REV. HIRAM WASHINGTON THOMAS

Source: Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois with Portraits 3rd. ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co., 1895), pp. 442-448.

REV. HIRAM WASHINGTON THOMAS, D. D., the subject of this sketch, is the son of Joseph and Margaret (McDonald) Thomas, who were well-to-do farmers in Hampshire County, W. Va. On his father's side he is of German and Welsh, and on his mother's Scotch and English, extraction. Hiram is the fourth in a family of six children, having three brothers older and two sisters younger than himself, and was born in Hampshire County, among the mountains of West Virginia, April 29, 1832. When but a year old the family removed to Preston County, near the Maryland line, where he grew to manhood. He was naturally of a slender constitution, with a massive brain overtopping his body, and it was fortunate that his childhood and early manhood were spent on a farm among the

rugged mountains. The outdoor active life of a farmer toned up his physical constitution to a reasonable equality with his mental capacity, so that he has been able to bear an amount of intellectual work surpassed by few, and at the age of sixty years his vigor is unimpaired and his personal appearance still youthful. The educational facilities of his native place were, fortunately perhaps for him, meagre and primitive, and he was left to the very necessary work of preparing a constitution for future use. The thirst for knowledge was, however, so great in him, that at the age of sixteen he went one hundred miles on foot to Hardy County, Va., and worked nights and mornings for a winter's schooling at a little village academy. Two years after, one Doctor McKesson, of his neighborhood, took

him under his private tutelage for two years, after which he attended the Cooperstown, Pennsylvania Academy, and subsequently the Berlin Seminary, in the same State, then under the direction of J. F. Eberhart, now a member of the People's Church, Chicago, and a fast friend of the Doctor's.

On moving to Iowa he continued his studies privately under Dr. Charles Elliott, formerly President of the Iowa Wesleyan University. His studies have, however, never been discontinued. Like many men of mark, he has never graduated, but expects to remain a student to the end of his life. The greater part of his knowledge of books he has acquired since he began to preach, and has facilitated his work greatly, and fastened his acquirements in his memory, by making immediate use of them as fast as acquired, a most admirable method.

His mother was a devout Methodist, and his father a Quaker. The moral tone of the family was exceptionally high, and its religion both practical and intensely devotional. At the age of eighteen Hiram became converted, and began soon after to preach. Like many other great preachers, he had the conviction from childhood that he must one day preach, and although he fought against it long and energetically, yet when the time came he yielded and entered into the work.

He at first joined the Pittsburgh Conference of the Evangelical Association, or German Methodists, with whom he remained till in 1856, when he joined the Iowa Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

March 19, 1865, he married Miss Emmeline C. Merrick, an accomplished young lady of Dempseytown, Pa. Her people were Presbyterians, and Methodist preachers, and though popular with the same class who used to hear Christ "gladly," were, nevertheless, at that period considered rather among the proletariat. The union has been, however, a happy one, and through all the extraordinary trials of the life of an itinerant Methodist preacher on the frontier, they have found in each other an unfailing source of strength and consolation.

In.the autumn of 1854 his parents sold out their Virginia home, and the family removed to Washington County, Iowa, and bought a tract of land. Thither Hiram, with his young wife, followed them the following spring.     The summer was spent opening a new farm, house-building, etc., the young preacher working faithfully seven days in the week, six on the farm and one in the pulpit.    In the fall that scourge of a new country, congestive chills and fever, brought him and his faithful wife to the verge of death, but, as he firmly believes, his life was spared in answer to prayer. Whether his faithful spouse was included in the petition, or is indebted to the efficacy of a stronger vital organization for her escape, is not recorded, but it is certain that she, too, was spared to remark that there was little left of Hiram but "a handful of bones and a tuft of red hair."

But he was not ordained to bury himself or his talents in Iowa soil, and speedily relinquished the farm entirely for the pulpit, and entered fully upon the arduous life of a Methodist itinerant. For several successive years he managed to eke out a subsistence for himself and family on $300 a year. The leading charges of Marshall, Ft. Madison, Washington, Mt. Pleasant and Burlington enjoyed the benefit of his labors, besides which he spent two years as Chaplain of the State Penitentiary. In 1869 he was transferred to the Rock River Conference, and stationed at Park Avenue, Chicago. After three years he was appointed to the First Church (Methodist Church Block) of the same city, where likewise he remained three years. He was then sent to the First Church of Aurora for two years, and next to Centenary Church, Chicago, where his term of three years expired in October, 1880. His early preaching gave promise of all his later fame. He always drew large congregations and the church flourished under his care. It was predicted many years ago by astute friends that he only had to be transferred to a large city to acquire a national reputation. He has captured every place in which he has preached, and his success in Chicago is only a repetition of his career on a smaller scale in the villages and towns of his earlier ministry. There have usually been many demands for him, and a spirited rivalry between the leading churches of his conference, as there is now between cities and denominations.

