For 20 summers at the beginning of the last century, the Rev. William Wilkinson would don a cassock, mount a “dry-goods box,” and preach to crowds in the open air on Wall Street.
He was something of a phenomenon.
Wilkinson was one of a number of preachers from New York’s most august churches who were setting up shop on street corners and thoroughfares throughout the city. He was the most successful, however, drawing 400-500 congregants a service, who would encircle their pastor, rows deep and silent, until he was done. He became known as the “Bishop of Wall Street.” Letters were sent to the editors of The New York Times to praise his work.
Summer of the Saved
In New York City in 1905, the Greater New York Evangelistic Committee, which was supported by the Episcopal Church, had been formed primarily in response to the heavy flow of immigrants to the city at the time. At a May 8 meeting that year, the Rev. Dr. Walter Laidlaw reported that, “Before 1920, New York will be the largest city on earth…if the present immigration keeps up, in two more years we will have more Italians in New York City than there are in any city in Italy today.”
A survey by an organization called the Federation of Churches had determined that there were more than one million “churchless” Protestants in the city, and that there were 11,000 more foreigners in New York than in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, and Baltimore combined.
The leader of the evangelistic committee, Bishop Coadjutor David H. Greer, struck an inclusive note: “The Gospel is not for one section of the city, but for all human life. The churches are rising above, ignoring and forgetting the differences of creed, and are going to preach the Gospel to the city.”
And so that summer, the committee erected ten tents at city parks and beaches in a campaign to “redeem New York.” For years, missionaries had headed west alongside coal miners, lumberjacks, and Native Americans. Now the missionaries were coming East, and William Wilkinson was among them.
Wilkinson had arrived in the U.S. in 1880, from Yorkshire, England. He would see much of the United States as a missioner to loggers and Native Americans in the northwest and frontier lands of the country. He first came to public notice not as a preacher, but as an author, documenting the Minnesota forest fire of 1894, in which more than 400 died and the town of Hinckley was destroyed. (His book Memorials of the Minnesota Forest Fires in the year 1894 was accepted as an official version of events by the Smithsonian Institution.)
After the fire, Wilkinson was rector of St. Andrew’s in Minneapolis. At the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1895 in that city, he met a pair of city folks who would change his life: the elder J. Pierpont Morgan and Dr. William Reed Huntington of Grace Church in Manhattan. Huntington was drawn to Wilkinson’s oratory, and recommended that he come to New York to be a street preacher. In 1905, Wilkinson did.
At the end of the 1905 summer mission, a celebratory meeting was held at Carnegie Hall. The Times reported that some 4,000 new “converts” attended, and that Wilkinson, the “evangelist who had made himself and his open-air meetings well known this summer in the Wall Street district” described his ministry:
“They ask me how I go about getting at the people of Wall Street…. There isn’t any difference essentially between the men of Wall Street and the men of San Juan Hill. They all have mothers and sisters and children. They all die the same death. They all know the crying out of consciences, and you get at them in a simple open-air meeting in the same way.”
In 1909, Trinity Church hired Wilkinson as “Parish Missioner,” and he would remain in that capacity until 1917. In all likelihood, two factors led to his hire. First, the preacher had been drawing hundreds to his weekly services, just outside the great bronze doors of Trinity. Second, the rector under whom Wilkinson would serve, the Rev. William T. Manning, had a serious missionary bent. In his 1914 Parish yearbook report, Manning wrote: “Much of the work that Trinity Parish is doing in New York is as truly missionary in character as any that is being done in China or in Nevada, and we rejoice that this is so….”
Several reports of Wilkinson’s services appeared in the Times, suggesting that Bishop Greer’s vision of the life of the Gospels was realized. Following is an excerpt from the Times, describing Wilkinson’s final summer sermon of 1906, which was incongruously given indoors, at Trinity Church:
“Scattered throughout the crowd of young clerks, stenographers, telephone girls, and all the varied degrees of young men and women who make up the army of office employees in the Street were many men, young and old, who were evidently of importance in financial affairs. Not a few workmen from the tall buildings in course of construction in the neighborhood were easily distinguished by their rough working clothes and lime-stained shoes.”
A report a year later extends the breaches of societal divisions to the religious: “His congregation is perhaps the most unique the world has ever seen. It includes Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Hebrews; white men and black, bank Presidents, stock brokers, clerks, messenger boys, bootblacks, all the big and little human cogs that make up the huge Wall Street machine….” Missionaries at the time usually employed brass bands and catchy hymns, but Wilkinson was a solo artist. He simply talked for 45 minutes, using the Book of Common Prayer as a guide, and then launching into a sermon. It was said that he drew heavily on the words of the prophet Micah for inspiration.
Wilkinson retired from Trinity in September 1917, but kept preaching until 1925. The Rev. Caleb R. Stetson, who succeeded Manning as rector, noted in 1923 that in the years following the end of World War I:
“The impression has been created that the Church is losing its hold upon the people, and that her influence is failing. Old ideas and standards have been brought under the light of searching criticism. Old loyalties have been deserted and new ones have not been found…. It may be that there is a widening gulf between those who are indifferent and agnostic, and the Church.”
There was a hint of wariness in his words, even of depression. Perhaps it was simply the case of a new rector keeping expectations low, but the following year, Stetson was as ebulliently optimistic — “There has been a marked increase in attendance at services and in the vigor of parish life in every place…” — as he was defiant: “The gross materialism of the 19th century has failed and passed away; we are entering a new period. Religion is now recognized as a constant element in human life. Religion cannot be eradicated; those who are attempting it are attempting the impossible.”
Wilkinson, of course, would have been preaching just down the street to large crowds during these years.
In November of 1925, Wilkinson became ill. He died on December 8, and lay in state at Trinity, where 4,000 people viewed the body.
In 1927, Trinity Church hired Captain B.F. Mountford of the revivialist Church Army to do some street preaching in the summer. Mountford continued his evangelizing into the next decade.
Author: Trinity Wall Street Communications
Created: March 18, 2009
Trinity Wall Street has played a pivotal role in the religious and civic life of the city and nation since its founding in 1697. This blog will answer readers’ questions and provide a glimpse into the fascinating and provocative history of the parish.