Our church stood on a corner. The main artery going east from the city passed the front door with three streetcar lines. Solidly attached to the granite tower I had a homemade bulletin board. Three-inch letters could be seen from the cars going east, four-inch letters from the cards going west, five-inch letters from a block away and so forth; I figured it all out and wrote it up in a Trade Journal (Homiletic Review).
Bill Wode, the shoemaker’s son, was handy with his brush and did the lettering. I bought the materials—paint and wardboards 30x36—and gave him a place to work in the church basement, plus thirty cents a card. We always kept several prepared in advance. Sunday morning during church hour the janitor would slip a new one in advertising the evening service or a motto for the week, sometimes Scripture, sometimes not. One of these “The Church Binds Upward Looking People Together,” was used afterwards in a campaign in Edinburgh, so our Chamber of Commerce told me.
One year, Lincoln’s Birthday came on Sunday; our sign read: “Lincoln Went to Church; Do You?” There came to my desk an anonymous postcard—“Lincoln Kept a Gin Mill. Do You?” Next week the board carried, “Washington Went to Church—Do You?” Came a card, “Washington Kept Slaves: Do You?” My correspondent kept up his barrage for some time. I tried to find some way of answering him. Finally, he sent a card; “The Church is Full of Hypocrites.” I had Bill paint a sign—never thinking to really use it—“The Church is Full of Hypocrites? There’s Always Room For One More.” Somehow it got into the pile of half dozen and one Sunday when I got home from New York just in time for Church, Charlie Casey, our old janitor, slipped in the bulletin board during service time.
I got home and at dinner the phone began to ring. One of my young trustees who had not been in church that morning wanted to know what in the world was on the front of the church; his mother-in-law came home in tears. An older deacon said his wife was hurt and he was mad. “What was it?” I queried. “You better go out and look.” I did. There it was—“The Church is Full of Hypocrites. There’s Always Room For One More.” I got the step-ladder and pulled it out and for the rest of the afternoon the board simply announced, “Evening Service at Seven-forty-five.”
Somehow the morning paper got hold of the story and had it on the front page. One of the evening papers got hold of Casey and had a picture of Casey putting the sign in, fully legible—“The Church is Full . . . etc.” Then they syndicated it indicating that the picture showed not Casey but the Minister. It went all over the country apparently. I received copies from friends in Maine, Oklahoma and California and many places in between. At the Rotary Club the next Thursday when I came in the bell rang calling to attention and the president announced to all “Here comes Jess Halsey, he believes in signs.” It was a long time before I heard the last of it.
When the Church was remodeled some years after the bulletin (homemade) was taken down; a petition from four hundred street car riders asked to have it put back. A man I met years after told me that as a young fellow utterly discouraged by his failure as a canvasser he read a sign (Scripture this time), “Be of Good Courage” and sold a vacuum cleaner in the next house. He said, “It was the turning of the corner for him.” (We lived just back of the church and have (or had) that brand of machine).
The Jesse Halsey Manuscript Collection. Special Collections, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.