Historical Support for Mass Evangelism
There is a history of mass evangelism in the church. In the early church, there were some occasions where public proclamation of the Gospel was used as a method of evangelism. However, due to persecution, much of the evangelism in the early church relied upon face-to-face witnessing and small home gatherings. In fact, with the increased persecution of Christians, the best evangelists may have been the martyrs who probably preached to the crowds in the Roman Coliseum while waiting to be eaten by lions.
Throughout church history, mass evangelism has occurred from time to time but it became most prominent in the last few hundred years. During the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards became famous for preaching a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Jonathan Edwards said, “Preach abroad! It is the cooping yourselves up in rooms that has dampened the work of God, which never was and never will be carried out to any purpose without going into the highways and hedges and compelling men and women to come in.”
George Whitfield preached out in the open to large crowds of people. He traveled constantly and preached wherever he could gather a crowd, often in the often air, to as many as twenty thousand people at a time. He was a gifted and energetic speaker with a clear and powerful voice and he often spoke without notes. He worked diligently to communicate clearly to those with no religious background.
Benjamin Franklin records his encounter with Whitfield in his autobiography:
He had a loud and clear Voice, and articulated his Words and Sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great Distance, especially as his Auditors [audience], however numerous, observ’d the most exact Silence. 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 towards the River; and I found his Voice distinct till I came near Front Street, when some Noise in that Street, obscur’d it. Imagining then a Semicircle, of which my Distance should be the Radius, and that it were fill’d with Auditors, to each of whom I allow’d two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than Thirty Thousand.”
John Wesley was kicked out of the Anglican churches in England so he started preaching out in open fields. He witnessed Whitfield preaching to a large crowd in a field and he wrote, “I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” Because of Whitfield’s example and because the churches were too small, Wesley began preaching out in the fields to large crowds of people.
Francis Asbury, a tireless Methodist, developed the method of circuit riding where he rode his horse from community to community preaching the Gospel.
William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, said, “No sort of defense is needed for preaching outdoors, but it would take a very strong argument to prove that a man who has never preached beyond the walls of his meetinghouse has done his duty. A defense is required for services within buildings rather than for worship outside of them.”
Charles Finney held “camp meetings” and invited the lost to come repent at a mourner’s bench. D.L Moody conducted citywide campaigns across America in the late 1800’s. Billy Sunday was a famous baseball player who got saved and became an evangelist. His fierily messages urged people to repent. Billy Graham was launched to fame at his 1949 crusade in Los Angeles and became one of the most famous men in America because of his large evangelistic crusades. In the early 1950’s, Oral Roberts became a well-known healing evangelist and crisscrossed the United States holding tent crusades. Around the same time, T.L. Osborn became known for conducting international healing crusades. Today, evangelists like Franklin Graham, Luis Palau, and Reinhard Bonnke continue the tradition of preaching to the masses in large evangelistic events. These men of God have had huge impact on the world and much of their impact came because of their commitment to mass evangelism.