HENRY CLAY TRUMBULL  The Pioneer Personal Worker

     Blazing a trail through the uncharted wilderness of personal soul-winning, Henry Clay Trumbull (1830-1903) was indeed one of God's pioneers. None has ever set forth the basic principles for fruitful personal evangelism more clearly, wisely and acceptably than he. His book, Individual Work for Individuals, appeared in 1901, the same year that Dr. R. A. Torrey's How to Work for Christ was copyrighted, both being among the first books ever devoted to an exposition of the principles of personal evangelism. But Trumbull writing near the end of his long life had been studying and practicing personal soul-winning long before Torrey, who wrote in mid-life.

     Though he made notable contributions in many areas of Christian work, undoubtedly the greatest permanent contribution of Henry Clay Trumbull was in the field of personal evangelism.

     Renowned as a Sunday school missionary, organizer, lecturer; as a Civil War chaplain; as the editor of The Sunday School Times (1875-1903); as the author of 38 books; as an Orientalist scholar and the discoverer of the Biblical Kadesh-Barnea; as on of the Lyman Beecher lecturers at Yale University; as a Northfield Conference speaker; as a constant traveler; as the head of a Christian family, full of energy and always busy for his Lord, Dr. H. C. Trumbull was never too busy to talk to an individual about the Saviour.

     He was converted to Christ at the age of twenty-one by the personal appeal of a friend in a letter. Having made his commitment, he felt the urge to win some other person to the Lord. His first effort was to speak about Christ to a fellow employee in the Harford, Connecticut, railway office where they both worked. He was surprised and dismayed as his friend made this reply:

Trumbull, your words cut me to the heart. You little think how they rebuke me. I've long been a professed follower of Christ; and you never suspected this, although we have been in close association in house and office for years. I've never said a word to you for the Saviour whom I trust...And here are you inviting me to come to that Saviour of whom I have been a silent follower for years. May God forgive me for my lack of faithfulness.[1]

     As young Trumbull turned this experience over in his mind, and as he observed other professing Christians, he concluded that this common failure of believers to speak to others about Christ was a great sin. In order to keep himself from falling into this disobedience, he made the following remarkable life resolve:

     I determined that as I loved Christ, and as Christ loved souls, I would press Christ on the individual soul, so that none who were in the proper sphere of my individual responsibility or influence should lack opportunity of meeting the question whether or not they would individually trust and follow Christ. The resolve I made was, that whenever I was in such intimacy with a soul as to be justified in choosing my subject of conversation, the theme of themes should have prominence between us, so that I might learn his need, and, if possible, meet it. That decision has largely shaped my Christian life-work in the half-century that has followed its making.[2]

     Not because he found it easy, but because he believed it to be his God-given duty and of supreme importance, he labored for souls wherever he went. In fact, he claims that it never did become easy for him to try to win souls. Satan was always there to oppose. Near the end of his life he wrote:

From nearly half a century of such practice, as I have had opportunity day by day, I can say that I have spoken with thousands upon thousands on the subject of their spiritual welfare. Yet, so far from my becoming accustomed to this matter, so that I can take hold of it as a matter of course, I find it as difficult to speak about it at the end of these years as at the beginning. Never to the present day can I speak to a single soul for Christ without being reminded by Satan that I am in danger of harming the cause by introducing it just now. If there is one thing that Satan is sensitive about, it is the danger of a Christian's harming the cause he loves by speaking of Christ to a needy soul. He had more than once, or twice, or thrice, kept me from speaking on the subject by his sensitive pious caution, and he has tried a thousand times to do so. Therefore, my experience leads me to suppose that he is urging other persons to try any method for souls except the best one.[3]

     Yet out of the multitude of his evangelical activities for Christ, he had no doubt that his personal evangelism was the most profitable of them all. He weighed his life's labors from near the end when he wrote:

Yet looking back upon my work, in all these years, I can see more direct results of good through my individual efforts with individuals, than I can know of through all my spoken words to thousands upon thousands of persons in religious assemblies, or all my written words on the pages of periodicals or of books ... Reaching one person at a time is the best way of reaching all the world in time. Reaching one person at a time is the best way of reaching a single individual.[4]

     No books on personal evangelism being in existence for his guidance, Henry Clay Trumbull had to pioneer in this work. How can we explain his success? First, in what he was in himself; and second, in the principles he discovered and applied.

     H. C. Trumbull was a man among men. He was equally at home with the common people or with the world's great leaders of his day. His goodly physical stature radiated Christian strength. Possessed with driving energy and ever alert to human need, he took time nevertheless to cultivate the inner Christian virtues. He was a deep and constant student of the Bible, a man of faith and prayer, a Christian of spiritual sensitivity and discernment, a worker of practical vision and unwavering courage. When this man's life touched another, that other knew he was in contact with a choice spirit among God's elect.

