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The Life and Ministry of John Wilbur Chapman

by Ed Reese (1928-2015)

Born: June 17, 1859—Richmond, Indiana
Died: December 25, 1918—New York
Life Span: 59 years, 6 months, 8 days

J Wilbur ChapmanForever renown as a great combination pastor and evangelist, Chapman has been overlooked in another area that still brings blessings to myriads of Christians singing the great songs of the faith, for J. Wilbur Chapman gave the Christian world perhaps the greatest gospel content song of all time when he penned the words for "One Day." Who does not thrill to sing:

One day when heaven was filled with His praises,
One day when sin was as black as could be,
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin,
Dwelt amongst men, my example is He.

Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away,
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He's coming, Oh, glorious day!

He also wrote the words for the following hymns:

"Our Great Saviour"

Jesus! What a Friend for sinners!
Jesus! Lover of my soul;
Friends may fail me, foes assail me,
He, my Saviour, makes me whole.
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!
Hallelujah! What a friend!
Saving, helping, keeping, loving,
He is with me to the end.

"'Tis Jesus"
I know of a world that is sunk in shame,
Where hearts oft faint and tire;
But I know of a Name, a precious Name,
That can set that world on fire;
Its sound is sweet, Its letters flame.
I know of a Name, a precious Name,
'Tis Jesus.

Chapman was born into a Christian home, son of Alexander H. and Lorinda (McWhinney). His mother died when he was thirteen. In his youth he attended a Quaker First Day School on Sunday mornings and the Grace Methodist Church Sunday School in the afternoons. He recalls that he never could set a date for his conversion, but an incident at age seventeen crystallized his beliefs. Mrs. Binkley, a Sunday School teacher, helped him during an invitation time. He describes, "Mrs. Binkley put her hand under my elbow ... and I stood up with the others. I do not know if this was the day of my conversion, but I do know it was the day of my acknowledgment of Christ." He united with the local Presbyterian Church in September of 1876, and left for Oberlin College soon after. In 1877 he went on to Lake Forest University where he graduated with a B.A. in 1879; then he completed his training at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati in 1882. He was later given a D.D. degree by the University of Wooster and an LL.D. by Heidelberg University.

While at Lake Forest studying for the ministry, he attended a Moody crusade meeting in Chicago in 1878. Chapman had some doubts about his commitment, sometimes feeling saved, sometimes not. So he went forward and into the inquiry room, where Moody personally dealt with him using John 5:24 to give Chapman the assurance that he needed.

Chapman was ordained into the gospel ministry on April 13, 1881 by the Presbytery of Whitewater, Ohio. On May 10, 1882, six days after graduation from Lane, he was married to Irene E. Steddon, who died only four years later.

The newlywed couple accepted a two-church field at Liberty, Indiana, and at College Corner, Ohio, where they ministered on alternating Sundays. In 1883 he accepted the pastorate of the Old Saratoga Dutch Reformed Church of Schuylerville, New York. In May of 1885 he began a ministry at the First Reformed Church of Albany, New York where he stayed until 1890, during which time some 500 members were added. Attendance grew from 150 to 1,500.

The Chapmans' first child, Bertha Irene, was born on April 1, 1886, only to be followed by the death of the new mother—Chapman's beloved wife—a month later. Slightly confused and discouraged, it was at the 1886 summer Northfield (Massachusetts) conference where his life was altered as he listened to F.B. Meyer speak. Said Meyer, "If you are not willing to give up everything for Christ, are you willing to be made willing?" Said young Chapman, "That remark changed my whole ministry; it seemed like a new star in the sky of my life." He married the second time to Agnes Pruyn Strain on November 4, 1888, who was to live until June 25, 1907. Four children were born to them: Robert (who died in infancy), John Wilbur, Jr., and Alexander Hamilton, plus a daughter, Agnes Pruyn (Linder), who along with Bertha Irene (Goodson), brought joy to the family.

