Preaching the Gospel without fear despite trials and arrests

Open-air preacher John Sherwood (l) with his good friend Pastor Peter Simpson (r) after his acquittal.

Open-air preacher John Sherwood came to national media attention after Metropolitan Police officers arrested him last year in West London.

Pastor Sherwood, then 71, had been preaching on Genesis 1:27 outside Uxbridge tube station. Passers-by accused him of homophobic hate speech for saying that the family unit as ordained by God consists of a father and a mother, not two fathers or two mothers.

The video of his arrest, which Christian Concern described as "brutal", drew thousands of views.

In April this year, Uxbridge Magistrates' Court cleared him of causing "harassment, alarm or distress" under the Public Order Act.

Pastor Sherwood has been Minister of Pilgrim Tabernacle Church in North London for 35 years. He engages in regular open-air ministry around London and the Thames Valley and on Sundays at Hyde Park Speakers' Corner.

He spoke to Christian Today about his arrest and trial, and the significance of his case for open-air preaching and Christian freedom of speech.

CT: With all the media coverage, how do you think your arrest and trial have served to boost the orthodox Christian cause in this country?

JS: In answer to that, I would say in the words of the Apostle Paul, "The things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel ... many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear" (Philippians 1:12 - Authorised Version).

So, the outrage at the arrest has definitely had a positive impact in encouraging others "to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15).

I believe that the Christian cause has also been helped by the ruling of the judge in acquitting me of the alleged public order charge. I hope that many more Christian preachers will be emboldened to open the Bible and preach from it, because they have the authority of God to do so.

Civil and religious liberties must continue in our great nation, which in times past has been peculiarly blessed through wondrous events such as the Great Awakening in the 18th Century, and the Reformation in the 16th Century, when the Bible was translated into our own tongue from the original Hebrew and Greek languages.

May open-air preaching of the word of God be once again respected in this land, and may multitudes who are in the 'valley of decision' (Joel 3:14) seek the face of our Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of their fears of viruses, wars, financial collapse, earthquakes and other such catastrophes.

Just as our godly forebears preached the everlasting gospel and brought about, under God, a righteousness which exalted this nation (Proverbs 14:34), so again may a great army of preachers be raised up to do likewise in our day.

CT: How did you come to be arrested in April 2021?

JS : I and my colleague, Pastor Peter Simpson, who is also a nonconformist minister, were preaching between the Uxbridge Underground station and the Chimes shopping centre. We were with a number of friends who were distributing gospel tracts in support. I was holding a Bible in my hand and standing on a two-step ladder, with Scripture posters displayed around me. I was not being offensive to any of the hearers.

After a while one male and one female police officer interrupted the preaching to say that there had been a complaint. I assured the officers that the content of my preaching was from the word of God. The text which I had chosen was Genesis chapter 1:26 and the verses following, which include the words,

"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply" (Genesis 1:27–28).

I had made reference to the wrongful redefinition of marriage in 2013 by the then Prime Minister, insisting that the family - as God had ordained it - consists of a father and a mother and children, and that it is biologically impossible for two males or two females to reproduce. When pressed by the police that my words were offensive to the LGBT community, I responded that all people have come into this world through a union between a man and a woman.

When questioned whether homosexuality was a sin, I explained that it transgressed the seventh commandment, "Thou shall not commit adultery", which deals with all sexual immorality outside of the marriage relationship between a man and a woman. I pointed out that the Bible does speak of homosexuality as a sin, but one of the police officers said that I was wrong about this. In response, I referred to Leviticus 18:22, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."

As more people gathered, the police were put under more pressure, as two members of the public became more outspoken, railing at me and saying, "You are a homophobe." The police then decided to charge me with breaking the 1986 Public Order Act, and proceeded to pull me down from the steps and handcuff me. They then frogmarched me off to an awaiting police van. The handcuffing caused me a great deal of pain, and there was no consideration of my dog or of the concerns of the co-workers around me.

CT: Did your arrest come as a surprise to you?

JS: My surprise was lessened - in a certain sense - by my being prepared for it by an arrest (and then an immediate de-arrest) six weeks prior to the Uxbridge incident.

I had been apprehended by the police in North London for an alleged breach of Covid regulations. I was preaching in an area where I have been doing so for over 30 years, so I was at my normal place of work. Under the government guidelines, carrying out necessary pastoral work, I considered myself to be a key worker, along with NHS employees and those in the emergency services and charitable sectors.

I was offering my hearers the hope of the gospel in the midst of the great fear which Covid-19 had precipitated. Nevertheless, I was issued with a fine. Thankfully, it was subsequently withdrawn by the Central London Magistrates' Court on 20 March 2022.

What particularly surprised me on the day of the Uxbridge arrest was that it took place after an extended period of reasonable and temperate discussion with police officers and in a situation where there was no threat of escalating public disorder.

What also shocked me, immediately following the arrest in Uxbridge, was the fact that I was actually held in custody overnight at the Heathrow Airport police station. During the police interview at Heathrow I stated that the greatest hate crime I could ever commit would be to stop preaching the gospel. It is my duty before God to warn my neighbour of the dangers of an everlasting condemnation for those who do not deal with the problem of sin by coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

CT: How did you feel standing trial in April this year?

