Gracing the corner of Baltimore’s Park and Lafayette avenues, the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church was many things to many people. But first and always, it was Isabella’s gift, given with the purest of intentions. The widow Brown chose white limestone, like the pyramids of Egypt, for her monument’s construction. Practical for its heaviness and yet easy to cut for elaborate carvings, the limestone also was in easy abundance in the northern county in the late 1800s.
Large in its Gothic Revival-style architecture, the church was a worthy testament to its namesake, George Brown. Son of an Irish immigrant, Brown personified the American dream of immigrant kids like him, possessing the freedom to work hard and worship where and as he pleased. The fortune amassed by George Brown by doing the former, mainly in his father’s investment firm, created the grand opportunity for the latter.
As the first Presbyterian sanctuary in the country, the church itself had a stake in the success of bringing others to their faith. So far only an Episcopal church existed in the neighborhood. It would be a few years before the ornate stained windows, created by the artist Louis Comfort Tiffany himself, would be added or the sanctuary would be enlarged, but Brown Memorial always had a masterful presence. Like its vaulted ceiling that seemed to skyrocket into the heavens, the church (or more aptly, its leadership) saw few limits to their continued growth.
And understandably, just 12 years after its 1870 dedication, nothing could mess that up.
But within the church a secret was budding that would stretch greedily for at least three generations, taking as many lives in various ways. For the church leadership’s part, they would have a hand in sacrificing one of their own to its lies. But they wouldn’t stop it. In truth, they actually fostered its strength, impossible though for them to realize at the time.
For it wasn’t the innocuous kind of secret whispered on any given Sunday morning before services began about marriages, new babies or pregnancies, illnesses, or other matters (some arguably bordering on gossip) but the kind that tore through money, sanity, and lives with equal glee and abandon.
In the early spring of 1882, things were still quiet and content at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church. If some men were seen huddling together at the back of the church, they were probably discussing the reporter from London who’d just visited Baltimore for by now his article about the town likely was being passed around. One passage, especially irritating to the locals, read: “one’s impression of the city depends on which railroad brought you to town.” The writer may have been called a horrible bore, a moron — and worse if they hadn’t been in a holy place — but in truth, they couldn’t say he was wrong.
Everyone knows that from the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad, you see an ugly, rundown place with not-so-tidy streets where pigs, chickens, and children run freely. But from Pennsylvania Station, a prosperous-looking land awaits, neat streets of large homes, spacious parks brimming with Victorian gardens, and quiet streets inhabited only by those of impeccable lineage.
Perhaps the snooty Brit, in his quest for a salacious lead, missed the better story about Baltimore. The tale about the phenomenal growth of the city, banks and buildings seemingly rising overnight, roads being paved with modern signage where only little more than dirt pathways had been before. This could have been the story. Or he could have told about all the boats bringing foreigners to Maryland every day, immigrants who begin working right away if they choose. For some, risking everything to escape their homelands; for these men and women Baltimore offered hope for a better life for them and their children.
In 1882, the importance of prosperity was never far from the minds of Dr. Jones’ Baltimore flock. The mind-boggling possibilities of new industries and steady city growth, even the transformation of labor from craftsman, like cigar makers or piano makers, into the new factory worker, suggested progressive times ahead. Marylanders felt blessed compared to newer settlers, especially since the federal government had just passed a law to limit immigration.
True, few who sat in Dr. Jones’ church had firsthand experience with the violent conflicts of the Irish, Bohemian, black, or German immigrants who still arrived daily looking for new lives full of American opportunity. Dr. Jones’ congregation were not shoveling coal into vessel chutes at Locust Point, or working in construction camps for the B&O extension for 25 cents a day. Nor were they the oyster dredgers, suffering from painful “oyster hand” from the freezing Chesapeake waters with little or no pay. Perhaps that was precisely why they were here.
If laughter erupted from the men at one overly boisterous version of the day’s politics, no disrespect was intended. And most likely it would be quickly hidden by the organ beginning its tune-up — or ended by a few turned heads from wives with fingers to lips, signaling a prompt return to their seats. Services were about to begin.
By most accounts, if the Reverend John Sparhawk Jones, D.D., had not been a preacher, he would have made an excellent lawyer.