Dr. Thomas has been a man of sorrows as well as of privations and arduous labors. Of seven children born to his home but one survives, Dr. Homer M. Thomas, now a prominent physician of Chicago. His large personal experience in the school of grief has opened a door for him into the hearts of the afflicted and desolate few not tempered in the same school can enjoy. He was born and reared in humble life; he drew his first breath among the freedom-inspiring mountains; he had his long struggle with poverty, and is familiar with its trials and temptations; he has mingled with the lowly, and become familiar with their wants and woes, and no fame, honor or pelf of his later years can lift him above the common people in his sympathies or his labors. He began his life with them, he has spent it for them, he will close it among them. This is the secret of his heresy—it is the secret of his power. And had not Methodism progressed out of its primitive simplicity and liberality, it would not have scandalized and wronged itself by driving him from among them. However, it gave him a broader field, and probably increased his usefulness by breaking down for him the wall of partition which the church unconsciously had erected between her ministers and the people, and by casting him with her ban upon him into the bosom of the people whom he loved. "Nothing pains me more," he said at one time, "or gives me more anxious thought, than that the world's great need, and religion's great gift—man's want and God's fullness—cannot be brought together. It rests upon me with such a weight that I have sometimes almost felt that God calls me to a ministry at large outside of the church, that I might get near to the hearts and homes of the people."

The expression of such sentiments could not but make him very popular among those who most need human sympathy and ministerial counsel and assistance, and naturally the narrow bigots of his own class would look with increasing disfavor upon him. He would be regarded by the scribes and pharisees with jealousy, anger and suspicion, in proportion as it became manifest that "the common people heard him gladly." It hence became early apparent that a separation must sooner or later come—the drift of events could not be checked. With the deepening of his sympathies for humanity came the inevitable broadening of his religious, or rather theological, views of truth and his understanding of the Scriptures. With him to study, to learn and to preach were necessary steps in a process continually going on. He never waits to inquire how truth will be received, or what will be its consequences to himself. He only asks if it be truth; his duties to proclaim it he never questions. His opposers did not stop to inquire if his views were truth, nor yet whether they were contrary to the essentials of Methodism, but placed the issues of their cause against him upon the standards of the Church, and themselves determined the standards. There could be but one issue of such a trial. It is difficult to ascertain the date of the earliest expression of heresy by the Doctor, and it is of little moment. It is probable that his early popularity arose from his human and rational view of God, the Bible, and its teachings, which came to him unconsciously, and was expressed as unconsciously and as naturally as he breathed. However, rumors of his unsoundness were heard as far back as 1865, while yet in Burlington, Iowa, and on that account an effort was made to prevent his transfer to Chicago. It was not, however, until he became the pastor of the First Church that his liberal views attracted general notice. His nearness to the people, and his popularity among publicans and sinners who flocked to hear him, and many of whom he reformed, seemed to give offense to the brethren. Besides this he did a good deal of undenominational work. He originated the Philosophical Society of Chicago, and was its second President. The society was organized soon after the great fire, and held its meetings for a time in the Methodist Church Block. It was composed of such men as Judge Booth, Prof. Rodney Welch, Dr. Samuel Willard, Gen. Buford, Dr. Edmund Andrews, Rev. Dr. Joseph Haven, Dr. E. F. Abbott, J. W. Ela, Prof. Austin Bierbower, and two hundred or three hundred more orthodox, liberal sceptics, spiritualists, atheists, Catholics and all the shades between these.  Its discussions were not always orthodox, as might be expected, and Dr. Thomas was held responsible for every variation there-from.

He affiliated with liberal-minded people outside of his own church.  He preached a powerful sermon in defense of Prof. Swing, and followed it with one on hell, something after the example of Henry Ward Beecher; sometimes preached for the Universalists and Unitarians; organized an undenominational preachers' meeting, called the Round Table, and in general conducted himself in a way which indicated that he could no longer, "after the straighter sect of our religion, live a pharisee.'' When, therefore, in the fall of 1875, his term at the First Church in Chicago expired, the complaints had grown so loud in certain quarters that he was sent out of the city to Aurora.  There was much dissatisfaction about this.  His own church, the newspapers, and the general public believed it was designed to lessen his field of influence.  Several large and wealthy churches of other denominations offered him places.  Charges in other conferences sought his services, but he went quietly to his new appointment and soon built up a large congregation in Aurora.  Persistent efforts were, however, made to get him back to Chicago, and with final success, for he was appointed to Centenary Church in 1877.  Immediately this society became one of the largest in the Northwest, and other clergymen claimed that their congregations were rushing off to Centenary Church and getting "Thomasized."  During all this time he was lecturing throughout the Northwest, giving during the lecture season one or two lectures a week in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and occasionally other States.  This spread both his fame and his opinions, and multiplied both his friends and his enemies.  But the crisis of his religious affairs was approaching.

