The World’s Greatest Evangelist
C. D. Cliffe
Rev. John McNeill occupies the first place, not only in religious circles in Great Britain, but he is regarded as the leading orator of the period. There is a possibility of Mr. McNeill becoming a resident of Canada. The writer of this article is a member of the MacLean Magazine organization, a Canadian, who spent some years on the London Press. No one knows Mr. McNeill, his power and peculiarities better.
FROM railway porter in Glasgow, Scotland, to pastor of Regent’s Square (Presbyterian) Church, London, England, is a long step. To then, suddenly give up the notable pastorate, over a whim, doff all gowns of the “cloth,” and rise to be one of the most famous undenominational evangelists, known in the four corners of the globe; such in tabloid form is the life of the, Rev. John McNeill, orator, preacher and evangelist, now of Liverpool, England, and who recently received a call to the pulpit of Cooke’s Church, Toronto, Canada.
It’s about McNeill’s originalities as an evangelist I wish to speak. For nearly two years I was closely associated with his preaching in the Old Country; and, therefore, speak from first hand experL ence.
As a travelling evangelist he was organized just like a large opera company, had his managers and his committee and his secretaries. He and his entourage always stayed at the best hotels and never suffered the common indignity of being billetted to private houses.
I was employed by a printing company which published a religious paper and incidentally printed tracts and booklets, mostly religious. Their head110
quarters were on Warwick Lane within £i. stone’s throw of the great paternoster row, known to the world as the “Row.”
“Follow McNeill” was my modest assignment. This meant that I had to hear all his sermons and that meant five a week and often two on Sunday as he never preached on Saturday night. Further, of course, it was my duty to seize upon some of his best thoughts and put them into shape such as a booklet or a tract and see how many rich ladies, maiden or otherwise, were anxious to spend some money on tracts. McNeill called it ^getting square with the Creator.” That, however, is another story.
Occasionally we printed verbatim sermons. They were all so good that it was difficult to sift the good or the best.
So to get the cream of his sermons we used to run miniatures of his originalities in columns. These would be selected from his masterly orations. One never knew when he would say something remarkable.
Surely his sermons were orations, unequalled in apt illustration, fine wit, keen, pungent paragraphs, gleaming with fervor and religious spirit, convincing and amazing. I shall never forget some of them.
There is no need then to follow the
great preacher to all the big cities of Great Britain, including Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin, Cork, etc., where I went with him, as the man just repeated himself as he went along. In Glasgow he occupied the Tent Ilall
for over a month and filled it ever}7 night to overflowing.
In London alone he remained nearly four months without interruption, during which period I heard seventy-five per cent, of all his preaching.
Let us look briefly at the preacher’s
early career. He was a poor boy, but received a reasonably good common education in the Highlands of Scotland. His mother he often refers to as having taught him the Bible and good habits.
Probably one of his finest sermons is
his story of his life which in a word is told at the first sentence of this article only he works in his struggles for existence and always starts by saying:
“You didn’t know I was a railway porter in Glasgow! True enough and I’m still saying ‘Change cars.’ ”
He prefers to be called John McNeill without any Reverend or other title. He is a large man physically as well as mentally. He is dark of complexion, wears full shaggy beard—or did when I knew him—and his bushy black hair stands straight up on his well-shaped head something like Carlyle’s but not so wiry. For this there’s another reason. John has a habit in the most thrilling moments in his addresses of pulling his beard quickly and then pushing his five fingers most vigorously through his hair.
Then look out for fireworks. H e generally grabs the banister of the pulpit or the railing, winds his powerful right arm about it almost in a wriggle and in a tremendous voice shouts, yes, actually shouts :
“What do you say? With us or against us; in or out, up or downer, are you going to dive off into ' the world again and risk your life with hell?”
As he said “dive” the effect was climacteric as his voice would cadence and he stood speechless in the attitude of a diver.
He never uses notes of any kind and what a marvellous memory he must have is best established by the fact that T have taken his sermons verbatim and have heard them again and again from twenty to fifty times, and I never knew him to change a word, a quotation or an illustration.
Naturally he would have to repeat these sermons after he had spoken all he had prepared, for who could keep up such originality otherwise?
