When I attended the Rock River Conference for the first time, this being at Rockford in 1849, there were four men who were leaders on the Conference floor and in business. These were Richard Haney, A. E. Phelps, Philo Judson, and Luke Hitchcock; and when I attended last, at Joliet in 1891, Luke Hitchcock was a leader still. Through all these forty-four years, leaders one after another have arisen and gone down or out, while Dr. Hitchcock has all the time held the floor. This is a distinction that I have never known any other man to attain unto. Always wise, always discreet, always a man to whom all look with respect, he has always been heard with deference. For forty or more years he has been the Gladstone of the Conference.
Dr. Hitchcock was raised in Madison County, New York, being born in 1813, and was admitted into the Oneida Conference in 1834, when but twenty-one years of age, and was appointed junior preacher at Marcellus. In 1835 he was appointed to Franklin, and, at once making his mark, he was sent, in 1836, to Cazenovia, the seat of the old and famous Oneida Conference Seminary, at a time when George Peck was principal of that institution. In 1837 he went to Ithaca, and in 1838 located on account of lung difficulty, and in 1839 moved to the West for sanitary purposes. "On a beautiful summer morning, August 28, 1839, our boat," says Dr. Hitchcock., "landed at Chicago, coming from Buffalo. This was my first arrival in the city. I found my way to the old Saganash Hotel, at the corner of Lake and Market Streets. It was Sunday morning. In a short time Grant Goodrich called to pilot me across the prairie from the hotel to Clark Street Church. I then preached my first sermon in the West on this spot. Peter Borein bad just died (August 15), and it was then intended that I should fill his place. I found the pulpit draped in mourning, and a congregation who gave unmistakable evidence of their great sorrow at the loss of one who had led so many of them to the Savior."
It was expected that Luke Hitchcock would fill the Clark Street appointment; but finding that the cold, damp breezes of the Lake were severe on him, he was allowed to go into the country on to the Dixon Circuit as a supply. The Western climate invigorated him so that, while for years he remained a feeble man, he did efficient work. In 1840 he was made agent of the Rock River Seminary, and in 1841 was readmitted to Conference. It is from this cause that, while of it, he was not a member of the Conference at its first session. He continued in the agency of the seminary till 1842, when he was appointed to Ottawa and Peru. In 1843 he was stationed in Chicago, but was compelled to leave the work early in the spring of 1844. At the Conference of 1844 he was made presiding elder of the Ottawa District. From that time till 1846 he was on a district, and then till 1850 he was on the superannuated list. He was elected to General Conference in 1852.
At the General Conference of 1856 he received eighty-two votes for the office of Assistant Book Agent, against the one hundred and sixteen given to Adam Poe, who, of course, was elected. This was a premonition of what was to follow, and in 1860, when Adam Poe became Agent, Dr. Hitchcock was elected Assistant Book Agent at Cincinnati, to which office he was returned in 1864, and in 1868 was chosen principal Agent, in which position he continued till 1880. He was the second man the Rock River Conference has furnished to that important post; John T. Mitchell, in 1844, being the first. After the General Conference of 1864, William M. Doughty, who had ably managed the Book-room at Chicago for ten years, retired to more lucrative private engagements, and Dr. Hitchcock moved to Chicago to look after the publishing interests of the Northwest.
The following is a photograph taken in 1856 by another hand: "In person he is slender," says J. V. Watson, "and constitutionally somewhat frail. The color of his skin would indicate some severe but successful battles with inceptive chronic disease. . . . His phiz does not do justice to his mind. He is evidently a good-looking man, and does not impress you with any marked mental characteristics, unless it be that of great modesty. . . . His modesty, however, never shakes his firmness. When he is sure he is right, he goes ahead." Sometimes showing a will of his own, however. "Amiability, the handmaid of modesty, constitutes his prominent social quality. To see him, and converse with him, is to wish to do so again; and if good manners consist in the art of pleasing, he is emphatically an agreeable gentleman. As a Church officer he excels in the financial and the administrative. As a presiding elder he 'magnifies his office,' and were the office always magnified with such men, we should hear fewer calls for its abolishment. . . . As a preacher . . . he gives evidence of an acute understanding of the theology of Methodism," with a leaning toward the progressive. "Sound sense, great but chaste plainness, with a spirit which seems to be perfectly self-forgetting, are the chief characteristics of his sermons. His only object seems to be to do the people good. . . . Take him all in all, he is a preacher that everybody will love to hear, and may always hear with profit. ... He sits directly before us at this moment, with hair tinged a little with iron-gray, leaning forward upon his left hand, and giving, as is his wont when a little excited, a nondescript nervous snap of his eyes."
This is a correct portraiture, only that it needs to be said that, with the acute depth of thought worthy a Dempster, there is in him, unusual with most clear-thoughted men, a womanly tenderness that often sets his audience weeping, and melts himself to tears. And by occupying responsible stations he has come to feel his position until be will carry his point if it is a possible thing. Peter Cartwright was never, so far as we have beard, headed off but twice; once by Bishop Ames, and again by Dr. Hitchcock. At the General Conference of 1852, Cartwright wished to take a portion of territory from the Rock River Conference to make up a snug district for himself in the Illinois Conference. The mattter was left to the delegates of the two Conferences. Cartwright made a pettifogging speech before the committee, asserting in a very emphatic way that the Rock River Conference had three hundred square 'miles of territory more than the Illinois Conference. Brother Hitchcock arose, and the following colloquy ensued:
"Brother Cartwright, you are acquainted with the territory along the line between the two Conferences?"
"I was all over it before you was born!"
"Well, how far is it across the State on the line?"
" One hundred and sixty miles."
"'We have three hundred miles more than our share," said Hitchcock demurely. "It is a hundred and sixty miles across the State; I suggest that we move the line three-quarters of a mile north, which will make us equal!" The pith of the matter lies in the fact that a Conference line is indefinable, varying from six to ten miles. Cartwright acknowledged himself beaten, and, with a significant nod, exclaimed: "Luke, I will pay you for that sometime!"
Among the Rock River Conference's most honored names, Luke Hitchcock's stands not least. Between the years 1850 and 1860 he was pre-eminently the Conference "leader," and when the Agency took him in some measure off the floor, the business suffered for want of a leader.
Field, A. D. Worthies and workers, both ministers and laymen, of the Rock River Conference. Cincinnati: Cranston & Curts, 1896, pgs. 307-312.
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