Then came the call to Bethany Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia in January, 1890. It boasted the largest Sunday School of the world with the church and school plant seating capacity of 4,820. This was the church of John Wanamaker, wealthy Christian layman. Here one said to Chapman, "You are not a very strong preacher, but a few of us have decided to gather and pray every Sunday morning for you." That prayer meeting grew to 1,000 participants before it was over. He conducted his own revival soon after assuming the pastorship and some 400 new members were brought into the church, the majority of them making professions of faith. He built the church into a strong spiritual, educational and social center that attracted hundreds, with as many as 300 joining at one given time. As the church became nationally known, requests for his evangelistic services multiplied. In 1892 he assisted his college friend, B. Fay Mills, in a great Cincinnati crusade. In late 1892 he submitted his resignation to Bethany because of numerous calls for his services.

In 1893, Chapman was in Minneapolis in a great crusade with Mills, and then he was one of Moody's key evangelists in the World's Fair evangelistic effort in Chicago. Plus aiding these two men, he had his own revivals in such places as Boston, Massachusetts; Montreal, Quebec; Saginaw, Michigan; Burlington, Vermont; Saratoga, New York; Ottawa, Illinois; Bloomington and Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 1895 Moody called him the "greatest evangelist in the country." Moody's confidence in him was further shown in that he served as the vice-president of the Chicago Bible Institute (later Moody Bible Institute), and was later importuned to accept the presidency of the same, but a multiplicity of duties precluded this. He inspired everyone who worked with him. He hired Billy Sunday as his "advance man" in 1893 at $40 per week, giving Sunday his start in Christian work. Their methods ended up different, but their message was the same—straight gospel preaching. Sunday's first crusade in 1896 was made up basically of Chapman's sermons.

In December of 1895, the Bethany congregation again extended a call for Chapman to come back "home." He accepted in 1896 and went back to the pastorship there until 1899. With eight associates and assistants, the total Sunday attendance reached 12,000 persons in all departments of the church. Sunday School membership reached a record high enrollment of 6,027 in 1898 to clearly make it the world's largest, and Bethany became the largest Presbyterian Church in North America. Church membership was 3,558 with 2,000 brought into the membership by Chapman. Over 16,000 signified professions of faith during his ministry there. A daily nursery cared for 1,867 children. It was in Philadelphia also that he first experimented with a group of fifteen evangelists in conducting simultaneous revival meetings throughout an area.

About 1895, while Chapman was preaching at the Tabernacle Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Sol C. Dickey approached him about starting a Bible Conference. At first Chapman dismissed the idea, but Dickey later called by telephone urging Chapman to assist him in getting a conference going that would reproduce the spirit of Northfield in the midwest. So Chapman and Dickey gave birth to the Winona Lake Bible Conference, for years the center of evangelism in the United States. Chapman built a home there in 1902, and became the first director of the conference, working for fourteen years as an active leader until his death. Chapman was also used in later years to help in the development of two other conferences, one at Montreat, North Carolina, and one at Stony Brook, Long Island, New York.

In March of 1899 Chapman accepted the call to the Fourth Presbyterian Church of New York City, where he remained until 1902. Some 650 were added to the membership there. A trip to the Holy Land in 1900 was an added blessing.

On October 30, 1901, William Henry Roberts, Stated Clerk of the Assembly, whose life was to become inseparable from Chapman's evangelistic work, informed Chapman of his appointment as corresponding secretary of the denomination's Committee on Evangelism. Chapman stayed at his church until December 12, 1902, but then relinquished the pastorate.

New duties had Chapman supervising fifty-one evangelists in 470 cities. His title was soon changed to General Secretary. At this time, Chapman found time to write a widely used book, "Present Day Evangelism." John H. Converse, a lay leader in the denomination, made a strong plea for Chapman to develop his Simultaneous Evangelistic Campaigns and underwrote his expenses until he died in 1910, then leaving in his will funds for Chapman as long as he stayed in evangelistic work.

By 1905 Chapman was ready to promote his new method of urban mass evangelism. It was basically the use of a large staff of assistants with meetings held simultaneously in many sections of a city, thus stirring the whole area for God. The first real attempt at this took place in 1904 when Chapman took seventeen evangelists to Pittsburgh, divided the city into nine districts, organized church members into committees in each district, procured nine meeting places, and, taking the central one for himself, conducted a revival that was a departure from the norm in modern revivalism. The whole city went into action, with some 7,000 professing salvation. In 1906 it was done in Syracuse, New York with good results also. Chapman continued to work out the details of the system and after 1907, when Charles M. Alexander joined him, he felt ready to try the procedure in the largest cities in the country. Chapman's gracious spirit showed in his hiring of Alexander. Because of Alexander's long association with R.A. Torrey, Chapman first wired Torrey, asking if there would be any objection to having the young singer with him. Torrey was equally gracious and encouraged the new relationship.