I have heard him preach his sermon on the Cave of Adullam, picturing in graphic language Saul on his throne and David hiding, typifying men and affairs of the day, in Exeter Hall, London, on Wednesday night and on Friday night he had the nerve to repeat it at St. James Hall a few yards away (St. James Hall was in existence at the time to which I refer).
The London papers went after him hard on this repeating business and gave him somewhat of a “roasting.” They also told him he was too familiar with the Deity and made too much frivolity in his sermons.
To these onslaughts McNeill never replied more than to refer now and then to the fact that he and his Master knew each other better than did the London papers.
It was a wealthy Glasgow business man who put McNeill through G1 a sgow University. Always a fine, fluent speaker, possessed with the best of common sense and at the same time that supreme intellectual appreciation of the Bible, it was not surprising that his first pastorate was the great Regent’s Square of London, the most fashionable and wealthy of the metropolis. The congregation wras not large but immensely wealthy and exclusive. Young McNeill’s salary was a good one and his work easy. However, his prophetic restless spirit would not stand monotony. His message was for crowds he
always felt and his church was never full. One Sunday evening his wealthy deacons were thunderstruck to find McNeill, the porter-pastor, standing on the steps of the big church without a gown invoking the passersby to come in and hear the gospel.
The situation caused a climax and shortly after McNeill resigned. I will refer to one of his sermons later which I always felt dealt a body blow at the Regent’s Square Church.
At the time of the World’s Fair at Chicago all the up-town theatres were vacated as everything was moved to Jackson Park. The great Dwight Moody, the American evangelist, had been preaching in England and met McNeill. He induced him to join him and they rented the vacated theatres in Chicago and packed them to the garret throughout the whole session of the fair. McNeill often referred to the powTer of the Lord being .greater than all things for everybody told them they would lose on such a foolish venture. After this he and Moody went to Australia, where they made a great impression. It was in 1896, 1897 and 1898 that McNeill returned to England. He was asked to undertake a campaign on a basis of a guarantee which was given again by this great Glasgow man, since raised to the Peerage. That is whatever McNeill’s committee were short to the amount of one thousand poinds for McNeill’s salary he would make up or in other words he wished the greatMcNeill to preach the gospel regardless of creed, sect or denomination and this thousand pounds was guaranteed.
A strong committee was organized of prominent business men and they made London, modern Babylon, their first place of attack.
Spurgeon’s famous tabernacle in Brixton was chosen as the first meeting place but McNeill afterwards wrent to Islington, filling the great Agricultural Hall there, also at Albert Hall, where fifteen thousand was a common audience, and then at all the leading halls and churches all over the big city.
McNeill never gave his sermons titles
but after hearing them one could not fail to name them. Pie simply preached from the Bible and would use two or three stanzas of Scriptures which he used as constructive guides to the continuity of his flow of thought.
On Sundays in London it was a big favor to have him speak at some of the fashionable west side churches such as Marlborough Square, St. John’s Wood, presided over by Rev. Dr. Gibson, a former Canadian, in this time; or the famous church of Dr. Hanson at Marylebone. The very announcement of his being at a church meant an overflow congregation that day.
He often worried these pastors who were holding together a more or less dissipated high society church because McNeill never condoned any society fads but went after them hot foot, frequently stepping on the toes of some of the wealthiest adherents*
I remember once at Marlborough Square one Sunday morning. The church was filled with fashion and wealth. Just imagine it was common to see the collection posted of sixty to seventy pounds — just collection plate money not contribution money.
Well! McNeill was in fine fettle. He had chosen his sermon on the House at Capernaum. He was a great actor, virile and hypnotic and you can fancy him describing the bringing of the sick man through the roof of this house. He graphically pictured the lifting of the man to the roof and held the audience breathless as he held his arms upwards to reach the imaginary cot of the sick man. Then he would say: “The splinters are falling, down he comes, down, down to the Christ waiting to heal.”
Then he would say one man had “spit upon his hands to get a good hold.” “What’s that?” he would say turning to the audience. “Some of you think 'spit on his hands’ not a very nice expression. Well, it’s a good thing for a lot of you people here that your old ancestors were not afraid to spit on their hands.” This would cause a ripple of laughter and at them he would go, say-
ing: “Yes, some wouldn’t laugh for fear you’d crack your face but you will go home and drink whiskey. I know you.”
