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Good Words 1860
Preaching on the Stage


Our readers are probably aware that nearly all the theatres in the lower parts of London have been opened for religions services; and are attended once or twice on Sunday by immense crowds of the working classes resident in the surrounding localities. As different opinions exist as to the propriety of this movement, and are no doubt shared by our readers, we fancy it may prove both interesting and useful if we furnish a brief account of what we heard and saw at one of these special services.

The time was three o'clock in the afternoon of Sunday, January 8; the place, the Victoria Theatre, New Cut, Waterloo Road, Lambeth; the preacher, the Rev. W. Landels, of Regent's Park Chapel.

When we mention that the New Cut is one of the worst places in London for Sabbath desecration; that the population are degraded to a degree which can scarcely be surpassed in this great city; and that that was the first service held in the theatre, it will be supposed that the congregation was not quite so orderly as if composed of regular churchgoers. In fact, it was for a time disorderly to a degree, which, though manifestly distressing to some, was truly refreshing to us, as proving that it was formed, for the most part, of the class of persons that these special services were meant to draw.

The best places were all filled before our arrival; but by favour, we were admitted to the stage, where, after finding seats for the ladies whom we had in charge, we were able to survey the scene.

At a glance we discover that it is a large building, capable of containing, closely packed as they are, between three and four thousand. An excellent place, too, for speaking in; much superior in its acoustic properties to most of our churches and chapels; somewhat gaudy in its decorations, though, when brilliantly lighted with gas, not unpleasing, imposing rather, in its general effects. Close to the stage the area is contracted by the tiers of private boxes on each side. A few feet below the level of the front of the stage, and stretching over the whole area of the building, is the pit, which presents a spectacle that reminds us of a pavement of human skulls, so densely are the people crammed together; above that, at proper distance for appearance and comfort, is the first gallery, technically called the ''boxes," which is equally crammed; above that, at about equal distance, is the gallery proper; and above that again, right up in the roof of the building, is a third gallery, where, at ordinary theatrical entertainments, the "gods" sit enthroned. The effect is very fine, enough to create a soul in any speaker, when the eye wanders over these different masses of human beings, all hanging with breathless suspense on one man's lips. As yet, however, those two higher galleries are not full; they were not opened until the other parts of the building were filled, and the people are now pouring into them in a manner which occasions not a little confusion. The preacher is on the stage, but cannot commence the service till the noise, occasioned by the entrance of so many, has subsided. We are glad to see that he is not put out by the extraordinary scene, nor by the whistling and shouting which mingle with the general buzz. He evidently knew what kind of people he had to expect, and has come prepared to meet them in their own fashion. So much the better; a good-humoured word will have more effect in securing their attention than an angry one. While he is waiting for his opportunity, a yelp near the stage intimates that some unfortunate dog has entered with the crowd, and, in his crushed foot, is suffering the consequence of his temerity. As everybody instinctively feels that he cannot profit by the service, and has properly no business there, the cry of "Turn him out," is vociferated by many voices, and, after being collared and passed on overhead, from one to another, the poor dog is ignominiously expelled. Now the preacher thinks it time to begin, and proceeds to read in tones distinct rather than loud, Watts' version of the hundredth Psalm. We could almost envy him the honour of being the first to pronounce such words in such a place. We felt a thrill of pleasure at the thought, which was not diminished when we heard a goodly number of the congregation join in the solemn, majestic strains of the old hundred, so well suited to the words. When the psalm had been sung, the congregation was still flowing into the upper galleries, and the noise too great for the speaker to be heard. After waiting a few minutes a second hymn was sung, and as by the time this was finished the place was full, and comparative quiet obtained, the service was proceeded with. The preacher read the parable of the prodigal son, offered a short prayer, and then commenced his discourse.

It was peculiarly affecting to hear that parable of the prodigal read in the hearing of so many prodigals to whom it was manifestly a strange story; and to hear the language of prayer in that place so accustomed to far different sounds. Our prejudices against such services must have been very strong had they not yielded, when we noticed the quiet and respectful way in which the people listened; nor could we doubt for a moment that great good was likely to be effected by those parts of the service alone.

