Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rev. Jeremiah Porter, Chicago's First Moral Crusader

Because Chicago has always the country's first city in crime, it has also witnessed countless righteous uprisings against the underworld. The city's first battle between religion and vice was centered here, on the Southwest corner of Clark and Lake, at the First Presbyterian Church.

In 1833, Chicago's population numbered around 300, the majority of whom were soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn, French trappers, and "civilized" Potowotomie Indians. As in most frontier towns, the male-to-female ratio was far from one, and men with extra time on their hands and no female companionship will seek excitement in countless ways. Prostitution was an early growth industry on Wells Street, booze flowed freely, and horseracing was a perennial sport. Cards and dice games were also popular, and the city's proximity to the Mississippi River brought a wide range of card sharks and confidence men through on a regular basis.

To make those games of chance more interesting, gambling became a common occupation of frontier Chicagoans, especially during the long, cold winters. It was after one such winter in May, 1833 that the Revered Jeremiah Porter arrived in town. Religion was not a particularly important part of the city's life up to that time, although one tireless believer, Philo Carpenter, had begun a Methodist Sunday School with 15 pupils earlier that year.

Rev. Porter was born in Massachusetts in 1804, and had graduated Williams College in that state at age 21 before matriculating at Andover Theological Seminary. By 1831, he was stationed at Ft. Brady in Sault Ste. Marie, ministering to the soldiers on the wild frontier. After the Black Hawk War of 1832 in Chicago, in which 72 soldiers were killed, a regiment from Ft. Brady was transferred to Fort Dearborn in May, 1833, to replace those lost and to relieve others. Rev. Porter took the opportunity to travel with the regiment.

Porter was apparently an exceptional minister, and had converted all of the Ft. Brady soldiers save one lone couple, who somehow managed to resist. When he arrived in Chicago, he was utterly dismayed at the unchristian standards of the city. He wrote in his journal that his first sight upon alighting in Illinois was a group of Indians playing cards in front of a primitive saloon, with a group of soldiers looking on.

Rev. Porter held his first services almost immediately upon arrival, ministering to 26 members in the carpenter shop at Fort Dearborn. As the Reverend described it later, "I gathered the first church ever formed in Chicago since 'the morning stars first sang together.'"

Again, the Reverend's talents grew the little group to 67 members within a year, and demand began to be made for a formal church edifice. A site was selected on the Southwest corner of Clark and Lake Streets, which at the time was nothing but prairie bog, quite a distance from the first sprouts of the city huddled around the Fort. Members complained that the church was remote and inaccessible, but the foresighted minister made plans to build a wooden frame structure on the lot, at a cost of $316. First, however, a group of squatters who had erected shanties had to be cleared, which they were in the dead of night, pulled down by a team of horses driven by church members, which dragged the squatters' residences several blocks west on Lake Street.

By winter, the church was built, and the group of believers, thinking that Yankee Congregationalism would be unsuited to the new territory of Illinois, founded their congregation as the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago. The dedication took place on January 4, 1834, when the temperature was 24 below zero. In his diary, Rev. Porter wrote of that day:
Many witnessed the solemn scene, but a majority were females, as two vessels were unloading in the harbor, causing a wanton abuse of the holy day by many who sin against clear light, and abuse divine compassion and love.
One of the soldiers' children who attended church at First Presbyterian was the future Mrs. Henry Durant, founder of Wellesley College.

All the time, Reverend Porter's assault on gambling and other vice continued. Records of the church include the following:
12/30/33: William Cole, having used intoxicating drink several times during the past year, so as to be sensibly affected to the wounding of his own peace and the cause of Christ, was called before the session this evening and made full confession, promising to reform.

9/5/34: Brothers William Cole and John Guy, having been laboured with by the pastor and one of the elders for drinking ardent spirits, acknowledge their sin and express a determination to reform.

12/13/34: The church committee visited Mrs. Boyer and her daughter and learned that both of them attended a party where dancing had been introduced. Both confessed their error.
Reverend Porter led city committees to eradicate gambling, and focused his attention on the problem in the summer of 1835, which he called a "season of prayer," with many rousing sermons. Responding to increased public pressure, several gambling sports were imprisoned, though none for very long.

Growing a church was not the Reverend's only activity in Chicago at the time. About the same time Porter arrived in Chicago, a young teacher, Eliza Chappell, came to the city and opened the first school for girls, space for which she rented from the Presbyterians for the sum of $9 per month (given the lack of suitable buildings in the city, the church was able to price discriminate heavily -- they rented the building for county court at the much higher rate of $30 per month).

Close quarters between the young teacher and the man of the cloth blossomed into romance, and in 1835, Chappell and Porter were married. Even with a godly wife at his side, Chicagoans' taste for vice was too much for Reverend Porter, and in late 1835, he accepted a position at a church in Peoria, leaving the church he started and the crusades he founded.

Chicago's wickedness grew over the years, and so the city became fertile ground for religious revivalists. Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, and William Moody all got their starts in Chicago. Gipsy Smith and Mother Cabrini thrived there, as have Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson.

As for the Reverend Jeremiah Porter, his career after Peoria took him to Green Bay, Wis. for eighteen years, followed by a return to Chicago, where he ministered to a Congregationalist church on the west side for many years before retiring to California. During the Civil War, Rev. Porter traveled with the Illinois First Artillery Regiment as company chaplain (one of the Reverend's nine children was a member of the regiment).

However, Chicago was always his home; when Eliza Porter passed in 1888, her remains were brought by train across the country back to Chicago for burial. The old crusader himself remained active, giving lectures to large crowds up until just before his own passing in 1893.

The First Presbyterian congregation held together through the years, though they quickly outgrew the old wooden shack at Clark and Lake. The issue of slavery tore the congregation into three parts: in 1842, a pro-slavery contingent splintered to found Second Presbyterian, and in 1851, another group left to found a radical abolishonist Congregationalist church.

The church slowly shifted its focus to the city's Southside, eventually settling on 64th and Kimbark in the Woodlawn neighborhood in the 1920s. During the 1960s, the church was investigated by federal authorities for links with Jeff Fort and the Blackstone Rangers. Despite its troubles, the congregation of First Presbyterian still holds services today, attracting Chicagoans away from the lures of easy pleasure and vice, 176 years after Reverend Porter first began the crusade.


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