By 1882, he’d been pastor since the church’s dedication in 1870. Held on an early December morning with a second service in the evening, the dedication attracted so many people, hundreds had to be turned away. Those who made it into the evening service were especially lucky to witness the interior of the church lit by gaslight, a ethereal magnificence cemented into the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church history book.
Selected to take the helm of the new church before he’d even celebrated his 30th birthday, Dr. Jones had seen the congregation grow steadily. Years later, he would be memorialized as that rare preacher, one who was not much of an orator, and unlike many others, never appealed with grandiosity to the emotions of his congregation; rather he but won people on the strength of his arguments and by the power of his convictions. Though he had not yet reached the zenith of the minister he would become, at the still young age of 41, there was no doubt that Dr. Jones’ star was on the rise. Just one year ago, he’d been approached by a much larger New York City church, but he’d been convinced by his Baltimore church family to stay and continue his leadership.
As the son of early Americans with privilege and money, one of his deepest convictions was that money could not buy your way into heaven. For religion is not gain, in the mercenary sense of the world; it is not worldly success, he sermonized.
Though speaking before hundreds, Dr. Jones seemed to meet the gaze of each of his parishioners, challenging them as individuals and Christians, talking about what mattered to them. With his severe center part of wavy white hair, hooded eyes, and lips that naturally turned down, he always fought against looking like a stereotypical fire-and- brimstone preacher; he considered himself more of an intellectual, a man of compassion.
Baltimoreans coaxed to his church by ecstatic friends or family members couldn’t be blamed for having second thoughts at first seeing his appearance. There were always other things to do that seem more pressing than getting a scolding from some dour-looking preacher. Some may have groaned inwardly at the thought of what would certainly be an interminable hour; others probably considered excusing themselves to check if they’d properly marinated the meat for that night’s supper. Perhaps even a few industrious women ruefully pushed away thoughts of the cast iron stove, with its bin full of ashes waiting as needy as a new pet, or other jobs they could accomplish instead of the time wasted sitting idle in the hard pew.
But from most accounts when Dr. Jones spoke, all possible scenarios others than being in his church were at that moment abandoned. The pastor didn’t have a strong voice, a pleasant contrast to his looks, so his oratories were not theatrical. He didn’t rant, condescend, or try to intimidate as he interpreted the Word to his listeners. He simply appealed to their intellect like a lawyer stating facts to a jury. Speaking plainly and precisely, he chose each word not only to outline his message, but illuminate it. His voice, clearly audible yet barely more than a whisper held them, and one easily can imagine the entire congregation leaning ever so slightly forward to catch every innuendo. Often he talked about the power of money, as he wrote for The Presbyterian Pulpit:
It [money] is gain in the highest acception, but not in the lower and sordid. Money is simply a feature of the current order of things; it belongs strictly to this world. No man carries it with him into the next stage of being; he leaves it behind. Hence Apostle Paul argues that it cannot be essential to religion and the deepest needs of man. It must be incidental. It does not go into soul building.
Dr. Jones always reminded his church of the immigrants and others as they offered the requisite prayers for those less fortunate. Their thoughts during a service couldn’t help but focus on their mixed feelings with prosperity; they loved to see the new bank and insurance buildings on South Street or the hundreds of new brick homes, and they even enjoyed the smell of fresh asphalt and all it promised. But was there a spiritual cost for all this progress? Hard work had brought them so far, they believed, and keeping God first in their lives could only help them as they struggled to make the most for their families.
Material things are not important, Dr. Jones reminded them every Sunday; money will not get you to heaven. He washed their guilty thoughts away with a slight wave of his hand. He understood their worldly struggle. Build your soul, he instructed them. Build your soul.
After 15 years, all but three spent at the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, the Reverend John Sparhawk Jones, D.D., had earned a reputation as the most charismatic preacher in Baltimore. More and more people came each week, from further away and even from different faiths, and perhaps most surprisingly, they came back.