     Dr. Trumbull was a profound believer in the power of friendship. His ideals of friendship put into practice enabled him to win others to himself as the first step in winning them to Christ. In 1891 he completed his book, Friendship the Master-Passion, which embodied his long and penetrating thought on that subject. In it he wrote:

Friendship by its very nature consists in loving rather than in being loved. In other words, friendship consists in being a friend, not in having a friend; in giving one's affection unselfishly and unswervingly to another, not in being the object of another's affection, or in reciprocating such an affection...Friendship-love, as a love that is unselfish, uncraving, ever out-going, and ever on-going, is in its very nature divine love. It is such love as God gives, and as man ought to give to God. It is such love as man should give to his fellow-man for God's sake.[5]

     Inevitably such a conception of friendship as this would prompt him to render love's best service-introducing others to the greatest Friend, the Saviour of sinners. So it was with the purpose of being a friend in the highest sense that he approached all men. That he achieved this ideal in the testimony of Philip E. Howard, Sr., his son-in-law and for twelve years his associate on The Sunday School Times, who wrote:

He was never pastor of a church, but he was constantly doing the work of a shepherd. One might often see him, on his errands of comfort and cheer, hurrying along the streets on cold winter nights, in the driving snow, enveloped in his long ulster and with his wide-brimmed chaplain's hat pulled down over his eyes. He always had time for these things. The individual was always foremost in his thought.[6]

     Organizing his father's soul-winning principles into textbook form, Charles Gallaudet Trumbull, editor of The Sunday School Times from 1903 to 1941, wrote the book, Taking Men Alive, in 1907.[7] From it we learn that Henry Clay Trumbull believed that tact in the approach was important. Tact is touch on the right spot rather than on the wrong one. Tact will begin the conversation with the other person's interests, or direct it to them, unless they are positively sinful.

     Any personal worker will make some mistakes, particularly in the beginning, but H. C. Trumbull said:

I saw that it were better to make a mistake in one's first effort at personal religious conversation, and correct that mistake afterwards, than not to make any effort. There can be no mistake so bad, in working for an individual soul for Christ, as the fatal mistake of not making any honest endeavor. How many persons refrain from doing anything lest they should possibly do the wrong thing just now! Not doing is the worst of doing.[8]

     The Christian witness should seize openings when they come, but more than that, he may need to make them. Trumbull wrote:

The real question is not, "is this the best time for a personal word for Christ?" but it is, "Am I willing to improve this time for Christ, and for a precious soul, whether it is the best time or not?" If the Christian waits until the sinner gives sign of a desire for help, or until the Christian thinks that a loving word to the sinner will be most timely, he is not likely to begin at all. The only safe rule for his guidance-if indeed a Christian needs a specific rule as a guide-is to speak lovingly of Christ and of Christ's love for the individual whenever one has an opportunity of choosing his subject of conversation in an interview with an individual who may be in special need, yet who has given no special indication of it.[9]

     Honest commendation is always in order, and will often gain us a favorable audience with an unsaved person. H. C. Trumbull believed that we can always find something about another person to compliment or commend, if we wish. A good example of his use of honest commendation is the following experience:

     Entering, one November morning, at the Grand Central Station in New York, a crowded train for Boston, I found the only vacant seat was alongside of a pleasant-faced, florid complexioned, large-framed young man, and that seat I took, and began to read the morning paper. After a few minutes my seat-mate took from his valise a large case bottle of whiskey and a metal drinking cup. Before drinking himself, he preferred it to me. As I thanked him, and declined it, he drank by himself. I still read my paper, but I thought of my seat-mate, and I watched for an opportunity. In a little while he again turned to his valise, and, as before, took out his whiskey bottle. Once more he offered it to me, and again I declined it with thanks. As he put away the bottle, after drinking from it the second time, he said:

     "Don't you ever drink, my friend?"

     "No, my friend, I do not."

     "Well, I guess you think I'm a pretty rough fellow."

     "I think you're a very generous-hearted fellow. But I tell you frankly, I don't think your whiskey-drinking is the best thing about you."

     "Well, I don't believe it is."

     "Why do you keep it up, then?"

     Trumbull relates how his companion told him of his background, and how he was on the way home for Thanksgiving Day to a mother who was praying for him. The story continues as follows:

     I told my seat-mate that those who love Christ love such as he, because Christ loves them. And I urged him to make his Thanksgiving Day at his old homestead a real day of thanksgiving by telling his good mother that her prayers for him were answered.

