The following Sunday, May 13, 1894, just after the morning service, the Tabernacle was burned to the ground.
Among the mysteries that are in every man’s life, more or less influencing his course, is the mystery of disaster that comes upon him noiselessly, suddenly, horribly. The destruction of the New Tabernacle by a fire which started in the organ loft was one of these mysteries that will never be revealed this side of eternity. The destruction of any church, no matter how large or how popular, does not destroy our faith in God. Great as the disaster had been, much greater was the mercy of Divine mystery that prevented a worse calamity in the loss of human life. The fire was discovered just after the morning service, and everyone had left the building but myself, Mrs. Talmage, the organist, and one or two personal friends. We were standing in the centre aisle of the church when a puff of smoke suddenly came out of the space behind the organ. In less than fifteen minutes from that discovery the huge pipe organ was a raging furnace, and I personally narrowly escaped the falling debris by the rear door of my church study. The flags and decoration which had been put up for the jubilee celebration had not been moved, and they whetted the appetite of the flames. It was all significant to me of one thing chiefly, that at some points of my life I had been given no choice. At these places of surprise in my life there was never any doubt about what I had to do. God’s way is very clear and visible when the Divine purpose is intended for you.
I had delivered that morning my farewell sermon before departing on a long journey around the world. My prayer, in which the silent sympathy of a vast congregation joined me, had invoked the Divine protection and blessing upon us, upon all who were present at that time, upon all who had participated in the great jubilee service of the preceding week. On the tablets of memory I had recalled all the kindnesses that had been shown our church by other churches and other pastors on that occasion. The general feeling of my prayer had been an outpouring of heartfelt gratitude for myself and my flock. As I have said before, God speaks loudest in the thunder of our experiences. There were several narrow escapes, for the fire spread with great rapidity, but, fortunately, all escaped from the doomed building in time. Mr. Frederick W. Lawrence and Mr. T.E. Matthews, both of them trustees of the church, were exposed to serious danger and their escape was providential. Mr. Lawrence crept out on his hands and knees to the open air, and Mr. Matthews was almost suffocated when he reached the street.
The flames spread rapidly in the neighbourhood and destroyed the Hotel Regent, adjoining the church. At my home that day there were many messages of sympathy and condolence brought to me, and neighbouring churches sent committees to tender the use of their pulpits. In the afternoon the Tabernacle trustees met at my house and submitted the following letter, which was adopted:—