A Must Read Chapter on Talmage’s Habits

Dr. T De Witt Talmage

THE SECOND MILESTONE – Must Read Chapter for Ministers

By Mrs. T. DeWitt Talmage 1899-1900


In his study no wasted hours ever entered. With the exception of the stenographer and his immediate family no one was admitted there. It was his eventful laboratory where he conceived the greatest sermons of his period. I merely quote the opinions of others, far more important than my own, when I say this. It is a sort of haunted room to-day which I enter not with any fear, but I can never stay in it very long. It has no ghostly associations, it is too full of vital memories for that; but it is a room that mystifies and silences me, not with mere regrets, for that is sorrow, and there is nothing sad about the place to me. I can scarcely convey the impression; it is as though I expected to see him come in at the door at any moment and hear him call my name. The room is empty, but it makes me feel that he has only just stepped out for a little while. The study is at the top of the house, a long, wide, high-ceilinged room with many windows, from which the tops of trees sway gently in the breeze against the sky above and beyond. I spent a great deal of time with him in it. Sometimes he would talk with me there about the themes of his sermons which were always drawn from some need in modern life.

With the Bible open before him he would seek for a text.

“After forty years of preaching about all the wonders of this great Book,” he would say, “I am often puzzled where to choose the text most fitting to my sermon.”

His habits were methodical in the extreme; his time punctually divided by a fixed system of invaluable character. His inspirations were part of his eternal spirit, but he lived face to face with time, obedient to the law of its precision. I think of him always as of one whose genius was unknown to himself.

We could always tell the time of day by the Doctor’s habits. They were as regular as a clock that never varies. At 7.30 to the second he was at the breakfast table. It was exactly one o’clock when he sat down to dinner. At 6.30 his supper was before him. Some of our household would have preferred dining in the evening, but in that case the Doctor would have dined alone, which was out of the question.

Every day of his life, excepting Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Doctor walked five miles. In bad weather he went out muffled and booted like a sailor on a stormy sea. His favourite walk was always from our house to the Capitol, around the Library of Congress and back. He never varied this walk for he had no bump of locality, and he was afraid of losing his way. If he strayed from the beaten path into any one of the beautiful squares in Washington he was sure to have to ask a policeman how to get home.

Fridays and Saturdays Dr. Talmage spent entirely in his study, dictating his sermons. How many miles he walked these days he himself never knew, but all day long he tramped back and forth the length of his study, composing and expounding in a loud voice the sermon of the week. He could be heard all over the house. We had a new servant once who came rushing downstairs to my room one morning in great fear.

“Mrs. Talmage, ma’am, there is a crazy man in that room on the top floor,” she cried. She had not seen nor heard the Doctor, and did not know that that room was his study. On these weekend days we always drove after dark. An open carriage was at the door by 8 o’clock, and no matter what the weather might be we had our drive. In the dead of winter, wrapped in furs and rugs, we have driven in an open carriage just as if it were summer. Usually we went up on Capitol Hill because the Doctor was fond of the view from that height.

My share in the Doctor’s labours were those of a watchful companion, who appreciated his genius, but could give it no greater light than sympathy and admiration. Occasionally he would ask me to select the hymns for the services, and this I did as well as I could. Sunday was the great day of the week to me. It has never been the same since the Doctor died. Our friendships were always mutual, and we shared them with equal pleasure. The Doctor’s friendship with President McKinley was an intimate mutual association that ended only with the great national disaster of the President’s assassination. Very often, we walked over in the morning to the White House to call on the President for an informal chat. A little school friend, who was visiting my daughter that winter, told my husband how anxious she was to see a President.

“Come on with me, I will show you a real President,” said Dr. Talmage one morning, and over we went to the White House. While we were talking with the President, Mrs. McKinley came in from a drive and sent word that she wished to see us.

“I want to show you the President’s library and bedroom,” she said, “that you may see how a President lives.” Then she took us upstairs and showed us their home.

While we did not keep open house, there was always someone dropping in to take dinner or supper informally, and I was somewhat surprised when Dr. Talmage told me one day that he thought we ought to give some sort of entertainment in return for our social obligations. It was not quite like him to remember or think of such things. On January 23, 1899, we gave an evening reception, to which over 300 people came. It was the first social affair of consequence the Doctor had ever given in his house in Washington.

My husband’s memory for names was so uncertain that when he introduced me to people he tactfully mumbled. On this occasion Senator Gorman very kindly stood near me to identify the people for me. I remember a very dapper, very little man in evening clothes, who was passed on to me by the Doctor, with the usual unintelligible introduction, and I had just begun to make myself agreeable when, pointing to a medal on his coat, the little man said:

“I am the only woman in the United States who has been honoured with one of these medals.”

