By Harold Parker.
Just twenty years ago a young man was called to preach in the little town of Lenox, Massachusetts. The sermons he preached there were heard in New York, and New York commanded him. He had attended to his pastoral work in the metropolis for more than ten years, when he was chosen president of the Society for the Prevention of Crime. He had occupied this office for a full year, when, in February, 1892, he delivered a sermon on municipal corruption, the echoes of which still reverberate throughout the English speaking world. The work thus inaugurated was not hastily, spasmodically undertaken, but was accepted as the duty next at hand by one who had been prepared for the task by experience and natural gifts.
So unique a figure in our modern civilization is Charles H. Parkhurst that a conventional biography of him would be impossible. The man is original to his finger tips. Ordinary lines of criticism fail to meet his case at any point. His life is a succession of continual surprises, even to himself. Not that he is in any sense the creature of impulse, or in any sense wavering or uncertain. But no character in history is inherently less sensational, nor yet capable of creating greater sensations among men. His career has not been marked by that steady growth that might be likened to a coral reef, which, beginning with a tiny stone laid upon the floor of the southern ocean, is increased by other tiny stones, with mathematical regularity. He resembles rather a sublime volcano, the forces ever working within, but giving external evidence only by periodical outbursts that are awful in their majesty. The comparison is not hyperbolical. for this delicate organization, almost effeminate in its refinement, bas. by its wonderful temerity and pure singleness of purpose. opened in the modern world a vein of thought and purpose, the end of which no man can foresee.
It has been said that the test of greatness is the effect of character on the emotions of men. Dr. Parkhurst is loved and hated. He is hated with a phenomenal intensity that is appalling in its malignity. Strange to say, among the legion of the wicked he has many admirers, while he is bitterly denounced by many men who walk in the straight path themselves. They have not yet grasped the meaning of the man. He is still far beyond them; but he is teaching them to grow up to him. Men are either Parkhurst or anti-Parkhurst. There is no middle ground.
This power of exciting the most conflicting emotions in men who agree on ordinary matters, Dr. Parkhurst shares with the greatest men in history. Napoleon was a conspicuous example of it, and in late years our own General Grant.
The reason for the deep admiration and strong love, in many cases, of the criminal element whose ardent foe he is, is not difficult to discover.
It lies in the man's phenomenal courage.
His positive enemies, as well as his negative friends, admit it. The man knows not fear. Standing absolutely alone, he voluntarily took on his shoulders the most troublesome burden of modern times. Like Antreus, whose strength was renewed every time he was dashed to earth, Dr. Parkhurst has grown with the growth of his burden. The reason for his strength is obvious to a student of his character.
Imbued with the innocence of a child, he possesses the sublime optimism of a moral philosopher. He has no doubt whatever of the justness of his cause, and the ultimate success of his work. Listen to his words on the reform of cities:
"Our great American cities are now a hissing and a byword, but there is a way out of the wilderness, and it is to be found in the manly, patriotic action of .Christian ministers and Christian people. There is always a day after today, and whoever declares that our municipal politics cannot be redeemed is a traitor to his race."
A word about his personality. He is of Puritan stock, born in Framingham, Massachusetts. He is a little below the average size. He is clean limbed, well groomed. His every action is graceful, indicating perfect health. The bright eyes beneath his spectacles are always intelligently observant, without being vulgarly inquisitive. There is, breeding here. The man is a gentleman.
His intellectual graces are many and various. The educational influence of Halle, Leipsic, and Bonn, in addition to his American grounding, have added polish to a naturally graceful and cultivated mind. As a preacher he is unique. Had he embraced literature as a profession, he would certainly have walked with those in the upper realms of sweetness and light.
In his sermons he shows that he possesses the art of seeming to think without effort, continuity being given by a kind of subtle thread that is seen only at intervals. His discourse seems a collection of sparkling, forceful epigrams and picturesque sentences, but when carefully considered the effort is found to be a complete, coherent, cumulative whole, each thought attaching to the other, supporting and amplifying it. The unexpected usually mingles to an extent just enough to brighten and beautify the panorama that passes before the mental vision of the auditor.