His ministry began as an assistant pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Baltimore city. Then the failing eyesight of the pastor, the Reverend John C. Backus D.D., suddenly required John to begin filling in for him at the pulpit. More than a hundred years later, the magic of the substitute pastor was memorialized by John H. Gardner, Jr., D.D., in the book, The First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore: A Two-Century Chronicle this way: “During this time, he [Rev. John Sparhawk Jones of Philadelphia] earned a reputation as the most brilliant and popular preacher in the city, and the church was thronged every Sunday evening with strangers and members of other churches in addition to the regular congregation, so that chairs and benches had to be placed in the aisles.”
A few years later one of First Presbyterian’s parishioners — and the widow of one of Maryland’s richest men — Isabella McLanahan Brown, decided to build a church to honor her late husband, George Brown, eldest son of Alexander Brown who founded the investment firm of that name. She then asked Dr. Backus, considered an expert on church building, for advice. She had already given $100,000 to First Presbyterian as well as many other contributions to charities over the years.
The Brown family were definitively a family of doers: Alexander Brown began by exporting Irish linens, cotton and tobacco before realizing that he may as well establishing his own banking firm to finance his international business; the Browns were also instrumental in the formation of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad, the first railroad in the United States. Alexander and his son George were two of the original 25 citizens, meeting at the Brown’s Baltimore home to discuss the rail’s possibility, along with Samuel Morse, Charles Carroll, and other leading citizens of the time. George became B&O’s first treasurer. Upon his father’s death in 1834, he also took over the Alexander Brown and Sons firm, which had offices in Liverpool, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. In 1852, his eldest son, George Stewart Brown, became partner in the family firm.
The widow Isabella Brown gave the substantial sum of $150,000 to erect the Brown Memorial Presbyterian church, and in 1869, the church cornerstone was laid. By the next year, Dr. Jones had been elected pastor of the initial congregation of 60 and the church had raised the $5,000 to pay the pastor’s annual salary (and an additional $3,000 for other expenses) by auctioning off pew rentals. Though the Brown family was given two free permanent pews and George S. Brown held a position on the first Board of Trustees, neither gave up membership at First Presbyterian Church.
It’s not recorded how many ministers Isabella Brown considered before selecting Dr. Jones for consideration and election as the church’s inaugural pastor. He was only 29. But how many other Princeton Theological Seminary candidates had a Yale alumni father who’d been mayor of Philadelphia who in his spare time also translated theological books into French while writing a few of his own? How many had a Harvard-educated uncle who shepherded two Presbyterian churches? Dr. Jones lived perhaps not on the same financial sphere as Mrs. Brown, one of the richest women on the East Coast, but definitely in the same world of privilege.
With his background of elite education and privilege, and more important perhaps, the stage presence he’d demonstrated over the three years she’d watched him mature, he promised to be a dynamic pastor despite his relatively young age. And like her husband, George, whose first stop when he arrived in Baltimore at the age of 15 from Ireland in his woolen socks was church, John Jones had lived a life where religion was as integral to his upbringing as being an American.
As a John was taught to appreciate every opportunity created from living on American soil, as his maternal and paternal families had for many generations. He’d seen his father, Joel Jones, elected mayor of Philadelphia when John was eight. The elder Jones, after graduating from Yale and practicing law for many years, was appointed a commissioner whose job it was to revise the civil code of the state. Later he became the first president of Girard College, and then spent many years as a judge of the Philadelphia district court.
Besides his work in politics, Joel Jones also became known for his theological outlook, and he wrote books advocating a literal translation of the scriptures. He also translated religious works from the French and edited English writings on prophecy.
Though his father’s religious convictions strongly influenced John as a child, it was his father’s brother, Joseph Jones, who inspired him to give his life to ministry. An evangelist, Uncle Joseph studied at Princeton Theological Seminary after graduating from Harvard. After preaching for years at churches in New Jersey, he eventually became pastor at two Presbyterian churches.
Joseph became a second father to John after his father’s death in 1861; and on important events, like his graduation from his uncle’s alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, he’d been there to support his nephew’s achievements. His mother, nursed by Boston society, also ingrained in John the idea of service to others as the definition of a meaningful life. Though bolstered by his Philadelphia upbringing, John’s outlook was pure Yankee fundamentalism, as plain, simple, and life-sustaining as his boiled meats and vegetables.
