Feature

The Lively Undertaker

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“The President is dead.”

At 10 a.m. on July 23, 1885, this somber message was handed to Stephen Merritt, undertaker. As requested by the family, he journeyed to a cottage in the Adirondacks, where Ulysses Grant had fought his losing battle against throat cancer. Merritt prepared the body of our eighteenth president for burial and began planning a funeral that included a cortege seven miles long past sidewalks crowded with 1.5 million mourning citizens.

Five years later, the owner of Stephen Merritt Burial Company, the largest funeral home in New York, was named a vice president of the newly incorporated Christian Alliance. Surprising? Not in the least; while dealing with the deaths of both the celebrated and the commoner, Merritt’s consuming passion was bringing the message of eternal life to the living. A clergyman with the Methodist Episcopal denomination, he was asked to pastor a church that soon became known for rapid growth and Merritt’s innovative methods, such as adding ice cream and cake to the Methodist love feast and joyous congregational outings in Central Park!

Most widely recognized, however, was this undertaker’s emphasis on the living water flowing from Spirit-filled lives. “Stephen Merritt, I have come from Africa to learn from you about the Holy Spirit,” a visitor to the preacher’s Manhattan mission announced one evening. Sammy Morris had made a miraculous journey from Africa to New York to be tutored by Merritt, and the result was a revival nearly everywhere the young man and his mentor went.

A pivotal point in Merritt’s ministry came when his voice was disastrously silenced by a strange illness. He was curious enough to investigate a ministry drawing unusually large crowds to New York’s Grand Opera House. His discovery? A. B. Simpson. Merritt’s voice was healed, and he immediately associated himself with Simpson’s ministry.

Though assuming Alliance leadership responsibilities, he continued his pastorate, fed 2,000 homeless in his missions, responded to numerous speaking engagements and twice campaigned for statewide political office, all while still managing his business. A reporter marveled, “I have rarely seen a man of greater energy. . . . He almost flies about, smiling, laughing, bubbling over with buoyancy!” The liveliest of our Alliance “founding fathers” turns out to have been an undertaker! His ministries, energized by the Holy Spirit’s “streams of living water,” resulted in thousands following Jesus Christ.

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