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Where did the phrase “sidewalk prophets” come from?
Is this a phrase coined in a song or literature?
I know it is a Christian band, but it seems too familiar for just that.

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  • What research have you already done yourself? Please see the List of General References
    – TrevorD
    Sep 7, 2013 at 15:12
  • What makes you think it is anything more than a band's name?
    – terdon
    Sep 7, 2013 at 15:44

2 Answers 2

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In an interview posted on blogspot.com

Where did the name of the band come from?

Dave came up with the "Sidewalk" which stems from a lyric in the Jars of Clay song "Art In Me". The line reads something like this "Images on the sidewalk speak of dreams descent". Essentially, the way we understand this line of poetry is that God can be speaking through anything whether it's writing on the street or starts in the sky.

"Prophet" came from Ben's word of the day dictionary. The definition of a prophet according to the dictionary is someone who speaks the truth about life.

When we combined the two our name means - we're people who search for God in everything and seek to tell the truth about life from our perspective which is as followers of Christ.

So it is just a made up band name.

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    Seems pretty definitive to me. However, it should be noted that in the USA it is actually not all that uncommon to come across random guys standing on sidewalks shouting prophecy at any passerby in earshot. The stereotype is wearing a sign reading: "Repent: The End is near!"
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 7, 2013 at 15:56
  • I spend a lot of time in Europe - happens there too. Sep 7, 2013 at 16:00
  • 1
    Speaker's corner comes to mind
    – mplungjan
    Sep 7, 2013 at 17:25
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The term "sidewalk prophet[s]" appears in Google Books and Elephind newspaper database search results from as early as 1890. The expression does not appear to be especially common, however, even today. Here are the eleven pre-1980 matches for the term that I've been able to find.

From "Political Circles Quiet," in the Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania] Dispatch (February 3, 1890):

With a Sabbath calm which oozed through the keyhole of the closed doors at Republican headquarters, and the fact that a Unitarian congregation held the fort at the County Democracy rooms, and the Randall Club members were attending their Sunday devotions, the pursuit of political news yesterday was over a straight and narrow path. An investigation from sidewalk prophets of both parties showed, however, several points which rather change the unanimous characteristic of the indorsement said to have been given to Judge Bailey on Saturday night.

From "Where Are Our Golf Links to Be Located?" in the Santa Cruz [California] Sentinel (August 20, 1911):

SIDEWALK PROPHETS POINT THEIR FINGER WITH EMPHASIS TO MOORE RANCH UP THE COAST.

...

The mystery as to whether the site chosen is the Moore place or some other will soon be made public, but until such time the guessers, and there are many, can carry on their investigations and make their prophecies.

From Frank Grimes, "Debates and Decisions," in the Abilene [Texas] Daily Reporter (April 11, 1916):

Rain plays a bigger part in the universal scheme of things than any other element. Without rain there would be nothing to eat, wear, smoke, drink or sing about. Without rain the politician would call in vain for attention, the merchant would wait a century for business and the sidewalk prophet would lose his job.

From From Jane Just, "Down the Western Appleway," in The American Scene (1936) [combined snippets]:

DOWN THE WESTERN APPLEWAY Jane Just And it came to pass, just as Sam, the sidewalk prophet, had predicted, that a great wave of feminine indispositions swept the unusually healthy community of Apple Center. The new doctor was thirty-and-two, handsome and unmarried. And what with millions of honey bees buzzing and droning in the blooming orchards, Sam had dozed a little in his tilted chair when the tap-tap of Gran'maw's cane recalled him.

From Cedric O'Leary, A Shamrock Up a Bamboo Tree: The Story of Eight Years Behind the 8-ball in Shanghai, 1941-49 (1956) [combined snippets]:

At 11:30 a.m. we marched out of the compound, flanked by police and gendarmes. The streets were crowded with thousands of people, now suddenly noisier than before. "Chins up, fellows!" somebody shouted. "Don't worry, it won't be long!" a sidewalk prophet yelled. "Home for Christmas!" some optimist called out.

