Thomas Armitage was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1819. He is descended from the old and honored family of the Armitages of that section of Yorkshire, one of whom, Sir John Armitage, of Barnsley, was created a baronet by Charles I, in 1640. He lost his father a few years since, and his mother when five years old. She was the granddaughter of the Rev. Thomas Barrat, a Wesleyan Methodist minister. She had great faith in Jesus, and prayed often and confidently for the salvation of her oldest son, Thomas. At her death she gave him her Bible her chief treasure, which she received as a reward from her teacher in the Sunday school. Her last prayer for him was that he might be converted and become a good minister of the Saviour.
The religious influence of his godly mother never forsook him. While listening to a sermon on the test, "Is it well with thee?" his sins and danger filled him with grief and alarm, and before he left the sanctuary his heart was filled with the love of Christ.
In his sixteenth year he preached his first sermon. His text was, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." The truth was blessed to the conversion of three persons. He declined pressing calls to enter the regular ministry of the English Methodist Church, but used his gifts as a local preacher for several years.
Like many Englishmen he imbibed republican doctrines, and these brought him in 1838 to New York. He received deacon's orders from Bishop Waugh, and those of an elder from Bishop Morris. He filled many important appointments in the M. E. Church in New York, and when he united with the Baptists he was pastor of the Washington Street church in Albany, one of its most important churches, where the Lord had given him a precious revival and eighty converts. At this period his influence in the M. E. Church was great, and its highest honors were before him. When he was first examined for Methodist ordination he expressed doubts about the church government of the Methodist body, and about sinless perfection, falling from grace, and their views of the ordinances; but he was the great-grandson of a Methodist minister, his mother was of that communion, and he himself had been a preacher in it for years, and his misgivings were regarded as of no moment. In 1839 S. Ilsley, which made him almost a Baptist, and what remained to be done to effect that end was accomplished by another baptism in Albany, administered by the Rev. Jabez Swan, of Connecticut. An extensive examination of the baptismal question confirmed his faith, and placed him without a misgiving upon the Baptist platform in everything. Dr. Welsh baptized him into the fellowship of the Pear Street church, Albany. Soon after a council was called to give him scriptural ordination. Dr. Welsh was moderator; Fred Humphrey, mayor of Albany, and Judge Ira Harris were among its members. A letter of honorable dismissal from the M. E. Church, bearing flattering testimony to his talents and usefulness, was read before the council, and after the usual examination he was set apart to the Christian ministry in the winter of 1848. He was requested to preach in the Norfolk Street church, New York, in the following June. The people were charmed with the stranger, and so was the sickly pastor, the Rev. George Benedict. He was called to succeed their honored minister, who said to Mr. Armitage, "If you refuse this call it will be the most painful act of your life." Mr. Benedict never was in the earthly sanctuary again. Mr. Armitage accepted the invitation, in his twenty-ninth year, July 1, 1848. In 1853-54, 140 persons were baptized, and in 1857 152, while other years had great blessings.
The first year of his ministry in Norfolk Street the meeting-house was burned, and another erected. Since that time the church reared a house for God in a more attractive part of the city, which they named the "Fifth Avenue Baptist church." The property is worth at least $150,000, and it is free from debt. The membership of the church is over 700. In 1853, Mr. Armitage was made a Doctor of Divinity by Georgetown College, Ky. He was then in his thirty-fourth year.
At a meeting held in New York, May, 1850, by friends of the Bible, Dr. Armitage offered resolutions which were adopted, and upon which the Bible Union was organized two weeks later, with Dr. S. H. Cone as its president, and W. H. Wyekoff, LL.D., as its secretary. In May, 1856, Dr. Armitage became the president of the society. In this extremely difficult position he earned the reputation of being on of the ablest presiding officers in our country. The Bible Union reached its greatest prosperity while he presided over its affairs.
Dr. Armitage is a scholarly man, full of information, with a powerful intellect; one of the greatest preachers in the United States; regarded by many as the foremost man in the American pulpit. We do not wonder that he is so frequently invited to deliver sermons at ordinations, dedications, installations, missionary anniversaries, and to college students. As a great teacher in Israel, the people love to hear him, and their teachers are delighted with the themes and with the herald.
Seventeen years ago a gentleman wrote of Dr. Armitage, "The expression of his face is one of mingled intelligence and kindness. As he converses it is with animation, and his eyes sparkle. His manners are easy, graceful, and cordial. He fascinates strangers and delights friends. He appears before you a polished gentleman, who wins his way to your esteem and affection by his exalted worth." The description has been confirmed by time.
[From William Cathcart, editor, The Baptist Encyclopedia, 1881; rpt. 1988. — jrd]
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