by Susan Taylor Block
A normal day at the Cotton Exchange.
For twenty days during March and April of 1888, Robert Gamaliel Pearson, D.D., conducted a series of meetings in Wilmington, North Carolina. Amazing numbers of people gathered to hear the Presbyterian professor of English Bible from Columbia (SC) Theological Seminary. Circuses drew many hundreds during those years, but Dr. Pearson’s lectures attracted 2,000 to 3,500 people on the busiest nights.
The meetings took place at the riverfront Champion Compress warehouse, renamed “The Tabernacle” during the lecture series. Cotton merchant and Presbyterian churchman James Sprunt owned the building and gave use of the multi-roomed space for morning discussions and nightly lectures. Sprunt’s generosity to religious causes was well known, and extended to the construction of churches in Wilmington, Chapel Hill, and China.
Steamers usually loaded cotton night and day at Champion Compress. (Special Collections,Duke University)
Transforming a dusty, darkish industrial space into a house of worship took time and some money. Carpenters enlarged the cotton compress platform to the size of twenty by forty feet to accommodate seating for the ministers and choir. Churches and individuals loaned chairs of many different styles and sizes. Finally, just two days before the meetings began, electric lights were added to the building.
The Champion Compress platform without Tabernacle extensions. (Cape Fear Museum)
Organizers scheduled additional men of the cloth to participate, usually by leading a prayer. The group included: The Rev. Dr. Alexander Sprunt, later minister of First (Scots) Presbyterian Church in Charleston; The Rev. Dr. John L. Pritchard of First Baptist Church; the Rev. Mr. Peyton H. Hoge of First Presbyterian Church; the Rev. Mr. J. W. Primrose of Second Presbyterian Church; the Rev. Mr. W. S. Creasy of Grace Methodist Church; the Rev. Mr. D. H. Tuttle of Fifth Street Methodist Church; the Rev. Mr. T. Page Ricaud of Bladen Street Methodist Church, the Rev. Mr. G. M. Tolson of Brooklyn Baptist Church; and the Rev. Mr. Kelly of the Seaman’s Bethel.
The meetings began on March 18 and ran through April 11. Assemblies took place daily, except on Saturdays. Sizable crowds attended even during inclement weather, but on at least one evening, torrential rain on the tin roof drowned out the sound of Dr. Pearson’s voice.
Robert Gamaliel Pearson
Though there was no discord, a special police force was required just to manage the crowds that arrived on foot, or by carriage, ox cart, boat, or train. Another group of men served as ushers who began the seating process thirty minutes before each evening meeting. Those who had questions or comments were encouraged to attend the daily discussion group meetings.
Usual schedules went missing during the lecture series. Even Wilmington’s popular City Market kept business hours to a minimum “to enable butchers and others to attend the services.” Among other record-breakers, the “vast throng” that gathered for the children’s service, on April 6, was said to be the largest gathering of local youngsters ever assembled in Wilmington.
Contributions were encouraged for the Young Men’s Christian Association, an organization that had a heavier spiritual accent then than it does today . Classical scholar Theodore B. Kingsbury, editor of the Star News, covered the story himself. “The city was stirred to its depths,” he wrote of the Pearson meetings, but Kingsbury also noted skepticism of the plain-looking, plain-spoken man who seemed to take on mysterious power when speaking.
The YMCA building on the northwest corner of Front and Grace streets was completed in 1891. It featured a large auditorium where revivals were held frequently. (Cape Fear Museum)
“He has none of the natural endowments that set off the great orator,” wrote Kingsbury. “His personal appearance is youthful, homely, unimposing. His voice is peculiar, and yet not without a certain fascination – penetrating and not unmusical when you get accustomed to it. He has clear articulation. His manner is deliberate, self contained. HIs mind is logical, acute, responsive, aggressive. He is not eloquent in any high sense. He is not a rhetorician. He scarcely uttered in his fifty minutes’ discourse one rhetorical sentence. He is not imaginative. His descriptions are not remarkable. Then with all this negation, what is he? What power has he as a preacher?
“We fear irreligious, worldly men will scarcely understand us,” concluded the bookish Kingsbury. “He has power of a very wonderful kind. It is the power that comes from God.”
