John Wilbur Chapman was born in Richmond, Indiana, on June 17, 1859. His parents Alexander H. and Lorinda Chapman prepared him for a life of Christian ministry. The young man felt he could never pinpoint a date for his conversion, but did make public his acknowledgement of Christ at age seventeen.
In 1876 Chapman joined the Richmond Presbyterian Church and later that year left to attend Oberlin College. After one year at Oberlin, Chapman transferred to Lake Forest University where he received his B.A. in 1879. His seminary years, 1879-1882, were spent at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, during which time he was ordained on April 13, 1881.
The young minister married Irene Steddon, in May 1882, prior to assuming his first pastorate. Chapman's first child, Bertha Irene, was born on April 1, 1886, which was followed a month later by his wife's death. The minister then married Agnes Pruyn Strain on November 4, 1888. She bore Chapman four children: Robert (who died in infancy), John Wilbur, Jr., Alexander Hamilton, and Agnes Pruyn. Chapman's second wife died June 25, 1907. He married his third and last wife Mabel Cornelia Moulton on August 30, 1910.
Chapman led several churches prior to his full time evangelistic efforts. The following churches came under Chapman's care from 1882 until 1902: College Corner Presbyterian Church (Ohio) and Liberty Presbyterian Church (Indiana), 1882; Dutch Reformed Church (Schuylerville, NY), 1883-1885; First Reformed Church (Albany, NY), 1885-1890; Bethany Presbyterian (Philadelphia, PA), 1890-1892, 1896-1899; Fourth Presbyterian Church (New York City, NY), 1899-1902.
Chapman began his evangelistic work full time in 1893, preaching with D. L. Moody at the World's Fair and conducting many meetings on his own. He hired William Ashley "Billy" Sunday as an advance man, thus giving him his start in evangelism. At this same time, the evangelist Sol C. Dickey set up a Bible Conference Center in Winona Lake, Indiana. This center held lifelong interest to Chapman along with the others he helped develop in Montreat, North Carolina, and Stony Brook, Long Island, New York.
After returning to the active pastorate for a short time, at the end of 1895, Chapman was appointed Corresponding Secretary of the Presbyterian General Assembly's Committee on Evangelism. He directed the activities of fifty-one evangelists in 470 cities and also found time to write one of his numerous books, Present Day Evangelism. In 1905, John H. Converse, a wealthy Presbyterian layman, offered to underwrite Chapman's expenses if he would return to full time evangelistic work. Converse also set up a trust fund to provide monies even after his own death.
From 1904-1909 Chapman began to develop and promote a new method of urban evangelism. His idea was to hold several meetings throughout a city simultaneously, thereby reaching more people and stirring more hearts to enter into Christian service. The first city to try Chapman's theory was Pittsburgh in 1904. The city was divided into nine districts with nine meeting places as the revival was conducted. Chapman took the central position and his assistants the rest. Another campaign was planned and executed in Syracuse, New York, in 1906; however, there were still unfinished details to be worked out for the method to be widely accepted.
Charles McCallon Alexander, world famous song leader, who had been traveling with R. A. Torrey, joined with Chapman in 1907. The two men became a team and formed the "Chapman-Alexander Simultaneous Campaign." Enjoying the benefits of both their influences, the men were able to build a large group of evangelists and song leaders to assist them in the large city-wide campaigns.
The first joint campaign was held in Philadelphia from March 12 to April 19, 1908. The city was divided into forty-two districts with twenty-one teams of evangelist-musicians. Three weeks were spent in each half of the city with estimates of eight thousand conversions. The following revival held in Boston from January 26 to February 17, 1909, is considered to be Chapman's most successful. The city was divided into twenty-seven districts and recorded seven thousand conversions.
The first Chapman-Alexander worldwide campaign left Vancouver, British Columbia, on March 26, 1909, and returned November 26. Stops along the way included: Melbourne, Sydney, Ipswitch, Brisbane, Adelaide, Ballarat, Bendigo, and Townsville in Australia; Manila in the Philippines; Hong Kong, Kowloon, Canton, Shanghai, Hankow, Peking and Tientsin in China; Seoul, Korea; Kobe, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Yokohama in Japan.
Chapman continued his non-stop evangelistic efforts in both the United States and Europe in 1910, including a very successful Chicago meeting from October 16 to November 27. However, Chapman's technique of mass evangelism lost much of its popularity. A series of unsuccessful campaigns were conducted in Bangor and Portland, Maine, and Dayton and Columbus, Ohio. Chapman was not credited with the failures, and so from 1912 on all the revivals were mass meetings led by Chapman.
Many services were conducted by the evangelist in the next couple of years in Australia, Scotland, Ireland, India, New Zealand, and the United States, averaging three to five sermons a day in many places. His career as evangelist ended with the Chapman-Alexander campaign January 6 to February 13, 1918.
The Presbyterian General Assembly elected him Moderator in May 1918. The strenuous routine required for the position combined with all the energy expended during his campaigns created a collapse of Chapman's health. He was forced to undergo emergency surgery for gallstones on December 23 and died on December 25, 1918.