Note: In March, 2002, I sent an E-mail note to Fort Street
Presbyterian Church in Detroit, Michigan, pointing out that the "Preachers"
chapter of Joseph Hart and his Descendants contains a delightful
autobiographical sketch of Rev. Edward Hart Pence, a pastor at Fort Street
in the early part of the 20th Century. I thought there might be some
interest at Fort Street in this part of the church's history. I
received a very interesting response from Mr. Tim Moran, a Fort Street
historian who had developed a series of lectures for Fort Street as part of
a grant project funded by the Detroit 300 Foundation. Mr. Moran
forwarded a copy of a lecture that featured Rev. Pence, and he has given me
permission to include his work on my Joseph Hart website. Here's part
of what Mr. Moran told me:
Dr. Pence was quite the Fort Streeter, and it was during his two
terms as Senior Pastor that the church experienced what were probably its
glory days for adding members and being active downtown. I'm attaching a
historical lecture that mentions the Pence pastorate for your amusement.
Pence was a dashing young man when he was called to Fort Street, and he
was an early advocate of the bicycle and of the automobile in making his
rounds and calls on congregants. From the end of Pence's pastorate in the
late 30's, to the late 1970's, Fort Street remembered Pence's time as "the
glory days." We have several Pence artifacts at the church -- he
used to make what he called "Gooks" (long before the Korean War and the
pejorative use of that term for North Koreans and Chinese enemy soldiers)
out of clay, wire, fur, straw and any old thing that came his way. They
were grotesque little figures, with a certain native charm to them. One
that is in a glass case upstairs in the church is of a baseball player,
evidently meant as a trophy for a "Belle Isle" church game.
Reading Mr. Moran's lecture has convinced me that Uncle Charlie's
confidence in the Rev. Pence was not misplaced. -- B.A.
Through War and Turmoil:
Fort Streeters and the Twentieth Century
By TIM MORAN
Good afternoon, and welcome to our Great Hall series. I’m delighted to be
here with you to share some information about this great church, and about
some of the people who made it an asset to the city, and who changed the
city by their words, their deeds and their presence.
This is the third of four brief historical discussions. Again, let me say
that this series is made possible by a grant from Detroit 300 and is a
formal part of the city’s 300th birthday celebration. Fort Street
itself is 152 years old, and the congregation has been worshipping at this
corner since 1855.
This talk is getting onto dangerous ground, because we’re discussing
events of the Twentieth Century. Believe it or not, some of the people who
lived in the Twentieth Century are still alive today! Well, at any rate, our
subjects today are touching on people and events that are actively
remembered by longtime members and their families. I want to say at the
outset that there are many opinions that go into making what we call
"history." If I accidentally step on the toes of family memory or
personalities, it’s not with harmful intent. It may be because I’m trying to
synthesize observations from a number of different sources. It doesn’t mean
I’m right and you’re wrong; it doesn’t mean you’re right and I’m wrong.
My previous two talks discussed some of the founding and early
influential members of Fort Street. It’s important to remember that this
church, at this site, led the first one-third of its life as the affluent
and influential church of Detroit’s millionaire, entrepreneurial families.
It was a, and perhaps the, nexus of Republican political power in the city
at a time when the city pretty much governed the state of Michigan. The
congregation was home to Senators, Governors, Mayors, members of the
national Presidential cabinet. It was also the place where Rail Barons of
the monopoly days met; where bank presidents came to rub shoulders and trade
information with the brokers and owners of city real estate. If you wanted
to see classic "White Anglo Saxon Protestant" values in action, here is
where you would find them.
All of that began to change, and that change very neatly started on April
1, 1900. That was the day that a very young man named Edward Hart Pence, a
McCormick Theological Seminary man, gave his first sermon as senior pastor
of Fort Street.
Rev. E. Blake MacDonald, assistant minister in the 1930s and 1940s, said
of Pence’s arrival: "When he first came here this was an aristocratic
church. The old Fort Street aristocracy still lived here, and in those days
that meant something. There is nothing like it today."
Pence had been recommended to Fort Street by Dr. Stevenson, president of
McCormick, as an up-and-coming preacher. A formidable Fort Street committee,
called "The Committee of 20," agreed to give him a hearing. They sent a
group including Samuel G. Caskey, Sullivan M. Cutcheon, and Elisha A.