If Isabella Brown eventually had second thoughts about her choice for the first pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian — that glorious testament to her husband of whom a Baltimore historian would gush that, “he regarded religion as preeminent above all things and loved his church with all the ardor of his noble nature,” — she never let on, at least publicly. Regardless, it would fall to her son George to maintain the integrity of Isabella’s gift.
The spiral downward for Dr. Jones apparently began with the death of his mother. There was an outpouring of concern from his congregation at his loss. Everyone wanted to let him mourn privately while also helping commemorate his mother, the latter resulting in the formation of a quickly approved memorial auxiliary in her name.
After 13 years of pastoral leadership, certain habits continued by virtue of tradition alone. Parishioners usually surrounded Dr. Jones after service, exchanging pleasantries or asking for prayers, others offering invitations to their homes for dinner. Everyone knew it was an honor to have a man of God in your home, and because Dr. Jones also was single, each wife likely felt a motherly duty to keep him fed and healthy.
Once the pastor wouldn’t have given it a second thought to accept invitations and actually looked forward to the extracurricular fellowship. But these activities had slowed lately. Such intimacy likely proved more of a burden, spontaneous moments of joy hampered by an overlying malaise. In all likelihood, he knew that his relationship with the congregation was vital and he should accept the invitions. But all the shoulds reverberating within his head couldn’t slow what was ahead.
In the 21st century, John Jones’ illness would be named by descendants without apologies. But in 1883, any type of mental instability raised questions of moral failure and even an association with devil possession. Whispers of such a condition damaged the lives of ordinary men, but for a godly man the repercussions could be shattering. Whatever was happening to Dr. Jones, it could not be confided or confessed. Perhaps it would not grow any stronger that way.
Within months, conceivably in less time, his wry sense of humor likely faded away. Things may have seemed less amusing than absurd. Depleted of a natural range of emotions, all that remained in the depressed man was perhaps a mute despair. How could he continue to convey hope to others when he couldn’t overcome this impending sense of desperation? The Church House, the parsonage in the land next to the church, may have offered him a few hours of private refuge. He could stay in his room for hours after the sun had risen, praying for strength, then finally emerging to go through the motions of the daily routine, bearing the weight of his duties, and no more. After supper at the parsonage, or sometimes in lieu of, he could retreat to his room again with a book or papers in his hand.
After years of having an assured control of his life, its inexplicable loss must have been terrifying.
The Brown Memorial Presbyterian Board of Trustees understood that their pastor bore great pressures; as a religious man, his role naturally was to keep burdens private and ask for divine intervention if necessary. But dramatic changes of mood had never affected his position as pastor until recently. Since his mother’s death perhaps, it seemed the dark episodes have become more common.
The Brown Presbyterian Church Board of Trustees — a cluster of good-hearted men, each invested in some way with the success of the Brown church — surely was a little nervous about calling Dr. Jones before them to talk about his behavior, but something had to be done. By all accounts, he’d become so lethargic, so quiet and more pensive than normal, so obviously troubled that more than one parishioner had observed and commented. At first they may have explained his melancholy on the death of his mother the year before, but they couldn’t use that excuse much longer. These men understood how quickly small rumblings of instability like these can erupt, eventually turning a whole congregation sour on its leadership. The church could be crippled in an instant. Only fools would think otherwise.
There is no record of the meeting between John and the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church Board. Perhaps they met in the church basement meeting room, calling him in to discuss “church matters,” closing the door quietly behind them. Did they call in Dr. Backus, John’s mentor, to soften what they had to say?
In the family account, John expected to be dismissed, to be advised to get the proper medical treatment for his melancholy and they would pray that he’d be back at the helm sometime soon. This course would not have surprised him. As a minister, he was trained to anticipate moods — and sometimes minds. We can imagine John’s wariness, which by now had become etched on his face, and see his long fingers running through his thick hair as the men in the room conceivably avoided his eyes.
He would be understandably surprised, however, when their suggestion was finally expressed. (Keeping abreast with the late 19th century medical community, a physician concurred with their decision.)
Years later their suggestion would become a kind of punch line to the origins of the Jones’ family tree, and one granddaughter Eleanor Pope enjoyed paraphrasing:
“’Marriage’ they told him, ‘have you thought about getting yourself married?’”
Excerpted from “Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones: The Artist Who Lived Twice” by Barbara Lehman Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the author.