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Gawin Kirkham -The Open Air Evangelist

Digital image restoration © Peter N Millward

Gawin Kirkham
The Open Air Evangelist

Chapter 7 

Ch1. Ch2. Ch3. Ch4. Ch5. Ch6. Ch7. Ch8. Ch9.

                           Mellow Hours; and Rest Awhile                                                                                                                                   

To him that giveth shall be given: good measure, pressed down, and running over. The life that is wholly offered on the sacred altar of sacrifice shall be enriched with blessings unknown to the meagre soul, and be filled, anticipatively, with the joy of heaven. It was long since Mr. Kirkham had permitted to himself a holiday. Zeal had consumed the days of many years, and to work was as the breath of life. Each day brought its appointed labour ; and each evening, well-nigh without exception, some allotted task in public life. Did a few spare hours present themselves, and was he persuaded to spend them restfully in his happy home, he would regretfully reflect that at some street corner an audience might have been attracted, and the message he loved proclaimed. Having passed his fiftieth birthday, it was felt, with the advent of the year 1883, that his abounding labours must needs be interrupted for awhile, and their strain and tension be relieved. So the members and friends of the Open-Air Mission, to whom their secretary was very dear, combined to present him with the funds necessary to enjoy a holiday in America, to see his brother in that country, and by way of parenthesis, to inquire as to the progress in that land of the cause that lay so near his heart.  The committee of the Mission readily accorded three months’ leave of absence ; and so, wafted onward by loving gifts and earnest prayers, no less than by favouring breezes, he embarked on Thursday, August 30th, and set his face toward another hemisphere. How pleasant it was, that visit to the great western land, with its communion with friends new and old ; its happy sojourns here and there ; its long journeys over prairie wastes ; its astonished visions of nature’s triumphant exhibitions, far surpassing all those of pigmy man ; and its joyous opportunities of ministry ! What wonder that, musing so long, the fire burned within, and, at length resistless, issued in a book! What wonder, either, that A Holiday Tour in America, graphic in style, interesting in matter, earnest in exhortation, sold apace, till several thousands of copies had been issued, and no more remained ! But we are anticipating; and the story must needs be told consecutively though in brief. And first, the voyage. Its leading incident was a storm—a night so wild that, while “faith said we should reach the shore in safety, sense said we should sink like lead in the mighty waters.” “ At times,” he says, “ the conflict was distressing, and perhaps was a necessary discipline to enable some of us to sympathize more fully with those who pass through the deep waters of doubt and fear.” But it passed, as all storms pass in the experience of the saints. After the night the morn ; and, anon, after the voyaging, the haven where they would be, and the glad greetings of the other shore!

A Visit to Canada

Quebec, and then Montreal ; where pleasant hospitality awaited him, and opportunities for service, including an open-air meeting gathered by himself, at which a prodigal from England asked if Mr. Kirkham had been sent to look after him, and was lovingly told “ the way back ” to God. Toronto, that fine Canadian city, presented many 
phases full of interest. Here, as the guest of the Y.M.C.A., four happy days were spent; the open-air discussions in Queen’s Park watched with emotions largely of disappointment ; Gospel efforts at the exposition admiringly approved ; and his favourite “Coloured Teacher,” a roll of coloured texts and hymns, used in the open-air with good effect. Two days at Hamilton, under the roof of his old friend, Mr. F. Lonsdale, secretary of the Y.M.C.A., were similarly spent, after which he says: “On Friday, the 21st, I arrived at St. Catherine’s, thirty miles from Hamilton, and was the guest of my Atlantic fellow-voyager, the Rev. George Burson, who took me next day to see the Falls of Niagara, about twelve miles off. We went over Goat Island and the Three Sisters ; descended from Prospect Park in the unprotected elevator; were rowed across the river immediately below the Falls; saw the spot where Captain Matthew Webb started on his fatal swim two months before; gazed upon the mighty Falls from different points ; saw the beautiful rainbows produced by the ever ascending spray ; were impressed by the roar of the cataract; and turned away most reluctantly from this marvellous illustration of the mighty power of God.”

