Thomas DeWitt Talmage—Presbyterian Pastor


“Preaching is truth mediated through personality.” ~Phillips Brooks

Thomas DeWitt Talmage (1832-1902) was born in Middlebrook, New Jersey, the youngest of twelve children. He went by his middle name, DeWitt. He was blessed with God-fearing, God-loving parents, David and Catherine Talmage.

DeWitt’s father, David Talmage, was an eyewitness to much of early American history. He had stood, at Morristown, in the choir that chanted when George Washington was buried. He had watched the progress of John Adams’s administration, had denounced Aaron Burr’s infamy, had heard the guns that celebrated the New Orleans victory. David could remember when the first steamer struck the North river with its wheel-buckets. He was startled by the birth of telegraphy and saw the United States grow from a speck on the world’s map till all nations dipped their flag at her passing merchantmen. He was born while the Revolutionary cannon were coming home from Yorktown and lived to hear the tramp of troops returning from the war of the great Rebellion (the Civil War); he also lived to see his issue (children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) grow to number eighty persons.

When DeWitt was born, David kept the tollgate at Middlebrook. At some point he was also sheriff of Somerset County, and the family lived in the court house, attached to the county jail. There was a third home, about three miles from Somerville, that had a house, a wagon shed (“garage”), and a barn. It was called “Uncle John’s Place” from the fact that Catherine’s uncle, John Van Nest, owned it, and from him David rented it “on shares.” Here DeWitt rode the horse to brook, hunted Easter eggs, experienced the natural world, and learned the fatigue and hardship of the farmer’s life—not as the boy felt them, but as the parents endured them. From here DeWitt went to the country school. Here in the evening the family would gather, Catherine knitting or sewing, David talking politics or religion with a neighbor, and the children reading or listening.

Family members were all religious. DeWitt credited this soul-stirring to his grandparents who had attended revival meetings under the ministry of Charles G Finney. The grandparents were so impressed with the meetings that when they came home, they were seized with a great desire for the salvation of their children. David was a honest, hard-working, religious man. Each day opened and closed with family worship, led by David or, in his absence, by Catherine. The uppermost and most pervading principle of the parents was the Christian faith as set forth in the Word of God. The family Bible was central. David, a church elder and lay minister, conducted prayer-meetings in the country.

Characterized by kindness, humor, common sense, and industry, DeWitt’s mother, Catherine, was no less Christian. Her pastor testified that she was the most consecrated Christian person he had ever known. Having a large family of children, Catherine covenanted with three neighboring mothers to meet once a week to pray for the salvation of their children until all their children were converted. The Talmage children often heard her, when leading family prayers in her husband’s absence, say, “O Lord, I ask not for my children wealth or honor, but I do ask that they all may be the subjects of Your converting grace.” The four mothers continued in their covenant until all the members of their families were brought into the kingdom of God, DeWitt being the last.

Out of that prayer vigil came a family of preachers with the title Doctor of Divinity. John Van Nest Talmage became a missionary to China. As a schoolboy John had read the life of Henry Martyn, missionary to Persia, and had told his mother, “I am going to be a missionary.” As an adult, on the field, John translated religious literature into Chinese, made a Chinese dictionary, planted mission stations, wrote hymns (though he himself couldn’t sing), and won millions to Christ. James and Goyn Talmage became noted preachers in their own right. DeWitt Talmage became a world-renown pastor, lecturer, writer, and reformer. A fifth brother Daniel Talmage was a successful merchant; two other brothers were David and Dwight. Of the girls at least one, Mary, became a preacher’s wife (she married SL Mershon, a Presbyterian minister); two other sisters were Phoebe and Catherine.

From the time he was a mere infant, DeWitt was carried to the house of God. He was baptized as an infant, but baptism “did not save me.” He was taught to kneel at the Christian family altar with parents and siblings and to read good Christian literature (Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, and all the religious books in the house), but being religious “did not save me.” Then one day the voice of Christ came to him personally, saying, “Repent, repent; believe, believe,” and he accepted the offer of mercy. That “is what saved me.”