Fraser, three of Fort Street’s most-bearded blue bloods, off to hear Pence
in Janesville, Wisconsin.
That would have been a hard group to please. Caskey, for one, was the
Fort Street treasurer who began a church endowment fund by rising to demand
it during a meeting, and refusing to leave until it was agreed. By 1900,
that endowment was funded to the tune of $50,000 and was climbing toward its
Let me just take a moment to also note a few highlights of Sullivan
Cutcheon’s career: State representative in 1860 and 1862, State speaker of
the house, chairman of the 1868 Michigan delegation to the Republican
National Convention, one of eighteen men appointed to revise the state
constitution, U.S. District Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan
from 1877 to 1885, Trustee of Harper Hospital in 1884 who raised $200,000
for the hospital endowment, and representative to the Presbyterian General
Assembly in 1876 and 1893. They built nominating committees out of tough
stuff in those days.
Pence would be coming to a church that, for all of its aristocracy, was
coasting. Statistical reports for 1900 show the church had income of $10,730
– which would equate to about $214,000 today. Fort Street’s budget today is
about $372,000, by comparison. 64 percent of the income came from pew rents
– remember, you bought a year’s use of the family pew in those days. In
1900, the church had gained just 21 members, and lost 37. Total membership
was 576. They kept statistics on everything: the girls of the Garment Class
that year made 15 dresses, 38 "miscellaneous" garments, and used 142 yards
of dress goods, while the Mothers Meeting used 2,157 yards of goods to make
A reporter from the Detroit Tribune gave a breathless,
blow-by-blow analysis of Pence’s trial sermon, delivered March 11. Would
Pence be another John Reid, the dry, scholarly, didactic, inflexible and
unemotional former pastor who always seemed cold and formal?
The Michigan Presbyterian editor later wryly said the Tribune
reporter told his story with two motives: "One to tell the truth, the other
to tell it as agreeably as possible to such an influential people as those
at Fort Street."
The Tribune man said: "Rev. Edward Pence had not spoken a
half-dozen words of his sermon before the people realized that here stood
before them a man of wholly different type … The new minister was entitled
to be called a pulpit orator not of the florid type, not of the ranting,
extravagant type, but one of these finished gentlemen who make the word and
action fit the thought."
Pence, himself, told his new congregation on April 1 that things were
going to be different. According to a Detroit Free Press account, he
said: "We have a tendency from the practical nature of things today to lose
sight of the spiritual in the intellectual, and to forget to intellectualize
Pence also made it clear that he was going to pay attention to details
and basics. He told his new church: "Every error that has crept into the
church has sprung up by neglect of some great truth which has made way for
some error to enter in its place."
Pence brought special gifts to Fort Street, among them being his energy.
The press called him "The Bicycling Parson," noting that he energetically
rode the muddy streets of the town of 267,000 to visit congregation members,
and even occasionally did a bit of "scorching," speeding along at 10 and
even 15 miles per hour. He was the kind of pastor who, today, would probably
have been an early Internet pioneer and Palm Pilot user. Pence was one of
the first ministers in town to use an automobile, sitting stiffly in his
tiller-steered open car for a photo in front of the church.
He later reminisced: "That was the day of the ‘horseless carriage.’ I had
Pence also remembered that he had seen, at Fort Street, "Perhaps the most
aristocratic congregation west of the Alleghenies, transformed into the most
That the transformation was largely his doing didn’t need to be said.
Pence, with is wife, Jessie, had persuasive ways. The couple met in college:
Unusually for the turn of the century, both held degrees. Even more unusual,
though, was the fact that prestige didn’t stand in Pence’s way.
The Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Vance, then moderator of the General Assembly,
remembered Pence this way when the great minister’s funeral packed Fort
Street’s sanctuary: "Some of us have come from poverty stricken hovels, and
some of us from palatial mansions. This man was the friend and pastor of us
Pence could, and did, talk to anybody and everybody. If he heard the
congregation tut-tutting about some social ill or bad situation among the
poor crowds of "foreigners" who were beginning to crowd industrial Detroit,
Pence would go out and see what could be done. He began to be appalled that
the walls of the sanctuary seemed to mark a line between the congregation
and the city. Pence’s dream was to take a huge message, and a mission, out
The pastor also sought to build a better city. The neighborhood around
Fort Street was changing. Millionaire mansions had moved; people of
"moderate circumstances" were thronging in. In a conservative, politically
powerful congregation, Pence almost seemed like a wild-eyed liberal. He
campaigned for fire and police pensions. He championed the Boy Scouts, the
Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, the YMCA and YWCA, the Community Chest (today,
United Way is the equivalent), the Red Cross and so-called "building
agencies" that predated later Savings & Loan style housing renewal efforts.
And he did it without losing the congregation: Indeed, things began to grow.
By 1911, the Fort Street Record, the church’s monthly newsletter,
could report: "Social Service. A big phrase, and getting bigger. We want to
make it vital and save it from being merely academic. It defines a big duty.
The Church should be the social conscience in every community. The body of
men in every church, particularly in Fort Street Church, should be so headed
up in some form, so provided with an organ of utterance, that upon every
question affecting the moral and physical welfare of the community, their
mind should be clearly stated and their will unmistakable."
Among its other changes, Fort Street became a kind of a health club, with
gymnasium equipment installed under the recently constructed Church House.
More than 80 men and boys, and 60 women and girls, were enrolled in gym
classes by 1911.
Vance said: "Ed Pence was gifted by God to sit down with a blacksmith or
a saloon keeper and be just as much at home and just as much a friend as he
was with the wealthy and aristocratic."
Saloon keepers, indeed, were among his friends. Pence made no pretence
about alcohol. He was dead set against it. That didn’t stop him from
becoming a strong friend of Andrew Healy, who owned the saloon that has
since become Mac’s on Third, just behind the church. The 1880 building was
an immediate thorn in the side of Fort Street bluestockings, who wanted it
condemned and torn down. Pence told them "no."
"Dr. Pence has taken the stand that the saloon was built before the
(liquor) law went into effect, and that so long as it is conducted within
the law, it would be unfair to demand its removal," wrote an anonymous
reporter in 1917, when Pence had accepted a call to an Oregon church, in an
article headlined "Minister and Saloon Keeper Close Friends – to Part When
Dr. Pence Leaves Detroit."
Healy also said that he would never sell his saloon to anybody but the
church – that didn’t happen, and though we don’t know why, the Chorale has
been glad about that over the past twenty years or more. In fact, our board
of Deacons has held at least one meeting at Mac’s (soft drinks only, of
course!) when the church doors were locked and no key could be found.
I’m going to gloss over a quick chunk of Fort Street history here to
follow the Pence story farther. I’ll discuss the fire of 1914 in our next
talk, about incidents that involved Fort Street. But it needs to be said
that, if Pence began the egalitarian change at Fort Street, Dr. Minot C.
Morgan sealed it with a friendly ministry of nine years, focusing especially
on children’s issues. Morgan introduced a number of Fort Street traditions,
including the short "children’s sermon" at the start of worship. It was
under Morgan, also, that the initial twenty acres of Clear Lake Camp, near
Oxford, were purchased. And Morgan began a supplemental weekday school at
Fort Street for children brought from the nearby public schools.
World War I, with all of its social changes and tragedy, and the Spanish
Influenza that followed demobilization of the troops, tapped Fort Street
fairly lightly while Morgan was pastor. 115 Fort Streeters served in the
Great War, and the church lost five young men in the conflict: Their names,
William Bennett; Harry A. Cooper; Andrew H. Ewing; Hugh A. Manchester;
Alfred W. Nasmyth and John H. Pye, are on an easily overlooked bronze plaque
in the narthex.
In 1926, Dr. Morgan was called to the prestigious Fifth Avenue
Presbyterian Church in New York City. Fort Street leaders, debating on a
proposed candidate to replace Morgan, deadlocked in what may have been a
personality dispute. The notes are vague; the candidate is unnamed, and none
of it seems to have been recorded "decently and in good order," as
Presbyterians like to claim for church business. But in the middle of the
meeting, somebody suggested: "Call Dr. Pence back." The motion was
unanimous, and Pence answered the call.