I was very much mystified and looked up helplessly at Senator Gorman, who relieved me at once by saying, “Mrs. Talmage, this is the celebrated Dr. Mary Walker, of whom you have heard so often.”

It was difficult for Dr. Talmage to assimilate the social obligations of life with the broader demands of his life mission, which seemed to constantly extend and increase in scope into the far distances of the world. More and more evident it became that the candlestick of his religious doctrine could no longer be maintained in one church, or in one pulpit. The necessity of breaking engagements out of town so as to be in Washington every Sunday became irksome to him. He felt that he could do better in the purposes of his usefulness as a preacher if he were to bear the candle of his Gospel in a candlestick he could carry everywhere himself. I confess that I was not sorry when he reached this decision and submitted his resignation to the First Presbyterian Church in the spring of 1899, after our return from a short vacation in Florida.

On our trip South I remember Admiral Schley was on the train with us part of the way. The Admiral told the Doctor the whole story of the Santiago victory, and commented upon the official investigation of the affair. My husband was very fond of him, and his comment was summed up in his reassuring answer to the Admiral—”But you were there.”

It was during our stay in Florida that Dr. Talmage and Joseph Jefferson, the actor, renewed their acquaintance. The Doctor never saw him act because he had made it a rule after he entered the ministry in his youth never to go to the theatre to see a play. In crossing the ocean he had frequently appeared with stage celebrities, at the usual entertainments given on board ship for the benefit of seamen, and in this way had made some friends among actors. He was particularly fond of Madame Modjeska, whom he had met on the steamer, and whose character and spirit he greatly admired.

Jefferson was a great fisherman, and most of his day was spent on the water or on the pier. There we used to meet him, and he and Dr. Talmage would exchange reminiscences, serious and ludicrous. One of the Doctor’s favourite stories was an account of a terrific fight he saw in India, between a mongoose and a cobra. Mr. Jefferson also had a story, a sort of parody of this, which described a man in delirium tremens watching in imaginary terror a similar fight. Years before this, when the Doctor had delivered his famous sermon in Brooklyn against the stage, Jefferson was among the actors who went to hear him. Recalling this incident, Mr. Jefferson said:—

“When I entered that church to hear your sermon, Doctor, I hated you. When I left the church, I loved you.” He talked very little of the theatre, and seemed to regard his stage career with less importance than he did his love of painting. He never grew tired of this subject.

When we were leaving Palm Beach, Mr. Jefferson said to me, “I know Dr. Talmage won’t come and see me act, but when I am in Washington I will send you a box, and I hope the Doctor will let you come.”

Dr. Talmage’s resignation from his church in Washington took place in March, 1899. I quote his address to the Presbytery because it was a momentous event occurring in the gloaming of what seemed to us all, then, the prime of his life:

“March 3, 1899.

“To the Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Washington.

“Dear Friends—

“The increasing demands made upon me by religious journalism, and the continuous calls for more general work in the cities, have of late years caused frequent interruption of my pastoral work. It is not right that this condition of affairs should further continue. Besides that, it is desirable that I have more opportunity to meet face to face, in religious assemblies, those in this country and in other countries to whom I have, through the kindness of the printing press, been permitted to preach week by week, and without the exception of a week, for about thirty years. Therefore, though very reluctantly, I have concluded, after serving you nearly four years in the pastoral relation, to send this letter of resignation….

“T. DeWitt Talmage.”

I had rather expected that the Doctor’s release from his church would have had the desired effect of reducing his labours, but he never accomplished less than the allotment of his utmost strength. Rest was a problem he never solved, and he did not know what it meant. My life had not been idle by any means, but it seemed to me that the Doctor’s working hours were without end. When I told him this, he would say:—

“Why, Eleanor, I am not working hard at all now. This is very tame compared to what I have done in the years gone by.”

His weekly sermon was always put in the mail on Saturday night, as also his weekly editorials. Sunday the sermon was preached, and on Monday morning the syndicate of newspapers in this country printed it. He made always two copies of his sermon. One he sent to his editorial offices in New York, the other was delivered to the Washington Post. I was told a little while ago that a prominent preacher called on the editor of this newspaper and asked him to publish one of his own sermons. This was refused, even when the aforesaid preacher offered to pay for the privilege.

“But you print Talmage’s sermons!” said the preacher.

“We do,” replied the editor, “because we find that our readers demand them. We tried to do without them, but we could not.”

