Material History of American Religion Project

Preaching suit

Photo of preaching suit From the late 1920s to the mid 1940s, many Presbyterian ministers in urban churches wore preaching suits for Sunday services. Usually made of heavy wool, the charcoal cut-away or swallow-tail morning coat was worn with a gray waistcoast, muted pin-stripe pants, a dress shirt with a wing collar, and an ascot. The style--perhaps pretentiously, certainly curiously--typified the "Fifth Avenue" formalwear modeled by the urban upper class. The Geneva gown--a closed black robe with Puritan tab collar--began to replace the suit around 1945, though ushers at some prominent urban Presbyterian churches wore a costume similar to the preaching suit through the 1950s.

This suit belonged to Felix Bayard Gear, who pastored Presbyterian churches in West Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee between the world wars. The suit is part of a display honoring Gear at Columbia Theological Seminary, where he served as Professor of Systematic Theology and Dean of Instruction from 1947 to 1969. Gear was moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (US) in 1964-1965. He worked diligently, but without success, during his term as Moderator to end segregated worship in the southern denomination. The failure of the PCUS to desegregate at that time thwarted reunion efforts with the northern United Presbyterian Church.

This guest blurb is by Clayton Hulet, Associate Director and Reference Librarian at Columbia Theological Seminary.

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