His arrival back at Fort Street in 1927 sparked what is probably the
highest level of activity this church has ever seen. Attendance increased;
an unprecedented number of programs were launched, Bible school and church
house-based activities surpassed anything previously known.
Rev. Dr. Robert H. Crilley says of Pence: "He was the last pastor to
serve when Fort Street was not declining. If you had to ask ‘Who was the
minister who had the congregation that was thriving,’ it would have to be
Pence’s second term. He was the first minister that might be described as
'everybody’s friend.' There wasn’t anything reserved about Pence; Pence was
a person that you loved to be around. To give you some idea, when he came in
for his second term, in 1927, the membership was 939. When he left, in 1936,
the membership was 1,202. So he did a terrific piece of work."
In fact, over Pence’s combined terms at Fort Street’s helm, he added a
total of 1,600 members to the rolls – an average of 65 each year.
Pence himself said of his work at Fort Street that it was: "The type of
work most congenial to my spirit of democracy; that spirit by which a man
enters into the essential experiences and viewpoints of the most widely
divergent classes of human beings."
Aiding Pence were two remarkable men. Rev. Wilfred Simpson, known as "Wilf"
to his adult friends and by the name "The Chief" to hundreds of church
children, served with Fort Street as an assistant minister beginning in 1925
and lasting until 1941, when he accepted leadership of First Presbyterian
Church in Monroe, Michigan.
The Chief’s specialty was outdoor ministry and ministry to youth. His
friend, Rev. Harold Fredsell, said The Chief was a big, enthusiastic,
determined, and simple man whose "yes" was "yes" and whose "no" meant "no."
Said Fredsell: "I have known him to walk by the quiet and peaceful Brule
lake (sic) in northern Canada where he would sing at the top of his voice –
and no one necessarily enjoyed his singing – but it was a sound of praise,
and I am sure it was pleasing to the ear of God. He loved man, and he loved
God’s world of nature."
Not only did The Chief lead summer camp for children, but he helped build
and develop other Detroit Presbytery fresh-air camps for city children. He
also taught, led, and equipped many of the young assistant ministers and
seminarians who later fanned out to lead suburban Presbyterian
congregations. Those ministers later remembered serving "apprenticeships"
with The Chief; many said it was the best time in their lives.
Also working with Pence was Rev. E. Blake MacDonald, known inevitably as
Mac MacDonald came to Fort Street in 1898 as a congregation member, then
as an assistant minister in 1932, staying until 1943. If Dr. Pence had a
cartooning and sculpting bent – and Pence often created clay, wire and fur
creatures he called "Gooks" (before the term became a pejorative during the
Korean War) – Mac was a pipe-smoking sketcher and a free spirit at poetry.
He periodically issued what he called "Scratchings from a Sandy Penn," a
play on words for a Scot who had risen from the ashes of a general store
fire in Ripley, Ontario, to become everything from the senior partner of a
law firm, a Psychology teacher at the Detroit Institute of Technology, and
one of the earliest developers to "open" a subdivision among Florida orange
groves. Though he had degrees from The University of Michigan, Columbia, and
Auburn Theological Seminary, Mac’s communicant class students and the people
he helped on the street never knew it. Reporters marveled that Mac would sit
down with a beer-drinking bum on the streetcorner and give the man his full
attention – and possibly share a swig.
Virginia Lorimer, a member of Mac’s communicant class, remembers: "I
don’t think, as kids, that we knew we should have called him ‘Reverend.’ He
was a little man, in fact, he reminded me of my Dad. They both were about
5-foot-5, with grey hair and a little mustache. He was a pleasant man."
Said MacDonald in autobiographical musings: "I never was a worshiper of
‘prestige’ and I don’t want any of my friends to be such."
This was the team that steered Fort Street and its immediate neighborhood
through the Great Depression, the National Recovery Administration, the
Square Deal. Because of the changes that had happened in Fort Street’s
neighborhood, the congregation was uniquely vulnerable to economic
downturns. Virginia Lorimer cites an example of the challenges her family
faced: her father, bumped from a career job at the Michigan Central Railroad
by its merger, downsizing, and union seniority schedules, took a job on the
freight loading dock.