JS: My experience in the many months leading up to the trial was not a happy one, with much apprehension at what the outcome may be.

After a lapse of almost a year since the arrest, I finally stood trial on 7 April 2022. A number of Christians supporting me congregated in the public gallery of the courtroom. The hearing was presided over by a Deputy District judge.

Originally there had been two prosecution witnesses due to appear, but one of them had withdrawn two weeks before the trial date. The other prosecution witness testified that upon the day in question I had been shouting abusive words which had caused him alarm, and that I had said that it was wrong for two men or two women to form a family. Police body-cam video footage of my speaking to officers was also shown to the court as part of the proceedings.

One of the arresting police officers gave evidence, and upon cross-examination from the defence barrister, a QC, she admitted that the words used by me when talking to her about homosexuality were not abusive.

Towards the end of the proceedings the judge ruled that the defence witnesses were not required to be called.

Thankfully, on the day of the trial I was quite rested in the Lord and confident in His sovereignty over all affairs. I was very mindful of the words that our Lord gave when on trial before Pontius Pilate. The Roman governor reminded the Lord that he was powerful enough to have Him either crucified or released, to which our Lord responded, "Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above" (John 19:11).

This statement of God's sovereignty was a comfort to me.

CT: Will you continue your open-air preaching ministry in spite of what happened to you?

JS: Over the past year since 23 April 2021, my open-air preaching ministry has thankfully continued in and around the London area without hindrance or interruption from councils or police officers. I engage in this open-air work in adherence to the charge which the Apostle Paul gave to Timothy, "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine" (2 Timothy 4:2–3).

When the Apostles Peter and John were arrested, as recorded in Acts 4, they told the authorities, including the priests, scribes and elders, "We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).

Various of the Apostles were then arrested again (Acts 5:14), and when they were examined, they said they should obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). I accordingly believe that, despite the threats of the establishment, or despite their wanting to control our activities, we must continue to preach the word publicly at every opportunity.

CT: Do you fear you may be arrested again in future?

JS: In answer to that I would say that fear is not something that should overshadow the preaching of the gospel. I hope and pray that the Lord will give strength courage, and wisdom in all my utterances. There is always some apprehension in any situation of speaking publicly. We live in an environment today where there is indeed much controversy over freedom of speech and over the things that one can and cannot say publicly, and so much wisdom from above is needed.

What I firmly believe is that biblical teaching should not be compromised because of pressure from the man-pleasing dictates and the fashions of the day. Over the past 2,000 years, and going back to apostolic times, the disciples of Christ have rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name's sake.

A very important verse in this context is Proverbs 29:25, "The fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the LORD shall be safe."

It is worth remembering that we not only receive criticism for our open-air work, but also commendation from passers-by. There are those who come up to us and thank us for being there and making a stand. This obviously helps to remove any human fear which we might otherwise have.

CT : Do you worry about the free speech of street preachers like yourself?

JS: We are encouraged in God's word not to be overcome with worry. We know that God is sovereign over His world. If we look at the history of this country and the times of great opposition from religious and secular authorities in the past, we see that time and again the word of God and Christian liberties have ultimately triumphed.

Nevertheless, we do need to be vigilant. The situation is deteriorating in respect of Christian freedoms; the proposed Conversion Therapy (Prohibition) Bill is a case in point. This, if passed, could seriously hinder perfectly legitimate Christian ministry and the counselling of needy people in the paths of biblical morality. The Government seems to be utterly subservient to the demands of militant gay rights activism. They and the police need to remember that Christians can be offended too.

CT: What is your answer to critics of open-air preaching who say it is outdated, ineffective as a means of preaching the gospel, and often needlessly provocative to members of the public?

JS: My answer would again be to quote the words of the Apostle Paul, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise ... Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Corinthians 1:19–21).

Hence it is not outdated, but it is the very method that God has always used in saving sinners. The motive in preaching the gospel, which includes the need to refer to sin, is a motive of love. As I mentioned in the testimony that I gave in the courtroom, just as a doctor has to diagnose the disease in his patient before he administers the cure, so the seriousness of sin must first be explained, before the remedy of the healing balm of the gospel can be applied.

If we would get back to the same blueprint of forthright preaching which was used by the Apostles and by the first martyr Stephen, then we would surely be obeying our Lord's great commission. Truth must be publicly proclaimed, lest it sink into oblivion.

Again, regarding the outdated issue, I would say that the gospel in every age is addressing men ethically rather than culturally, which means that public preaching can never be outdated. I would also courteously take issue with the words 'needlessly' and 'provocative'. I would argue that it is far from needless to tell non-believers about the danger that they are in, and regarding 'provocative', surely the preacher's task is precisely that: to provoke both society in general and the individual non-Christian into thinking about spiritual and eternal issues.

The fruit which comes from such a preaching ministry has been proven historically, and we have strong evidence from our own experience that such preaching is likewise being used today as an instrument to draw hearers to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, during the lockdowns over the past two years, we have been asked why the churches have not provided more leadership and guidance to the nation in relation to the pandemic. The best light for the nation over these two years would surely have been the public proclamation of the need to repent of sin and trust in Christ, for it is only the gospel which turns people from the fear of death to the glorious hope of everlasting life.