Rev. William Rainsford:
An Amazing Divine
The Rev. Dr. William S. Rainsford was an amazing man of many contrasts.
One of his closest friends was among richest men in America, yet he spent much of his life fighting for and ministering to the poor.
Despite fragile health and at least two nervous breakdowns, he virtually single-handedly turned a shrinking, debt-ridden Manhattan church into one of the largest and most successful parishes in New York City.
A man who spent most of his life in cities, he sought rejuvenation hunting big game in Africa, California and western Canada, and counted fellow hunters Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill among his friends.
Many people — including editors of The New York Times — considered him a Ridgefielder, but while he often worshipped here, he never quite lived here — though he came about as close as one could get.
William Stephen Rainsford was born in 1850 in Dublin, Ireland, where his father, an Episcopal minister, was chaplain at a hospital for the blind. As a boy, he wasn’t much of a student, admitting later that “I was dull and stupid at Latin and Greek, and very shy.”
Nonetheless, he graduated from Cambridge University. While still a student there, he became ill and took a leave from his studies, during which he became interested in the London slums and spent time working among the poor. After graduating from university, Rainsford organized a group of 800 people from the London tenements and led them on a journey to western Canada to find new and more promising lives for themselves.
While in Canada, he was introduced to hunting, especially for big game. He shot buffalo, caribou and other large animals, and the sport became a lifelong interest. In his later years he wound up advising world leaders on the best hunting locations, writing a book on African hunting, and heading a museum expedition to find rare specimens.
Rainsford returned to England where he became an Episcopal minister and continued to address the needs of the poor, especially in the East Anglian city of Norwich. He suffered throughout his life with depression and at one point during his four years in Norwich, he considered resigning as a minister.
However, in the 1870s, an opportunity arose to fill a temporary post in New York City and he wound up preaching and leading missions in several places in the United States and Canada, gaining a reputation as an outspoken, caring preacher.
In 1882, word of his talents reached the vestry of St. George’s Church at Stuyvesant Square on the lower east side of Manhattan. Once one of the wealthier parishes in New York City, St. George’s was seriously in debt, having lost many members as area neighborhoods became more populated with poor immigrants — mostly Germans — living in tenements. “Parishioners were moving uptown and transferring their allegiance to more fashionable and conveniently located churches,” The New York Times reported.
Rainsford was invited to be interviewed for the position of rector. After a meeting with the vestry, he was offered the job. He agreed, but only if the vestry accepted three provisions.
“You must make the church free,” he said. No more charging rents for pews.
In addition, the vestry must “discharge all committees except the vestry, so as to leave me with entirely free hands.”
Finally, he said, “Give me $10,000 a year for three years to use in parish work as I see fit, without asking anybody’s consent.” $10,000 in 1882 was the equivalent of about $275,000 today.
Jaws dropped. The vestrymen looked at one another. Suddenly, one of them spoke.
“Done!” said J. Pierpont Morgan.
Rainsford and J.P. Morgan, the wealthy financier whom one historian called “the greatest American banker,” wound up being lifelong friends and it was Morgan who would bring the minister to the edge of Ridgefield.
When Rainsford took over, St. George’s was $35,000 in debt. In the first month of his leadership, seven of the 14 families still left in the parish departed — probably in reaction to his liberal views.
When he retired 25 years later, St. George’s had a membership of more than 4,000 people, and a sizable endowment.
“Under his vigorous direction, the church rapidly widened its work,” The Times said in 1933. “Clubs, schools, athletic rooms, camps on the shore and in the mountains, sanitariums, classes for mothers, missions and other activities came into being.” He set up soup kitchens, established schools to teach trades, addressed problems of teenage boys and girls, and ran weekly musical and literary programs with an admission charge of five cents. He was trying to deal with the needs of everyone —young and old, rich and poor, male and female — in his neighborhood.
Even services changed. “The choir was enlarged and removed from its high gallery, and congregational singing introduced,” said a profile of Rainsford in a Cleveland newspaper.
And he continued to speak out about issues few Episcopal clergy were addressing. “In the pulpit he dared to talk of things which were not considered sermon material,” The Times said. “He mentioned such subjects as birth control, and talked in no uncertain terms of the city’s vice problem.”
In an 1886 article in The Churchman, an Anglican journal still published today, Rainsford said “the tendency of modern Protestantism, inside as well as outside the Protestant Episcopal Church, is to build up our church life too distinctly on social lines: The mission chapel for the poor, the beautiful avenue church for the rich and well-to do...We don’t want a church for rich men as such, nor yet poor as poor, but churches that by practice as well as precept, tell the community around them that the house of God is the house of man.”
Perhaps it was his desire for a less lavish “avenue church” that led the parish in 1889 to have the tall, showy spires removed from the church’s two towers.
In 1894, a time when other white Episcopal churches in the city flatly banned black people, Rainsford proposed hiring Henry Thacker Burleigh, a black singer, as soloist. When it came to a decision by the vestry, J.P. Morgan cast the tie-breaking vote in Burleigh’s favor. The singer went on to serve as the church’s soloist for 52 years during which time he became nationally recognized as a composer of many songs and pieces of classical music. (While a scholarship student at the prestigious National Conservatory of Music in New York, Burleigh had earned money there as a janitor and was overheard by Antonin Dvorak singing Negro spirituals as he worked. Dvorak befriended him and used themes from songs Burleigh sang for him in composing his Ninth Symphony, “From the New World.”)