When the next conference met at Mt. Carroll, in October, 1878, the subject of Dr. Thomas' recent utterances was privately discussed, and a plan carefully matured in secret to bring the matter to a head. With characteristic boldness, and rejoicing in his own freedom, Dr. Thomas preached before the conference a sermon in which he took occasion to give free expression to his peculiar views and criticise the narrowness of some of his brethren.

A committee on conference relations was appointed.    This was a sort of Star Chamber, before which complaints might be secretly brought against any minister, and some one, unknown to anybody except the committee, made charges against Dr. Thomas, and an adverse case was worked up.  The committee reported the case to the conference, and there was much discussion of the matter, but finally the presiding bishop, Dr. Foster, cut the matter short by asking all those to rise to their feet who felt that no loyal Methodist could preach such a sermon, an unwarrantable proceeding, asking, as it did, judgment before trial.   A large majority, nevertheless, stood up and set themselves right on the question of heresy before the world.  A resolution offered was then adopted, asking Dr. Thomas either to abandon his objectionable teaching, or withdraw from the church; in other words, to become a hypocrite and stay in, or remain an honest man and get out.  He very properly refused to do either, thinking probably that the church was in need of honest and independent thinkers, rather than regulation preachers.

The trial began at the opening session, October 5, 1879, and continued at intervals till October 10, when, as was anticipated, he was again found guilty and expelled, both from the ministry and the membership of the church.

The committee, however, did not sustain the charge upon the question of the inspiration of the Bible, but acquitted him on that account. Upon the atonement the vote stood nine to six, and on endless punishment eleven to four.

Shortly before the meeting of the conference at Rockford in 1880, a number of Chicago gentlemen met and pledged themselves to be responsible for the expenses of a sendee in the central part of the city. Accordingly, Hooley's Theatre was engaged, and to it the Doctor went after the action of that conference. A large congregation greeted him at once, and he continued to hold services there with great success till in 1885, then in the Chicago Opera House for a few months, and since then in McVicker's Theatre.

Upon this expulsion by the conference at Sycamore, although it endangered his right of appeal to the judicial conference, he felt it his duty to continue his work, and did so. As he feared, so it turned out. The judicial conference which met at Terre Haute, Ind., December 6, 1881, refused to entertain the appeal, and the decision of the conference at Sycamore stands as final.

To his new relation the Doctor and the public have both become accustomed and are well satisfied. He still preaches to large audiences every Sunday at McVicker's Theatre, his influence and popularity are unabated, and the People's Church of Chicago has been a source of comfort and blessing to thousands, and is every year growing in numbers and usefulness.

The following statement of his belief is from his own defense, when on trial before the conference: "And now, what is the substance of what I believe and what I deny?

"It must be evident that I hold to the great and fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and that I am in hearty accord with the spirit and work of Methodism.

"I hold to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, that in matters of doctrine and duty they are final—the authority of God. But I do not accept the verbal theory of inspiration, nor claim that all parts of all the sixty-six books of the Bible are of equal authority, inspiration, or value, nor that all parts of the Old Testament are critically infallible. And in these things, am I not in accord with the best scholarship of our own church and of the world? Certainly I am. Does the Methodist Church, or the fifth article of religion, require our ministry to believe more or differently? I think not.

"I hold to the doctrine of a vicarious atonement, but I hold it in that form that is called moral or paternal; or, in other words, I hold to the governmental view with the penal idea left out—I deny the doctrine of a literal penal substitution. It is, I think, both unreasonable and unscriptural. It is an offense to our deepest moral institutions and a burden to Christian faith. I am aware that in saying this I am compelled to differ to some extent from what seems to be the teachings of Wesley and Watson, but I claim to be in substantial accord with Raymond and Miley, and to hold in substance what in its last analysis must be declared to be the true Arminian Doctrine.

"I hold to the strength and integrity of the government of God, that all sin will be properly punished, but I do not believe in a material hell fire, nor in the terrible ideas of future torment that have come down to us from the past. Such teachings, to my mind, negate the very idea of a God. I must agree with good Dr. Raymond, that 'it is competent to think of God as making hell not as terrible, but as tolerable as possible. If God punishes sinners, it is because He must. He is vindicatory, but not vindictive. He is a righteous being, and a righteous sovereign, but not a malicious murderer.' But I cannot agree with Dr. Williamson, who says: ‘Mr. Wesley, in his sermon on Hell, states the doctrine of the Methodist churches on this subject. From this teaching, so far as known, there are no influential dissenters.’ I should rather say with Dr. Whedon, ‘We imagine the census would be small of American Methodist ministers who would accept Mr. Wesley's physical views of hell.’