From March 12 to April 19, 1908, Chapman divided Philadelphia into 42 districts, and with 21 pairs of evangelists and choristers, conducted meetings for three weeks in one-half of the city; then they all exchanged districts simultaneously for three more weeks. Chapman and Alexander held services in Bethany Church during the first half of the revival and in Russell H. Conwell's Baptist Temple during the second half. Over 400 churches of almost every denomination cooperated in this revival—including Quakers, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Moravians, Mennonites, and Schwenkfelder Churches. The total cost was over $30,000. Total attendance was estimated at 35,000 nightly for the six weeks resulting in a total of 1,470,000. This surpassed the Moody Crusade of 1875-76 when 1,050,000 were reached. Converts were estimated at 8,000, although this is probably exaggerated. The campaign slogan used far and wide was "The King's Business."

Early in 1909, Chapman collected some thirty evangelists and musicians for the most successful campaign of his career—Boston. He divided the city into twenty-seven districts and tried to awaken the whole city in three weeks. Chapman and Alexander conducted the central meetings in Tremont Temple. The total cost was about $20,000. A total of 166 churches participated. Two preaching services were held daily in most of the twenty-seven districts and Tremont Temple. At 4:15 each day a special talk for children was also held. Every Sunday afternoon it was a meeting for men only. Scattered through the Campaign there were special meetings for mothers, "Old Folks," young people, and parents. Special days were advertised as Good Cheer Day, Flower Day, a Day of Rejoicing, and Education Day. Chapman conducted meetings specifically designed for drunkards, actors, university students, businessmen, office workers, shop girls, and fallen women. This all provided good copy for the local newspapers. A total of 990 services were held between January 26 and February 17 by Chapman and his brigade. Nightly attendance was estimated at 20,000 with total attendance being around 720,000. Four final services were held at Mechanics Hall by Chapman and Alexander which added 44,000 to the conference total. An estimated 7,000 conversions were recorded.

It was in 1909 his attitude toward higher criticism was demonstrated in no uncertain terms as he demanded that all missionaries who doubted the inerrancy of Scriptures should be recalled from abroad at once.

After 1909 his evangelism technique slowly went out of favor. A series of failures followed, except for the 1910 Chicago series. His 1910 Bangor and Portland, Maine, and Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, campaigns, were not successful. The blame was laid upon his co-workers rather than on Chapman himself. Not everyone was as tireless a worker as Chapman. By 1912 he was conducting single mass meetings only.

Chapman and Alexander spent a considerable part of their time on worldwide revival tours, which was news of a sort. As other evangelists did the same, the secular press lost interest, although the religious journals continued to give fine coverage to international revivalism. They spent eight months of 1909 touring many of the same missionary areas that Torrey and Alexander visited in 1901 and 1902. The 1909 tour began and ended in Vancouver, British Columbia, leaving on March 26 and returning on November 26. Meetings began in Melbourne, Australia, on April 20 with 4,000 businessmen filling the Town Hall for noonday services. Two thousand were converted at the last service alone. Sydney welcomed the team on June 22. On August 11 they sailed to Manila. Then it was Hong Kong, Canton, Nanking, Hankow, Peking and Tientsin. A stop at Seoul, Korea, gave Chapman a brief rest. Then on to Kyoto, Tokyo, and Yokohama before returning home, which was now in Stony Brook, Long Island, New York.

In April of 1910 a month-long crusade was held in Cardiff, Wales. On August 30, 1910, he was married for the third time to Mabel Cornelia Moulton.

Chapman's second most successful Simultaneous Revival Campaign was in Chicago from October 16 to November 27, 1910, following the same pattern of the 1909 Boston meetings. Four hundred churches cooperated bringing some 800,000 to the meetings.

In 1911 Chapman's title was changed to Representative at Large. Demands for his single appearances now overshadowed his organizational crusades. This year saw good crusades in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and Brooklyn before departure for England. During March in Swansea, Wales, some 2,000 converts professed faith according to a report by the forty-two participating ministers. Then meetings were held at Leeds, London and Shrewsbury. The latter crusade, which was held April 20-28, started small and barren. Then an American missionary known as "Praying Hyde" began to pray for the meetings. The crowds picked up and Chapman's first invitation saw fifty people saved. Afterwards Hyde came to Chapman's room and began to pray in such a way for the evangelist that Chapman declared as he rose from his knees he now knew what real prayer was. Then it was back to the States and Pacific Coast engagements, and finally a large crusade in Belfast, Ireland.

