REV. JAMES TOMPKINS, D. D.

Source: Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois with Portraits 3rd ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co., 1895), pp. 533-534

REV. JAMES TOMPKINS, D. D., for seventeen years Superintendent of the Congregational Home Missionary Society of Illinois, is not only an able preacher but a superior business man as well.  His practical ideas and genial, sunny disposition inspire confidence and interest in all with whom he comes in contact, and secure ready co-operation in his work.  He was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on the 6th of April, 1840.  His father, Deacon Samuel Tompkins, was one of the founders of that city, being a member of the committee that came from New York, in 1835, to select the site of an institution of learning and, incidentally, of a town in the “wild West.”   The committee entered a township of Government land and platted a village in its center, in the name of Knox College.  Tompkins Street, on which is located Knox Female Seminary, is named in honor of this pioneer.  Samuel Tompkins was a native of Rhode Island, and his wife, Mary Grinnell, was born at Paris Hill, Oneida County, New York.

James Tompkins spent his early years in his native place, studying in the public schools, until 1854, when he entered the preparatory department of Knox College.  He graduated from that institution in 1862, taking the degree of Bachelor of Science.  In 1865, having pursued special lines of study, he received the degree of Master of Arts.  In 1867, he graduated from Chicago Theological Seminary, and in 1888 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from Illinois College.

During his preparatory and college course, he maintained himself by teaching school, and the same year of his graduation—at the age of twenty-two—he took charge of Elmwood Academy, at Elmwood, Illinois.   He continued here two years, at the end of which period a regular system of graded schools was established by the town and the trustees of the academy decided to merge that institution in the public high school.  The formation of the grades and establishment of the high school was a task assigned to Mr. Tompkins, and faithfully carried out.

While he was in college, the call of President Lincoln was issued for seventy-five thousand men to put down the rebellion, and a company was enlisted at Knox College, Mr. Tompkins being among the first.  So many men were enlisting throughout the State that it was feared the company of students would not be accepted, and its captain was sent to Springfield to urge the matter upon Governor Yates, but the mission was vain, and thus several good soldiers were spoiled in the making of some good ministers.

After graduating, Mr. Tompkins aided in recruiting some companies of volunteers under a later call.  These went into the Seventy-seventh and Eighty-fifth Regiments of Illinois Volunteers.  Through much open air speaking in recruiting, Mr. Tompkins was suffering from a slight inflammation on the lungs at this time, and the examining surgeon refused to pass him for military duty. As he was anxious to go out with the men he had enlisted, he endeavored to persuade the surgeon that his ailment was temporary, but the official was inexorable and he was compelled to remain behind.  After resigning his position at Elmwood, however, in June, 1864, he was enabled to give his services to the country by joining the United States Christian Commission, which did such valuable work for the “boys in blue” in camp and hospital and on the battlefield.  In this service, he remained until the close of the war. He was first sent to the Army of the Potomac, in company with Rev. W. G. Peirce, the beloved and heroic chaplain of the Seventy-seventh Illinois.  When they reached City Point, Virginia—General Grant’s headquarters—they responded to a call for volunteers to go to the front, and were assigned to duty at Point of Rocks, on the Appomatox river. Here Mr. Tompkins met with an accident which nearly proved fatal. After hovering between life and death for a week, he rallied sufficiently to be taken in an ambulance to City Point, and was placed on a steamer bound for Baltimore.

On his recovery, he was engaged for several weeks in lecturing throughout Central Illinois on the work of the Christian Commission, and collected several thousand dollars for its use.  He then visited the Army of the Cumberland and followed General Thomas as he drove the Confederate army, commanded by General Hood, out of Tennessee.  He cared for the sick and wounded of both armies, took the last message of the dying for the loved ones at home, and aided in giving a decent burial to the remains of those who had given up their lives for their country.

Mr. Tompkins was ordained to the work of the Gospel Ministry April 24, 1867, immediately after graduating from Chicago Theological Seminary, in the Congregational Church at Prospect Park (now called Glen Ellyn), and entered upon the duties of the Congregational pastorate, serving jointly this church and the First Church of Christ in the neighboring village of Lombard, Illinois. On visiting Minnesota for rest and recuperation, he was engaged as stated supply of the Congregational Church at St. Cloud. From there, he was called to the pastorate of the First Congregational Church of Minneapolis. Three years’ residence in Minnesota made it apparent that a milder climate was necessary to the health of both himself and wife, and he resigned his charge in Minneapolis. He soon after accepted a call from the Congregational Church at Kewanee, Illinois, which he served as pastor for over six years.

In May, 1878, the General Congregational Association of Illinois voted to appoint a Superintendent of its work in the State. A number of prominent clergymen were candidates for the position, and after several ballotings, Mr. Tompkins received a majority of all the votes cast and was declared elected. He entered upon his new duties in the succeeding July, with headquarters in Chicago, and is still occupying that position. He has introduced several new methods in the prosecution of the work, and awakened a deeper interest and more hearty co-operation in all the churches. The most important of the new instrumentalities was the employment of able men as State Evangelists. This gave new impetus, strength and enlargement to the work.

In 1869, on the 8th of September, Mr. Tompkins married Miss Ella A. Kelley, a native of Rutland, Vermont, daughter of J. Seeley Kelley and Mary E. Hall.  To Mr. and Mrs. Tompkins have been given four children, namely: Roy James, born in Minneapolis, Mabel Ella, William C., born at Kewanee, Illinois, and Seeley Kelley, born at Oak Park, Illinois.

                                -- Submitted on June 10, 2000 by Sherri Hessick ( shessick@flash.net )