     "That would make my old mother pretty happy, if I did that," he said heartily.

     "Wouldn't you like to make your old mother happy, as you go home to have a Thanksgiving with her?" I asked.

     "Indeed I would," he said.

     As we came to my Hartford home, where I was to leave the train, I took his hand and urged him again to do what he knew was his duty, and which would gladden his good mother's heart. He thanked me for my interest in his welfare. He promised to talk with his mother of our conversation. He assured me that he would endeavor to profit by our talk. I urged him to commit himself to Christ as the all-sufficient Saviour, and we parted.[10]

     We cannot win men by argument, but we can impress them with sincere conviction as we witness to what Christ means to us, Dr. Trumbull taught. Let us speak lovingly of Christ and what He has done for us. No man can gainsay that.

     He believed that we can seldom begin a conversation by quoting Scripture passages for the simple reason that the other person is not interested in the Bible at first. Far better is it to begin with some theme of common interest to the other person and gradually guide the conversation around to the Bible. While the Bible is not necessarily a tool, yet it is the worker's indispensable equipment. The soul-winner must feed on the Word and live in it to get strength and inspiration for his own life, but he may repel his prospect if he begins by quoting Bible passages. Once the needy soul becomes aware of his need, then Scripture verses are in order.

     This man of God had a genuine respect for personality, and he did not believe in high-pressuring people into a commitment before they were Spirit-prepared. But he did recognize that at times it was proper to plead for a decision. One such case concerned a soldier into whose tent Chaplain Trumbull slipped late one night. The soldier was answering his sister's letter in which she had appealed to him to become a Christian. Says Trumbull:

I felt that the occasion was a peculiar one, and I must improve it. I urged him to a decision at that very time, and I would not consent that he should postpone it. I saw that all he needed was to come to the act of decision, and there might never be a better moment for this with him than now. So there I remained with him, pleading for Christ until far into the night. I knew that here probably never would be a "more convenient season" than this. And his strong New England mind evidently took in this fact. He was considering the matter well. Finally, he voluntarily knelt with me beneath the shelter-tent, and deliberately consecrated himself to the Saviour's care and service...It was but a little while after this, that in an engagement in which we had a part, he was killed: and as I said earnest words of prayer over the grave in which we buried him, and as I looked down into his dead face, I was glad that I waited that memorable night until he knelt by my side and gave himself up to his loving and waiting Saviour. And then I wrote to that faithful and praying sister, and told her of that midnight hour of his deliberate consecration.[11]

     In this connection, he learned that the time came when the unsaved person should be urged to make an immediate decision, even though the place were public. Riding on a train, he fell into conversation with a young man whom he had recently seen in evangelistic services. Trumbull expressed a desire to see him become a Christian as others were doing.

     He said he wished it were so.

     "Then why isn't it so?" I asked. "You have nothing to do but to commit yourself at once to the loving Saviour as His servant and follower. He is more ready to accept you than you are to offer yourself."

     "Do you mean, Mr.Trumbull, that here on this car-seat, just now, I can give myself to the Saviour, and He will accept me without any further preparation on my part?"

     "I mean just that," I said. "The Saviour is ready when you are. There is no gain in your waiting; and no further preparation is needed than for you to be ready to give yourself to Him and to trust Him unhesitatingly."

     He said not a word more about himself, but he gave evidence of a loving trustful soul, when he reached out in thought after another, saying:

     "Mr. Trumbull, I've a brother who ought to be a follower of Christ. I would you could talk to him."[12]

     We will always find obstacles, and Satan is quick to suggest them or to remind us of them, but we are not to let them hinder us from making an honest attempt to win the needy one. Trumbull expresses it in these words:

When God brings us alongside of one whom we may help, or may feel a responsibility for, we are not to consider the obstacles or difficulties in the way. God will take care of them. Nor are we to be hindered by religious or denominational differences that seem to stand between us and him...The one question is, Can we evidence to him, in such a way as to impress on him, and to deepen his sense of their preciousness, the surpassing love of God and the blessed fullness of the Spirit of Christ? We are not to risk the repelling of him by making prominent the things wherein we differ; but we are to approach him at the one "point of contact," that from a connection at that point the electric current of sympathy may quiver to the extremities of his very being.[13]

     Problems of Christian conduct are not to be settled for the lost sinner. He may raise questions about such matters, but if he becomes a Christian and puts Christ at the center of his life, the circumference, where these problems exist, will come out all right.