Dr. Talmage’s acquaintance with men of national reputation was very wide, but he never seemed to consider their friendship greater than any others. He was a great hero worshipper himself, always impressed by a man who had done something in the world. There was a great deal of praise being bestowed about this time on Mr. Carnegie’s library gifts. Dr. Talmage admired the Scottish-American immensely, having formed his acquaintance while crossing the ocean. Five or six years later, during the winter of 1899, the Doctor met him in one of the rooms of the White House. He tells this anecdote in his own words, as follows:—

“I was glad I was present that day, when Mr. Andrew Carnegie decided upon the gift of a library to the city of Washington. I was in one of the rooms of the White House talking with Governor Lowndes, of Maryland, and Mr. B.H. Warner, of Washington, who was especially interested in city libraries. Mr. Carnegie entered at the opposite end of the room. We greeted each other with heartiness, not having met since we crossed the ocean together some time before. I asked Mr. Carnegie to permit me to introduce him to some friends. After each introduction the conversation immediately turned upon libraries, as Mr. Carnegie was then constantly presenting them in this and other lands. Before the conversation ended that day, Mr. Carnegie offered $250,000 for a Washington library. I have always felt very happy at having had anything to do with that interview, which resulted so gloriously.”

Dr. Talmage’s opinions upon the aftermath of the Spanish war were widely quoted at this time.

“The fact is this war ought never to have occurred,” he said. “We have had the greatest naval officer of this century, Admiral Schley, assailed for disobeying orders, and General Shatter denounced for being too fat and wanting to retreat, and General Wheeler attacked because of something else. We are all tired of this investigating business. I never knew a man in Church or State to move for an investigating committee who was not himself somewhat of a hypocrite. The question is what to do with the bad job we have on hand. I say, educate and evangelise those islands.”

As he wrote he usually talked, and these words are recollections of the subjects he talked over with me in his quieter study hours. They were virile talks, abreast of the century hurrying to its close, full of cheerfulness, faith, and courage for the future.

He was particularly distressed and moved by the death of Chief Justice Field, in April, 1899. It was his custom to read his sermons to me in his study before preaching. He chose for his sermon on April 16, the decease of the great jurist, and his text was Zachariah xi, 2: “Howl fir tree, for the cedar has fallen.” Many no doubt remember this sermon, but no one can realise the depths of feeling with which the Doctor read it to me in the secret corner of his workroom at home. But his heart was in every sermon. He said when he resigned from his church:—

“The preaching of the Gospel has always been my chosen work, I believe I was called to it, and I shall never abandon it.”

During this season in Washington we gave a few formal dinners. My husband wished it, and he was a cheerful, magnetic host, though he accepted few invitations to dinner himself. No wine was served at these dinners, and yet they were by no means dull or tiresome. Our guests were men of ideas, men like Justice Brewer, Speaker Reed, Senator Burrows, Justice Harlan, Vice-President Fairbanks, Governor Stone, and Senators who have since become members of the old guard. It was said in Washington at the time that Dr. Talmage’s dinner parties were delightful, because they were ostensible opportunities to hear men talk who had something to say. The Doctor was liberal-minded about everything, but his standards of conduct were the laws of his life that no one could jeopardise or deny.

A very prominent society woman came to Dr. Talmage one day to ask the favour that he preach a temperance sermon for the benefit of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whom she wanted to interest in temperance legislation. She promised to bring him to the Doctor’s church for that purpose.

“Madame, I shall be very glad to have Sir Wilfrid Laurier attend my church,” said the Doctor, “but I never preach at anybody. Your request is something I cannot agree to.” The lady was a personal friend, and she persisted. Finally the Doctor said to her:

“Mrs. G——, my wife and I are invited to meet Sir Wilfrid Laurier at a dinner in your house next week. Will you omit the wines at that dinner?” The lady admitted that that would be impossible.

“Then you see, Madame, how difficult it would be for me to alter my principles as a preacher.” In May, 1899, Dr. Talmage and I left Washington and went to East Hampton—alone. Contrary to his usual custom of closing his summer home between seasons, the Doctor had allowed a minister and his family to live there for three months. Diphtheria had developed in the family during that time and the Doctor ordered everything in the house to be burned, and the walls scraped. So the whole house had to be refurnished, and the Doctor and I together selected the furniture. It was a joyous time, it was like redecorating our lives with a new charm and sentiment that was intimately beautiful and refreshing. I remember the tenderness with which the Doctor showed me a place on the door of the barn where his son DeWitt, who died, had carved his initials. He would never allow that spot to be touched, it was sacred to the memory of what was perhaps the most absorbing affection of his life. He always called East Hampton his earthly paradise, which to him meant a busy Utopia. He was very fond of the sea bathing, and his chief recreation was running on the beach. He was 65 years old, yet he could run like a young man. These few weeks were a memorable vacation.