His influence with women is great because he is masterful. He is unlike most men in that the great fact of sex never obtrudes itself upon him. He meets both sexes upon the common ground of humanity. Conventional social ethics stand not in his way. "My woman hearer," he says, "if you are a Christian, what makes you holy is that you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb; it isn't that you have always been eminently respectable, that you have never fallen into ways of gross depravity, never had any experience that is coarse and depraved; but that you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Now, if your fallen sister has been washed in that blood, why let the foulness that was upon her before she was cleansed destroy for you the fact of her personal holiness now that she has been cleansed? You believe that the blood, of Christ has redeemed you; who are you that you indulge the impudent thought that His blood is insufficient to redeem her?"
As radical in some of his views as Tolstoy, he preaches a radical Christ:
"The more cordially and unreservedly we give ourselves into our Lord's meanings and intention, the more thoroughly we become convinced of His intense radicalism. Radicalism is not a word that would probably find a great deal of favor with the majority of a congregation made up as this congregation is; but radicalism is the only word that will speak the thought I am trying to utter. Only let us understand by radicalism, always, not a headstrong and insane abandonment of the ground proper to be covered by intelligence and reason, but rather the pushing of intelligence and reason to the very utmost of their possibilities, and getting clear down to the roots of the matter. That is what radicalism means - roots. It is in that sense that Jesus Christ was the most inconsiderate and aggressive radical that ever stirred society into irrepressible revolution."
Like most robust teachers, his method is direct. His discourse is honeycombed with epigrams, many of which would not discredit a clerical Rochefoucauld. He says:
"We could illustrate by taking the instance of a man who ought to be in jail. You probably have acquaintances of that kind; not simply men who ought to be in jail, but men who you suspect, or even know, ought to be in jail. Very likely there is not a social circle represented here this morning but would be measurably contracted if every candidate for prison distinction met his deserts. But the only point I want to make is that while you will, quite probably, treat with courtesy and social hospitality a man whom you have reason to believe criminal, up to the moment when he dons the striped suit furnished by the State, you have no hospitality for him after the suit comes off. "
Dr. Parkhurst does not run in grooves. His early education precluded the possibility of conventionality. "As the most fortunate feature of my early life," he like many eminent men, owes much to the influence his mother exerted on his life. She was a woman of superior intelligence and high purpose. Like all boys he had his ideal of excellence which he strove to equal. "Aside from my home training," he has said, "I regard the most salient influence of my life as coming from my fortunate association with the late President Julius Seelye at the time that I was a student. His was a strong, rich nature, and well, he left his impress upon me, that's all there is to it. "
Dr. Parkhurst has formulated his reformatory creed. When asked recently what was the ultimate purpose in his municipal crusade he said: "That's a question upon which we wish to be clearly understood. Our only purpose for the present is the breaking of the collusion between the officials and the criminal classes. After that there are a great many questions that will have to be taken up, and each will have to be considered and settled independently upon its own individual basis. There are the excise question and the "social evil" question, but we have consistently and persistently refused to be drawn from our main work into a premature discussion of them. This is not a crusade against particular vices; it is a crusade against a condition of things wherein men receive one salary for enforcing the law, and another salary for fostering the violation of the law. In accomplishing this purpose we shall steadily refuse to be led away upon subordinate issues. When our public life shall have been purified, it will be time to undertake other desirable works."
Whatever of weakness Dr. Parkhurst has springs from his intense humanity. He fights in the arena of life, man to man. He is a typical American; in his view, a drop of action is more beneficial than an ocean of theory. This man stands out among his fellows. History and the verdict of mankind will do him full justice. His faults are but as a setting to the nobility of his nature.
Originally published in Munsey's Magazine. December 1894.