Many Christians today know the name of J. Wilbur Chapman because of his beautiful hymn “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners,” but there is much more to the story. Born in Richmond, Indiana in 1859, Chapman made his public profession of faith at the age of 17 in the Richmond Presbyterian Church.
He attended Oberlin College and Lake Forest University, and was ordained to the gospel ministry after completing his seminary training in Cincinnati at Lane. He served in a number of Presbyterian churches in the East and Midwest, as well as serving pastorates at Reformed churches in New York, but it was an evangelist that Chapman was best known among his contemporaries.
While evangelistic crusades in later times came to be associated with Baptist and Pentecostal ministries, during Chapman’s ministry, public evangelistic meetings were largely associated with Presbyterianism. In 1905, John H. Converse, a prominent Presbyterian businessman, offered to underwrite Chapman’s expenses if he would devote all his energies to evangelism. Chapman was President of the Baldwin Locomotive Company and a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton Theological Seminary.
Chapman agreed, although he could not have imagined the preaching opportunities that this would eventually present. Chapman revived the earlier practice of Pennsylvania churches of different denominations to cooperate in evangelism, by working with a variety of evangelicals in town after town. One of his innovations was to launch simultaneous evangelism meetings at dozens of churches in a city concurrently. Before long, huge crowds would gather to the Presbyterian Chapman.
At one point, Chapman hired a young former baseball player to serve as an “advance man,” arriving in a targeted city several weeks before Chapman to construct a temporary facility or pitch a huge tent, as well as recruit a choir. (The young ballplayer, a fellow Presbyterian, would subsequently launch out on his own with “methods” decidedly more theatrical than the sober Chapman. His name was Billy Sunday).
Chapman maintained a lifelong friendship with Dwight L. Moody, whom Chapman credited with helping him as a young man to understand the doctrine of assurance. Although quite ecumenical within evangelical circles, Chapman was a hidebound conservative when it came to fundamental doctrines, leading a campaign to have all Presbyterian missionaries recalled from the field that would not affirm the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
Poor health forced Chapman to step down from his role as travelling evangelist in 1918. A grateful Presbyterian Church elected him Moderator of their General Assembly in May of that same year, although the Lord would call him home later that same year.