Talking of miracles he would say: “If Bartimaeus were to get his poor blind eyes made to see to-day by having mud put upon his eyes, what would happen ? Why there would be two sects started right away—the Muddites and the Anti-Muddites.” Then, of course,, another laugh. Then perhaps he would criticise them for laughing again, generally ending up by quoting some familiar hymn such as
“Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas.”
“Never a carry, my friends; you’ll have to work your passage, every one of you.
1 “Peace be to Thee, oh Son of Jesus; peace be to thy helpers. Amen and amen.”
It’s a great compliment to him as a speaker that one never tired of his talk. No matter how often I heard bis sermons they were always fresh and interesting to me. Sometimes he would speak three hours without a break and he would say : “Shall I go on ?” Crowds would say “Yes.” When he saw the time he would generally bring the meeting to a close. As soon as the meeting was over McNeill vanished like a shot. He needed rest and privacy to do that work every night and no social life for him. His cosy quarters were waiting for him at his hotel and there he went promptly.
He recently took up a moribund church in Liverpool, England, and is said to have emptied most of those surrounding it. Jt was always an entertainment to hear McNeill. He never made his meetings a spiritual debauch such as some modern Christian clowns do who use the tricks and methods of the auctioneer, the blandishments of the bookmaker and the sleek, smooth ways of the professional spieler.
Chapman and Billy Sunday, Bieder-
wol & Co., are a different tribe. They are theological roughriders, who stampede the herd and set it a-milling.
However, McNeill talked about lost souls just as freely as he would about collar buttons lost under a bureau, just as if God ever misplaced anything or that all souls did not belong to God and hence were forever in His keeping. McNeill’s chief doctrine was kindness. He did not have a penitent bench nor did he act as if he had an agency for everlasting life. He seemed always interested-in having a soul worth saving as much as in saving a soul that isn’t.
His sermons were piquant with incessant contrasts, flaming with hypnotic power of persuasion and always in good humor. • , ... .r
When he would throw his arms aloft and say: “I’m no thin-blooded Unitarian ; I believe in God the Father, the Son and the Lloly Ghost,” no one within the sound of his voice could doubt his sincerity.
He had no mournful music, monotonous voice of woe, tearful appeals to God, dreary groans, pious ejaculations or any such terrifying methods.. Hundreds went just to be amused. It was as good as a theatre but always beneficial. He had no paid singers.
In these great crowded halls the audience would wait anxiously for his arrival. When he entered the pulpit, his presence seemed to be felt everywhere and silence reigned unless someone started in applause which he allowed at times. Before the obsequious committeeman had time to offer him a hymn book he would have a thin, paper-covered one off a chair at once and took the crowd by storm by his simplicity, saying often : “Let’s sing Must as I am without one plea,’ in the Master’s name.
“Hush,” he would say suddenly, “let us pray first and with the audience standing he would utter a marvellously compelling invocation almost me«meric in its aptness to the occasion. He would then plunge right into his subject, the Bible, as I said, his only manuscript.
He had no pealing of the organ ; entreaty, condemnation, misery, tears,
threats, promises of joy, happiness,heaven, eternal bliss, decide now, hurry up, whoop-la, etc., of the fakir.
He was just McNeill, was just plain John and he was the whole show, unique, striking and always full of common sense.
His most terrible declaration, for so it seemed to me, was at the same time impressive and inspiring, when he would say: “This is God’s house. God is here.” Then with loud, ringing, resonant voice nicely ranged he would
reach a climax, holding his Oxford binding Bible in his right hand aloft he would continue: “Yes, and if this is not God’s house; if God is not here, and if the gospel is not God’s word,” throwing his Bible flat on the pulpit, “I’ll never speak again.”
This effect was most striking in his sermon on “Doubting Thomas.” The great preacher would strut up and down the pulpit, hands behind bis back in imitation of thoughtful doubting Thomas. “Thomas had been reading advanced literature. Just like you,” he would say, turning to the audience, “reading Huxley and Spencer.”
“Thomas said, T don’t believe a word of it. Not a word. That’s too thin to wash. That bosh about the nails in the cross and the sword in the side of the Christ,’ and so on.”