“I hold to the endlessness of the law by which sin must be punished, and hence to endless punishment for the endlessly obdurate, if such there be; but, assuming as I do the freedom of souls after death, I cannot affirm that any soul will or will not forever remain in sin, and hence I can neither affirm nor deny endless punishment for any soul. But, postulating endless punishment upon endless sinning, I am logically bound to suppose that if the sinning come to an end, the suffering must also come to an end, unless, indeed, it be that suffering of loss that in the nature of things seems to be remediless. And I have a hope—a hope that has come to me through much suffering and prayer, and that seems to be strengthened by the nearest visions of God—that, somehow, all the divine love and striving to win and save souls will not end with this poor, short life, but that the work of discipline and salvation may go on in the immortal world. And it seems to me that whilst there is upon some texts a surface look of finality, there is a deeper and far-reaching vision of other texts, and the Scriptures as a whole, on which this hope may rest.

Dr. Thomas is a born student. Everything, he sees, hears and feels, or in any way comes in contact with, he investigates, and the impress is left on his mind. He seeks for the essence and cause of things. No one analyses and interprets past history, or present human activities, with a keener or more truthful philosophy, or reads nearer the lines of truth in all things that affect humanity. He is an honest student, intent on getting the true meaning of life and all its related conditions and existences, without reference to their supporting any pre-conceived notions or dogmas of church or society.

As a public speaker, he is himself and nobody else. When ready to begin his sermon he steps slowly to the front of the platform, without note or manuscript about him, and pausing a moment and casting his eyes over his expectant congregation, he commences in a low and measured tone of voice that scarcely reaches the outer sittings of his large audience-room. At first he is very slow and articulate in his utterances, and pauses at the end of every sentence. He is addressing the understanding. His sentences are terse, condensed, and plain in their meaning. Every one is very likely complete in itself, though nearly related to the preceding ones, and adding to their strength and clearness. There is no effort at oratory, and his thoughts are couched in the simplest language. He presents deliberately accepted facts of life and the world, and multiplies generalized statements along the line of the subject under discussion; statements which all know to be true, but which few have considered in their relations to the theories or views he is presenting. He at once creates an interest and prepares the way for his discourse, and lays the foundations on which to build his arguments. And he is so eminently fair and truthful in all his propositions, that from the start he wins both the sympathies and understanding of his hearers. As he continues to add proposition to proposition, and argument to argument, and to interweave these, his voice gradually rises, becoming clear, strong and emphatic; the interest intensifies, and a pleasing spell steals over his audience, which holds them with greater or less tension until the last word has been spoken.

Every sentence now comes weighted down with meaning, and the central idea and unity of his discourse soon become more and more apparent. Each statement makes clearer and stronger his points. Reflection on what he has said adds force to what he is now saying, and brings out in fuller form and grandeur the high ideals of his lofty and inspiring conceptions. And he always has an ideal, a lofty ideal, that lifts his hearers above the cruder every-day thoughts and scenes of existence. He invites them to quit the valleys of despair and tread with him the highlands of a nobler life.

As he passes along, he attacks every evil and exalts every virtue. The long face of the pharisee is no protection to him. Self-righteousness, oppression, the dead formalities of the old churches, and unreasonable and obsolete church creeds, are each in their turn pierced by the keen blade of his logic, and in this his wonderful memory serves him well and brings all needed facts for his use; while poetry, rhetoric, apothegm, wit, wisdom and ridicule each comes at the proper time unbidden to his aid.

While intensely devotional and reverential in his ministrations, he yet occasionally hurls the lance of ridicule at some dominant or excused social sin with such force and in such a way that his audience breaks into applause.

He seldom hesitates for words or uses a redundancy of speech. Every word comes forth as though it gushed from a great suppressed fountain of thought and emotion. And every sermon is a complete philosophy in itself. It is the result of a study of all the things bearing on that subject. And he has a wonderful way of grouping facts, history, experiences and philosophies to make clear and impressive a point. He is a man great even beyond the appreciation of the multitude who flock to hear him gladly. The first time you hear him, you may not be impressed with his power, but you will want to hear him again, and every succeeding time he will get a stronger hold of you; and in this lies the secret of his great power to create and bring about him the large and intelligent audiences that weekly crowd to listen to his teachings. Hundreds are often turned away for want of room. He is a man greater even than his age, and coming years will accord to him more nearly his proper rank among the great thinkers and moral teachers of the nineteenth century.

 

Submitted by Sherri Hessick on May 27, 2007

 

DISCLAIMER:  The submitter is not related to the subject of this biography nor is she related to anyone mentioned in the biography.