when arranging for a service” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 274). He refers to the open-air preaching event as a service. The man is leading the people to worship Christ by faith.
In Spurgeon’s chapter on the history of open-air preaching, he quotes an account from the famous outdoor sermon involving John Livingstone in Scotland. In the days leading up to the sermon, “There had been many of them there together for several days before the sacrament, hearing sermons, and joining together in larger or lesser companies, in prayer, praise, and spiritual conferences” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 251). These outdoor meetings had all of the elements of worship. Instead of holding a conference in a church building, they worshiped under God’s glorious sky. Spurgeon would agree with the assessment that open-air preaching is a service.
4. Spurgeon referred to the preacher’s location as a pulpit.
Spurgeon recounts Whitefield’s first open-air preaching sermon at Kingswood. Since Whitefield went to preach in the field, Spurgeon commented, “Now he was the owner of a pulpit that no man could take from him and his heart rejoiced in this great gift” (Lectures to His Students, pg. 257-258).
Besides going to a field, a preacher can find an unusual portable pulpit. Spurgeon described Gideon Ouseley’s ministry by writing, “His pulpit was generally the back of his horse…” Lectures to His Students, pg. 260).
By using the language of a pulpit, Spurgeon links the preaching in a church building as being the same as preaching in the open-air. At the Tabernacle, Spurgeon’s pulpit stood powerfully at the center. This continued the protestant reformed tradition that the preached word is the center of worship and not the Lord’s Supper. This background illuminates how Spurgeon connected open-air preaching with conducting a worship service.
Whitefield and Spurgeon never conducted a church or an open-air service with a woman preacher. Since they believed that women could not teach or have authority over men, then they only allowed men to preach in public worship. They did not invite women to open-air preach because they understood the meetings as being a worship service. Therefore, these great preachers would not permit women to open-air preach.
Pastor Brandon was born and raised near Springfield, IL. He graduated from Illinois College in 2007 with a B.A. in History, from Moody Theological Seminary in 2010 with a Master of Divinity, and a PhD in Historical Theology in 2021 from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He is also an ACBC certified Biblical counselor. He is married to Karise with whom they raise Ian, Elizabeth, and Patrick. He is interested in history, especially Charles Spurgeon, and has a heart for street preaching and evangelism.