Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On Dr. Charles Parkhurst

Jesse Halsey | 1933 

The death of Dr. Charles Parkhurst brings back some happy recollections of hours spent with him during successive summer on Lake Placid some ten years ago. He was straight as an arrow, ‘though eighty years old, vigorous in mind, incisive in his judgments, and clear-cut in his speech. This would apply to his sermons as well as to his conversation. The few sermons that are in print open with short periodic sentences and always remind me of a rapid-fire gun.

I was a young minister visiting in the mountains. Dr. Parkhurst had a cottage a half a mile away. One day I screed up courage and made a call. He was graciousness itself, inviting me back repeatedly. He talked and I listened. Often we walked out through the woods. His wife was an invalid and he would not leave the house for any great length of time. But, along the road east of Mirror Lake, or climbing Cobble Hill (he had been up the mountain) he told me interesting things, a few of which come to mind.

About the time he left his little church in Lenox, Mass., somewhere around 1880, his deacons had told him that it would be necessary to reduce his salary by two hundred dollars. I don’t remember the exact amount, but it was less than fifteen hundred and they felt they could raise only twelve. He told them he would give his decision within a fortnight. In the meantime, the call came to the Madison Square Church, in New York, with a salary of nearly ten thousand!

When the deacons heard this they came ‘round, offering not only to maintain their present standard but to increase it by two hundred dollars.

He had, I remember a great respect and affection for Dr. John Hall, who had, he felt, made possible his entrance to the New York Presbytery from the Congregational Church. Young Parkhurst, having confessed to the Presbytery that he knew very little about Presbyterian polity, immediately some rushed to the conclusion that he knew little about Presbyterian doctrine, and started to examine him. Dr. Hall soon arrested the examination and Dr. Parkhurst was very grateful.

He said that all his early sermons were logical and syllogistic, but that somehow the conclusion halted—he had few conversions. He had learned, after fifty years, he said, that a sermon ought to be made up in about equal parts of Bible and everyday life. While he wrote and used the manuscript, he felt that a more direct method was advisable, quoting Dr. Storrs as saying: “Every horse must take its own pace.” He confessed that his early sermons were little more than lectures on the beauty of the Berkshires and the glory of the constellations. Anyone who heard his fearless denunciation of evil in high places, in later years, realized how he grew in grace and wisdom.

He said to me one day, “A young minister, who keeps one eye on the church he is in, and one on the church that he would like to be in, is hardly fitted to be in either.”

When he made his attack on municipal corruption, he did it on common knowledge and hearsay. Dana, in The Sun, and the district attorney, “called his bluff,” as he expressed it, and he was forced to substantiate his statement with legal evidence.

For a month, with the aid of a detective and a trusted friend, he collected his evidence, visiting all sorts of places.

One Sunday morning, he came into the pulpit, replaced the Bible with his numerous affidavits and started a movement that lead to the “Lexow Investigation” and to the defeat of Tammany Hall.

Those who had the privilege of knowing Dr. Parkhurst feel that Lincoln Steffens, in his autobiography, does scant justice to the character and motives of a very great man.

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