The family had a few good books in the house, one of them Scott’s Commentaries on the Bible. DeWitt read not only the Scriptures out of this book, but the long discourses of Thomas Scott: “religious literature of the old-fashioned kind.” In the home of one of his preacher-brothers (probably James) DeWitt read volumes of theology, which encouraged in him a tendency to read and think in sacred directions.

The day he left his country home to look after himself, DeWitt, with his dad, rode across the country. Driving the wagon, Dad began to tell how good the Lord had been to him, in sickness and in health, and when times of hardship came how Providence had always provided the means of livelihood for the large household. He counseled the boy, “DeWitt, I have always found it safe to trust the Lord.”

DeWitt went to New York to attend school and earned an undergraduate degree (1853) at what is now New York University (NYU). Planning to become a lawyer, he studied law for a time before switching to ministry; afterward he studied theology at the Reformed Dutch Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he earned his BD (1856).

Talmage’s first attempts at preaching were stressful. Mysterious things would happen to his manuscripts. Things like falling through the cracks in the pulpit, and he’d almost have to be a contortionist to retrieve them. He had so many mishaps with speaking from a manuscript that he gave it up, struck for emancipation, and began preaching without notes, but not extemporaneously. He would write out his sermon, practice delivering it, thundering loudly enough for the whole house to hear him, then walk into the pulpit unarmed. He undertook short-term pastorates and/or speaking engagements at Somerville, New Jersey, and Piermont, New York.

In the Reformed Dutch Church*, Belleville, New Jersey, he was licensed to preach, ordained, and installed as pastor 29 July 1856, following his graduation from seminary. He was twenty-four. His compensation was $800 a year, a parsonage, and one-month annual paid vacation. In exchange he was to deliver two sermons and one lecture a week. A Methodist minister who dropped in to hear him occasionally said DeWitt was the most powerful exhorter he had ever heard.

Talmage became a foremost preacher of the gospel because he preached under the spell of Evangelical impulse, under the control of that remarkable faith that comes with the transformation of all converted men or women.

During this pastorate DeWitt married Mary Avery of Brooklyn, New York; the couple were to have two children: a son, Thomas DeWitt Jr, and a daughter, Jessie.

After three years DeWitt took a pastorate at Syracuse, New York (1859), but stayed only a couple of years. Life took a turning-point when his young wife, Mary, accidentally drowned in the Schuylkill River (7 June 1861); they had been married less than five years. Then the Civil War started (1861), and the world changed. Talmage, a Union chaplain, was eyewitness to conflicts from Shiloh (April 1862) to Antietam (September 1862)—Antietam, with 23,000 casualties, is still the bloodiest one-day battle in American military history. The loss of his wife and the loss of soldiers in war cut a deep furrow in his heart, giving him personal insight into human suffering and a hard lesson in life: its brevity, its fragility, and its end. Death was natural and inevitable (Hebrews 9:27). Ultimately, all that was important was eternity. “Where will you spend eternity?”

Talmage was called to pastor the Second Reformed Dutch Church of Philadelphia (1862), where he “spent seven of the most delightful years of my life.” Here he lived among the Quakers, whom he came to admire, and made warm, lifelong friendships among such wonderful gospel men as Alfred Barnes, Rev Dr Boardman, Rev Dr Berg, and Rev Charles Wadsworth. He gave up tobacco, took up sports, became part of a ministerial ball team, and enjoyed hours of outdoor recreation. Having tasted the elixir of aerobics and the tonic of fresh air and exercise, for the rest of his life he would be a proponent of healthy living.

He remarried (May 1863), to Susan C Whittemore, daughter of a well-to-do family in Greenport (greater Brooklyn), New York. This marriage was to last over thirty years and to produce five children: Mary (May), Edith, Frank, Maud, and Daisy.

His next call was to the Central Presbyterian church, Schemerhorn Street, Brooklyn, New York, the church of the inspirational writer Henry Van Dyke. Initially Talmage was given $7,000 a year, a parsonage, one-month annual paid vacation, and up to three months per annum paid leave of absence so he could travel, evangelize, and lecture. This was a fabulous salary for the times, when a minister’s salary averaged $600 a year; and Talmage knew it. That some preachers, like himself, were so well paid meant others were receiving well below average. “What straits many of God’s noblest servants are to this day reduced!”

