In the early spring of 1880, I received an invitation from the officers of the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota (don’t let this aristocratic name deceive you), to visit with them with a view to becoming their pastor. I preached to them on two Sundays and spent with them in social visits the intervening week. They had written Dr. Strong, and he had suggested me as a suitable candidate. In due time after my return to the seminary I received a call to become their pastor, and without much consideration, or any real knowledge of my future field, I accepted the call. That it proved in the end not to have been a mistake, and was in fact fortunate, is no credit to any sagacity of mine. The first invitation, usually initiated by the seminary, we were of course always advised to accept; so, I obediently accepted. My services were to begin appropriately on my graduation a few months later, and accordingly June 1880, found me in Minneapolis.
The church edifice was little better than a barn and looked like one. The congregation was composed of something less than one hundred resident members. Among them at that time were no persons of means, and few of culture. None of them had received a college, or even a high school, education, and there was one man only who was accustomed to read books. The membership then formed no part of the social, intellectual, moral, or financial life of Minneapolis. Practically all the Baptist families of wealth or of social standing belonged to the First Baptist Church. Our membership was composed only of such as could not feel at home in that church. The two churches were too close together and overlapped each other’s field territorially. In so much of this territory as was common the two churches were rivals, with advantages much in favor of the larger and more attractive society. Oblivious of the weakness of my church and its location under the shadow of the first one, I plunged into my ministry with headlong zeal. I entered at once into a zealous campaign to convert sinners and to edify saints. I subjected myself to a daily regimen that covered every minute, that included no exercise or recreation, and that was as stern as ever monk exacted from himself in hair-cloth shirt. My fiery zeal, my uncompromising assault on unrepentant sinners and easy-going saints, was to me the natural, normal, inevitable thing, the single line of duty. But to comfortable sinners and easy-going saints, it was a startling and annoying surprise. There were some complaints. These got their main emphasis from a special characteristic of all my preaching—insistence on service. I denounced as a delusion the traditional orthodoxy that religion consists in the comfortable assurance of salvation from hell by the blood of Christ. I declared that religion consisted not in the more passive acceptance of Christ as Savior, but essentially in surrender of the entire being to the will of God. This, and this only, was the faith that saves the soul here and hereafter. This preaching was the very reverse of Protestant orthodoxy: “Believe you are saved, and you are saved.” “Accept salvation through Christ and you have it.”
But such little opposition as there was took no tangible form, because the leaders stood by me. My position appealed to reason and to conscience as unassailable, and nothing less than the truth. Besides we had good congregations and there began to be inquiries, conversions, and frequent baptisms. One fault I later saw, and now confirm. This early, youthful, enthusiastic, and zealous ministry had the faults of its virtues. I was young, and I had not that tenderness and mellowness which come with years of experience as a pastor. In reading over some of my old sermons recently, I find them earnest, direct, energetic, well organized, but altogether uncompromising. I doubt if a large, wealthy church with many members in social life, and deeply compromised with the world, would have endured the preaching of my first two years. I was fortunate in having a defenseless and docile people. As I came to know my people personally and intimately, I learned to love them, and this with increased experience gradually infused into my sermons more of geniality and gentleness. This change of spirit, however, was accompanied with no loss of effectiveness. Conversions and baptisms continued as before. The church came to be full of life and activity. Several families of means, of social position, and of influence, seeing and wishing to share and forward our evangelical spirit, came over to us from the First Church. Before my first year was over we had begun to negotiate for a new and highly eligible location, more central to our field, more accessible from every direction, and more sightly as well—one of the very best locations in the city, and we were planning a fine new church edifice.
And yet I, like all other ministers of my acquaintance, look back on the first two years of inexperience in the pastorate with a certain self- pity, and pity for my people. I did the best I knew how, and perhaps after all they didn’t know much more than I did, and we may let it pass without over-much regret. Possibly, judged by apparent results, I really did better than I now think. But today I should preach very differently.
I could not now use any of the sermons of my ministerial boyhood, and I have ruthlessly destroyed all of them.
In the spring of 1883, I found time to make a careful investigation of the Sunday question. I had long had my doubts about the Puritan doctrine. That doctrine was that Sunday, the Christian Lord’s Day, was the Old Testament Sabbath set forward one day, and carried with it all the sanctions of the Mosaic Sabbath. I studied the whole question thoroughly for myself, read the history of opinion on it, and wrote two long essays on the subject for the Minneapolis Pastors’ Conference. These were published in the Minneapolis Tribune. They settled the Sunday question for me and for my congregation. My views were accepted by the great majority of the Minneapolis pastors. Indeed, the subject of Sabbath-keeping, which had been the main topic of the pastors’ conference, pressed upon it in season and out of season by the Presbyterians, never in my time came up again. The identification of the New Testament Sunday with the Old Testament Sabbath was conclusively shown, as I think, to be wholly unwarranted, unscriptural, unhistoric, and unchristian. The Old Testament Sabbath belonged to the Mosaic dispensation and passed away with that dispensation.
