I’m in the magnificent city of Belfast, home to world-renowned shipbuilders Harland & Wolff and this is the ordinal office where the plans for RMS Titanic where drawn. I’ve come here to tell you a story of man who was powerfully used by God at the turn of the 20th Century.
Harry Munn, a very unusual preacher, lived and worked here among the people of Belfast. He was known as ‘Mad Munn’ and let’s face it, you probably don’t get a nickname like that unless you’ve earned it and boy did he earn it. Who in the world would fake a funeral procession led by a Salvation Army band in order to leap out of the coffin and speak to the crowd about the resurrection of Jesus.
Although his story is virtually unknown, his life, faith, ministry and stunning example had a profound effect on me as a young evangelist in my twenties. The hallmarks of his approach are indelibly written into the DNA of Miracle Street, the work that God has grown around me since the 1980’s.
Harry Munn was outrageously dramatic, continually pushing the boundaries of accepted church practises and methods. He wasn’t mad in the classic sense of the word, he was just prepared to do whatever it took to draw an audience in order to tell people how much they were loved by a father who sent his son to rescue them.
The coffin that was used for the funeral presentation was deployed in other contexts as a portable pulpit.Harry would stand in it and on it to preach the Gospel and when the crowds grew large, as they always did both indoors and outdoors, his team would upend it, increasing his elevation significantly.
On one occasion he marched right through a packed bar with the Salvation Army band in tow. Before anyone knew what was happening, the procession had gone clean through the bar, in one door and out the other. Drinkers who left their glasses to follow the unusual preacher were amazed to see the same routine repeated.
Every bar was entered and most of them were emptied of their customers who followed the line into the Salvation Army Hall on Dublin Road, filling it to capacity. Some were very drunk, others aggressive and disruptive, still others emotional with a deepening sense of their need of God. Harry Munn loved them all and he poured out his heart to wake them up to a better life.
One spectator shouted at the top of his voice “I'm a hopeless drunk, you’ll never save me Harry” Where upon the evangelist took him by the hand, led him to the front and prayed “O God, make this chap's heart as soft as his head appears to be!” But his language matched his love, and many responded to the Gospel that night, falling on their knees and weeping before God.
Every week on the streets of Belfast, he would take the themes for his messages from what was happening in the news. He placed leaflets in the hands of working men as they made their way to the shipyard were the ill-fated Titanic would be built just a few years later. His street presentations were also the subject of chalk advertisements on the pavements through the city.
One of the most famous of all centred around a High Court on the street complete with a judges and lawyersin wigs and all the legal paraphernalia. Harry would proceed to place the Devil in the dock where he will be charged and convicted for deceiving the world that God did not exist and that people can live their lives exactly as they please with no consequences.
People were made to take notice even though many were shocked by his antics. The local press, too, could not be indifferent, they were either allied to his cause or viciously opposed to it. Many of his fiercest critics came to the meetings to disrupt the work of Gospel and ended up converted instead.
But the greatest of his illustrations involved the use of that famous coffin. During his spectacular ministry as an evangelist, that strange makeshift pulpit served him in different places to draw ever larger audiences as his reputation grew.
The last time he preached from it, three thousand people were rammed into Belfast’s Ulster Hall. The dramatic storyteller-preacher was introduced and then, framed in the lidless casket, he stood on the stage, his booming voice penetrating to the four corners of the giant auditorium.
His abundant success in reaching people was Mad Harry Munn's justification for his highly unusual methods. Wherever he set to work, crowds were magnetically drawn to hear him. People of every kind were converted and went on to living completely changed lives as followers of Jesus.
When a serious outbreak of smallpox took hold across Belfast, Harry was in the thick of it. Against medical advice, he refused to stop working among the infected and eventually contracted the disease and died on November 3rd 1904.
A newspaper wrote ‘The Salvation Army in Belfast has sustained a great loss by the death of Harry Munn, a familiar figure throughout the city and a man of wonderful energy and enthusiasm’. At his funeral, a real one this time, thousands paid their respects to the man who had led so many of them to Jesus.
His coffin was paraded through the city to the Balmoral Cemetery, the coffin he had preached from countless times throughout his prolific ministry. The pallbearers who were trusted with carrying the now famous casket were men who had been converted because of him.
We need fearless, risk-taking men and women to arise in our time who will courageously live out their lives in the hands of God. Unafraid to declare this timeless message of forgiveness and new life through Jesus Christ.