Pursuing the Marvelous: Gospel wagons

Dwight L. Moody was one of the great evangelists of the 19th century. Moody started the Bible-Work Institute of the Chicago Evangelization Society (renamed Moody Bible Institute shortly before his death), one of the first in the Bible school movement. From this work, he launched yet another work, the Colportage Association (later Moody Press), an organization using horse-drawn gospel wagons from which students sold low-cost religious books and tracts throughout the nation.

GOSPEL WAGONS769-5 PC Mar-Apr 08.jpgMoody, while well known, was not the only person to use the gospel wagon as a means of conveying religion to the masses. In 1886, The New York Times headline read, “A New Gospel Wagon, Street Preaching under a Peddler’s License in Brooklyn.”

It seems evangelist Ferdinand Schiverea had been prevented from preaching in the streets of Brooklyn – run off from every location. It was suggested to him that he could get a peddler’s license and ply his wares, which of course would be low cost Bibles. Two men W. F. Selieck and David M Torrey purchased a wagon for Schiverea and drove it up to Flatbush and Ninth Avenue where Schiverea spoke every evening for three months. It was described in The Times, as “a substantial road wagon, covered over with two lamps on the top. The dashboard is so arranged that it can be turned down to make a good size platform. The back part of the wagon will be filled with Bibles and tracts. The wagon is decorated all over with scripture and mottoes.”

The Times commented on services being held at the Pavilion by Reverend Mr. Pardington on “How to Reach the Masses,” and Reverend Mr. Ostrander on the “Value of the Gospel Wagon.” Then Mr. Schiverea gave a history of the gospel wagon. He found the Bible sanction for it in the books of First and Second Samuel. The wagon cost $310.35 and the horse was to cost $200 plus $35 for the harness.

GOSPEL WAGONS769 PC Mar-Apr 08.jpgTen years later The New York Times headline read, “Planning a Big Gospel Wagon.” The Rev E.E. Knapp, pastor of the Baptist Church of the Redeemer had secured funds to build a gospel wagon in memory of his father, Rev Samuel J. Knapp. The wagon was to be drawn by a team of horses. The wagon was big enough to hold 15 people, an organ and lockers for hymn books. It was to be constructed so it opened from either side and from the rear with a platform. Its purpose was to travel to tenement house districts carrying the word of God.

These wagons were depicted on many postcards both printed and real photo. There are some American postcards of this type, but the majority are English. They are great postcards documenting the history of traveling religion. And, while very interesting they are scarce to find and can run $200-$300 to purchase.

R. A. Torrey (1856-1928), a Congregational evangelist, teacher, author, was educated in Yale University and Divinity School. In 1889 Dwight L. Moody called Torrey to Chicago to become the superintendant of the school which became known as the Moody Bible Institute. These are among the words of advice he offered “open-air” preachers.

1. Don’t unnecessarily antagonize your audience. One man attempted a prohibition discourse immediately in front of a saloon. He got a brick instead of votes.

GOSPEL WAGONS769-6 PC Mar-Apr 08.jpg2. Don’t get scared. Let Psalm 27: 1 be your motto: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” You may be surrounded by a crowd of hoodlums, but you may be absolutely certain that you will not be hurt unless the Lord wants you to be hurt; and if the Lord wants you to be hurt, that is the best thing for you. You may be killed if the Lord sees fit to allow you to be killed, but it is a wonderful privilege to be killed for the Lord. One night I was holding a meeting in one of the worst parts of Chicago. Something happened to enrage a part of the crowd that gathered around me. Friends near at hand were in fear lest I be killed, but I kept on speaking and was not even struck.

3. Whatever happens, never lose your temper. You ought never to get angry under any circumstances, but it is especially foolish to do so when you are holding an open-air meeting. You will doubtless have many temptations to lose your temper, but never do it. It is very hard to hit a man when he is serene, and if you preserve your serenity, the chances are that you will escape unscathed. Even if a tough strikes you, he cannot do so a second time if you remain calm. Serenity is one of the best safeguards.

4. Don’t let your meeting be broken up. No matter what happens, hold your ground if you can, and you generally can. One night I was holding a meeting in a square in one of the most desperate parts of a large city. The steps of an adjacent saloon were crowded with men, many of whom were half drunk. A man came along on a load of hay, went into the saloon and fired himself up with strong drink. Then he attempted to drive right down upon the crowd in the middle of the square, in which there were many women and children. Some men stopped his horses, and the infuriated man came down from the load of hay and the howling mob swept down from the steps of the saloon. Somehow or other the drunken driver got a rough handling in the mob, but not one of our number was struck. Two policemen in citizens’ clothes happened to be passing by and stopped the riot.

5. Don’t fight. Never fight under any circumstances. Even if they almost pound the life out of you, refuse to fight back.

GOSPEL WAGONS769-8 PC Mar-Apr 08.jpg6. Don’t be dull. Dullness will kill an open-air meeting at once. Prosiness will drive the whole audience away. In order to avoid being dull, do not preach long sermons. Use a great many striking illustrations. Keep wide awake yourself, and you will keep the audience awake. Be energetic in your manner. Talk so people can bear you. Don’t preach, but simply talk to people.

7. Don’t be soft. One of these nice, namby-pamby, sentimental sort of fellows in an open-air meeting the crowd cannot and will not stand. The temptation to throw a brick or a rotten apple at him is perfectly irresistible, and one can hardly blame the crowd.

8. Don’t read a sermon. Whatever may be said in defence of reading essays in the pulpit, it will never do in the open air. It is possible to have no notes whatever. If you cannot talk long without notes, so much the better; you can talk as long as you ought to. If you read, you will talk longer than you ought to.

9. Don’t use vulgar language. Use language that people are acquainted with, but do not use vulgar language. Some people think it is necessary to use slang, but slang is never admissible. There is language that is popular and easily understood by the people that is purest Anglo-Saxon.

10. Don’t talk too long. You may have a number of talks in an open-air meeting, but do not have any of them over ten or fifteen minutes long. As a rule do not have them as long as that. Of course there are exceptions to this, when a great crowd is gathered to bear some person in the open air. Under such circumstances I have beard a sermon an hour long that held the interest of the people, but this is not true in the ordinary open-air meeting.