The study of the Sunday question was my first entirely fearless and independent study of the Scriptures. It marked the beginning of Modernism in my study of the Bible and my religious thinking. I began to bring the light of common sense, of reason, and of science to the interpretation of religion.
Of the young ladies in Rochester whom I met, my heart was touched by one only in my five years there. Her name was Lucia Fowler Perkins. She was a graduate of the Rochester Academy, a very worthy institution, and for some years had been a teacher in the Rochester public schools. Her mother was a widow, supported mainly by the teaching of her two daughters—Lucia and a younger sister, Emma. They were Episcopalians. The daughters had been delicately brought up with cultivated tastes, and Lucia’s was the gentlest spirit that ever drew breath. She had energy in plenty, the energy of self-sacrifice and faithfulness and loyalty. But the predominant traits were sweetness, charity, and grace. Never in my whole acquaintance with her did I hear her drop one word of criticism of another human being. Harsh or censorious judgments were, with her sympathetic nature, wholly impossible. She loved good literature and of music she was passionately fond. She was one of the most exquisite pianists I have ever heard. She had never worked with her hands, and had the most beautiful, shapely, tapered hands I have ever seen. I had hoped to take her with me to Minneapolis as my wife when I went there in 1880, but financial considerations, and these only, rendered it inadvisable on both sides. Her mother needed her salary as teacher. I was several hundred dollars in debt for money borrowed of my father in my seminary course, and the salary of Twelve Hundred Dollars the first year would barely support us both and pay part of the debt. It was not in fact for two years that the financial skies cleared for both of us so that we could be married. Our marriage took place at Rochester, very simply, on June twenty-seventh, 1882, Dr. Strong performing the ceremony. We went to Highland to visit my father and mother who at once fell in love with Lucia, as indeed did everyone. Her gentleness won the heart of every member of the church and congregation in Minneapolis. To my eager, ardent, nervous temperament, Lucia was precisely the soothing daily and hourly influence that I most needed. Never petulant, never put out by untoward happenings, always cheery, sunny, and quiet, she was my most necessary corrective. It was these qualities, the opposites of mine, that had endeared her to me from the beginning and made her, so long as she was spared to me, a perfect wife and helpmeet.
She died very suddenly of an obscure internal ailment, perhaps an internal hemorrhage, never, I think, properly diagnosed by our physician, but probably fatal from the first dreadful onset. She left us on the thirty-first of October 1883, having been my wife almost exactly sixteen months. She lies in a beautiful lot in the beautiful cemetery at Minneapolis, and I have a much-prized picture of her grave taken before the headstone was placed. Her pictures are among our photographs, and your mother, in living recognition, named our Lucia after her, in order that the dear name might always be a household word with us. Wasn’t that sweet of Mother?
In the following summer my vacation was very considerately extended by my kind and sympathetic people, to enable me to make a brief European trip—my first. I need not burden these pages with a review of this intensely interesting and diverting, but purely personal, trip to Europe, followed as it has been by so many others shared by members of the family.
I remained a widower for more than two years. But of course, I greatly needed a wife, and my people greatly needed a pastor’s wife. All saw and felt the need. But the months went by with no sign of the coming one. At last, Mr. House, my predecessor in the pastorate, returning on a visit to his old church friends, approached me on the subject, pointing out, doubtless from intimations received, the needs of the church. I acknowledged all he said but told him that neither in my flock nor among my acquaintances was there any suitable person; certainly, none that could engage my affections. This gave him the desired opening. He described your mother, a member of his congregation then in Racine, Wisconsin, in terms so appropriate and so glowing as to kindle in me a desire to make her acquaintance. Introductions, visits, and close correspondence followed, and your dear mother and I were married under the happiest auspices in Racine, March third, 1886, I in my thirty-third and she in her thirty-first year. Neither of us brought the other fame or riches or pride of lineage, or any of the shining prizes of life. But she was in herself the richest of prizes. In a long life, marked by marvelous fullness of blessings and amazing good fortune, I count her as the greatest gift Providence has bestowed upon me. She brought me no riches, but as the years went by she endowed my home with seven precious jewels, more dear to me than all the treasuries of earth.
My Pastorate in Minneapolis (Second Period)