Niagara Falls

Only two days could be spared to Chicago, that storehouse of latter-day wonders—“as nothing,” he says, “ to give to so large a city. But the brief visit was made an undoubted blessing; for after his return a letter from Mr. G. T. Howser, secretary of the Y.M.C.A., brought the welcome tidings that “Your visit did much good. I am encouraged to go on in the good work, and I think your coming to us stimulated our brethren to renewed effort.” A journey of five hundred miles still farther west brought him within the circle of Captain the Hon. R. Moreton’s genial hospitality at Le Mars, Iowa.  “ When I found myself under the hospitable roof of my dear friend Captain Moreton, at Dromore Farm, and talking round the stove about old times, I fancied myself at Mildmay, instead of being four thousand three hundred miles away. Those who knew Captain Moreton in England, cannot imagine him idle in America. To allow him to hear Bishop Simpson, a famous Methodist Episcopal prelate, who was attending a Conference at Le Mars, I took his two Sunday services, one at the Plymouth County Presbyterian Church, some eight miles north of his house, and the other in a school-room in Elgin township, three miles off. The former I called 'the church in the wilderness.’ A mere wooden barn-like building on a gentle rising ground, conveys no idea of an ecclesiastical structure. There is a platform at the door, on which the people alight from their buggies and horses. On approaching I noticed a lady on horseback thus alight. The horses are then tied to posts and rails round the church. While the service was proceeding, a young man hastily left the building. I ascertained afterwards that his horse had broken loose, and he had gone to catch it.  On one side of the church was a small grave-yard, unprotected by any fence, and open to the tread of any animal which chose to desecrate it. Here amid tall grasses, and the last remnant of the fading autumn flowers, the dead were sleeping till the resurrection trump shall wake them.”

The Rocky Mountains

Omaha and Denver, two new cities of the West, are next noticed. At Denver a meeting of Christian workers was addressed on the importance of open-air effort, and interest was aroused in the cause. Then he proceeds : “ It is impossible to describe the effect the Rocky Mountains had upon me. Close by the Central Union station, the morning after my arrival at Denver, I happened to lift my eyes, and saw before me great piles of beautiful blue mountains, interspersed with peaks covered with the whitest snow. The effect was electrical; and I stood transfixed, unable to move, and equally unable to take my eyes off them. I had never seen such a sight before. I suppose I was more than twenty-five miles from them ; but the rarity of the atmosphere, and the clear sunlight, revealed the crevasses, and made them appear quite close. All the day they either haunted or confronted me. From the top of the courthouse, with a coloured janitor as an expositor, they stood up in their majesty against the clear sky, and filled more than half the horizon.   But to watch the sun sink behind them, and to see the western sky suffused with the most brilliant colours, transported me to the very gates of heaven. It seemed no longer earth, but a New World in reality ; and as I gazed with reverence and awe upon the deepening shadows of these everlasting hills, the tears were ready to start to my eyes, and I instinctively repeated :—

“ ‘ A few more suns shall set
O’er these dark hills of time,
And we shall be where suns are not,
A far serener clime ! ’

How I longed to explore them ! But I had sent word to St Louis, nine hundred miles away, that I would (d.v.) be there by Sunday, and I felt bound to keep my appointment. When I left home there was a dim vision of San Francisco before me. But here I was, five thousand miles from home, two thousand one hundred from the Atlantic sea-board, and yet one thousand three hundred from the Pacific coast. Seeing the impossibility of accomplishing everything, I most reluctantly turned away from these fascinating ranges, and set my face across the prairie again toward St. Louis.” A delay of twelve hours at Kansas proved the opportunity, ever welcome, to make known the joyful tidings of salvation. Entering the city, his soul was stirred by the abounding evidences of temptation and evil, and, returning to the station for his “ Coloured Teacher,” he proceeded to the Market Place, where, alone, he stood and preached to a considerable crowd, realizing at once his weakness and the near presence of his Almighty Friend. 