The preacher stated at the commencement that his purpose was not to preach them a formal sermon, divided into so many heads and particulars ; but to tell them in a familiar way some things which it concerned them to know. This statement was greeted with a "Hear, hear," from the private boxes, and similar expressions of approval were given at various parts of the discourse. He then stated that his Master had commanded His servants to "go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature;" and as this was a part of the world, and they a part of God's creatures, he had a right to be there and preach the gospel to them. He explained the meaning of the word gospel— shewed that it meant good tidings—that, instead of frowning upon them, as they supposed, it was fitted to fill them with gladness—that it was the best news they had ever heard or could hear—and that, if they only understood and believed it, it would give joy to all their life, and support them in a dying hour. Before he told them what these good news were, it would be necessary to shew them why they were needed; they would not be prepared to receive them gladly until they felt the want of them. A man must know that he is diseased before he gladly accept of the physician's help; he must know that he is guilty and doomed to die, before he will gladly accept of a reprieve; and so they must know their danger before they would appreciate the good news of deliverance.

He then went on to illustrate and enforce the following points:—

1. Every one present needs salvation.
2. The salvation of every one present is possible.
3. The salvation of every one present is possible now.
4. The salvation of every one present is possible now only on condition that he receive it for nothing.
5.
The salvation of every one present is a thing which God desires.
6. The salvation of every one present is a thing which no one can hinder but himself.

These various points were plainly and forcibly illustrated in language and by similes with which the people were familiar. And sure we are that the strongest opponent of such services must have had his prejudices shaken had he witnessed, not only the marked attention, but the deep feeling, indicated by the beaming eye and the expressive countenance, with which those rough men listened to the proclamation of gospel truth. We say, God speed the noble enterprise, and praise be to His name, for having put it into the heart of His people to adopt such means for bringing the gospel into contact with their perishing fellow-men!

We accept it as an omen for good that nearly all denominations are united in these services. At most of the theatres Dissenting ministers and ministers of the Establishment officiate in turn; and we have reason to believe that the hearers know nothing of their differences, but see only the unity which underlies them all. A hearty evangelistic effort forms the best evangelical alliance after all. You may preach unity long enough, and do but little to unite. Engage in some effort in which all Christians have sympathy, and immediately differences are forgotten, and heart cleaves to heart, and hand joins hand in the glorious enterprise.

Though not indisposed to admit that the movement may have its alloy, we are nevertheless strongly convinced that its tendency is in the right direction. It evinces a regard for the classes whose welfare it more especially contemplates, which, we may hope, will prove as beneficial in its results as it is unquestionably becoming in itself. And though some of its supporters are not yet prepared for—do not yet perceive—all that will be required of them ere they succeed in gaining the people, as the first step, it may prepare them for a second. Its tendency is to foster that sympathy between the lower classes and their religious teachers which will lead the one to adopt and the other to welcome more advanced measures. Moreover, it breaks up the formality and routine which, both in established and non-established churches, have tended to restrain Christian effort. It is a recognition of the principle that souls are not to be sacrificed to systems, but saved by any and every means—that, in season and out of season, in places common and in places consecrated, we must labour for the salvation of men. It indicates a determination on the part of the Church that no custom, by whatever time or authority sanctioned, shall be allowed to crush her sympathetic life—that, if souls cannot be saved regularly, she will do her best to save them ir-regularly —that, if they will not come to her ministrations, she will carry her ministrations to them—will, after the example of her Master, seek them out in their own haunts, and, in obedience to His command, go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in. It is her instructive i protest against the sacerdotal spirit which has long operated in various ways, and with most injurious results—now discountenancing all effort for the salvation of others except on the part of those who have been ordained to the clerical office —now refusing to preach except within consecrated walls—now calling for its gown and bands before it will consent to save a soul from death. It is her protest against this spirit, and a pledge that she will not attempt to confine the Divine benevolence to any prescribed human channels, but will allow her religious life to run out in such ways as the Spirit of the Lord may direct.

