In the early 1890s, Frank Crane proved a popular if somewhat unconventional Methodist minister in Bloomington. He moved on after a few years, and though congregants knew that their young, talented and ambitious minister would one day make a name for himself, it’s unlikely anyone could’ve guessed that by the time of his death in 1928, Crane was one of the most-quoted and most-read authors alive.
Although forgotten today, the former Bloomington minister became a famous syndicated newspaper columnist who reached tens of thousands of readers six days a week. Crane was an “apostle of positive thinking” appealing to middle-class Americans interested in self-improvement — from romance to finance and everything in between. His columns, which developed into what were called “Four Minute Essays,” offered readers a daily dose of “eminently practical philosophy” and folksy self-help advice.
Born in Urbana in 1861, Crane was ordained a Methodist Episcopal minister in 1882. The following year he married Ellie C. Stickel of Hillsboro and they came to Bloomington from a church in Roodhouse, a railroad town in Greene County. Crane served as pastor of First Methodist Episcopal Church, Bloomington, from 1890 to 1892.
For his part, the Rev. Crane played the role of both the conservative minister defending religious tradition and the radical preacher questioning church doctrine. For example, he believed (at least during his tenure in Bloomington) that the Sabbath was strictly a day for worship and reflection, and as such it was wrong for newspapers to publish or streetcars to operate on Sundays. Yet in one of his controversial Sunday evening sermons in Bloomington, “he held that eternal punishment and reward are not taught in the Old Testament, but are revealed in the New.” Such a contrarian assertion, it was said, landed “like a bombshell” among the more staid members of the local church community.
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In the fall of 1892, Crane left Bloomington for First Methodist Episcopal in Omaha, Neb. It was there he began developing his abbreviated, breezy sermons that would evolve into his “preachments” or "Four Minute Essays." He also waged a take-no-prisoners campaign against prostitution and related vices running rampant in the city, delivering “pulpit editorials” on Sunday evenings.
During his Omaha tenure, it appears Crane earned a Ph.B. (Bachelor of Philosophy) through an Illinois Wesleyan University program offered to non-residents. He would later receive a DD, or a Doctor of Divinity, from Nebraska Wesleyan.
In 1896, Crane brought his one-of-a-kind preachments and pulpit editorials to Chicago, first to prestigious Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church. Much as he did in Bloomington, Crane flirted with radicalism when it came to certain mainline Methodist precepts. During a spring 1899 ministerial meeting, for instance, he caused a sensation by denying the doctrine of atonement “as commonly held by the church.”
Crane began devoting ever-greater time to his budding journalism career, eventually leaving the ministry after a five-year stint as minister in Worcester, Mass. The Rev. Crane now became Dr. Crane. The story goes that once he walked away from the pulpit, he approached the Chicago Daily News about writing a “daily sermon.” Initially rebuffed, he persisted until arrangements were made to pay him $6 a week — or $1 for each daily column.
Crane’s popularity grew when the column became syndicated through Associated Newspapers. His fame increased further when he became associated with the McClure newspaper syndicate. By this time, the days of $1 columns were long gone for the now highly paid newspaperman. For a while Crane made his home in Europe — Italy, France and England — and upon returning stateside he lived in Los Angeles and New York City.
“Dr. Crane says that he was not meant to be a pastor for he detested pastoral calls,” noted a 1923 profile. “He said that they bored him and the parishioners as well.” Not surprisingly, in his later writings he shed much of his overt Christian philosophy in favor of a more inspirational and sentimental message of self-betterment.
Crane would go on to say that terms such as Methodist or Baptist, Trinitarian or Unitarian, Catholic or Protestant, or fundamentalist or modernist, no longer held much meaning to him. “Dr. Crane in his later years believed himself to be as thoroughly a Christian as anyone,” noted one of his editors, “even though he considered the dogmas and creeds of the church to be of little or no consequence.”
For all his middle class, Midwestern roots, Crane was known to engage in rhetorical flights of fancy, often coming across in his writings as someone closer to Eastern mysticism than mainline Christianity. “I wonder how many have ever learned the art of enjoying the rain?” he asked in one of his daily columns. “The finest bath in the world is a rain-bath. Umbrellas are a disease of civilization.” In this particular “Four Minute Essay,” he encouraged readers to venture outdoors in a downpour without cover or protection. “Then when you reach home,” he concluded, “strip, and take a brisk rub-down with a harsh towel, and every physical sensibility within you laughs and blooms … and you can sing as you go to work, and you are ready to forgive all men their trespasses against you.”
Crane’s published works include "The Religion of Tomorrow" (1899), "The Song of the Infinite" (1909), "Just Human" (1915) and "Adventures in Common Sense" (1916). His magnum opus, though, was "Four Minute Essays," a 10-volume set published in 1919.
Of course, Crane’s mushy middlebrow meditations attracted the rapier wit of the likes of satirist H.L. Mencken, who said the former minister demonstrated “not a weakness for ideas that are stale and obvious, but a distrust of all ideas whatsoever.” Such ridicule, of course, didn’t mean a darn thing to the tens upon tens of thousands of loyal Dr. Crane readers.
The end for the good doctor came unexpectedly on Nov. 5, 1928, in Nice, France, during a tour of Europe. He was 67 years old.
Although a tempting target in our age of professed sophistication and real cynicism, Crane’s "Four Minute Essays" can still beguile one for their earnest strangeness. “The only thing you can get in a hurry is trouble … Only hell can be accelerated, not heaven,” he declared in “Wait,” a paean to the virtues of patience. “So do the best you can, and leave the results with time. For time is another name for God, the cosmic process, destiny, that power not of ourselves that eventually has its way with us and with all men. In all your plans do not forget time! Wait! Just wait!”
Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at BKemp@mchistory.org.