Railroad office clerks were testing their strength. They had given the letter-press wheel the hardest turn they could, and they challenged Henry Clay Trumbull to turn it further.
He was a thin, wiry chap, strong enough in the arms but not powerfully built, and that wheel had been turned as far as the office strong man could force it. Henry jumped at the challenge. Seizing the letter press in a powerful grip, he wrenched it so violently that he broke the heavy turning screw.
It was like Henry Trumbull to give the wheel one turn beyond the power of other men in whatever he undertook. That intensity of character, always ready for instant service, carried him through many a difficult undertaking. It brought him to the ranks of outstanding heroes of faith, and gave him a remarkable ministry whose fruits continue today.
He was born in Stonington, Connecticut, June 8, 1830, of a distinguished colonial family, and he met or saw many notables, including Andrew Jackson, President Tyler, and John Quincy Adams. But it was Adoniram Judson and Albert Bushnell, the “patriarch of West African missions,” who were to impress him most profoundly.
From boyhood he was keenly interested in public affairs; at eighteen he actively worked to bring out voters in the 1848 presidential campaign. His formal education was brief, beginning in the “dame schools” of the period and closing in Williston Seminary when he was about fourteen. Uncertain health and distaste of schooling kept him from college preparation.
He worked at various times in his uncle’s drugstore, a bank, and a steamboat office, where he had to settle the day’s accounts with conductors and pursers amid the clatter of loading and unloading a freight and the screaming of steam whistles. Years later he recalled, “After that training, I could sit on a curbstone in a city street and write an editorial as easily as in a clergyman’s inner study.”
Henry’s home atmosphere exuded classical culture, New England wit, and strict religious practice. He took an active part in the local Sunday-school work and was also a social leader in the village, light-hearted, winsome, aesthetically inclined. He was gaining character and experience but no definite purpose in life, nor was he giving much thought to eternal matters.
At twenty-two he became a clerk in a Hartford, Connecticut, railroad office. His spiritual awakening came as the result of a letter and the preaching of Charles G. Finney, president of Oberlin College, in the Hartford revival of 1851–52. One afternoon a letter came from an intimate friend, who had written only a few days before concerning a revival at home. Henry opened the letter in the post office, read a few lines, then pocketed it, remarking to a companion, “There must be a big revival in Stonington if it has set my old friend preaching to me.”
Young Trumbull reached his office, on the third floor of a station tower, but went on to the fourth floor, where he shut himself in a small map closet and read the letter, urging him to accept Christ. Henry was deeply touched, and even before he finished the letter he was on his knees, brokenly asking God’s forgiveness. Under the impulse of this experience he attended some of the Finney meetings, and in the evangelist’s clear and reasoned message he found conviction. Soon he made a public profession of faith, uniting with the First (Center) Congregational Church in Hartford.
Immediately Trumbull began the work of soul-winning that he always counted his most enduring service. He also plunged into Sunday-school work in the Morgan Street Mission, receiving his first real training in the field in which he was to achieve world-wide prominence.
In 1854 Trumbull married Alice Cogswell Gallaudet, a daughter of the founder of deaf-mute instruction in America, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.
He was still a businessman, but a new vision of Christian service was beckoning urgently. He became superintendent of the Morgan Street Sunday School, entered into the local and state political life, and developed rapidly as a speaker in the Scott-Pierce national campaign. He also wrote on political subjects for the New York Tribune and other papers. He formed a drugstore partnership in Hartford; declined a place on Governor Buckingham’s military staff as colonel; refused the editorship of the Hartford Evening Press; and then went into a wool business. That venture was wiped out in the Panic of 1857, and he was listening for the next call of duty.
A city missionary greeted him one day: “Trumbull, I hear you’re out of business. I’m glad of it. I hope the Lord will harrow up your nest as often as you build it outside his field.”
It was a word in due season. Soon Trumbull’s chief life work opened unmistakably. At the first Connecticut State Sunday School Convention, in 1857, he made his initial convention speech. The American Sunday School Union appointed him missionary for Connecticut on September 1, 1858. During his first year he visited half of the 161 towns in the state, traveling more than 10,000 miles, holding union gatherings, seeking to build up 250 schools of ten denominations, writing more than 1,000 letters, and making about 300 public addresses.