The years 1912-1913 saw the team return to Australia, adding to their schedule New Zealand, Tasmania and Ceylon. The Exhibition Building in Melbourne, Australia, with its 10,000 seating capacity, was filled with crowds up to 15,000 attending. In three weeks in Auckland, New Zealand, some 2,000 definite commitments for church membership were made. This second tour far surpassed the first one in 1909 and no auditorium seemed adequate to hold the crowds. Some 2,800 young people declared their desire to enter Christian work and the outcome of this was the establishing of a Bible Institute in Adelaide.

On October 25, 1913, a crusade opened in Glasgow, Scotland, and continued for eleven weeks. Some 12,000 made decisions for Christ. In 1914 it was Edinburgh, Scotland, and other areas of England. During one day at the Olympian in Edinburgh, some 18,000 heard Chapman in three services. He frequently preached six times a day and city-wide interest was aroused to an astonishing degree.

During the years of 1915 and 1916 several cities across America were touched, with Atlanta, Georgia and Washington, Pennsylvania receiving an unusual moving of God. The Atlanta crusade had 250,000 attending the 200 meetings with more than 4,600 additions to local churches made. Many cities and places were touched by the Chapman team besides those already mentioned including New York, Detroit, Hawaii, Fiji Islands, etc. Demands for his preaching increased with the years. His last evangelistic campaign was with Alexander in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in early 1918.

No one up to that time had been an evangelist to as many nations as had Chapman. No one had had such a successful dual ministry as both pastor and evangelist as did Chapman as he spent about eighteen years in each of these fields. Through 1912 it was estimated that he had preached 50,000 sermons to some 60 million people.

In 1918 he served as the Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, elected to the post in May, 1917, in Dallas. He worked with the National Service Commission and the New Era Movement of the Presbyterian Church, which dealt with reconstruction problems coming out of the First World War.

Chapman gave two historic messages during the last year of his life. One was while retiring as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., on May 16, 1918. He spoke on I Chronicles 16:36: "And all the people said, Amen." Chapman had brought his denomination to the foremost position in evangelism at that time.

The other address was given a month before he died, in November, 1918, at Carnegie Hall in New York City, for the Prophetic Bible Conference. He spoke on "Saved When the Lord Comes," his last address to a large crowd.

His last message was on December 15th in the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, New York, on "Christ, Our Only Hope."

He had never spared himself, and he suffered at least thirteen serious breakdowns in his health from 1902 on. These sick spells and surgical operations laid him aside for extended periods during the latter years of his life. He died a few days after a gallstone operation, his third in the last two years of his life. His funeral was at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of New York, conducted by the pastor, Edgar Work, on December 29th, 1918.

Other musicians who assisted Chapman in his ministry besides Alexander were soloists Ernest W. Naftzger (1909- 1913), Albert Brown (1913-1918) and pianists Robert Harkness (1908-1913) and Henry Barraclough (1914-1917). Peter Bilhorn and George Stebbins assisted in some of the earlier meetings. A sermon, "Ivory Palaces" (Psalm 45:8), first delivered at Montreat in 1915, helped Barraclough compose the song bearing the same title.

Chapman's own works include: Ivory Palaces of the King (1893); Receive Ye the Holy Ghost (1894); And Peter (1895); The Lost Crown (1899); The Secret of a Happy Day (1899); The Surrendered Life (1899); Spiritual Life of the Sunday School (1899); Present Day Parables (1900); Revivals and Missions (1900); From Life to Life (1900); The Life and Work of D.L. Moody (1900); Present Day Evangelism (1903); Fishing for Men (1904); Samuel Hopkins Hadley of Water Street (1906); Another Mile (1908); The Problem of Work (1911); Chapman's Pocket Sermons (1911); Revival Sermons (1911); and When Home Is Heaven (1917).

From one of 49 booklets by Ed Reese in the Christian Hall of Fame series. Reese Publications, 7801 Ember Crest Trail, Knoxville, TN 37938.

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