Chapters in History: A.D. Gillette

A.D. Gillette is overshadowed in Calvary history by the long and respected tenure of his successor Robert MacArthur, but in many ways, his leadership was just as critical. He helped guide the small but growing church to its larger 23rd Street location, despite the controversy of moving so far “uptown.” He led through a name change from Broadway Baptist to Calvary Baptist, a name the church could eventually take even farther uptown to 57th Street. He also served during the first half of the volatile Civil War years. His official Calvary tenure was from 1853 to 1863, but his impact was felt much longer: he became a friend and mentor to MacArthur when he moved back to New York in later life. Indeed, he was present and honored at the laying of the cornerstone of the 57th Street building in 1882. There is much to write about Gillette’s life, but below are a few interesting episodes to give a sample of his impact on Calvary and the Kingdom.

Early Life & Philadelphia Ministry

 

  • Abram Gillette was born in 1807 and grew up in rural upstate New York, mostly in poverty, despite the family’s distinguished ancestry. He began his ministry at a Schenectady church, which experienced remarkable growth, and after almost four years, he was called to Philadelphia’s Fifth Baptist Church, to follow in the footsteps of popular preacher William Staughton and the great Baptist theologian J.L. Dagg.
  • He served in Philadelphia for 17 years, at both Fifth and Eleventh Baptist Churches. He and his wife Hannah (whom he had met on a trip to NYC) started their family there.
  • The missionary pioneer Adoniram Judson became Gillette’s good friend. Judson met his wife Emily in Gillette’s home, and when Judson passed away, Gillette wrote his biography, “A Sketch of the Labors, Suffering, and Death of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, D.D.” in 1851.

New York City / Calvary Baptist Church

  • Gillette was called in 1852 to Broadway Baptist Church (later renamed Calvary), whose membership was 170 at the time. It must have taken great energy and faith to sell the property on Broadway, purchase the 23rd Street location between Fifth and Sixth Avenues for $17,000, worship for a time at Second Avenue Tabernacle Baptist Church, and then move into the new building by 1854.
  • A fellow pastor in New York described Gillette as “full of sunshine, his manners affable, and his temper soft and graceful... He was not endowed with the qualities of a great leader, but he possessed the simple-heartedness of a child… This unusual blending of gifts and graces gave great unity to his character and left it of a distinct type in its own order. Hence, wherever he went, he carried with him a winsome atmosphere that entirely disarmed suspicion.”
  • He had a special relationship with the Black churches, both in Philadelphia and in New York City, where he loved to preach. He organized (and taught) in night schools for African-American pastors in their meetinghouses. Prior to the Civil War, he was a champion of education as a means to prepare Black church members for citizenship.
  • One New York pastor friend described his preaching: “His sermons were marked not so either for profundity or strong grasp in treatment of a theme, as for clearness of arrangement, thorough fidelity to evangelical truth, and a sweet earnest method of delivery.”
  • As a supporter of the YMCA, Gillette helped prevent its dissolution during the Civil War by helping raise money to pay off their debts and allowing them to meet in the Calvary basement. Cephas Brainerd, one of the long-time leaders of the YMCA, said at the time, “Dr. Gillette stands in my memory and judgment with the four or five men to whom New York is really indebted for the Young Man’s Christian Association as it exists today.”
  • His heart for evangelism shines in one of his journal entries at the end of a year: “I have never known so few converted under my ministry in the same length of time as last year. Yet I had better audiences or greater pecuniary prosperity. O Lord, show me my errors and my deficiencies. Show my dear people wherefore Thou hidest Thy face from them, why Thou dost not appear in the power of Thy Spirit, to draw more hearts to Thee. Am I as consecrated as Thou demandest?”
  • It is hard to imagine the Civil War’s impact on church life. Calvary dedicated and sent off 30 of its young men to serve in the Union army. Gillette ministered to the disabled and the widows. He was attacked with stones during the riots of 1863 on his route to visit patients at Bellevue Hospital. Heartbreakingly, he spent many sleepless nights as his own four sons served in the war, one in a Confederate prison. He literally searched for the wounded body of his eldest son, Colonel James Gillette, on the field of Bull Run, and as a biographer wrote, “through the terrors of twenty battles [he] had waited to hear the worst.”