Mr. Kirkham "Interviewed"

In describing St. Louis his warm devotion to the Sabbath—a fire that never ceased to burn within his soul—shines forth, not for the first or last time in his narrative. “ Sabbath desecration,” he writes, “ is a growing evil, and is one of the rocks ahead on which the future well-being of this vast country is in danger of being wrecked. Its kindred evil, the Sunday liquor traffic, walks hand in hand with it, and the two together will go far to imperil the future of this ‘ fair Columbia.’ I was amazed, in walking through the streets, to see the city placarded with theatrical announcements, and this particular ‘ Sun￾day, October /th,’ on all of them, as the date for new plays to be produced. Ina brief walk in the evening I saw three or four of these theatres open, and the people crowding in under the glare of the electric light; while some ‘ Dime Museums ’ and beer-saloons were largely patronized and lighted in the same way. How thankful I was to be able to tell my American friends that in the old country, from John o’ Groat’s to Land’s End, there was not a single theatre open on the Sabbath, save a few for preaching the Gospel.” Four days’ happy fellowship with Christian brethren at St. Louis, was succeeded by a visit to the Mammoth Caves of Kentucky ; and this again by a brief stay at Cincinnati, where at length he received a call from the inevitable “interviewer.” “It was in this city,” writes Mr. Kirkham, “I was 'interviewed’ by a reporter, prior to the Monday evening meeting. He wanted to know what I was going to talk about. I said I did not know, for a preacher was not always sure of his message till he began to speak. “ ‘ Well, what is your mission in this country ? Is it to reform men ? ’ “‘No; it is to convert men.’ “ ‘ What is that ? ’ “ ‘ It is the change which all must experience before they can reach heaven.’  “ ‘ I don’t understand you. What do you mean ? ’ “ ‘ I mean what our Lord said, “ Except ye
be converted, ye cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven.” ’ “ ‘ I don’t understand you ; I wish you would give
me some points of your lecture. Don’t you know what you are going to talk about? Have you anything written down ? ’ “‘Yes,’ (turning over the leaves of my Bible) ‘here are notes of “ Things that accompany Salvation ”  (Heb. vi. 9). I shall probably speak from this.’ “‘Well, give me some points.’  “ ‘ I will. Salvation may be compared to a tree.  First, there is conviction of sin. Then there is confession of sin, and hatred of sin. These may be compared to the leaves. Again, there is hope, love, faith, forgiveness. These may represent the blossoms. Finally, there is assurance, humility, and obedience. These correspond to the fruit?   “‘Thank you, sir; that will do.’ Next morning this outline appeared, and the speaker was described as ‘ an evangelist of the Moody and Sankey type.’ ” At Washington, five hundred miles away, he was informed that open-air preaching was entirely prohibited ; but, venturing forth in the company of two brethren, he stood by an electric light in front of a Jewish clothier’s shop,hoisted his“ Coloured Teacher,” gathered a crowd, and in the presence of a policeman held a meeting without interruption or objection.

