Sarah Dunn Clarke
“Mother” of Pacific Gospel Mission
As the 26-year-old Sarah Dunn looked around the parlor of her family home in Waterloo, Iowa in the 1850s, she no doubt saw the room was furnished in the latest style. Then at the same time she seemed to have had an inner voice that asked her: “how are you going to decorate your heavenly home?”
Later she would remember that at the time, despite her being a polished and proper young lady, she probably didn’t have much of a relationship with God. Then, as she pondered what seemed to be a divine nudge, she began to wonder about her real life-purpose. How could she please God? Then she recognized a new purpose in life—God wanted her to reach souls for Christ.
A few years later Sarah became to wonder how she could serve God in her pleasant live in Chicago? She did find some comfort in working with the destitute in the city. At the time there were more than 200,000 living in poverty and her continued involvement led her to begin a mission Sunday school class and there she met Colonel George Clarke.
Born in New York in 1827, Clarke had had careers in newspaper work and studied law before he started handling real estate. And to match Sarah’s interest in reaching souls, Clarke shared her desire to follow God.
After serving in the Civil War, Clarke had returned to real estate and found business booming in the now growing city. He continued his friendship with young Miss Dunn, but he didn’t really share her higher purposes of serving God. However, his purposes often seemed somewhat different than Sarah’s. Later she related that Clarke “…had always intended to be associated in some prominent enterprise in the Lord’s cause, where his name could be engraved on marble or granite.”
Then there came new challenges in 1871 with the city-wide Great Chicago Fire which devastated the city, destroying many businesses, homes, and churches. There was nearly $200 million damage, leaving some 100,000 homeless, but as the city began to recover and rebuild as a new commercial center there were others new businesses—casinos, brothers and the inevitable saloons.
Clarke and Sarah were married in 1873 and settled in a pleasant neighborhood as both continued to consider their previous desires to serve others. Clarke resumed business and Sarah then begin to visit an area of the city where poverty was rampant and drunkards plentiful. She persuaded Clarke to accompany her as she visited these areas, and in 1877 after four years of marriage they decided to follow God’s nudging, and opened a small mission to serve the needy and share the Gospel of Christ.
It was a tough neighborhood where the Clarke’s established their light in the darkness—a newly rented storefront that they fitted out with benches and an old organ. Sarah had painted Bible verses on the walls, and the oil lamps and wood burning stove, tried to fend off the winter cold. The neighborhood was replete with saloons and brothels and drug addicts were commonplace on street corners. The mission was banked on both sides by saloons and their raucous sounds came drifting through the walls when they held services.
George Clarke was the preacher and though he wasn’t exactly eloquent his messages were laden with the Gospel message. Many of their attendees were still inebriated when they heard his messages, but the Gospel often got through and soon the 40 original seats were always full with an overflow. So in 1880 when he looked for a bigger venue, Clarke found the perfect location—in a building where the previous occupant had been the Pacific Beer Garden. It was a location that had been called “The most murderous joint west of New York City.” Also, just down the street was the “red light district.”
But what to call the new mission? The story goes that a prominent evangelist of the time (Dwight L. Moody) suggested they just drop the word “beer” and insert “Mission.” Perhaps his reasoning was practical. If there was a sign to adapt, they could just change one word and if it had a reputation as a hell-hole then the type that attracted might stop by, and might stay to hear the gospel. But whatever the reasoning, the name would become perhaps better known that the original—and Moody’s students and assistants took a great part in the mission preaching and singing.
However, since Clarke was no longer in real estate and they had apparently been using their savings, operational funds began to run low. Sarah’s answer: “We had a rich Father and we trusted him.” One way they met their bills was to sell household effects of their luxurious home as well as their personal valuables.
In fact—one day they found they had no funds to pay the rent, but to them closing the mission was unthinkable—so they prayed all night and trusted God. Then the next day they found that their front yard had sprouted a great crop of high quality mushrooms. They gathered the crop and sold it to a local hotel, and that paid their rent. Sarah wrote later, “No mushrooms were ever seen there before—nor any since.”
The mission services were carefully planned as each evening Sarah used Room Number 12 to pray then once she joined her husband on the platform together they conducted the service.
As with many missions of the time, they often took their message out on the nearby streets, and one day in 1886 musicians from Pacific Garden Mission (PGM) were performing on the street corner. Passers-by might stop to listen and then move on but three of them did not do that. They were three players from the Chicago baseball team and they’d been imbibing in the nearby saloons and, slightly the worse for wear, paused to listen. One, an Iowa native, was particularly interested because the hymns reminded him of his boyhood and the memories brought tears. Then as the music ceased Sarah began to speak—her topic, a common expression of the time, “Where is my wandering boy tonight?”
With the words flowing into his mind, the young man brushed off his fellow ball players, saying, “I’m done with this way of living.” He began attending Mission services for several weeks and then made a confession of belief in Christ. Thus Billy Sunday left professional baseball behind, and became one of the greatest Christian evangelists of his time.
The Clarkes’ ministry at PGM continued, and the couple’s dedication to the project and to each other, no doubt enabled them to accomplish what they did. Sarah’s memories of their work, remembered personal challenges, such as when their travels to and from the mission from their home in all sorts of weather. She remembered one time when there came what might be called a nagging doubt. “Does it pay?” she wondered, then answered, “Yes, I’d walk ten miles—or a night—if I could win one soul.”
Her desire was steady, as even though her husband passed away in June, 1892 Sarah continued her work. A mission convert was named as director, and over the ensuing years Sarah continued to live frugally, putting the work of God first in her life. While she and George had apparently had a child many years before who didn’t survive thus many mission converts and workers became her children. A constant presence in mission services, Sarah had her way of dealing with any disruptions. If it were an unruly drunk, she would leave the platform, go to sit with the man and give him an embrace. Her whispered message was “You must be still now, for we want to tell you about Jesus your Savior.” If that didn’t solve the problem, then mission workers would escort the man outside—so intent were they that the meetings be uninterrupted.
A particularly troublesome time with the mission, was after the Chicago’s World Fair in the 1890s shut down, often stranding its workers. As Sarah and her workers assisted these as they could Sarah also organized prison and hospital visitations as well as day care and schooling for children. In fact it was noted that for all her 27 years she never missed a mission service—but never mentioned it that fact.
Sarah remained committed and active in the work of the Pacific Garden Mission until 1914 when failing health slowed her down. As she convalesced she wrote of her memories of the mission work, and discussed the struggles—yet victories of how they had served God. She summarized it with the words: ”He who marks the sparrow’s fall has always shielded us in times of storm.”
She died in 1918 and as one biographer wrote, she was “…unsung and unknown women have the greatest share in pushing God’s work among the lost. …All her tasks were done with great love.”
(Pacific Garden Mission is still very much in operation in Chicago. Also, for many years the stories of their many converts have been dramatized, on a radio program titled “Unshackled.” This is broadcast on many Christian radio stations, and on the Bible Broadcasting Network stations.)
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.
Pacific Garden Mission
Jamie Janosz, When Others Shuddered; Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up – Moody Publishing, Chicago, Ill. 2014