     We should direct men to think about what they believe rather than what they doubt or disbelieve. There is more power in believing one thing than in doubting ten thousand. Dr. Trumbull wrote:

A man has more power through believing one thing than in disbelieving ten thousand things. It is a man's duty to disbelieve, or to doubt, at a proper time, when the matter has been well considered; but no man is capable of disbelieving, or of doubting, intelligently and sensibly, unless he first has strong and positive beliefs. A man's real power either to do or to doubt starts from his beliefs, and if a man gives attention to what he does not believe, rather than to what he does believe, he makes no progress, and he lacks practical power in any direction.[14]

     That Dr. Trumbull was skillful in dealing with doubters and unbelievers is clear from reading his book, How to Deal with Doubts and Doubters, finished in the year of his death, 1903. To a young man who had doubts concerning some parts of the Bible, he gave the advice to go home and begin to read his Bible, marking the things in the Bible which he could believe ignoring the things for the time being that he could not believe. The procedure cured the young man of unbelief.

     When people cannot find or maintain assurance of salvation, he advised not to look inside but to look up to Christ. He claimed that what persons need, who have difficulty doing the will of God, is not to give up their own wills but to get divine reinforcement. "That one who wants to do his duty needs not to have less will, or determination, but to have his strongest will, or purpose, rightly directed toward his loving and all-sufficient Saviour. Thus directed, the more will a man has, the better it is for him in God's service,"[15] wrote Dr. Trumbull.

     When believers think they must become better in order to qualify for church membership, he would say to them:

The church is not an exhibition hall, where good men and women show themselves. The church is a hospital where are those who need and want to be saved by Christ. Yet, as I understand you, you are unwilling to be counted as one who needs the hospital or the Great Physician, but you want to stand off outside and prove that you can cure yourself.[16]

     To those who will not count themselves Christian until they have had an emotional upheaval, or "who are waiting for something inside to break," he would advise to receive Christ as Lord and Saviour and confess Him before men and forget about a preconceived emotional experience. God gives emotional experience or the lack of it as He pleases. If one waits for some inner emotional signal before he responds to Christ's call, he may wait in vain. Likewise, people who wait for more faith are making a mistake. They need to use the faith they already have. Saving faith "is that act by which one person, a sinner, commits himself to another person, a Saviour," said Dr. Bushnell, and Trumbull agreed.

     Individuals who hesitate to undertake right actions because of a lack of right feeling are astray. We can never safely make personal feelings on a subject the test of duty. Feelings fluctuate and change but duty remains constant. The safe principle is to obey our "consciousness of right, in view of God's commands and His providential surroundings in the church and in the community."

     Lack of pleasure in doing a thing is not the criterion of whether or not that thing is right or wrong. Often it is our duty to do things in which we find no pleasure at that time. But, Dr. Trumbull points out,

     It is true, that, if we persevere in right-doing while we have no pleasure or enjoyment in it, we may come to find added enjoyment in that very occupation. But that is a result and reward of doing our duty while we found no pleasure in such doing.[17]

     The worker for souls will find, that even though Satan opposes him, God will work with him and ahead of him. We do not work alone, claimed Trumbull. If we are humble, sincere and tactful, we will not find as many rebuffs as we anticipate, but, on the other hand, we will often find a hungry and waiting soul divinely prepared for our conversation.

     Results are in the hands of the Lord. Our responsibility is to be a faithful witness, to sow beside all waters, and leave the harvest to the Lord of the harvest. We should not consider any opportunity too insignificant. Deformed personalities and mentally deficient persons are often overlooked by Christian workers, but among them we can find some of the most responsive and appreciative prospects.

     On these principles, Henry Clay Trumbull pioneered in personal soul-winning and set an example for all Christians to follow.

This article is by Faris Daniel Whitesell and was originally published under the title "Great Personal Workers." Copyrighted in 1956 by Moody Bible Institute and is now public domain.


1. Henry Clay Trumbull, Individual Work for Individuals (New York: The International Committee of Young Men's Christian Association, 1902), p.22

2. ibid, p. 23

3. ibid, p. 168-169

4. ibid, p. 29-30

5. Philip E. Howard, The Life Story of Henry Clay Trumbull (Philadelphia: The Sunday School Times Company, 1905), p. 409

6. ibid, p. 378

7. Charles Gallaudet Trumbull, Taking Men Alive (New York: The Association Press, 1907), 199 pages

8. Individual Work for Individuals, pp. 76-77.

9. ibid, p. 162

10. ibid, pp. 31-35

11. ibid, pp. 89-90

12. ibid, pp. 37-38

13. ibid, pp. 46-47

14. H. Clay Trumbull, How to Deal with Doubts and Doubters (New York: Association Press, 1907), p. 3

15. ibid, p. 26

16. ibid, p. 33

17. ibid, p. 98