New York

Baltimore and Philadelphia were the next centres of interest and effort. In the latter city he received great kindness from Mr. George H. Stuart, the veteran president of the Christian Commission during the war of rebellion, who afterwards wrote him thus :—“ I was very sorry my health did not admit of my seeing more of you, or of giving you the attention my heart prompted. Your ‘Open-Air Mission ’ is one that strongly commends itself to me ; and I regret that this important subject has received comparatively so little attention in this country, where our summer is so specially adapted to it. When a young man, and the president of our Y.M.C.A., the matter in various forms, tents, &c., was tried. Since then but little has been done in that line, except by our coloured mission, and some few local workers. I shall be glad at all times to hear from you, or receive any publications of special interest.” A unique interest attaches to Mr. Kirkham’s efforts to preach the Gospel in New York, by reason of the difficulty which surrounded open-air preaching in that city. The story runs :—“ On Sunday, October 28th, about noon, I saw a gentleman ascend the steps of the City Hall, New York, and prepare to preach. He proved to be a doctor of divinity. Made myself known to him, and was informed that I could not preach without a permit from the mayor, and was directed to the police-office in the basement to make inquiries. Here the head officer confirmed this statement, and added that if a permit was granted, it would only apply to preaching the Gospel. Returned to the City Hall steps, and found the doctor of divinity singing a hymn alone, after which he read a portion of the service of the Episcopal Church.  He then went off to begin another meeting at the Battery, leaving a brother clergyman to begin this one. This clergyman wore the black gown, and held up the front page of an illustrated periodical, containing the story of a teetotal cabman, on which he dilated; but certainly dealt out a very scant measure of the Gospel, on which the policeman had laid so much emphasis. But, evidently, the license carried protection; as, when a half-drunken man began to talk, he was at once marched out of the crowd by the police. “ Some one went to the police on my behalf, and a verbal message was sent that I might speak. So the clergyman introduced me to the people, and I spoke.  About one o’clock we went down to the Battery, where so many emigrants from all parts of the world disembark, and held another meeting in the park. Here three of us spoke from the band-stand, and it was very touching to see a number of emigrants from different nations, some of whom listened with tearful eyes to the old story of the love of Jesus, and of the home He had gone to prepare in a new land, where sorrow and sighing are for ever done away.“ On Monday I called upon the mayor, but was told by his secretary that I must bring a letter from some one known to his worship.

A New York "Permit""

He catechized me somewhat sharply, asking whether I belonged to the Salvation Army; and volunteered the information that even if the permit was obtained, I must preach alone, as no musical instruments or singers could be allowed.   Next morning I called at the City Hall, with letter from the Y.M.C.A., and was informed that the mayor was out. Called again later, and was told he was busy ; yet again, and he was at lunch.  So I left the city without a permit, and with sundry reflections about a land of liberty. “ Still anxious about the matter I wrote from Boston, recounting the circumstances, and received polite note from the mayor’s secretary, and the desired document, which runs thus :—

No. 76. Mayor’s Office, New York,
                          October 30th, 1883.

Whereas an ordinance relative to public worship in the streets and other public places, passed May 4th, 1859, prohibits an assembly of persons in any public place in the city of New York, laid out and appointed for the common use of the citizens, under the pretence of, or for, public worship or exhortation, makes it the duty of all magistrates, constables, and police officers to prevent such assemblies, and to prosecute all persons connected in promoting them, under the penalty of five dollars for every neglect of such duty.

And Whereas the fourth section of the said ordinance, as amended on April 11th, 1878, provides that nothing therein contained shall prevent any clergyman or minister of any denomination from preaching in any place in this City who shall have obtained the written permission of either the Mayor or one of the Aldermen or Councilmen of this City therefor.

Now Therefore,  in accordance with the authority vested in the Mayor by the said  ordinance, permission is hereby given to Gawin Kirkham to preach in out-door meetings at various places in the City, during the pleasure of the Mayor, provided that such meetings are conducted without causing any public disorder.

And Provided Further, that the permission hereby granted shall continue in force, unless sooner revoked, until the 31st day of December, 1883, and no longer.

                                                      FRANKLIN EDSON,

Mr. Kirkham’s joyful meeting with his brother, Mr. Edward Kirkham, resident in Brooklyn, whom he had not seen for thirty years, crowned the varied pleasures of the journey, and with a glad heart he proceeded on his way ; first to Albany, and thence to  Boston, Lowell, Concord, and Antrim in New Hampshire, where a warm welcome awaited him from his old friend and correspondent, the Rev. William Hurlin.
Responding to an invitation from Mr. George C. Needham, four days were next spent at Newport, Rhode Island.