When the Civil War began, Trumbull was engrossed in his missionary work. He strongly wanted to be at the front, yet his health was so uncertain he couldn’t pass the physical exam. So along with his Sunday-school work, he aided recruiting officers wherever he could. “You ask me why I don’t go myself,” he would say. “I tell you I would go if I could. If a recruiting officer will take me, I’ll enlist tonight. I’m willing to crawl into a 100-pound Parrott gun as a wad and be fired off for my country.”
Unexpectedly, he was called to become chaplain of the Tenth Connecticut Regiment in 1862. As he took his place at the borrowed table for his first sermon, in a rendezvous camp near Hartford, he saw an open pack of cards on the Bible, as if in mischievous test of the new chaplain. Quietly he gathered up the cards and put them away, saying in a low tone to the colonel, “Hearts are trumps today, and I’ve a full hand.”
One evening Trumbull was returning to quarters when he saw a faint light in a tent long after “lights out.” He entered and found a soldier seated on the ground, writing home by the flickering light of a small tallow candle. Trumbull soon learned that the soldier’s sister, a devoted Christian, had urged him to yield to Christ, and he was writing her just then.
“I urged him to a decision at that very time, and I would not consent that he should postpone it. I saw that all he needed was to come to the act of decision, and there might never be a better moment for him than now.”
Trumbull remained far into the night, while the soldier considered the matter well. “Finally he voluntarily knelt with me beneath that shelter-tent, and deliberately consecrated himself to the Saviour’s care and service. At this I rejoiced … then … went on to my quarters with a happier heart.
“It was but a little while after this, that in an engagement in which we had a part, he was killed. As I said earnest words of prayer over the grave in which we buried him, and as I looked down into his dead face, I was glad that I waited that memorable night until he knelt by my side and gave himself up to his loving and waiting Saviour.”
Here is an excerpt from Trumbull’s army sermon “A Good Record,” based on Joshua 22:3:
To become soldiers, you yielded home with all its comforts and delights, sacrificed your personal ease and security; left the side of loved ones, gave up all that you had before enjoyed and prized for this life, and entered knowingly upon a course of hardship, of privation, of toil, and of danger. Your patriotism cost you something.… For your generous sacrifice you deserve the same praise as was the due of Reuben and of Gad when they said, “Our little ones, our wives, our flocks, and all our cattle, shall be there in the cities of Gilead: but thy servants will pass over, every man armed for war, before the Lord to battle.”
What though dear ones were to be left alone in sadness and sorrow? What though position and property were to be yielded? What though army life was to be a life of privation and peril? What though your food was to be poor and scanty, your bed the hard ground, your home the open air in sunshine or in storm, and your comrades those who might be least congenial to you? What though you were to have your privileges of speech and action abridged, and be forced to submit to most rigorous discipline or to harshest military rule? What though you were to pine away in hospital or to lie bleeding on the field of battle; to suffer on for three long years, or to die in the first fight? Anything, everything, you would give or do for your country—your country, dearer to you than home or friends, than comfort or life.
Later Trumbull declared that he never felt so thoroughly at home anywhere as in the army. Seized as a spy, when he was ministering to the wounded on the battlefield near Fort Wagner, under a flag of truce, he was imprisoned in July, 1863, and released a few months later “as by a miracle.”
After the war Trumbull was beset with invitations. Among many lucrative calls that came was an offer from a life insurance company to act as New England agent on a minimum guarantee of $20,000 a year—an incredible amount for a century ago. But Trumbull could not disobey the heavenly vision. He was named normal secretary of the ASSU in 1871, to work in conventions and institutes all over the country. Thus he was to become known both in person and by pen. In 1872, as chairman of the National Sunday School Convention, he issued the historic call for the meeting that established the International Uniform Sunday School lessons, now widely used.
In 1875, John Wanamaker invited him to become Sunday School Times editor. After prayerful consideration he accepted, and told his wife, “Alice, if future events should seem to show that I have wrecked my business prospects, and even my reputation, by going to Philadelphia, I want you to know that I was sure, when I left Hartford, God wanted me to go there.… The result I am glad to leave with him.”
In 1877, with his son-in-law John D. Wattles, Trumbull bought the Sunday School Times, and the two men gave it new distinction and worldwide circulation. Trumbull practically gave up public speaking and devoted himself to writing and editing. Nothing was too good for his paper or for the Sunday school. He had a genius for choosing and securing writers, spared no expense in providing material, and gathered around him a staff of specialists, calling to Sunday-school service, through his paper, some of the foremost biblical experts of two continents. Bishop Ellicott of Gloucester and Bristol, chairman of the New Testament company of the English revision committee, once said to him: “That’s a very remarkable paper you have, Mr. Trumbull. We have nothing like it in this country. You have a way of securing contributions from all directions. I believe you got something from me. I don’t know how you did it.” And that was the experience of many another leader.