Despite being an Episcopal minister in banker Morgan’s parish, “he attracted wide attention by his outspoken criticism of the lavish entertainment furnished at a society ball when there was much suffering among the city’s poor.” He called for the ball’s cancellation.
In 1900 he shocked many Christians by declaring: “There is no terrible judgment ahead, no physically burning in hell. That judgment is a process here and now. The Kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom existing in men’s hearts.”
And if that wasn’t bad enough, he stirred controversy with his colorful language. In a 1901 address to a Philadelphia trade organization, he criticized charges that Christian missionaries in China were responsible for the insurrection and other problems happening there and declared, “It’s all damned rot!” The D-word then was nearly tantamount to the F-word today. And many religious leaders, said the Philadelphia Inquirer, “do not approve of New York divine’s vigorous language.” (In a talk in Ridgefield later in his life, he is reported to have uttered a “God damn.”)
During his quarter century at St. George’s, Rainsford gained a national reputation as both a speaker and writer. And when in 1904, he suddenly took a leave of absence and set sail for Europe for an “indefinite rest,” newspapers around the country carried the story. “Dr. Rainsford made no announcement of his going, and it was greatly against his will that he decided to obey the orders of his physicians,” said The Idaho Statesman, which then quoted the minister’s physician as saying, “Dr. Rainsford is troubled with gout and rheumatism due to overwork.” Others reported he’d had a nervous breakdown, the second in his career.
Rainsford never returned to his position as rector of St. George’s Parish. In 1906, in a letter from Cairo, Egypt, he resigned. Six years later he also asked to be relieved of his ministerial position in the Episcopal Church.
Dr. Rainsford went through a lengthy recuperation that involved rest, travel, and his favorite pastime, big game hunting. In 1912 he headed an American Museum of Natural History expedition in search of black rhinoceros specimens in remote regions of East Africa. He advised — and is said to have hunted with — President Theodore Roosevelt; Rainsford’s book on hunting in Africa, “Land of the Lion,” was in Roosevelt’s personal library at Sagamore Hill.
He continued to be in demand as a speaker, and his opinions remained controversial. In one of his last public appearances, a 1925 lecture at Town Hall in New York, he maintained that young people could not accept the ‘old religion.’ “Banish the supernatural,” he declared. “I believe in the Lord Jesus as a man, a real man. I believe he was born of the love of a good man and a good woman, as God intended all of us to be born. I believe he lived as men lived, that he died as men die, only in unparalleled torture.”
After Rainsford retired in 1906, J.P. Morgan asked him what he planned to do. Rainsford indicated he’d like to find a place in “the country,” but feared he could not afford the cost. No problem, said Morgan, who as a gift to his friend built him a retirement home on Route 35 in South Salem, N.Y., right on the Ridgefield town line.
It was no ordinary house. The 22-room stone-and-timber mansion on a hill overlooking the Hudson Valley was designed by the highly respected architect, Grosvenor Atterbury, and Morgan is said to have brought over more than 100 Japanese craftsmen to build the place.
The estate included a large “game house” where Rainsford could display souvenirs of his safaris, including mounted specimens. (This became a “field trip” destination for local pupils early in the 20th Century. “Ridgefield school children were thrilled to visit this great big exhibition hall when their time came, about fourth grade,” recalled Ridgefield Press publisher Karl S. Nash.)
The house was located on 32 acres that Rainsford called Savin Hill. Among his visitors there over the years were President Roosevelt and, of course, J.P. Morgan. He also eventually had a place in Camden, S.C., where he would spend winters.
Today, after a long period as a restaurant called Le Château, the Rainsford house has become a wedding and banquet center, also called Le Château.
While Savin Hill was in South Salem, it was forever being misplaced. When The Architectural Digest featured the house in 1919, the periodical said it was in Ridgefield, Conn. Even when Rainsford died in 1933 in a New York City hospital, The New York Times said he had entered the hospital a month earlier after breaking his wrist “in a fall at his home in Ridgefield, Conn.”
He was 83 years old at his death.
Rainsford had a more than passing interest in St. Stephen’s Church in Ridgefield. He often worshipped there, sometimes preached there, and contributed money to its coffers. He also occasionally offered his opinions on its management. In 1924, he wrote the vestry, recommending that it seek a more varied membership instead of just rich old men. “In my judgment — and I have had perhaps somewhat unusual opportunity for gaining experience — vestries in our church are too frequently drawn from one class,” he said. “Why not try to get some stirring, God-fearing young man on the Saint Stephen’s Vestry.”
“The vestry took no action on his suggestion,” said St. Stephen’s historian Robert S. Haight, “and it was not until almost thirty years later that the self-perpetuation of Saint Stephen’s vestries was successfully challenged.”
Rainsford had another interest in St. Stephen’s: His son, architect W. Kerr Rainsford, designed the church building, completed in 1915. Kerr Rainsford also designed the War Memorial at the head of Branchville Road.