Talmage was installed as pastor 22 March 1869. Within three months (by summer) the building was too small to hold the crowds. Part of the interest was attributable to his own dynamic, charismatic personality; another part, created by slander and lies printed in the local newspaper. The bigger the lie, the bigger the demand.

That very summer, only three months into a new pastorate, Talmage and his family took their first month-long vacation (June 1869), at East Hampton, Long Island, where he bought vacation property.

One day, resting at Sharon Springs, New York, walking in the park, Talmage found himself wondering, “Is there any special mission for me to execute in this world? If there is, may God show it to me!” There soon came to him a great desire to preach the gospel through the secular press. The vast majority of people, even in Christian lands, never entered a church; it would be an opportunity of infinite usefulness if the door of publication was opened. After that, newspaper correspondents began coming to Sunday services looking for a story and walking away with his sermons, which would inevitably end up in the paper.

Within the year the congregation realized it would have to build a new church, one that would seat 3,500 people. Looking at the usual edifices, with dark interiors, Talmage thought there should be more common sense in church architecture. There was no excuse for lack of light when the heavens were full of it, no excuse for lack of fresh air when the world was swimming in it. The church should reflect not only believers’ spiritual happiness, but also their creature comfort, so that they could realistically and honestly say, “How amiable are Your tabernacles, O Lord God of hosts! A day in Your courts is better than a thousand” (Psalm 84:1, 10)!

The next summer (June 1870) Talmage took his first three-month leave of absence, visiting Europe. If it had not been for the Franco-German War, he would have enjoyed it more. As it was, he was most fascinated by the great church organs: at Freyburg, Switzerland, at Edinburgh, and at Paris. He came to the realization that people don’t want a scientific study of religion: they want to hear the gospel.

When he returned to the pulpit (25 September 1870), it was to the new “Brooklyn Tabernacle.” Within a year the new church had to be enlarged. Though the tabernacle had been built to seat large crowds, seating was free and every Sunday hundreds were being turned away. So the church underwent yet another renovation, with the new and improved tabernacle inaugurated 10 September 1871. “It was one of the best buildings in the country for speaking and hearing, and was unsurpassed in its arrangements for seating a large congregation.”

Barely a year later (22 December 1872), on a Sunday morning as Talmage was walking to church, he saw smoke billowing from down the street, and his worst fears were realized: the new church was on fire. Though the building was lost, it was a merciful Providence that none of the congregation was in the church at the time. Some saw in the flames that roared through its organ pipes a requiem, nothing but unmitigated disaster, while others heard the voice of God, as from heaven, sounding through the crackling thunder of that awful day, saying, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11)!

The following summer (3 June 1873) Talmage laid the cornerstone of the second tabernacle. By the grace of God and the contributions of devoted believers, the new Brooklyn Tabernacle opened for worship 22 Feb 1974 seating 5,000. Talmage was forty years old, in the prime of his life; he was to spend another twenty years in Brooklyn.

Living in a densely-populated area, where a little bit of press could draw a crowd, Talmage became immensely popular, one of the best-known ministers of his day, and this popularity led not only to bigger churches but to a higher level of social networking. He met and knew, on a first-name basis, scores of figures recognizable from any history book or literary anthology: the rich, the powerful, the influential, writers, artists, performers, political and military leaders, world heads of state, and every preacher of any consequence in New York City (and the preacher’s salary). The highest-paid pastor in New York made $30,000 a year. Anyone with name recognition in that era Talmage knew, comfortably enough to talk for hours and to visit without invitation.

As his dad had known George Washington, DeWitt knew Abraham Lincoln. Talmage knew personally every US President from James Buchanan to Theodore Roosevelt, along with the First Lady, the secretary, and the children. He saw them in their home; they saw him in his.

