Church, Francis Pharcellus 1839-1906
CHURCH, Francis Pharcellus 1839-1906
Born February 22, 1839, in Rochester, NY; died April 11, 1906; son of Pharcellus (a minister) and Emily (Conant) Church; married Mary Elizabeth Metcalf, 1863. Education: Columbia College, graduate (with honors), 1859.
New-York Chronicle, New York, NY, chief assistant; New York Sun, New York, NY, editor, 1855-60 and 1874-1906; New York Times, New York, NY, war correspondent, 1862; also correspondent for Army and Navy Journal, during the Civil War; Galaxy (literary magazine), editor, 1866-72;. Also editor of Internal Revenue Record and Customs Journal.
Sons of the Revolution, National Sculptor Society, Century Club.
Is There a Santa Claus?, privately printed (Boston, MA), 1921, enlarged edition, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1934.
"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." That sentence is the touchstone line of what is arguably the best-known newspaper editorial ever published in America. The author of the five-hundred-word answer to a child's question was Francis Pharcellus Church, editor of the New York Sun. His unsigned editorial went on to have an existence that outlasted Church, his newspaper, and even the little girl who first posed the question, Virginia O'Hanlon.
The son of Baptist minister Pharcellus Church, "Frank" Church was an unlikely choice for journalistic prominence. His schooling centered not on writing but on math and foreign languages, and the younger Church terminated his formal studies at age fifteen to help care for his family after his father fell ill, although he would later go on to complete a college degree. Church worked as an assistant for his father's small religious paper, the New-York Chronicle, before finding his way to the New York Sun. That paper was something of a family affair as well; the Sun had been purchased by Church's brother, William Conant Church. The large metropolitan daily was notorious for publishing the scandalous and sensational, but William strove to make the Sun a religious publication instead. Under the direction of his brother, Frank Church was ordered to remove all advertising for liquor, cigars, and theater productions, and to give large editorial space to religious topics. Frank warned his brother that this was a recipe for financial disaster, and his prediction came to pass. In 1861 the Church family sold the Sun back to its original owner.
After serving in management positions at several periodicals, notably the Galaxy, launched in 1866 as a New York-based counterpart to Boston's established Atlantic Monthly, Church returned to the New York Sun in 1874 as an editor and writer under editor-in-chief Edward P. Mitchell. Church penned thousands of editorials for the publication, and "all but one have since been forgotten," as Ralph Frasca noted in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. The paper had received a letter from Virginia O'Hanlon, whose brief message began, "Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in the Sun, it's so.' Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?"
Church was given the task of answering this question. According to editor Mitchell, as quoted in a Humanist article by Champe Ransom, Church at first "bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk and in a short time produced the classic expression of Christmas sentiment."
"Virginia, your little friends are wrong," Church wrote. "They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age." He argued that Santa, though he may never be seen, exists "as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give your life its highest beauty and joy." His editorial's second-paragraph led with, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," and this became the signature line of the editorial, which was reprinted by the Sun annually for several decades. The famous rejoinder became part of pop culture, with generations of writers aping the "Yes, Virginia" theme in their own interpretations.
Despite its popularity, Church's editorial had its critics. One of them, Heywood Broun of the New York World-Telegram, lambasted Church in his 1934 editorial "There Isn't Any Santa Claus." In Broun's view, Church had encouraged children like Virginia to "maintain an illusion and discouraged the 'healthy skepticism' which she had expressed in her inquiry," according to Lana Whited in an online article for Roanoke.com.
Church continued with the Sun until his death in 1906. He had one posthumously published book, which is based on his most famous editorial.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bigelow, Donald N., William Conant Church and the Army and Navy Journal, AMS Press (New York, NY), 1968.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 79: American Magazine Journalists, 1850-1900, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Mitchell, Edward P., Memoirs of an Editor, Scribner's (New York, NY), 1924.
Stedman, Laura, and George Gould, The Life and Letters of Edmund Clarence Stedman, two volumes, Moffat, Yard (New York, NY), 1910.
Atlantic, March, 1878, "To Old Friends and New," p. 272.
Humanist, November-December, 1997, Champe Ransom, "Yes, Virginia, There Probably Is No Santa Claus," p. 33.
Nation, April 26, 1866, pp. 534-535; May 30, 1867, pp. 432-433.
History Channel,http://www.historychannel.com/ (March 13, 2002), "Yes, Virginia."