Charles H. Parkhurst, pastor of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church at the end of the nineteenth century, already had a reputation for dynamic preaching when he began his crusade against corruption and vice in 1892. He used his pulpit to attack city officials and the police force, accusing both of being no more than tools of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine, and of tolerating illegal drinking and houses of prostitution. Unsavory places of business had been moving into the vicinity of his church, and he considered them harmful, especially to the young men of his congregation. In a scathing sermon on Valentine’s Day, he castigated members of the city administration as “a lying, perjured, rum-soaked, and libidinous lot.”
Parkhurst’s controversial sermon put his church in the news, catching the attention of the government and the press. Challenged to provide proof of his charges, he hired a lawyer, acquired a youthful assistant, and disguising himself in filthy old clothing, visited saloons, gambling dens and houses of ill repute in order to collect hard evidence. He returned to the pulpit a month later (March 13) with a stack of affidavits in hand and a long list that named the offending establishments. A large crowd was waiting in the church for his report.
The following year, 1893, saw Parkhurst broadening his attack, moving beyond the identification of the individual saloons, brothels and gambling houses, to making corrupt politicians the object. His work enjoyed a degree of success when the election of 1894 returned a Republican as mayor, an opponent of the candidate endorsed by Tammany Hall. The new mayor, William J. Strong, appointed Madison Square parishioner Teddy Roosevelt to head of the New York Police Board, and it was from this position that Roosevelt launched his political career. But it would be more than another half century before the influence of Tammany Hall was completely broken. Parkhurst himself reported that “the Tammany tiger was not dead yet—had just had its tail badly twisted.” But it had been checked, and Parkhurst’s influential pulpit had been instrumental.