In June, Dr. Talmage made an engagement to attend the 60th commencement exercises of the Erskine Theological College in Due West, South Carolina. This is the place where secession was first planned, as it is also the oldest Presbyterian centre in the United States. We were the guests of Dr. Grier, the president of the college. It was known that Rev. David P. Pressly, Presbyterian patriarch and graduate of this college, had been my father’s pastor in Pittsburg, and this association added some interest to my presence in Due West with the Doctor. The Rev. E.P. Lindsay, my brother’s pastor in Pittsburg, had also been born there, and his mother, when I met her in 1899, was still a vigorous Secessionist. Her greatest disappointment was the fact that her son had abandoned the sentiments of Secession and had gone to preach in a Northern church. She told us that she had once hidden Jefferson Davis in her house for three days. Due West was a quiet little village inhabited by some rich people who lived comfortably on their plantations. The graduating class of the college were entertained at dinner by Dr. Grier and the Doctor. There was a great deal of comment upon the physical vigour and strength of Dr. Talmage’s address, most of which reached me. A gentleman who was present was reminded of the remarkable energy of the Rev. Dr. Pressly, who preached for over fifty years, and was married three times. When asked about his health, Dr. Pressly always throughout his life made the same reply, “Never better; never better.” After he had won his third wife, however, he used to reply to this question with greater enthusiasm than before, saying, “Better than ever; better than ever.” Another resident of Due West, who had heard both the Booths in their prime, said, “Talmage has more dramatic power than I ever saw in Booth.” This visit to Due West will always remain in my memory as full of sunshine and warmth as the days were themselves.

We returned to East Hampton for a few days, and on July 4, 1899, the Doctor delivered an oration to an immense crowd in the auditorium at Ocean Grove. This was the beginning of a summer tour of Chautauquas, first in Michigan, then up the lakes near Mackinaw Island, and later to Jamestown, New York.

In the Fall of 1899 we made a trip South, including Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, Birmingham, and New Orleans. One remarkable feature of Dr. Talmage’s public life was the way in which he was sought as the man of useful opinions upon subjects that were not related to the pulpit. He was always being interviewed upon political and local issues, and his views were scattered broadcast, as if he were himself an official of national affairs. He never failed to be ahead of the hour. He regarded the affairs of men as the basis of his evangelical purpose. The Spanish war ended, and his views were sought about the future policy in the East. The Boer war came, and his opinions of that issue were published. Nothing moved in or out of the world of import, during these last milestones of his life, that he was not asked about its coming and its going. His readiness to penetrate the course of events, to wrap them in the sacred veil of his own philosophy and spiritual fabric, combined to make him one of the foremost living characters of his time.

Dr. Talmage was the most eager human being I ever knew, eager to see, to feel the heart of all humanity. I remember we arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, the day following the disaster that visited that city after the great cyclone. The first thing the Doctor did on our arrival was to get a carriage and drive through those sections of the city that had suffered the most. It was a gruesome sight, with so many bodies lying about the streets awaiting burial. But that was his grasp of life, his indomitable energy, always alert to see and hear the laws of nature at close range.

We were entertained a great deal through the South, where I believe my husband had the warmest friends and a more cordial appreciation than in any other part of the country. There was no lack of excitement in this life that I was leading at the elbow of the great preacher, and sometimes he would ask me if the big crowds did not tire me. To him they were the habit of his daily life, a natural consequence of his industry. However, I think he always found me equal to them, always happy to be near him where I could see and hear all.

In October of this year we returned to Washington, when the Pan-Presbyterian Council was in session, and we entertained them at a reception in our house till late in the evening. The International Union of Women’s Foreign Missionary Societies of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches were also meeting in Washington at this time, and they came. At one of the meetings of the Council Dr. Talmage invited them all to his house from the platform in his characteristic way.

“Come all,” he said, “and bring your wives with you. God gave Eve to Adam so that when he lost Paradise he might be able to stand it. She was taken out of man’s side that she might be near the door of his heart, and have easy access to his pockets. Therefore, come, bringing the ladies with you. My wife and I shall not be entertaining angels unawares, but knowing it all the while. To have so much piety and brain under one roof at once, even for an hour or two, will be a benediction to us all the rest of our lives. I believe in the communion of saints as much as I believe in the life everlasting.”

In November, 1899, Dr. Talmage installed the Rev. Donald McLeod as succeeding pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Washington, and delivered the installation address, the subject of which was, “Invitation to Outsiders.” There had been some effort to inspire the people of Washington to build an independent Tabernacle for the Doctor after his resignation, but he himself was not in sympathy with the movement because of the additional labour and strain it would have put upon him.

As the winter grew into long, gray days, we were already planning a trip to Europe for the following year of 1900, and we were anticipating this event with eager expectancy as the time grew near.
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