In Scotland McNeill always added “I believe Thomas was Scotch; he was so like our hard-headed brethren of today.”
“Why in the name of all that is holy was Thomas at home and not with the other apostles'? If he were with the twelve he would never have had any
doubts. He wouldn’t have had time. Neither will you have time,” he would continue.
“You intellectual folks to-day who are reading fine books say that the Bible will not stand the searchlight of science and so on. Come to church. Believe in your pastor and your home; clap your hands for joy of living and you don’t know you might become the apostle Paul. Sit at home and doubt and the Bible will shame you out of it.”
In addition to his wonderful preaching, he had a card system which included post cards distributed at the door to everyone and also others in the seats.
Those in doubt or trouble about theirsouls or themselves in any way whatever were asked to communicate with the address on the card. All these claims received his personal attention privately.
I heard him use his Ruth and Naomi sermon on a fashionable London audience one Sunday. It was most enjoyable. Since then I have woven this theme into a story and sold it. The story’s title tells the sermon “A social kiss.” This shows what McNeill meant. For instance, in introducing Ruth to his hearers he would paint a delightful picture of a lovely woman typifying the Christian who in metaphor came to the church Naomi, kissed and said: “Whither thou goest I will go; Thy home shall be my home, etc.” as in days of old.
“Ah, ha!” McNeill would say. “You’ll say ‘How beautiful; just like me. That’s just lovely, Mr. McNeill.”
“Listen. It doesn’t at all. I’ll tell you what suits you. Ruth had a sister named Orpah and see what she did. She was with Ruth. I am sure you never heard of Orpah. Only Bible students have.
“Well, Orpah was like a lot of lukewarm professing churchgoers of to-day. She just strutted up to Naomi and said, ‘I’ll kiss you all right, but that is all; positively all. You dressed up old bigot, ready for heaven. You think you’ve got the only religion in the world. I’m going back to the Moabites false as you say they are. Good bye.
/‘You see Orpah typifies most of you in this church to-day. You’re willing to come here, look nice and give the Orpah kiss to the church and that ends it. You are not Ruths. Are you?
“Orpah was never heard of again in Biblical history and what became of Ruth? She married a Judæan farmer; their children begat Jesse who begat David and so on down to Christ.”
This sermon would be talked about for weeks all over.
Whenever McNeill was questioned about his free and easy methods he would answer differently but frequently
would say: “Our ideas of God changed and accordingly we have changed for the better. God is not a grouch ; God is love.”
I remember once he was induced by Mr. ^ Robertson, secretary of the Caledonia Christian Club, Bedford Square, London, to speak at the annual meeting. There were many other prominent speakers, including the editor of the British Weekly.
McNeill said briefly : “I’m glad to see. this club flourishing. Glad to see the name Caledonia linked with Christian. Man is a clubable animal but Christian clubs are the best for him. I would like to see clubs like this dotted all over London. It’s not the first week or the first month or the first year that leads the young Soot astray in London. It’s the first night. He’s heard of a Piccadilly Hell at midnight and the moth flutters around the candle. His friends meet him at the depot and off they go; get inflamed by liquor and the game is started. Let some members of this club meet him at the station, bring him to these cosy rooms and you’ve got him for once and for aye.” He quoted in conclusion :
“From the dim shieling of the misty island
Though hills divide us and a world
Still our hearts are true, our hearts are highland
And we, in dreams, behold the Hebrides.”
I’ve heard him speak in parks, on trains, in lobbies, on church steps and almost anywhere, and it mattered not he was the same resourceful, inspired McNeill whose hearers were always glad and always received a benefit.
One could fill volumes with his stuff which is so readable and easy to remember. I shall refer briefly to some of his sermons. I remember one of his most impressive sermons taken from Revelations where the message to the Laodiceans came, referring to this church being “neither hot nor cold; lukewarm so I’ll spew you out of my mouth.”
Hardly would the preacher be fairly started before he would bring everyone to attention by remarking: “What’s that! ‘Spew, did you say, Mr. McNeill? That’s not a very nice word to use in this fine church.” He would instantly seize the Bible face outwards and slapping it gingerly on the face, say: “But McNeill didn’t say it; God said it. There you are. Don’t be ashamed of the Bible. Be careful it doesn’t shame you.”
