Pulpit History Revisited

History comes from a variety of sources. Photography was not common until the mid-19th century, so prior recorded history comes from written or transcribed first-hand accounts, or stories recounted orally or artistically, all of which are subject to unintentional and intentional interpretation.   Such is the case of the history of our beautiful black walnut pulpit, constructed for the 1857 building of St. Joseph’s Methodist Episcopal Church, South, on the northwest corner of 7th & Francis.

It has been assumed that since the first Methodist Class initially met above the cabinet shop of the local undertaker, David J. Heaton, the pulpit was constructed in his shop.  Dr. Bradford V. Powell, pastor from 1947—58, pictured at the original pulpit for the present building, now in the Historical Room, affirmed this “fact” in a letter written in 1979. 

PHOTO CAPTION:  Dr. Bradford V. “Buster” Powell stands at the original 1906 lectern style pulpit, now in the Historical Room.

However, new information from several sources changes that narrative.  Local histories from 1881 and 1904 (Rutt) recount a violent storm striking the city on July 13, 1871.  The Pacific Hotel, four public schools, the Convent and St. Patrick’s school suffered major roof damage.  Hardest hit was the Francis Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South, as it was known after 1864.  By all accounts, the church and adjacent parsonage suffered great damage. 

According to a May 19, 1872 article in the St. Joseph Daily Morning Herald, ”The north end of the building was blown down, the roof torn off, and the auditorium room wrecked.  What the hurricane spared, the accompanying rain ruined.  The pulpit and its decorations, the organ, books, carpet and cushions were alike ruined.”

By another account, one of the large roof timbers was driven through the east wall of the adjoining parsonage, while Rutt states the building was struck by lightning.  According to the newspaper article, “the Trustees of the church at once decided to repair the main auditorium in finer style that it was prior to the disaster.”  It took ten months and $6,000 (more than $125,000 in today’s dollars) to rebuild the church, during which time, the congregation worshipped in the Sixth Street Presbyterian Church on the southwest corner of Sixth and Faraon Streets (demolished).  

Describing the dedication to be held that day, the Morning Herald article states, “The chancel is a ‘thing of beauty,’ with its dark glossy railing and brilliant carpet.  The pulpit with candelabra, is of black walnut, carved and highly polished.  The chairs are of black walnut, line (sic) with red rep.  The frescoing is in Grecian style and handsomely done.”

Louis Hax is given credit for constructing the pulpit.  The Louis Hax Furniture Company sold furniture at both retail and wholesale, and was in business for 125 years until closing in 1974. 

The fact that David J. Heaton served on the Building Committee along with Messrs, Kay (James), Hoagland (George) and Willis, which may have contributed to the false attribution of the pulpit to Mr. Heaton’s shop, which suffered a catastrophic fire the same year the building was constructed.  He sold that business to his son, David E., in 1881, after opening The Heaton House Hotel four years prior.  The finishing touch was to be the purchase of a first-class organ for the church, which did not occur until 1884. 

PHOTO/CAPTION:  Rev. Wilbur Fisk Packard, Dr. Wally McDonald’s great grandfather, stands in the chancel of the Francis Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South, on Easter 1898.  Part of the Grecian-style frescoing added in 1872 can be seen behind the Hook & Hastings pipe organ installed in 1884.  For unknown reasons, the pulpit was not used that day, as Dr. Packard is standing behind the draped matching pedestal, now at the back of the sanctuary.

PHOTO/CAPTION:  The 1872 black walnut pulpit incorporates several Grecian motifs, including the fretwork pattern below the top and the incised leaf pattern and carved scrolls/branches on the ogee (S-shaped) corner brackets with foliated patera (medallions) above, and the heavy ogee molding around the notched-corner panel in the center.          

  1. Angelo Powell served as the advising architect, and it is through ongoing research on his life and career in preparation for a book by former resident, Jimmy Counts, that the newspaper article came to light. Powell was the city’s first licensed architect, arriving at the close of the Civil War in 1866, five years before Edmund J. Eckel, who would become his chief rival on major projects during the city’s “Gilded Age.”

What became of the old pulpit in the intervening years?  According to Dr. Powell, while searching for a place to set an air conditioner compressor, the pulpit was discovered under a pile of rubbish in the old coal room off the boiler room.  It was built as a desk style pulpit with a large flat top, which was popular in evangelical churches during the late nineteenth century because the open, flat back side allowed the preacher to move freely behind it.  Member John McClure “modernized” the pulpit by cutting out a notch for the preacher and adding a lectern..  An end table was made for the Powells from the cut-out. 

Dr. Powell stated this was done as part of the 110th Anniversary and Dedication Program on March 21, 1954.  However, the original 1906 lectern style pulpit was still on the dais when my parents were married later in June.  Also, the original pulpit can be seen doing service as an altar in Children’s Sunday School Chapel taken in the early 1950’s.  So it may not have languished in the basement for a long time. 

PHOTO/CAPTION:  The original black walnut pulpit, candelabra and one of the original pulpit chairs, along with pews from the 1857 building were part of the Children’s Sunday School Chapel in the converted double tenement which was demolished to make space for the current Sunday School building, completed in 1954. 

As it turns out, our grand pulpit is 147 years old.  
 – David Lewis, Historian/June 2019

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