"He was unloading freight cars, this little bitty whisp of a man was
unloading freight cars. On Christmas, he came home and had four oranges in
his pocket. He said ‘Merry Christmas,’ and my mother cried. We hadn’t had
fresh fruit in a long time, and the men unloading the freight cars would
‘accidentally’ drop a crate, and they took the oranges home on Christmas
eve. I remember looking at my Mom and thinking ‘What’s she crying about an
orange for?’ I had no idea what was going on."
It was Pence’s bad fortune to see the stirrings of decline for his
church; then to lose his wife, Jessie, in 1933 after an eighteen-month
illness, and then to fall ill and into decline himself. In 1936, Pence
decided to retire at the end of February: Four days later, he was dead.
While Pence’s funeral was being planned, in Germany, Nazi troops marched
into the demilitarized Rhineland to show that Adolph Hitler had no regard
for the treaty that had ended World War I. European alliances began to
crumble, and war loomed.
In some ways, World War II came as a saving shock and almost a blessing
to the church. The pastor who succeeded Pence in 1937, Dr. Arthur Ratz, was
kind but not a firebrand. His preaching was good, but slow-paced, slow
enough that high school girls in the congregation often used it to covertly
practice their shorthand while sitting in the sanctuary’s balcony section.
Ratz had visions of metropolitan mission stretching across the city, but he
also had common sense to realize how limited the economy made those
Fort Street’s annual budget in 1935, even with depression and economic
misery, was about $52,000 – equal to more than $646,000 in 2001. But by
1940, almost everything about Fort Street had begun to shrink. While the
official membership stood at 1055, the average estimated Sunday church
attendance had settled at about 200: 75 percent of the membership lived more
than 2 miles away, only 30 percent of the members contributed to the budget,
and church officers estimated that only one-quarter of the members would
contribute "personal service" if asked. Sunday School attendance remained
high, with 351 on average, many of them children from the increasingly
"poor, foreign and transient" neighborhood of cheap flophouses, shabby
rental property, and residential hotels that ringed the area within two
miles of the church. The budget had diminished to 43,000, or about $514,000
in today’s equivalent – and of that, nearly 65 percent was in staff costs.
Fort Street leaders, including Dr. Ratz, desperate to make sense of their
changing environment, spent two years developing a tentative plan. They
would sell the church, combine with another or several other downtown
congregations, pool resources, and build a new "Presbyterian Cathedral" in
the exciting, vibrant New Center area of the city. Alternatively, according
to reports compiled by Joseph Grindley, the plan was to close down the
expensive sanctuary and sell that, operating mission activities out of the
Church House only.
Why didn’t that happen? What kept Fort Street open? The historical record
is vague, but we know what did happen that was not in anybody’s plans.
December 7, 1941, America went to war, and everything ordinary was put on
hold. And at Fort Street, just across the street from Union Station, an
anxious congregation watched at least 150 of its young people go off to war.
By 1944, four were combat casualties. On the home front, in 1943 the church
staffed a USO canteen in what is now the Donlin Christian Education rooms.
The church went farther: It converted the gymnasium into a bunk-bed
dormitory so that soldiers and sailors in transit or on a weekend pass could
have a safe place to stay. In the space of one year, more than 15,600
service men had been lodged overnight, it was reported at the 95th
annual congregational meeting held May 6, 1944. Overall, more than 50,200
service men had found refuge at Fort Street by the time the USO program
closed in March, 1946.
By the time the war had ended, the chance for Fort Street and other
downtown congregations to merge and move had slipped out of sight. The young
men were back, and leaders hoped for new stability, new families, and a
fresh influx for the church. Nobody guessed that the boxy little houses
being thrown together in distant towns, on fields that until recently had
been farmland, in places like Madison Heights, Oak Park, Royal Oak and
Berkley, all north of the Eight Mile Road belt, would soon be drawing
population out of the city on unimagined super-highways called "freeways."
The mission and madness of World War II seem to have pinned Fort Street
in its corner in the city. Church leaders didn’t know what was coming: the
body blows of white flight, automotive economic cycles of boom and bust, the
virtual death of the railroads that controlled the neighborhood and the
strife of the 1967 riots – which some in Detroit have termed "the
But they knew what they wanted their church to be, and it was Dr. Ratz,
before his departure in 1947, who coined the phrase that continues in use
today: "A spiritual beacon in the heart of Detroit."