He was born in Baltimore, Maryland. A precocious child, he delivered lectures on temperance and on Sunday schools before he was fourteen years old. He graduated from Dickinson College in 1839, taught and preached in New York City for a few months, and in 1840 took charge of the Methodist Episcopal church at Asbury, New Jersey, and removed in the next year to North Carolina, where he was General Agent for the American Bible Society.
He was professor of logic and rhetoric at the University of North Carolina from 1842 to 1847, and professor of natural sciences at Randolph Macon College (then at Boydton, Virginia) in 1847-1848, and after two years of preaching at New Bern, North Carolina, he held for four years (1850-1854) the presidency of Greensboro Female College. He continued as a Methodist Episcopal clergyman at various pastorates in North Carolina from 1854 to 1865, for the last seven years being a presiding elder and from 1859 to 1863 being the proprietor of St Austins Institute, Wilson.
In 1865 he settled in New York City, where in 1866 he began preaching in the chapel of New York University, and in 1868 he established and became the pastor of the non-denominational Church of the Strangers, which in 1870 occupied the former Mercer Street Presbyterian Church, purchased and given to Deems by Cornelius Vanderbilt; there he remained until his death in New York City in November 1893.
He was one of the founders (1881) and president of the American Institute of Christian Philosophy and for ten years was editor of its journal, Christian Thought. Deems was an earnest temperance advocate; as early as 1852 he worked (unsuccessfully) for a general prohibition law in North Carolina, and in his later years allied himself with the Prohibition Party. He was influential in securing from Vanderbilt the endowment of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee. He was a man of rare personal and literary charm; he edited The Southern Methodist Episcopal Pulpit (1846-1852) and The Annals of Southern Methodism (1855-1857); he compiled Devotional Melodies (1842), and, with the assistance of Phoebe Cary, one of his parishioners, Hymns for all Christians (1869; revised 1881); and he published many books, among which were: The Life of Dr Adam Clarke (1840); The Triumph of Peace and other Poems (1840); The Home Altar (1850); Jesus (1872), which ran through many editions and several revisions, the title being changed in 1880 to The Light of the Nations; Sermons (1885); The Gospel of Common Sense (1888); The Gospel of Spiritual Insight (1891) and My Septuagint (1892). The Charles F. Deems Lectureship in Philosophy was founded in his honor in 1895 at New York University by the American Institute of Christian Philosophy.
He signed the Presented to the president of the United States in favor of the restoration of Palestine to the Jews. His Autobiography (New York, 1897) is autobiographical only to 1847, the memoir being completed by his two sons.
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