When he went abroad, his fame preceded him till monarchs and autocrats—crown heads of Europe—were inviting him in for a visit. These were not state visits because Talmage was no statesman, though he always checked in with the US Embassy when abroad and knew many ambassadors. They were personal visits, friendly or casual visits, having tea in the family’s private quarters, chatting in the drawing room, or walking in the gardens. Talmage twice visited Russia: once to see Czar Alexander III and again to see Czar Nicholas II.

Talmage was friends with Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the Plymouth Church, perhaps Talmage’s only rival as America’s most celebrated clergyman. For more than a decade, Beecher and Talmage never collided. Beecher had more people than he knew what to do with, and so did Talmage. In Brooklyn were 300,000 people who had never heard the gospel; there were also 300,000 church seats. There was plenty of room for them in church; there was plenty of room in heaven.

Talmage stood for old-fashioned virtues and clean living. Though he knew actors and theater people, even went fishing with them, he never darkened the door of a theater. Though invited to numerous gatherings by well-connected people, he turned down invitations if he thought liquor would be served. Despite the new theology he repudiated German “higher criticism” with a vehemence. In his words, “There is less evidence that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, that Milton wrote Paradise Lost, or that Tennyson wrote The Charge of the Light Brigade, than that the Bible is God’s Word, written under inspiration! …. I compare such men as Ingersoll, in their attacks on the Bible, to a grasshopper on a railway-line with the express coming thundering along!”

All the while Talmage was pastoring and building up his constituency, engineers and architects were building another kind of marvel: the Brooklyn Bridge (1870-1883), putting the Brooklyn Tabernacle within twenty minutes of downtown Manhattan. Talmage felt the amalgamation improved New York City because Brooklyn was heads-up the better place.

Early on, Talmage had learned that the lecture platform was a golden opportunity for usefulness. He went on a lecturing trip to the Upper Midwest and on a trip to Europe the same year (1885). Over the course of a lifetime he lectured in nearly all the cities of the United States, Canada, England, Ireland and Scotland, and in most of them many times. Things that could not be said in the pulpit, but which ought to be said, could be said on the lyceum platform. And there was so much that needed to be said. From the first he regarded his lecture tours as an annex to his ministry and the lecture platform as a pastoral visitation to his reading public. It gave him the opportunity of meeting hundreds of thousands of people to whom, through the press, he had for many years administered the gospel.

Further, it paid well. He would receive $500-$1,000 a lecture. The longer the journey the larger the fee. The average remuneration was about $500 a night. In Cleveland and in Cincinnati he received $750; in Chicago, $1,000. His travel expenses, as in his three-month leaves of absence, were, in his own words, “enormous,” and without a large income from lectures he could not have done the things he wanted to do.

Articles appeared constantly in the newspapers with headlines like “Dr Talmage at Home,” “In a Clergyman’s Study,” “Dr Talmage’s Wealth,” “Talmage Interviewed.” Nearly all of them began with the view that “the American preacher lives in a luxurious home.” “His income, from all sources, exceeds that of the President of the United States.” “The impression is everywhere that Dr Talmage is very rich.”

Arguing that he was not rich, Talmage stated his annual income as pastoral salary ($12,000), lecture circuit (over $20,000), published sermons ($12,000), editorial pay ($5,000), free-lance articles ($150 each), marriage fee (c $250), plus undisclosed book royalties: over $50,000 a year. He lived well, dressed comfortably; but there were many demands on him as a public figure, and he needed all he could earn. He also had a wife and seven children to support. He carried a $75,000 life insurance policy, owned his own $60,000 home at 1 South Oxford Place, a $20,000 vacation home in the Hamptons, investments of $80,000, and some empty lots. All this was “a long way from being a Croesus of the clergy.” Talmage never sought the financial success that came to him and felt it was no more than that due every working man. In his own eyes, comparing himself with the relatively leisure class with whom he hobnobbed (Astor, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, actors, ambassadors, authors, bankers, financiers, philanthropists, Presidents, prime ministers, royalty), no, he was not “rich”; but in 19th-century terms he was certainly affluent compared with working class factory girls and shopkeepers.