From Samuel Taylor, I Have Six Wives: A True Story of Present-day Plural Marriage (1956) [combined snippets]:

It was not the face of a ladykiller; in fact the first impression was of an ordinary guy, like you and me, neither blessed nor cursed with any unusual characteristics. He didn't have the beady eye and loud voice of the sidewalk prophets. His personality was pleasant and somewhat reserved; the distinctive physical trait was his slow, calm smile, which he used for emphasis in conversation—and which, I learned, cost him an ulcer to maintain.

From Robert Fontaine, "The Good World", in The Third Book of Words to Live By: Selected and Interpreted by Seventy-eight Eminent Men and Women (1962) [combined snippets]:

Once, as a small boy, I was convinced by a sidewalk prophet with a magnificent but dirty beard that the world was to end in 48 hours.

Knowledge of the world's end rather pleased me. I soon would stand with the angels on clouds of pink joy and do nothing but sing all day. I would say goodbye to homework to dentists, and to beating rugs in the back yard after school. When, 48 hours later, the time had come and the world was still shining there, I was disappointed—at first.

From Carlene Polite, The Flagellants (1967) [combined snippets]:

"I have been off, Ideal, blinking at stationary stars, sieving through the dust, paddling against a maelstrom, drowning with alcoholics, rabble-rousing with students, dissenting with idealists, ... sprinkling holy water in a deserted cathedral, watching a priest lock up a silver chalice, holding down ladders for unheeded sidewalk prophets, stepping aside for stampeding crowds, watching a movie produced for the sightless, bidding for literature about to be burned, ...

From Henry Dumas, "Harlem," in Rope of Wind and Other Stories (by 1968/1979) [combined snippets]:

Elder Dawud was preparing to deliver his evening message to the people. He walked behind a man carrying the [American] flag. Another man was setting up a ladder for the Elder, and every once in a while somebody shouted a greeting at Elder Dawud. The people knew him. He was one of the many sidewalk prophets who—more than once—had indirectly caused the people to react in concert over some issue of concern to Harlemites. He was a short, dark man, about forty years old, but his thinness gave the appearance of youth.

From Charles Wilson, The Commoner William Jennings Bryan (1970) [combined snippets]:

Readily, volubly, Bryan answered, and with considerable skill at improvisation he kept on with his fusillade against the tariff and its economy-ruining, people-degrading partisanship. The clustering standees began to sway a little with the compelling rhythms of his words. Once more, William Jennings Bryan was the sidewalk prophet, the bard of the courthouse steps, of the open wagon beds of Springdale, Springfield, Spring Valley, and Spring Hill, of Bald Knob, Nellie's Apron, Prairie Grove ...

From J.U. Peters, "The Los Angeles Anti-Myth," in Itinerary: Criticism: Essays on California Writers (1978):

Th religious cultism of Los Angeles is treated in tones ranging from the comic to the grotesque. Some authors, such as Waugh and Loos, choose to be deliberately ribald in their treatments of Southern California's commercial cemeteries or sidewalk prophets. They often portray naive believers, such as the witness in [Anita Loos's] No Mother to Guide Her who recounts in court his drug store revelation: "And then I got another shock! For sitting there at the soda fountain, plain as any picture I ever seen of her, and all covered with jewels, was the Magdalen, having a chocolate malted. And while I'm standing there gasping, the Twelve Apostles all trooped in and joined her for a Coke" (NMGH, p. 99).


Assessment

During the period 1890–1980, the term "sidewalk prophet[s]" seems to have been confined to the United States. The earliest matches for the term use it in a figurative sense to refer to people who claimed insight into matters of contemporaneous conjecture or speculation but who might be nothing more than rumor mongers or uninformed guessers themselves. The first five excerpts, ranging in publication date from 1890 to 1956, presented above adhere to this pattern; but the last six excerpts, ranging from 1956 to 1979, present a very different sense of the term—that of inspired (or demented) religious (or quasi-religious) proselytizers preaching to passers-by.

I can't tell whether "sidewalk prophet[s]" was ever an established slang term for "purveyor[s] of word on the street," but it doesn't seem to carry that meaning today. Instead, the expression seems to be synonymous with "street prophet[s]" or "street preacher[s]"—the last term being far more common than the other two, as this Ngram chart for the period 1800–2019 indicates:

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