October 20, 2011 by Steven Worden
By Steven Worden
We see them on TV frequently: preachers speaking in front of huge crowds packed into arenas. We listen as they hawk their latest books, CDs and DVDs. Although some may gripe at these pastors’ mass appeal or their marketing, these preachers are actually following in the footsteps of a long and proud tradition of preachers. For example, in the 18th century, Rev. George Whitefield drew crowds of tens of thousands. They were usually working class, to the dismay of their betters. Some critics were so angered by his message and delivery that they threw rotten fruit or dead cats at him, according to a Christianity.com article.
However, it was 155 years ago, on Oct. 19, 1856, that a 22-year old pastor strode up to the pulpit to speak to a crowd of over 10,000 eager listeners packed into the Surrey Music Hall in London. At the time, the Surrey Music Hall was the largest building in London and Charles Haddon Spurgeon was the mega-church preacher of his time. Tragically, the services had scarcely begun when someone screamed, “Fire! The galleries are giving way. The place is falling.” In the ensuing panic, seven people died and many were injured. Not an auspicious start to a preaching career.
Although emotionally devastated by the incident — which would cause him to struggle with depression for many years — the resilient young preacher carried on. Within two weeks Spurgeon returned to preach to an even larger crowd. A year after the accident, he spoke to a crowd of over 23,000 gathered at the Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Charles Hadden Spurgeon went on to become the most popular preacher of his time, his sermons reprinted in Monday newspapers and even telegraphed to New York City for publishing the day following the services. A tireless writer, he turned out sermons, an autobiography, commentaries, books on prayer, devotionals, magazines, poetry and hymns. At his death, his collected writings comprised some 49 volumes. Much of his work remains popular today.
Sometimes called “The Prince of Preachers,” Spurgeon had a great voice. While testing the acoustics in the Crystal Palace, he thundered, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” A worker up in the top of the building, when he unexpectedly heard the voice, was so moved that he put down his tools, went home and converted to Christianity. George Whitefield, too, had such a powerful voice that reportedly he could be heard a mile away. But it may not have been just the voice or the delivery.
Human beings, social psychologists have emphasized, are problem-solving creatures attempting to cope with mundane problems of day to day life. Cars don’t start, people don’t keep appointments, children behave badly, people fall ill, a folks lose their jobs—all problems of everyday life that we must confront and solve. Spurgeon was acutely aware of the struggles of everyday life. He urged his students when they were working on their sermons to keep both a Bible and a newspaper side by side on their desks. Spurgeon and other preachers who have attracted a great following offer messages to people that inspire them, reassure them and offer insight into their struggles. Add to that the excitement of being in a crowd of enthusiastic listeners — whether following Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, or Joyce Meyers — and you have a form of collective behavior that echoes in the deepest wiring in our brains. For those disdainful of such sacred assemblies with their old cadences and messages — it just might be their loss.