He edited the Christian at Work (1873–76), the Advance (1877–79), and Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine (1879–89). Each week his sermons were published regularly in thousands of periodicals through which he reached millions of readers. He mailed his sermons and editorials in advance, one to his editorial offices in New York and one to the Washington Post, for syndication. He himself estimated that the weekly distribution of his sermons, worldwide, reached 180 million people (1888). That spring he received the honor of being made chaplain of the Thirteenth Regiment of the National Guard, with a commission as captain, succeeding his friend Henry Ward Beecher, who had died. He shaved his whiskers.

Talmage had planned to sail to the Holy Land Wednesday 30 October 1889. On Sunday morning, 13 October 1889, during a terrific thunderstorm, the beautiful Brooklyn Tabernacle again burned to the ground, in a terrible conflagration that took with it the beautiful new adjacent Regent Hotel, a dozen other buildings, even a church a block away. This time the disaster was met with different feelings. The congregation decided there was “a fatality about the location” and so wanted the third tabernacle at Clinton Avenue rather than Schemerhorn Street. Two weeks from the date of the fire (Monday 28 October 1889) Talmage broke ground for what was to be the largest Protestant church in the world, on the corner of Clinton and Greene Avenues, and consecrated it to the Word of God. His trip would not wait. With his wife, Susan, and his daughter, May, he sailed on the City of Paris (30 October 1889) as planned. It was his first trip to the Holy Land. He was away for months, returning February, 1890. Perhaps he brought with him what would become the cornerstone in the new edifice: a large block of granite from Mars Hill, Athens, Greece, where Paul had preached his famous sermon on the unknown God.

If it was any consolation, the fire put Talmage in good company. Both Moody and Spurgeon suffered a fatal, life-altering fire in October. Moody lived through the great Chicago fire (which started Sunday 8 October 1871), resulting in a shift of his ministry from Chicago back to Northfield and turning Emma’s hair snowwhite overnight. Spurgeon was preaching to a large assembly when a fire swept through Royal Surrey Gardens Music Hall (Sunday 19 October 1856), claiming lives as well as property. The tragedy devastated Spurgeon but did not stop him. After Spurgeon’s death and the passing of the torch to his son, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, suffered a series of fires. Excepting the front portico and the basement, the church was destroyed by fire (1898). It was rebuilt, but slightly smaller. It burned again during the Blitz of London (May 1941), again save for the portico and basement. It was rebuilt again (1957) on the same site, but on a different scale and design. “If we cannot believe God when circumstances seem to be against us, we do not believe Him at all” (Charles H Spurgeon).

On a certain Thursday in the spring (10 May 1894) churchfolk and townsfolk came together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Talmage’s pastorate. The world was his audience, the Tabernacle was his pulpit. As a gift to himself, Talmage had already planned an around-the-world trip with his wife and daughter, beginning Monday, 14 May. Interestingly, hours before they were to set sail (Sunday, 13 May 1894) the Clinton Avenue Brooklyn Tabernacle burned to the ground: the third loss for the church, the first at this location. Again his planned trip would not wait. He left anyway.

After this third fire, Talmage tendered his resignation (5 November 1894), thinking to rely on the income from his lectures and his writing, but he was not released from his pastorate at the Brooklyn Tabernacle by the Brooklyn Presbytery until December, after his return from abroad.

His second wife, Susan, died (August 1895); her last words were “I’m going to heaven.” The couple had been married thirty-two years. Susan was the wife of the Philadelphia and Brooklyn years. She had reared their five children, plus the two young children of his first wife, Mary. Her husband inherited the bulk of her $200,000 estate, though one shouldn’t make too much out of this. Probably, like any husband, he had as much access to it before her death as after; and its value was a mix of liquid assets and real and personal property.

Now instead of the future he had planned, Talmage accepted an offer in Washington, DC, a $20,000 house at 1402 Massachusetts Avenue NW, and was installed as associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church (23 October 1895). Three years later (January 1898) he married Eleanor Collier, the demure, graceful widow of a Pennsylvania judge. Eleanor was the wife of the Washington years.

