A.J. Gordon:  A Great Spiritual Leader Who Changed the Face of Boston

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Kevin Belmonte has written another superb biography. In 2002, he authored a seminal work entitled William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity. It told the story of the great Christian reformer who, as a member of British Parliament, was responsible for halting the British slave trade in 1807. Several decades later, Wilberforce’s long-term fight to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire was successful. When Belmonte wrote this biography, William Wilberforce was a historical figure who was largely unknown to 21st century Americans, and Belmonte blazed the trail for the influential and engaging biography of Wilberforce by Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace, and the popular movie by the same name released in 2007.

Now Belmonte has published another excellent biography:  A.J. Gordon – An Epic Journey of Faith and Pioneering Vision. Like Wilberforce, Adoniram Judson Gordon is not a well-known figure to most Americans – even to citizens of Boston where he lived most of his life. Gordon was a Baptist minister, an outstanding preacher, an accomplished author, a writer of hymns, a mentor to Ivy League college students and a social entrepreneur. In addition to ministering to his flock at the Clarendon Baptist Church in South Boston for 25 years, he founded a homeless shelter which cared for thousands of Boston’s destitute. He also established a missionary training school which later became a Christian liberal arts college which was named after him.  He was a friend and valued colleague of D. L. Moody – the great evangelist who was the late 19th century equivalent of Billy Graham. In short, he was a man for all seasons.  

A.J. Gordon was born in 1836 in New Hampton, New Hampshire.  He was a country boy raised on a farm and expected to do distasteful chores each day, though his parents also owned a small woolen mill. Early on, Gordon decided that farming was not the life for him. His parents were practicing Christians (his father’s name was John Calvin Gordon). A.J. was named after Adoniram Judson, one of the first Americans to travel abroad to a foreign mission field in 1812. At the age of 15, A.J. spent a night searching his soul about the claims of the Christian faith, and at dawn, he dedicated his life to Christ and felt called to become a Baptist minister in order to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Unlike his good friend and evangelist D. L. Moody, who was raised in Northfield, Massachusetts and had no formal education, A.J. Gordon received a superb education. His parents were able to send him to one of New Hampshire’s few college preparatory schools (the school that became Colby Academy and later today’s Colby-Sawyer College), where he proved to be an outstanding student, excelling in the classics. Graduating in 1856, he enrolled in Brown University, the 7th oldest college established in America. Brown, founded in 1764 as a Baptist college, was led at that time by President Francis Wayland, a devout Christian often compared to the iconic Thomas Arnold in England, Headmaster of Rugby School. Wayland had published a famous biography of Adoniram Judson shortly before Gordon enrolled in Brown, which perhaps led him to choose Brown over Dartmouth College in his native New Hampshire.

Gordon thrived at Brown. He was well-versed in Greek and Latin as well as philosophy, theology, history and English literature. He graduated fifth in his class, as a member of Phi Beta Kappa with a Master of Arts in 1860. Perhaps more importantly, it was at Brown where he met his future wife and lifelong companion in all his efforts, Maria T. Hale. Directly after graduating from Brown, Gordon enrolled in Newton Theological Seminary from which he graduated in 1863 at the age of 27. He accepted a call to pastor the Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain on the outskirts of Boston the same year, and he and Maria wed and had a storybook marriage which lasted until his early death at the age of 58.

A.J. Gordon demonstrated great leadership at the Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain. Before long, elders from Clarendon Street Baptist Church, the leading Baptist church in Boston, came calling to encourage Gordon to become their church’s senior pastor. Clarendon Street Baptist had 400 congregants, the majority of whom were affluent Boston families. Gordon did not want to leave his flock at Jamaica Plain, but he finally yielded to their entreaties, becoming senior pastor of Clarendon Street Baptist at the age of 33.

He soon became one of the most prominent and eagerly sought-after preachers in America. His wonderful speaking voice was described in the press as “clear, rich and powerful.” He was in great demand as a speaker in churches throughout New England, at the Northfield Summer Conferences, in Chicago at the World’s Fair with Moody and even as far away as England.  He loved music, and he wrote a number of well-known hymns, including the beloved “My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine.”