(New Hanover County Public Library)
The lecture series ended on April 11, 1888, and Dr. Pearson was remembered by many as the man who, “made clear to many minds that which they had never understood before.” The meetings caused many effects. One of the most endearing was money suddenly repaid many years after one listener had slipped onto a train without buying a ticket.
“Previous to that time,” wrote another member of Pearson’s Wilmington audience of the man she knew best, “I could see nothing in my husband’s life that was inconsistent with the life of a Christian. He was a model of honor. In fact, it seemed to me that his ideals were so high that they were strained – he put himself last, always. On one occasion I knew him to lose $1,000 because he would not break a simple promise.
“From the time of … (the Pearson meetings) until his death (12 years later), I never knew anyone to live so close to God. His life was a living prayer. Nothing, not even pressing business, was allowed in between him and his religious duties. In fact, I think his zeal in this direction helped to shorten his life.
“The change from being absolutely upright and honorable, loyal, and true to every relation in his life,” the wife continued, “to that of being a spiritually minded Christian of the highest type was so great that it was mysterious even to one who knew him so intimately as I did. Nothing but the grace of God could have wrought such a wondrous change.”
The Rev. Dr. Robert G. Pearson was born in 1847 and died in 1913. His parents were Quakers who left North Carolina to live on a farm in Mississippi. They gave him the middle name of Gamaliel after the learned rabbi who taught St. Paul during his days as Saul. The studious Dr. Pearson was a graduate of the Cooper Institute, and Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn. He assisted Dr. A. J. Baird of the First Presbyterian Church of Nashville for several years before becoming a full-time non-denominational evangelist. His work took him to far flung states, and he held a special place in his heart for Montreat, NC, a Presbyterian stronghold near his home in Asheville.
Though Pearson was reticent to speak about his own life, others reported that he read the Bible through several times every year and spent a great deal of time in private meditation and prayer. His wife, Mary Bowen Pearson, a college instructor when they met, traveled with him and led daytime study groups for women.
Some of Dr. Pearson’s lectures survived because a stenographer recorded his words. They were published as Truth Applied or Bible Readings, and are available online. Mrs. Pearson edited the second edition of his book, published in 1890.
The old cotton compress in Wilmington used millions of pounds of pressure to squeeze a bail down to half of its original size. Pearson’s sermons are compact, too. There is no fluff. Here are a few examples from his book:
“I have no patience with fanatics. Christ was heavenly-minded, but he could work at the carpenter’s bench; he could attend to his earthly duties, and still keep faithful to his duties to his Father.”
“I like literature, and I like to see scholarly men and women; but I have very little patience with that man who calls himself a child of God, but prides himself on his literary attainments and care nothing for God’s word.”
“I have very little patience with people who claim to be God’s children, saved by grace, and then go on and look as solemn as if they had been dead a week.”
“It is presumption to talk about us poor glow-worms ‘throwing light on his Word.’ You might as well talk about it being the business of a fire-fly to throw light on the noonday sun. Just get the texts together in their natural order, as they bear on any topic, and you will get the light…. Here is a diamond lying in the mud, sand, and dirt. What do you need to do with the diamond? Not to throw any light on the diamond, not to try and make the diamond shine, but just to take it out of the dust, and get these things away from it and out of it, and hold it up, and the diamond will do the shining and sparkling.”
Then, with the meetings over, Alexander Sprunt and Son resumed its schedule of packing 4,000 bales of cotton a day onto steamers, schooners, railroad cars, and carts. (Cape Fear Museum)
 Morning Star, March 15. 1888; Morning Star, March 6, 1888; Morning Star, March 16, 1888. NHCPL.
 Morning Star, April 5, 1888; Morning Star, March 20, 1888. NHCPL.
 Morning Star, March 22, 1888. NHCPL.
 Morning Star, April 7, 1888. Morning Star, April 12, 1888. Morning Star, March 30, 1888. NHCPL.
 Josephus Daniels, Tar Heel Editor, Chapel Hill, 1939. “…I devoured his editorials,” wrote Daniels, editor and publisher of the News and Observer, of Kingsbury,. Memorial of the First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, North Carolina: Seventy-Fifth Anniversary (1817-1892), Wilmington, 1892. Morning Star, April 6, 1888. Morning Star, March 19, 1888. NHCPL.
 Morning Star, March 19, 1888. NHCPL.
 Morning Star, April 3, 1888. NHCPL.
 Sisson Collection. Special Collections. New Hanover County Public Library.