Living in DC was a pleasant experience for his old age. He was now sixty-six years old, but had the strength and endurance of a young man. Every day he walked five miles, from his home on Massachusetts Avenue to the Capitol, around the Library of Congress, and back again. He never varied his route or he’d be lost. Every evening, fair weather or foul, he and Eleanor went for a ride in an open carriage. He and Eleanor traveled all over America and Europe, with her daughter Rebekah and his daughter Maud. They also visited the White House, as one would visit the neighbors, calling on the McKinleys.

Most of the time they were the invited guests of scores of powerful people. But 23 January 1899 they themselves gave an evening soirée, to which over 300 people came. It was the first social affair of consequence Talmage had ever given in Washington. That the house would hold 300 people says much about its size. The property had formerly been owned by the Spanish Legation. The couple had secretaries and servant girls, perhaps butlers and footmen. As someone has said, “Everyone did in those days,” because compensation was minuscule and usually included room and board. One of their servant girls was a classical pianist and in the evening played Franz Liszt because he was Talmage’s favorite composer.

Increasingly interested in other pursuits beside the pastorate, Talmage resigned his position at the First Presbyterian Church (9 March 1899). He devoted the last years of his life to more independent activities like travel, writing, and lecturing. He saw the press as a marvelous extension of his lifework. The books, sermons, and lectures he left behind would go on and on, spreading the message of the gospel. He edited, right up to his death, the magazine the Christian Herald (1890–1902).

Talmage, one of the founders, was asked to speak at a large meeting in New York (1900), celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Bowery Mission, established 1880 at 36 Bowery. Ten thousand people crowded to the Academy of Music to hear him. He prophesied the coming 20th century would “witness a great revival of religion. Cities are to be redeemed. Official authority can do much, but nothing can take the place of the gospel.”

Talmage did not want to write his memoirs or his life story, but after others encouraged it, he sat down, pen in hand, and made an attempt. He talked little about his private life (wives and children), rather mostly about the times, history, politics, and current events. He never finished. His young widow wrote the last third of the book, telling of their life together. The biography was published under the title Thomas DeWitt Talmage: As I Knew Him (New York: EP Dutton, 1912).

DeWitt and Eleanor were married only four years, which must have seemed like little more than a honeymoon, so brief was the period for one so aged. They traveled mostly and socialized, but he was extremely delighted with his companion. He told her everything as if they were young sweethearts. He used to say: “I don’t care how old a man gets to be, he never ought to be over eighteen years of age.”

At the end, which was unanticipated, he and Eleanor were on a journey from the Atlantic seaboard to the desert Southwest when the train they were riding suffered a horrific accident, a grinding head-on collision, with loss of life. The Talmages, in a rear car, were unhurt, and decided to lay over a few days. Eleanor, however, was traumatized, never wanting to see a train again. “Why can’t we remain here for the rest of our lives?” DeWitt loved riding the rails. For decades it had been his one solace: to get on the train and travel. The thought of never seeing a train again tortured him. Eleanor believed the end started with the shock of the accident.

They did move on, to New Orleans, to San Antonio, and finally to Mexico City, where they met with the President of Mexico, General Porfirio Diaz, and dined and lodged at the palace in Chapultepec. There DeWitt suddenly fell ill, completing of pain. He told Eleanor he thought he was dying. A local physican said it was only “the grippe,” that he’d recover. He didn’t. He grew worse, so they returned home to Washington, DC, and to the comfort of his own bed.

His personal physician said it was cerebral inflammation and there was little hope. Talmage was in and out of consciousness. With his wife and grown children standing vigil, he died within a few days. The last fond look of recognition was given to his wife, and the last word on his lips was “Eleanor.” Among the many thousands of mourners, great and small together, was President Theodore Roosevelt, who sent flowers and condolences.

“Nothing honors God more than the faithful declaration and obedient hearing of His truth. Preaching, under any circumstances, is an act of worship, and must be performed as such. Moreover, preaching is the prime means of grace to the church.” ~JI Packer

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Brooklyn Bridge at Night

*In 1867 the denomination changed its name from the Dutch Reformed Church to the Reformed Church of America (RCA).


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