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Madera’s ‘fire and brimstone preacher’

For The Madera Tribune

Borden’s Cumberland Presbyterian Church, shown here circa 1900, stood resolutely behind Rev. W.B. McElwee in his protestations against Madera’s Grand Fiesta of 1901. It issued a denunciation of its own.


The Rev. William B. McElwee was an ecclesiastical workhorse. He and his wife, Emily, came to Madera in 1891 to pastor the local Presbyterian Church. He had been born in Missouri in 1838 and ordained into the Christian ministry when he was 35. Although the Rev. McElwee was 53 years old when he assumed the Presbyterian pastorate in Madera, he still had plenty of fire in his belly. Not only did he pastor the Madera Presbyterian Church for 14 years, he fought Madera’s battle for morality on every front imaginable.

He preached against booze, prostitution, gambling, and even baseball on Sundays. The apex of Madera’s transgressions, however, was the Grand Fiesta that came to Madera in Sept. 1901. He fought that community celebration from the pulpit with everything he had. On the Sunday before the opening day, he took to his pulpit with all of the fire and brimstone he could muster. He knew there would be gambling, horse races, pony rides, music, street dances and lots of booze for his parishioners. But the worst of it all was the bull fight. There was going to be a real, honest-to-goodness corrida, complete with Mexican matadors right here in Madera. In his Sunday sermon before the fiesta he sarcastically denounced the proposed event.

“The fiesta, Yes, by all means, let us have it,” he thundered. “Never mind the fact that we have a large reserve of cynical skeptics, skillful in making religion ludicrous and odious; never mind that 20 dens of vice are running day and night and seven days in the week; never mind that a prize ring catering to the lower tastes of humanity has been constructed; never mind that Sunday is a synonym for baseball games, bicycling and horse racing.

“Suicides are frequent and on the increase; we have a criminal docket beyond anything we have had before; the trend of the young and old are all along the same decline. However, we must be on the lookout. It is still possible that some child may grow up innocent, or some virtuous youth may be overlooked.

“Nothing is good except it be the best; to falter is hazardous, and to economize is criminal when character is involved. In a word, our homes are not equal to the present demand. Our motto must be: ‘Let no innocent child or virtuous youth escape.’ Let the ‘prominent’ citizens invoke the aid of the Chamber of Commerce. Let every individual be laid under contribution, from the Superior Judge on the bench to the Gospel minister in the pulpit. Let the whole community be aroused and not only $2500 of stock be taken, but $50,000 be subscribed to turn the sewage of Mexico into the San Joaquin valley for a fiesta.

“Make Madera during the week beginning September 9th a cesspool of filth in which slimy reptiles may thrive, and from which moral malaria may exhale more deadly than the atmosphere of the Grotto Del Cano, and when this fiesta is over and the county enriched by its deposit, herald it abroad to the tenderfeet of every state; bring in your sons and daughters and share with us the elixir which has given to Spain today the place she occupies in the constellation of nations.

“And if anybody asks you who it is that is so prodigal of his advice, say to him: It is one that fears God more than men and loves the people of Madera more than he loves their good will, and his name, with which his father named him, is William Black McElwee.”

Well, Madera had its fiesta, an unabashed success by any measurement, and McElwee continued to expound boldly from the pulpit for four more years, then he got a surprise.

On Monday, April 10, 1905, the elders of the Presbyterian Church held a meeting to vote on its pastor. A motion was made to engage the services of Rev. McElwee for another year. There were three votes for the motion and three against it. All eyes turned to McElwee; his vote would break the tie, but to everyone’s surprise, he refused to vote. With the vote tied, the motion failed, and Rev. McElwee was out of a job.

On June 3, 1905, Rev. McElwee gave his final sermon in Madera. The church was filled, and the newspaper took note. Madera’s pioneer preacher apparently had worked himself out of a job in his contest with evil. The Mercury reporter said he “seemed affected, and at times his voice quivered. He stated that he regretted his departure.”

Rev. McElwee moved to Fresno to pastor a church there, but he never forgot Madera. On March 1, 1918, he was asked to preach William Kerr’s funeral, which took place in the Presbyterian Church he had pastored for so long. It was to be his last trip to Madera to preach. Before the year was over, he was dead.

On Nov. 19, 1918, at the age of 80, the old warrior laid down his weapon and went home. He had been a “good and faithful servant,” and deserves a place in Madera’s pioneer hall of fame.


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