The sermon which I thought, with everyone who knew him well, referred to Regent’s Square was sort of an affectionate rebuke to his old elders. It was based on the text, “Behold I stand at the door and knook.”
He pictured most accurately wealthy deacons at the annual meeting of the church. A beautiful church, a wellpaid parson; a fat treasury, rolling in money. The secretary was reading the reports. Excellent, excellent. Suddenly there came a knock at the door.
" Here he would rap three or four times hard on the pulpit’s wood. A hush goes over the meeting.
McNeill’s audience is breathless as he held them by rapping again and repeating the text. Then with modulated voice and in almost a ghastly whisper he would lean away over the pulpit, saying “It’s Christ. He’s outside. He’s not at the meeting.” Think of it! Think of it!
Then he would quote the text again and fly right to the idea of the human heart, typifying the heart as the church and so on, asking if they were going to open the door of their hearts to-night and so on.
Occasionally Mr. McNeill would surprise his critics and especially the “highbrows” wTho thought him light and all that.
He is credited with having said (I never heard of it) : “No sane person can afford to throw the reins of reason on the neck of emotion and ride a Tam O’Shanter race to Bedlam.” It sounds like him.
This would seem a rebuke to foolish-
ness regarding religious revivals and was said in answer to critics.
He has often said: “Great sinners are often very religious.” So you see he knew human nature.
A beautiful intellectual sermon which I heard in the City Temple, London, was McNeill at his very best. Everyone who knows London at all knows how exclusively intellectual the late Dr. Parker and his successor, Dr. Campbell, have made this church and congregation. Only the choicest is expected there and as proof there are never seats enough, with aisles filled, to go round.
So when the brawny Scot from Glasgow railways was announced to preach at City Temple some “Ah’s” and “Oh’s” were heard referring to McNeill being out of his element there. Not so, for he captivated his hearers and even the London press acknowledged that McNeill’s place was in a big crowd no matter how intellectual.
He stepped into that great pulpit and picked up a lily standing on the pulpit. Of course he had ordered it there. Then he prayed, holding the lily in one hand. The effect was electrical. Everyone -wondered what was coming and well they might.
He quoted from Job, “Oh liberty,” etc., dealing with the free will of man, still holding the lily.
“Look at that flowTer in its freedom and beauty. I want it to speak for me this morning. I’ve botanized it. I discovered the insertion of the petals and the sepals, the calyx and the corolla. I know the stamens and the process' of fertilization and that is no mean work of the spinner of worlds. Very well. 1 measured the flower, its length and its breadth and I had a faint idea that T knew something about it. - Then I tried to fathom its fragrance and I had to quit, That surpassed me. I ask you, clever man or woman here to-day in this fine church, can you measure its fragrance? Can you tell me about it? Oh liberty indeed ! Oh man ! with his free will can you tell us God’s mysteries in the simplest life. No.”
Continuing he said: “I met a man. I measured him. He was a fine big fellow, well built and well fed, etc.; he was so broad in the shoulder, so tall, etc., and I thought I had him measured up but when I thought of his influence in life, I felt I could not measure that any more than I could measure the fragrance of the flower. So he went on with a marvellous study, quoting authors like Fenelon and Renan to support his argument, which resolved itself into “Not my will but Thine be done as he put it whether in the Valhalla of the Norseman ; the Nirvana of the Hindu or the Heaven of the Christian.”
Just one more highbrow and it is a story worthy of a book by itself. It was the story of Abraham slaying his son Isaac or at least in the position ready to slay. Isaac he said represented man’s
intelligence, his reason which God asks man, typified by Abraham, to sacrifice. The moment you are willing to sacrifice the Almighty stays your hand and all the good and beauty and poetry of existence is offered unto you. So he would say: “You heavy thinkers must be willing to accept this story, this Bible as the word, unabridged, untouched, unquibbled as it is; call it the nostalgia of ihe soul, call it whatever in the world you like if you take it it will land you where the tyranny of things hated shall not prevail, nor that for which the heart yearns turn to ashes at our touch.”
So his marvellous stories would make a book.
Mr. McNeill married the daughter of the manager of the Charing Cross Bank, London, and hence is not in great need of money. His preaching then is all for the “joy of the working.”