Springfield First, other churches impacted by the Harrison Revival


By Paul Black
Springfield First Methodist ChurchSPRINGFIELD – A 15-week revival that spanned January to May 1886 had a major impact in the history of Springfield First UMC as well as several area churches that were present for some of the services.

The revival, which was preached by Rev. Thomas Harrison, was the result of an invitation by Springfield First’s pastor, Rev. W. H. Musgrove, who proposed a great revival for the new “stone church” at Fifth and Capitol, which had been dedicated a short time before.

Harrison was nicknamed “the boy preacher” because of his youthful appearance. However, he was 31 years of age when he came to Springfield for a revival which began on Jan. 12, 1886.

Born in Boston in 1854, he did not begin full-time evangelistic work until his early 20’s but he did find the moniker an effective marketing tool for a successful crusade in the state capital.

Originally scheduled for four weeks, the crusade continued through May 2, 1886, when he left for an engagement in Topeka, Kan., where he was to begin a revival March 1 but had delayed it due to the response in Springfield. Harrison might have stayed even longer, reports suggested, but a delegation from Topeka, Kansas, came to Springfield to warn that the weather there would soon be too warm for the next revival on Harrison’s schedule (Lincoln Log).

The Illinois State Journal and Illinois State Register regularly reported on the prayer meetings, but the most comprehensive coverage was in Springfield’s third newspaper, the Sangamo Monitor, where the city editor, Charles Kalb, was especially enthusiastic. Springfield First has a complete synopsis of the Springfield Revival due to Kalb’s History of the Harrison Revival at First M.E. Church of Springfield, Illinois, published later in 1886.

In preparation for the revival, Rev. Musgrove urged his membership to prepare themselves, by prayer and consecration of themselves for the revival ahead (Good Tidings, 1971).

The first service was held the evening of Jan. 12. Rev. Harrison; the host pastor, W. H. Musgrove; Rev. R. G. Hobbs, pastor of Second M.E. Church (now Kumler UMC); and Rev. Preston Wood the presiding elder (District Superintendent) were on the dais.

Thomas Harrison -- The Boy PreacherHarrison’s text was Mark 11:22 and sermon was entitled, Have Faith in God. An early afternoon service for young people was held the next day. Harrison asked attendees to consecrate themselves for this revival. About 300 responded and came forward to the altar.

By evening time, the church was packed and continued to be so night after night (Good Tidings, 1971).  Kalb’s book recounts who spoke at each service (usually there were two or three other ministers in addition to Harrison), what hymns were sung, who the organists were and what Gospel verses the speakers chose. Kalb diligently reports how many people came to the altar each night in response to Harrison’s call and how many of those accepted conversion. He even provides a detailed history of Methodism in Springfield, describes the design of the First Methodist’s one-year-old church building, and presents a list (with three addendums) of the church’s members (Lincoln Log).

Ministers from other churches in Springfield were in attendance – Chatham, Virden, Auburn, Riverton, Williamsville, Lincoln, Pleasant Plains, Virginia, Jacksonville, Rochester, Taylorville, Decatur, Glenarm, Divernon, Litchfield among them (Glad Tidings, 1971).

“Other historians recount the great crowds present on the street long before the doors were opened, ‘and upon opening the doors with a mighty rush, the church was filled in a few moments.’ So great were the crowds that on Feb. 15, the Board of Trustees was forced to adapt rules for care of the church property; for example, no workers tickets, unconverted persons to be given preference, no one under 15 admitted. At many services, a thousand or more overflowed into the street and it became necessary to ask for police protection.”  (Glad Tidings, 1971).

The average number converted in a single meeting was 22, the least was one, the greatest was 52. Of the number of converts, 460 joined Springfield First, 250 joined Second M.E. (Kumler) with many joining the English Lutheran Church (Glad Tidings, 1971).

Hope Church, founded in 1907 in Springfield, claims a tie to the Harrison Revival – one of the church’s first homes was in a building at 16th and Carpenter streets that, according to Hope Church researchers, was an after-effect of the revival.

The 16th and Carpenter building was constructed in 1889 by a local grocer and philanthropist, William Brewer (1838-1904), as a mission outpost and for the Sunday School of First Congregational Church. If the Carpenter Street Mission (the building’s original name) was inspired by the Harrison Revival.  However, it took three years to come to fruition (Lincoln Log).

“In the 1890s, Charles Kalb became a minister and evangelist in Kansas. He later returned to Illinois, where he ministered at Presbyterian churches in Menard County and then in Chatham, Bates and Buffalo Hart.

“He was quite successful as an evangelist, and held revival meetings at a number of churches in this region,” the Illinois State Journal said in his obituary.

“Kalb died of pneumonia while living at the Lavinia Beach mission in Ridgely, then a northside suburb of Springfield. Kalb is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery” (Lincoln Log).

“What History of the Harrison Revival does not do, unfortunately, is explain why Harrison was so successful. Kalb gives only brief quotations from Harrison’s sermons, and most of those are standard 19th-century Bible exhortations. (In fairness, it’s often impossible to translate a compelling speaker’s appeal into print.) The best description Kalb gives of Harrison is early in the pamphlet:

"The secret of his success does not lie in his fine oratory nor pure diction, but in his thorough consecration to his work and strong faith in God. He is small in stature, with smooth face. His lithe, slender form, youthful appearance and the early age at which he commenced his evangelistic work have won for him the name of “the boy preacher.” He is a rapid, nervous speaker, walking continually, back and forth on the rostrum during his entire discourse. He possesses great magnetic power, which holds the attention of his vast audiences with deep interest, although the church may be uncomfortably crowded.
“A total of 2,020 people ultimately declared their conversions before the series finished.

“‘Tonight, our highest expectations are more than realized,’ Harrison said as the revivals were ending. ‘This church has been crowded. The community has been lending its ear. The whole city has been under the shock of the revival influence.’

“In an editorial published May 2, the State Register agreed: ‘This revival of religion is one of the most remarkable that was ever known to the western country,” the newspaper said (Lincoln Log).

Works Cited

“The Boy Preacher,” article from Glad Tidings newsletter, Springfield: First UMC, Sept. 30, 1971.
Davies, E. B. The Boy Preacher; or the Life and Labors Rev. Thomas Harrison. 2015: reprint of an out-of-print book.
The Harrison Revival, article from the Lincoln Log, SangamonLink, Sangamon County Historical Society, https://sangamoncountyhistory.org/wp/?p=10148