JEREMIAH PORTER, FOUNDER
The Rev. Jeremiah Porter was born in Hadley, Mass., December 27, 1804. He came of a lineage which represented the best families in that commonwealth. His grandfather, Hon. Samuel Porter, married Susanna, a granddaughter of Jonathan Edwards, the elder, "one of the brightest luminaries," says Robert Hall, "of the Christian Church, not excluding any country or age, since the apostolic, and by whose death Calvinism lost its ablest defender." Jeremiah Porter was educated at Hopkins Academy and Williams College, entering Williams in the same class with David Dudley Field. In the year ahead of him, were Mark Hopkins and Brainerd Kent, our "Father Kent,"1 who founded Railroad Mission. Mr. Porter was graduated in 1825, and in the same year entered Andover Theological Seminary. Doubting if he was called to the ministry, he left the Seminary after two years, and in the spring of 1828 took charge of a high school in Troy, N. Y. He entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1830, and in the autumn of 1831, after graduation, was ordained at the request of the American Home Missionary Society, as a Missionary Evangelist. In November, he began his missionary work at Fort Brady, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan Territory, holding a revival in the fort and town, and organizing a Church of five members, which soon increased to thirty-three.
The Home Missionary for May, 1832, contains an article by young Porter, giving some experiences of pioneer life at Fort Brady, with an account of his journey from the East and the primitive conveyances in use at that time. After eight days and nights of continuous travel, he reached Detroit (Fort Gratiot), only to wait another ten days for a vessel going up the lakes. Seven days more were consumed in going to Mackinac, where he was again "held up," (the last vessel for the season having gone) until a canoe was sent for him from the Sault. In this frail craft, propelled by two French boatmen, whose language he could not speak, with a black man for a companion, in bitter cold weather, the last ninety miles of his voyage were accomplished.
In later life, Mr. Porter often spoke of the long voyage in May, 1833, when he accompanied the troops, under the command of Major Fowle, from the Sault Ste. Marie to Fort Dearborn. He dwelt with pleasure on his recollections of a little child, then only a year and a half old, the daughter of Major Fowle, who helped to brighten his tedious trip. "It was her mother," says Dr. Mitchell, "who may be said to have brought to this place the founder of its first Christian Church, or at least to have been the right hand helper of the pioneer." Forty years after that voyage, when Mr. Porter was in Boston, a lady sought him out and asked him if he were the Minister who accompanied Major Fowle and the troops to Chicago in 1833. Learning that he was, she replied: "Do you remember the little girl that was on board ? I am that little girl." She became the wife of Mr. Henry F. Durant of Boston, and at that time (1873), she and her husband were engaged in the generous enterprise of founding Wellesley College.
The Rev. Jeremiah Porter organized the First Presbyterian Church, of Chicago, in the capacity of a Missionary Evangelist, representing the American Home Missionary Society, but never having been installed, he could not be properly called its first Minister. The First Presbyterian Church, founded by him on June 26,1833, is the oldest religious Society in Chicago-older than the town of Chicago, which was not incorporated until August 10, 1833. Mr. Porter aided the Baptists in starting their first Society, October 19, 1833, and gave the use of the Presbyterian meeting house to the Episcopalians for the organization of St. James' Church in October, 1834.2
During the first two years of its existence, the infant Church was more or less dependent on the Home Missionary Society for its support, Mr. Porter's position being that of stated supply. His whole life seems to have been consecrated to missionary work on the frontier, organizing Churches and planting the good seed in carefully selected places, leaving to others the care and management and gathering of the fruit. And what a goodly heritage has come down to us!
In 1835, Dr. Porter accepted the call to the Main Street Presbyterian Church, Peoria, Ill., where he felt there was great need for the preaching of the Gospel. Dr. Porter's next pastorate was in Farmington, Fulton County, Ill., where he labored until the spring of 1840, and then accepted a call to the Presbyterian Church of Green Bay, Wis., remaining there eighteen years. From Green Bay, he came, in 1858, to the Edward's Congregational Church of Chicago.