These services furnish pleasing proof of what we have long suspected, that the working classes do not, as is generally imagined, regard religion with any special aversion. Alienated, as they unquestionably are, from some of our embodiments of religion, they shew, by their attendance and behaviour at these special meetings, that they cherish no peculiar hostility to religion itself. Backward to attend church, because of the treatment they have too often met with there, and the deference which they have seen paid to wealth and station, we have heard of no instance in which they have been asked to assemble, where the poorest was made welcome, and no invidious distinction was drawn, without their coming out in numbers and listening in a manner which shewed that the gospel is as acceptable to them as to the rich, and equally adapted to the wants of their nature. In cases where nothing has been done to "gild the pill"—no comic or slang phrases announced as the text of the discourse—no attempt to draw by illustrative or other entertainment—no abandonment of the devotional parts of the service, and the simple announcement that the gospel would be preached, and that working people were invited to attend in the dress most convenient to them—-has sufficed to cram the largest buildings which could be obtained. It has been unmistakeably shewn that they are accessible to any minister of the gospel who is willing to meet them on their own ground, and that, instead of repelling, they will welcome, and be grateful for, any honest, manly, brotherly attempt to bring them under the influence of the truth. Let such attempts be made by our ministers and Churches generally —let them, throughout all our large towns, while carefully eschewing everything which might bring contempt on the sacred office, or lower the gospel in the estimation of the people, adopt such extraordinary measures as will bring them into nearer contact with the masses—let them devise ways of addressing them, not from the heights of office, but from the platform of their common humanity, speaking to them, as men who know their difficulties, and have shared in their struggles, and can sympathise with them in their sorrows and their joys—let them in this manner proclaim to them, in all its fulness and freeness, the glorious gospel of Christ, appealing at once to the intellect, the conscience, and the heart—and we venture to predict that, instead of the indifference and aversion of which Churches and ministers have complained, they will be cheered as they witness the thirst for the gospel which is evinced, and that from their lips, as of old from the lips of the Master, the common people will hear it gladly.

We have one word of caution, however, in reference to this movement. Strongly as we approve of it, and much good as we expect from it, we can only regard it as a temporary expedient. Were it to become permanent, it would perpetuate the evil which has rendered it necessary. It is the class feeling in our Churches to which the alienation of the people is chiefly attributable. And nothing would so much tend to foster and sanction this feeling as an arrangement which provided for the meeting of classes as such. The object of the special-service movement must be by disarming the prejudices of the people, and bringing them under the sound of the gospel, to induce their attendance on the ordinary ministrations of the Word. The critical period in the history of the movement will be when it has reached this point. We tremble lest the Churches should then fail to meet the demands which arise—lest, retaining their own exclusiveness, their mammon-worshipping spirit, they should refuse to welcome or to treat with proper respect the classes they have been seeking to draw. The worldly spirit is always strong, though it declines in proportion as religious life is healthy and vigorous. And we can only hope, therefore, that by her benevolent efforts naturally fostering her various graces, and improving her whole character, and, through the increased blessing which they will draw down upon her, the Church will be found equal to the exigencies which arise, and which she herself has laboured to create. 'Twere sad indeed did she evoke a spirit which she could not control—did she fail under a responsibility which she has so eagerly sought!

It might be difficult to trace the precise connexion between these services and recent revivals —how far the one accounts for or has sprung from the other—but there is significance in the fact that they so closely synchronise; and, together, they appear to us to indicate the dawn of a new era in the history of our Church and country. If we are not greatly mistaken, we are on the eve of mighty changes, of which the stirring events which are now taking place are but slight harbingers. Judging from present signs, the working classes of Great Britain—the staple of her population—are likely to be leavened before long by the influence of the gospel, so making her Christian in character as well as in name, and qualifying her for her mission among the nations of the earth. And when we see how, at the same time, events are rendering other nations more than ever accessible to her influence, we are strengthened in our belief that God has great things in store for our country, and feel increasingly thankful that she is becoming prepared for her work. Our Christian and our patriotic feelings alike cause us to give thanks for the band of faithful, earnest, devoted men who are labouring so diligently for the regeneration of Britain, and to pray that their hands may be strengthened and their numbers greatly increased. May the Church continue in the course on which she has entered! May she have the disposition and the wisdom to adapt her measures to the new exigencies which arise ! May she never shrink from any means by which she can bring souls to Christ! And may God bless her efforts, until, through a living, working Church, we have a transformed nation and a regenerated world!

Note.—Dr Macleod, of the Barony, Glasgow, has for four winters had special services for the working classes in his church on Sabbath evenings. All persons except those in working clothes are strictly excluded by the door-keepers. There are never less than 1000 present. The communion is given twice a year to those who, on private examination, are considered fit for it. The communicants come in their ordinary clothes. They are afterwards transferred by letter to any church with which they wish to be permanently connected. From 50 to 60 are thus every winter added to the Church of Christ from this congregation. 1000 tracts are generally distributed every second or third evening. The church-door collection is about £1 each evening. An adult school has also sprung up from this congregation. No pupil is admitted under twenty years of age. It meets from seven till ten every evening. The attendance is 120. The only branches taught are reading, writing, and arithmetic. The fees are 1s. monthly. Three efficient teachers are employed. The head-teacher receives 30s. weekly; his assistants, 15s. each. The success has been most encouraging. These few facts may be helpful to some workers.


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