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Joseph H. Eaton

Baptist Minister and Educator
by J. J. Burnett
      Dr. Joseph H. Eaton was born September 10, 1812, in Berlin. Delaware County, Ohio. According to the genealogy given by his distinguished son, Dr. T. T. Eaton, "Joseph H. Eaton was the son of Joseph Eaton, who was the son of David Eaton, who was the son of John Eaton, who was the son of Joseph Eaton, who was the son of John Eaton, who emigrated from Wales, A.D., 1686." He was the youngest of twelve children and lived with his widowed mother after all his brothers and sisters had begun life for themselves, his father having died when young Eaton was but a lad of twelve. He attended the neighborhood school till about fifteen or sixteen years of age, at which time he went to Worthington Academy, near Columbus. Ohio, to prepare for college. Once during his childhood he was supposed to be dead; the physician pronounced him dead, and dead he was to all human appearances. But his mother insisted that he was a child of prayer and was not dead, but would live to fulfill his God-given mission in the world. So his mother, though needing his presence, by faith sent him away for his life equipment, saying to him, "My son, it is hard to part with you, but you need advantages our neighborhood cannot give, and I bid you go." Spending a year or two in academic work, in 1832 he entered Georgetown College, Kentucky, where his brother, Dr. George W. Eaton, afterwards president of Madison University, New York, was then a professor. He pursued his studies at Georgetown, and tutored till 1835, when he followed his brother to Madison University, graduating in 1837. He taught school near Nashville, Tenn., till the spring of 1838, when he went to Fayetteville, to take charge of the academy there. In the summer of 1840 he was married to Miss Esther M. Treadwell, of Plattsburg, N. Y., a granddaughter of Thomas Treadwell, a member of the Continental Congress. In 1841 he went to Murfreesboro, where in connection with others he began an educational institution, which, in 1848, became Union University, Dr. Eaton becoming its first president - a position which he held as long as he lived. He preached his first sermon in Dr. Howell's pulpit - that of the First Baptist Church of Nashville. Professor Eaton had had "impressions" to preach, but was timid and shrinking. So. Dr. Howell, being a little "crafty, caught him with guile"; he took Prof. Eaton into the pulpit with him, to help in the service, and then said to him: "Now, sir, you have got either to preach, or apologize to the congregation." It was as easy to preach as to apologize, so he preached. He was ordained in Murfreesboro, September 10, 1843 - Dr. R. B. C. Howell, T. B. Ripley and others taking part in the ceremonies.

      In 1853 Madison University conferred upon him the degree of LL.D.

      Union University, under his administration as President, had almost phenomenal success. The student body was easily 300, being representative young men from Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina and Virginia, and from all parts of Tennessee. Dr. Eaton was not only a fine administrator with executive ability, he was scholarly, and at home in the classroom. In the absence of any of the professors of the University, Dr. Eaton would take their classes, and the young men, it is said, "never failed to understand that he was master of the situation." His special "fondness was for metaphysics and the more occult sciences. He taught logic and Butler's Analogy without a text-book. He held up to his students a high standard and was exacting in his demands for study, but was patient and long-suffering with dull pupils. An idle student, however, found no favor in his eyes. He had high hopes for young men,he believed in them, laid himself out for them without stint or grudging, had great enthusiasm for his work, and therefore was greatly beloved by all his students, though the discipline was rigid and the tasks heavy. There are hundreds of men now scattered over the Southwest who can testify to his purity of heart and his unfailing fidelity in all the relations of teacher and friend. Few men have left their impress upon the minds and habits of the young men of the South more indelibly than he. His students, regarded him as a perfect model and copied his style. In their eyes he was faultless. He was remarkable for his affability, his geniality, his wonderful versatility of character. Long will his memory be cherished by those whose good fortune it was to know him intimately, or come under his influence." (Dr. G. W. Jarman).

      Dr. Eaton had a remarkably vigorous constitution, but with looking after the class work, the discipline and the finances of the University, and preaching every Sunday, and sometimes oftener, the strain was more than his constitution could bear. After a lingering illness, brought about by over-work, "he died January 12, 1859, aged forty-six years, four months and two days, leaving a wife, a daughter and two sons."

      Dr. J. M. Pendleton, who taught theology under Dr. Eaton, and who followed him as acting President of the University, or chairman of the faculty, in his "Reminiscences of a Long Life," bears this testimony to a fellow-worker, one of God's noblemen: "Dr. Joseph H. Eaton, the President, was a man of intellectual power and broad scholarship, not inferior, as I think, to his brother, George W., who died President of Madison, now Colgate University. Dr. Joseph H. was a very laborious teacher, enthusiastic in his work; when I first knew him he was a fine specimen of manly beauty, and his sermons and addresses were replete with vigor and eloquence. But his noble physical frame succumbed to disease, and he died in the prime of his life, leaving a bereaved University, a bereaved church, and a more bereaved family. It devolved on me to preach the funeral sermon. The general feeling was, a great man has fallen in Israel. Mrs. Eaton, left to feel the desolateness of widowhood, was a remarkable woman, equal in intellectual and spiritual qualities to her husband. She spent many years of her life in teaching, and left her impress on the minds of many young ladies. She lived a widow more than twenty-five years, and died in Louisville, in 1886. I preached her funeral sermon also, from the words: 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,' etc. Two children survive, Rev. T. T. Eaton, D.D. and Mrs. J. E. Peck, who are worthy representatives of their parents, and who are occupying positions of usefulness."

      As a preacher, Dr. Eaton is thus described by Cathcart (Baptist Encyclopaedia): "As a preacher, Dr. Eaton was earnest and impressive, of impassioned utterance and rapid delivery. His power to fix attention and impress his thoughts upon his hearers has seldom been equaled. He won the enthusiastic devotion of those who knew him, of all classes and grades of society. His fellow-ministers, professors, the churches to which he preached, his many students, and his servants, all loved him as few men are loved. Handsome in person, gracious in presence, genial in manners, and winning in conversation, he was eminent in the qualities which make men charming in the home circle, as he was in those which make a great teacher and preacher. There was about him a sense of reserved power. The strength of the man was always felt beneath his genial graciousness. His children and his students would face any danger rather than have him know that they had been guilty of a dishonorable action, so much did they dread the glance of his eye, so much did they value his approving smile. His virtues live in the memories of all who knew him."

      Of the descendants of Dr. Joseph H. Eaton, there are now living his daughter, Mrs. "Jo Eaton" Peck, of Murfreesboro. Tenn., seventy-six years of age, a grandson namesake, J. H. Eaton, a lawyer of Denver, Col., and a granddaughter, Mrs. Maria Eaton Farmer, of Louisville, Ky., the last two mentioned being a son and a daughter of the lamented Dr. T. T. Eaton.


[From Burnett, J .J., Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers, 1919, pp. 145-150. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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