Mr. Henry W. Dudley in his address (Memorial Service, 1904) on the life of Dr. Porter, said:
"I speak of Dr. Porter from two standpoints; first, from my affection for him as the founder of this Church, with which I have now been connected some forty years; and second, from the fact, that when I felt it my duty to enlist as a soldier in the Civil War, I found to my suprise on going into the field that the Rev. Jeremiah Porter was Chaplain of the Regiment, to which my company (B), of Taylor's Battery, had been assigned. His relation to our company was especially intimate, as he had a son, James W. Porter, now a member of this Church, and a nephew, Harmon T. Chappell, in our ranks."
I cannot give a better account of the noble services of Dr. and Mrs. Porter in the Sanitary and Christian Commissions during the Civil War than by quoting the words of Dr. Barrows, in his sermon at the Jubilee Services in 1883:
"Dr. and Mrs. Porter joined the army for service in the field at Cairo, in March, 1862, and labored in the hospitals at Cairo, Mound City, Pittsburg Landing, Memphis, and Vicks-burg. Dr. Porter entered Vicksburg on July 6, 1863, and helped bury the dead found in the hospitals. During the next winter, he ministered to the Presbyterian Church in Vicksburg, and served in the city hospitals, while Mrs. Porter followed with sanitary stores the army corps in Tennessee and Alabama. Dr. Porter joined his wife under Kennesaw Mountain, and passed the summer of 1864 at Marietta, Ga., until the capture of Atlanta, ministering to the wants of the sick and wounded of our army, and also to the needs of the Confederate prisoners. Five of the Confederate officers and twenty of the Confederate soldiers gave to Mrs. Porter certificates testifying to her great kindness to them, and asking like kindness to her, if she should ever become a prisoner. Dr. and Mrs. Porter were at Savannah a few days after General Sherman made a Christmas gift of that city to the nation. After the surrender of Lee, they went to Washington to labor with the troops there, and, later, accompanied General Logan's army to Louisville, Ky., and remained with that corps till July 31, 1865. Later in the year, Dr. Porter was sent by the United States Christian Commission to the troops on the Rio Grande, who were ordered there to protect our border from the aggressions of France under the Emperor Maximilian. Mrs. Porter was sent there at the same time with supplies, by the North West Sanitary Commission. Their work with the troops having been accomplished, and the Rio Grande Seminary having been revived by Mrs. Porter, they were called to Chicago in the spring of 1866. That year, Dr. Porter accepted the call to the Congregational Church at Prairie du Chien, Wis., and in 1868, he became pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Brownsville, Tex., and with his wife and the Misses Grant of Chicago, took charge of the Rio Grande Seminary. In 1870, Dr. Porter was appointed by the United States Senate, Post Chaplain, U. S. A., at Fort Brown, and officiated there until 1873. He was then transferred to Fort Sill, Indian Territory, and in 1875, to Fort Russell, Wyoming Territory. He was retired from service by act of Congress, June 30, 1882. Few lives have been as eventful and useful as those here sketched. There are multitudes on earth and in heaven who call them blessed."
Dr. Porter's last days were quietly passed in the home of his beloved daughter at Beloit, Wis., where he died on July 25, 1893, in the ninetieth year of his age. At the funeral services, held in the College Chapel, Pastor Hamlin preached from the text of Dr. Porter's first sermon in Fort Dearborn: "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit" (St. John xv: 8), a text happily illustrated by the fruitful life of this beloved, successful missionary.
1 The Rev. Brainerd Kent was born in Dorset, Vt.. April 25, 1802; died in Chicago, January 29, 1888.
2 The records of St. James' Episcopal Church show that its first service "was held in the Presbyterian Church on October 12, 1834, by the Rev. Palmer Dyer. The Rev. Isaac Hallman, who had been sent out to this western land by the Domestic Board of Missions, arrived in Chicago on the evening of October 12, and preached his first sermon in the Baptist Church at Franklin and South Water streets, the following Sunday, October 19. On October 26, 1834, the parish was organized in an unfinished frame building on North Water street, near the Dearborn street drawbridge."