Gerherdus Langdon Demarest

by Mike Roberts, Church Historian

Beginning in the year 1861, our First Universalist Society church went nearly three years without hiring a minister. In the interim, the Reverend Isaac Williamson undertook a third term of service with the church and conducted many of the worship services. He was paid a rate of twelve to fifteen dollars per sermon. Other lay and pastoral persons also conducted services. By 1864, the Board of Trustees felt it was time to hire a new, permanent minister.

The Society’s next pastor, Gerherdus Langdon Demarest, did not follow the familiar path to the pulpit that had been trod by his predecessors. He was born in New York City on December 13, 1816, the son of Jacobus Demarest and Sophia Greene. He pursued education through to a high school degree. In his obituary, the story is told that as an eight-year-old, he was chosen to give the greeting speech to the Marquis de Lafayette when the Revolutionary War hero visited young Demarest’s school in New York City. The Marquis was on a grand tour of the United States in preparation for the 50th anniversary celebration of the country’s independence.

After high school, Demarest took a job as a clerk at Harper Brothers, publishers of the highly popular Harper’s Weekly. Demarest rose through the ranks at Harper’s and it is noted in a history of the firm that he played a primary role in settling the contract to publish William Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems in the periodical. In the early 1850’s, after fifteen years with the firm, Demarest left New York City and moved to Cincinnati to open his own publishing house.

While in New York, Demarest had been an active member of the Second Universalist Church of New York and he joined the First Society of Cincinnati church as a member upon his arrival in the city. While developing his publishing house, Demarest decided to pursue a career in ministry and trained to be a Universalist pastor. During that time, he was active in the church and served on the Board of Trustees. He was ordained in 1862 and was hired two years later to serve as the church’s pastor.

Prior to the hiring of Demarest, the church finances were temporarily set in order when Board of Trustees member Richard Wooley loaned the church the money it needed to pay off its various debts. The amount loaned totaled $5,800. However, the relief was short lived as the September 4, 1863 meeting was devoted totally to financial crisis. A point had been reached when talk of permanently closing the church was a major topic for discussion.

Demarest’s pastoral tenure with the church was short. He was given a one-year contract and at the end of that year, at a membership meeting a vote was taken as to whether he should be rehired. The vote was 37 nay and 28 yea.

From Cincinnati, Demarest then went back to New York City in 1865 to become the pastor at his old 2nd Universalist Church where he had once been a member. He also later served churches in New Medford, Massachusetts and Manchester, New Hampshire.

In 1875, Demarest was hired to serve as the Secretary to the General Assembly of the national Universalist Church. This duty not only required him to attend to the business of the annual General Assembly but to also attend all state assemblies across the nation. This was an impossible task as many of the state assemblies were held during the same week hundreds of miles apart. Nonetheless, Demarest attempted to do his job the best that he could. It is estimated that he traveled approximately 250,000 miles as the General Secretary.

In our archives, we possess the journal that Demarest maintained throughout his travels. It details endless hours of train travel across this country to attend as many state conventions as possible. Demarest held the position until 1905 when he retired at the age of 88. During that time, he maintained a home in Manchester and volunteered his services as needed at many New England churches. By his own count, he preached 248 sermons during these years, including at least three sermons at our church in Cincinnati in 1883, 1897 and 1898. He also conducted many weddings and funerals. In addition to all these duties, Demarest was the editor for many years of the Universalist Sunday School Helper.

In 1889, Demarest was appointed as a member of a seven-person committee to review the application of Joseph Jordan to become a Universalist minister. The application was approved unanimously and Jordan was ordained as the first Black minister to serve the Universalist Church.

Pastor Demarest was married to Eliza Wittenberg in 1839. They had six children. Pauline and Emma lived to adulthood and married. Mortimer died young, Adeline died at aged 11 months in 1859 in Cincinnati, and Viola died at age 15 in 1864 of typhoid fever in Cincinnati. Clarence never married but worked at his father’s side as a clerk and personal secretary for many years. Clarence also served as clerk for our own First Society for about five years during the 1860’s.

Gerherdus Demarest died on October 11, 1909 in Manchester at the age of 92. He is buried along with his wife and daughter, Viola, and parents in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.