One of the most compelling parts of Belmonte’s biography deals with Gordon’s efforts to move Clarendon Street Baptist’s congregation to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged and welcome them into their church. As was customary in most Protestant churches in Boston at the time, Clarendon Street Baptist rented its pews, which had the effect of keeping away those who didn’t have the wherewithal to rent a pew. The church’s music was performed by a highly-trained professional quartet, and there was no congregational singing. Gordon felt that these practices engendered an air of exclusivity and entitlement and sought to convince the congregation to change them. Gordon showed remarkable patience and perseverance over many years to finally effect these changes. This biography should be seen as an instruction manual for young pastors in how to gradually change an inwardly-looking church to one which seeks the lost and needy.

A.J. Gordon was also a man of action. He evidenced this character trait over and over in his life. At the close of a deep religious awakening in Boston in 1873-1874, Gordon saw the need to provide tangible help to these new Christians who were without friends, homes, or money. They were the poor and destitute of Boston.  So Gordon founded the Boston Industrial Home, whose mission was to provide temporary lodging and food for homeless  women and men who were willing to work and follow the practices of the Home, including chapel attendance, teachings of faith and abstinence from alcohol. Literacy training was provided as was instruction in various trades and lessons in personal hygiene. By 1895, roughly 35,000 lodgings and around 50,000 meals were provided annually. The Home was a godsend to thousands of folks in Boston who needed a helping hand. And it was only through A.J. Gordon’s remarkable stewardship that the Boston Industrial Home thrived.

In 1889, Gordon established the Boston Missionary Training School to provide education and training over a period of two years to those who desired to go to foreign mission fields to spread the gospel. The inspiration came from Dr. H. Grattan Guinness – grandson of the founder of the famous brewery, whose family was well-known in Christian circles – who had started a similar institution in East London in 1873. Gordon founded the school to give lay women and men without a college education the best possible training to fit them for work as missionaries.

A Trustee of Brown University for 15 years, A.J. Gordon knew much about education. At the outset, no tuition was charged and the school subsisted on donations from supporters. It was a rocky start, and the school encountered many growing pains in the early years. But at the time of Gordon’s death in 1895, over 90 students had graduated; 25 were already on the mission field, and 15 had become ministers. After Gordon’s death, the school was renamed Gordon Missionary Training School. (It went through two more names before settling on Gordon College, as it is known today.) In 1955, the school moved to Wenham, Massachusetts and became a four-year liberal arts college with a graduate theological seminary. In 1969, the seminary split from the college and carried on under the name of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary – now considered by many as the leading evangelical seminary in the eastern half of the country.

In January 1895, A.J. Gordon, exhausted from work, came down with influenza. Gravely ill, his fever spiked and his conditioned worsened over a period of nine days. Knowing that the end was near, Gordon’s last word was “Victory.” Outpourings of tribute and accolades poured in from all corners of the nation. A truly great and beloved man had died.

Superbly educated, highly intelligent, persuasive in the pulpit and in small gatherings, full of character and integrity, gracious and loving, Adoniram Judson Gordon was a man who dedicated his life to others. He served his God with a loving outreach to both rich and poor alike, and was a spiritual leader of vision and a man of action. Gordon College, the leading Christian liberal arts college on the Eastern seaboard, carries on his vision to this day. If A.J. Gordon were still alive, he would smile and quote the Old Testament prophet, Zechariah: “Do not despise the day of small beginnings!” At this time when Boston has become increasingly secular and even hostile to the Christian worldview, Gordon College is a beacon of light on a spiritually darkening horizon.

A.J. Gordon.
Photo courtesy of Jenks Library, Gordon College.

 

Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., an approximately $3.5 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut, and Wellesley, Massachusetts. This column represents his personal views and does not represent the views of the firm. Read other articles by him here.

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