Spencer Houghton Cone, D. D. was born in Princeton, N. J., April 30, 1785. His parents were persons of intellectual and moral worth. His father was a native of East Haddam, Conn., where for several generations the family had lived, and his mother was the daughter of Joab Houghton, of New Jersey, who was very active in the Revolution. She was a woman of more than ordinary excellence of character, being noted as a person of great prayer.
At the age of eight, and while spending a little time with his grandfather, Spencer Cone was deeply convicted of sin. It was while they were in attendance upon the annual meeting at the Hopewell church; but the feeling was only transient, though revived some two years afterwards, when he was taken by his mother to hear a sermon delivered by the Rev. Ashbel Green in Philadelphia. His efforts, however, were merely legal in nature, and he soon relapsed into his ordinary way of life.
His health in his boyhood was not robust, and so it was considered wise to permit him to pass some time on the farm of his grandfather. The
consequence was that he outgrew his former weakness and acquired a vigorous constitution. His early life was marked also by an intellectual development almost precocious. At twelve he entered the Freshman class of Princeton, and at once gained the highest esteem of faculty and students, the president prophesying for him a brilliant future as an orator. Without doubt, had young Cone been permitted to graduate, he would have left the college bearing away its highest honors. But such was not to be his lot. His father became the subject of a serious and protracted disease, and in this emergency Spencer was the sole hope of the family. With true manliness he resigned his studies at the age of fourteen. His first effort was unsuccessful. His weary journey on foot to obtain the position of assistant teacher was rewarded only by the knowledge that the place was filled. His second met with better results, and on a small salary sufficient only to keep them from absolute want, he labored for some months as teacher of Latin in the Princeton Academy, which position he resigned for that of master in the school of Burlington. Though not sixteen, he bore himself with such propriety as to secure for himself the permanent esteem of all with whom he came in contact.
This position was relinquished that he might accept another with Dr. Abercombie, who had formed for Mr. Cone the highest regard. To fulfill his duties he moved his family to Philadelphia. But he found that an increase of salary does not mean an addition to comforts, for the expenses became enlarged and he was obliged to do something to supplement his insufficient salary. He resolved to study law, and as soon as school duties were completed he was found reading law till far into the night, much to the injury of his health.
Beyond doubt it was the question of living that led him to adopt the stage. His mother's wishes and his own taste were against it, but his magnificent native endowment led him to foresee a speedy way out of his pecuniary difficulties, and so he appeared on the stage, July, 1805, as Achmet, in the tragedy of "Mahomet." He subsequently acted in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Alexandria, meeting with great success. His own views are expressed in a letter written in 1810, wherein he says, "My profession, adopted from necessity, is becoming more disgusting to me. I pray heaven that I may speedily exchange it for something better in itself and more congenial to my feelings. What can be more degrading than to be stuck upon a stage for fools and clowns to gape at or criticise?" To prepare the way out Mr. Cone endeavored to open a school in Baltimore, but the proprietors of the theatre would not allow him to be absent from morning rehearsals, nor did public sentiment encourage teaching by an actor. This was in 1812. The same year he joined the Baltimore Union Artillery with the intention of enlisting in the war, but domestic considerations restrained him, and in the same year he entered the office of the Baltimore American as treasurer and book-keeper. Soon after he and his brother-in-law purchased and published the Baltimore Whig. He at once quitted the stage, and by his vigorous articles did much to strengthen the administration of Mr. Madison in the war.
In the year 1810, an attachment had begun between himself and Miss Sally Wallace, of Philadelphia, which resulted in their marriage in 1813. In November of the same year he was converted to God. Noticing that a book sale was advertised, he called in to examine the works. The book which he first took up was one of John Newton's; he had read it while at Princeton, to his mother. Solemn reflections were awakened by the incident, and he seemed to hear a voice saying, "This is your last time!" His past life came before him. The day wore away. He sat down to the study of the Bible. Weeks passed in darkness, which was finally dispelled by reading John xiii. On Feb. 4, 1814, he was baptized by Mr. Richards. His wife afterwards was led to trust the great Saviour.
He procured a position under the government, and he took his family to Washington, and transferred his membership to the church under the care of Rev. Obadiah B. Brown.
It was at this time that Mr. Cone began preaching, being desired to lead the prayer-meeting of the little Baptist church at the navy-yard, then pastor-less. Crowds at once waited upon his ministrations.
It was evident that God had intended him for the pulpit, and he procured a license.
His popularity was at once recognized by the House of Representatives, who appointed him their chaplain in 1815-16. Soon after he was invited to take charge of the feeble interest at Alexandria, where he labored for seven years with great success, and from which he came to Oliver Street, New York. This connection, attended with wonderful prosperity, was severed after eighteen years, and one was formed with the First Baptist church of New York, which ended only with his death.
For many years Dr. Cone was the most active Baptist minister in the United States, and the most popular clergyman in America. He was known and venerated everywhere all over this broad land. In his own denomination he held every position of honor which his brethren could give him, and outside of it men loved to recognize his worth. He had quick perceptions, a ready address, a silvery voice, impassioned eloquence, and deep-toned piety; throngs attended his church, and multitudes lamented his death. He entered the heavenly rest Aug. 28, 1855.
[The Baptist Encyclopedia, 1881; reprint, 1988, pp. 262-64. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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