Washington, D.C.

 

  • Gillette began his third major pastorate in 1864 at First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C. He regretted leaving “his united and intelligent people” at Calvary, but he was pleased to have a good connection to the Washington church; he had worked with and had good relationships with all three former pastors.
  • One interesting journal entry reflects his devotion to the country: “November 27, 1864, Washington.  I never write that name but a thrill of patriotism goes through my heart. It impressed me today as it never did before. Elizabeth Washington, a member of my church, aged ninety-two years, is visible to my mind as I saw her yesterday, strong in faith, giving glory to God. She was a grand-niece of Gen. George Washington, a descendant of his brother Augustine. She died to-day, Lord’s-day, at 3 P.M. Glorious transition from earth to the great and good above.”
  • Gillette was active in public ministry during the tumultuous Civil War years. Stories were told of his visits with President Lincoln. He often filled in for the chaplain of the U.S. Senate. It was said that “The Baptist mothers all over the country whose sons were in disgrace, under sentence of death, or in need of help, applied to Dr. Gillette, until his face grew familiar at the White House and at several departments of the Government. There are men living to-day whose lives he begged at the door of the Executive. Of Mr. Lincoln, he used to say he never asked in vain; and even the great War Secretary, hard and unyielding as he seemed to many others, always heard him speedily and patiently.” Gillette was even given the difficult task by President Johnson of attending as chaplain to the conspirators of Lincoln’s assassination at their hanging.
  • When President Lincoln was assassinated, the pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian (the President’s church) and Gillette together quickly called a meeting of the city’s clergy to First Baptist for prayer. Gillette gave his memorable and most famous message “God Seen Above All National Calamities” the next Sunday

Later Years 

 

Pictured right: Current CBC Members Robert Beatty (L) & Todd Williams (R) at Gillette's Grave in Brooklyn, NY, July 2020

  • With deterioration in his health, Gillette retired from Washington and was encouraged to take restful travel in Europe. He could not give up the pulpit entirely: while in London, he was asked to preach in Charles Spurgeon’s pulpit.
  • He returned to New York, serving in three area churches: Brooklyn’s Gethsemane Baptist, Sing Sing Baptist Church (with his heart for the prisoners there), and of course as the unofficial “senior” pastor at Calvary, mentoring MacArthur and loving the people.
  • He died peacefully on August 24, 1882, three months after the cornerstone was laid at 57thStreet. His wish was carried out that the funeral be held at the old Calvary building on 23rdStreet. MacArthur said in his poignant eulogy: “A former pastor is not always the best friend to a pastor of a church. Dr. Gillette was one of my best friends.” Gillette was buried in Brooklyn’s Green-wood Cemetery. MacArthur wrote that “In Calvary Church his memory will be precious ever.”

The last sermon Gillette ever delivered was on behalf of the American and Foreign Bible Society (of which he had been a member for more than 40 years) in 1880 in Saratoga:

 

I have a desire to see the world illuminated in the Gospel of God as it shines in the face of Jesus Christ His Son. What a treasure! Bind it to your hearts. Let it swell your bosoms with gratitude to Him who gave you through it the knowledge of salvation. Give of that Gospel, that others may be blessed as you have been blessed.

 

 

Sources

 

  • All direct quotes are taken Reminiscences of the Life and Labor of A.D. Gillette, D.D. By His Friends and Associates. Compiled by Horatio Gates Jones et al. New York: Ward & Drummond, 1883.
  • William R. De Plata. Tell It From Calvary, 2nd Ed. New York: Calvary Baptist Church, 1997.