"I Love to do it"

They were chiefly occupied in Gospel work in company with the beloved evangelist just named, and were marked by the receipt of a second mayor’s license, permitting him to preach the Word within the city. That he soon secured a warm place in the affections of God’s people there, may be gathered from the following extract from a letter to his wife :—“ In the Friends’ Meeting-House quite a novel incident occurred. One of the Friends felt moved to ask a collection for me, and the result was over £4. Then the committee under which George Needham was invited gave me my ‘expenses’ —£3 more. The Friends’ collection was to be used in buying an overcoat for the winter when I got home.  The people there were very warm-hearted, and I felt quite sorry to leave them.” The next paragraph of the same letter records a similar act of Christian kindness, for at Boston, whither he next proceeded, having purchased a Japanese wolf robe, or rug, for £3 7s. 6d., “a dear man of God, J. A. Whipple,” he says,  “ insisted upon paying for it, and made me a present of it When I remonstrated against such generosity, he simply replied, ‘ I love to do it.’” Thus the charm of Mr. Kirkham’s character left impressions wherever he went. To see George Whitefield’s burying-place at Newbury Port was now the great desire of his heart; and in the providence of God his steps were directed thitherward. “ On arriving at Newbury Port,” he writes, “we found the Y.M.C.A. secretary, who kindly accompanied us to the white wooden structure, so well-known as the Old South Church. In a house close by ‘ the prince of open-air preachers ’ died on the 30th of September, 1770, and under the pulpit of this church his body awaits the resurrection of the just. The Bible from which he preached is still shown; but the seraphic spirit he manifested no longer lingers in the place, which is now dead and cold.” A last visit, paid at Townshend, in Vermont, to an old friend, must be recorded : “At Townshend, I was under the roof of a friend, George Porter, once a London City Missionary ; but now bearing D.D. to his name. When in the old country, as a member of the Open-Air Mission, he rendered valuable service by visiting numerous races, fairs, execution crowds,  &c., to preach and give tracts. . . He drove me round by the banks of the West River, and we climbed Peakhead Mountain together, and parted, hoping to meet in the better land.” *  The homeward voyage, marked, as usual, by earnest service for the Master, need not be described.
Its safe and peaceful close constrains an offering of praise from a thankful heart : “ At length, after exactly nine days at sea, wafted by favouring gales,  and most of us preserved from sickness, we joyously stepped ashore at Liverpool ; I for one devoutly thankful to feel my own native soil under my feet once more, and deeply grateful to God, as the preserver of men.


* Dr. Porter died on March 29th, 1892, a date, it will be seen, very near that of Mr. Kirkham’s death.

"Preach in the Open-Air!"

“ During these journeyings I was in the presence of, or heard of all the calamities which befall travellers by sea and land. Ships were wrecked off the coast of Newfoundland in the storm we experienced on our outward voyage; river steamers were blown up, and sunk by collision on the American rivers. Twice I passed wrecked trains— in each case the collision being on the preceding night; and some people were killed in a collision on a spot over which we passed a few days before.  Trains were attacked by train-robbers, and one was thrown off the track by a bullock. Coaches, cars, and omnibuses were overturned, and I was continually made to feel my dependence upon the Lord for life, and breath, and all things. And now once more at home I can only exclaim, ‘ Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.’“ If,” he concludes, in stirring words of exhortation and appeal, “ I could make my voice heard by my brethren throughout that vast continent, I would say, Preach in the open-air ; you have a population that needs it, and a climate in which, for considerable periods, it can be done with ease. Be not deterred by difficulties. The work is of God, and the commission given by his Son Jesus Christ is as much in force now as when it was uttered : ‘ Go out quickly ! ’ Time presses. Souls are perishing. The need is urgent. Men will hear. God will bless. And soon there will be the ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord’  (Matt. xxv. 21).”    Thus appropriately closed an episode fraught with present and eternal interest.

Next Chapter 8


Ch1. Ch2. Ch3. Ch4. Ch5. Ch6. Ch7. Ch8. Ch9.