In 1881, completely worn out in body and mind, Trumbull made a pilgrimage to Egypt and the Holy Land in search of health. On this journey he turned aside from his first plan and went into the desert of the wanderings on a hunt for the then uncertain site of Kadesh-barnea, which he succeeded in finding by determined and keen-witted handling of his reluctant, secretive Arab guides. His subsequent volume on the results of that visit gave him at once a foremost place among Oriental investigators.
That book involved an amazing exploit in what were to him unfamiliar fields of scholarship. He had studied neither Greek nor Hebrew and no modern language but his own, yet he had to test his conclusions by the work of scholars written in various languages. An intuitive sense of word significance enabled him to trace key words through dictionaries to their shades of meaning in varied connections. During two and a half years on the Kadesh-barnea book, he kept up all his usual work on the paper and examined more than 2,000 volumes in seven languages in some of the principal libraries of America, meanwhile corresponding with European scholars regarding material abroad. When the book appeared, Professor A. H. Sayce of Oxford called it “a model of what archaeological research and reasoning ought to be, one of the few archaeological books in which the author knows how to prove his point by what constitutes a sound argument.”
Trumbull was tall and thin, black haired, with heavy eyebrows arching over intense, piercing blue eyes that could twinkle with merriment or flash with excitement. He was fluent and magnetic, and a master in dealing with men. His spirit almost burned out the life of his body with its intensity. Unsparing of himself, he shrank from vacations, commenting that he got his “sitting on my porch watching my neighbors come home in ambulances from their summer vacations.” He got his rest in sleep, his recreation in work, and had time for everyone in need.
Meanwhile he wrote voluminously, producing thirty-eight books in addition to his regular weekly departments in his paper. Nearly all his writing was done not in seclusion but in crowded editorial rooms, in his small but not isolated home library, or on trains or street cars. Much of his work required very extended and patient research, yet he did not neglect social engagements, church obligations, Bible class and teacher’s meetings, and Wednesday-night prayer meetings.
Outside the church he gave time to learned societies, conferences of college students, and groups of friends, in occasional addresses and lectures and in much-sought personal counsel. He was called upon for service on important state occasions, such as the address of welcome to former President U. S. Grant upon his return from a trip around the world. (He also led in prayer at Grant’s funeral in 1885.) It was a sign of his wide sympathies that he was invited to pronounce the benediction in a Jewish synagogue upon a memorial occasion.
Some of Trumbull’s most abiding work was done in the last decade of his life, and some of the most fruitful after he was physically disabled and confined much of the time to his room. His most widely circulated book, Individual Work For Individuals, which profoundly and immeasurably influenced personal evangelism, was written after he could no longer walk without assistance. He used to say, with a laugh over his disabilities, “I’d rather lose three legs than one head!”
Trumbull was distinctly a man among men. It is not enough to say that he interested them. He startled them, charmed them, made them forget self, brought them wide awake, face to face with the glory of living in the kingdom of God. John R. Mott said of him: “In his relationship with men, Dr. Trumbull impressed me as being more like Christ than any other man I have ever known.” Of the effect of his personality upon that of another, his friend Robert E. Speer, speaking for the younger generation, declared:
How boundlessly appreciative and generous he was—seeing good where there was no good except in his seeing. He loved his own ideals which he dreamed he saw in others, and then by his sheer love he began to create them in others. It was but our humiliation and our glory that he was ever finding in us nobleness which we did not know was possible for us until he loved it into being in us.
Out of his long experiences, Trumbull bore this testimony to the fruitfulness of the kind of service that increasingly seemed to him most needed and most honored by God among men:
Looking back upon my work, in all these years, I can see more direct results of good through my individual efforts with individuals than I can know of through all my spoken words to thousands upon thousands of persons in religious assemblies, or all my written words on the pages of periodicals or books. And in this I do not think my experience has been wholly unlike that of many others who have had large experience in both spheres of influence. Reaching one person at a time is the best way of reaching all the world in time.
When, on December 8, 1903, Henry Clay Trumbull went to be with the Lord, he must have had an abundant entrance. He had already deposited a multitude of treasures in heaven.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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