A few dates:
Born, l841; Converted, 1856; American Civil War, l861-1865; Ordained, 1867; Editor Baptist Record, 1877; Work In Texas Begins, 1896; Editor Baptist Standard, 1910; President Southern Convention, 1917-l921; London Conference and European Tour, 1920; Died (May 29), 1921.
One of the outstanding leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, during the half century from 1870 to 1920, was Dr. J. B. Gambrell, He labored during a period of economic and social reconstruction In the South, and took his full share of the toils and responsibilities of the times.
He was born in Anderson County, South Carolina, August 21, 1841. On both sides his ancestors had been patriots, and displayed heroism in defense of their country. His two great-grandfathers were scouts during the Revolutionary War, and bore their part of sacrifices and dangers in that struggle for liberty.
He came of a family religious us well as patriotic. His father and mother were both earnest Christians, and in such an atmosphere he acquired the characteristics which made him so useful to his fellowmen.
When young Gambrell was four years of age, his parents moved from South Carolina to Northeast Mississippi, and continued the occupation of farming. Here, as a boy on a typical Southern plantation, he grew up.
Early in his boyhood, be acquired an insatiate thirst for books. It filled his mind and heart with visions of larger things, of highly worthy things, and of possible service. He had little money, but bought some books, and borrowed others, and read them until he had familiarized himself with all the books within several miles of his home.
He was converted and joined the Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, at fifteen years of age, during a revival meeting. He was a strong believer in evangelism and evangelists, to the last day of his life. About the time of his conversion, he entered Into a covenant with his brother, Ira, to form no hurtful habits and never do anything that would cause grief to his mother or father or other members of the family.
Plans were being made for his education and he was making good progress in school; but the storm of Civil War broke over the country, and he volunteered in the Confederate Army, joining a company that was sent to Virginia.
Soon after arriving in Virginia, a call was made by General A. P. Hill, for a scout to undertake a very dangerous task. Young Gambrell volunteered and performed his adventurous services so well, that he was continued as a scout during the war, receiving a commission as Captain, and commanding the scouting squads that were, to a remarkable degree, the eyes for General Robert E. Lee's army. As captain of a scouting squad, he fired the first shot of the battle of Gettysburg the decisive battle of the war between the North and the South.
During the war, at one o'clock in the morning of January 18, 1864, he was married to Miss Mary T. Corbell, The Corbell home was at Beartown, Virginia, inside the Federal lines; but the young scout slipped through the lines of the enemy, got his bride, and slipped out, with the enemy none the wiser.
No woman of song or story was ever a more sympathetic, inspiring wife than Mary T. Gambrell was to her illustrious husband, during the forty-seven years of their wedded life. One had to know them both fully to realize how she reinforced and sustained him in all his undertakings. His mind was that of a philosopher; hers keen and scintillating. He was democratic, with a tendency to trust people; she had an almost uncanny penetration through pretense and sham, that often saved him from imposition, through a long public life, dealing with all kinds of men.
When the war closed, Captain Gambrell and other brave, thoughtful Southern men faced a testing condition that has probably never had a parallel in history. Their religion brought them through. Southern leaders were intelligently and sincerely religious. He was brought by a remarkable religious experience to see the way for himself and the rest through the period of perplexity, misunderstanding and social chaos, to peace, order and prosperity. It was the Christ way — the path made plain by the Master.
In November 1867, he was ordained to the Gospel ministry by the Cherry Creek Baptist Church. This church was composed of both whites and Negroes. Shortly after his ordination the Negroes were organized into a church of their own, and young Gambrell was invited to preach for them. He accepted the invitation of the church, and always referred to it as a pleasant, satisfying experience. He served other rural churches until 1870, when he was called to West Point. In 1873 he went to Oxford Church as pastor, and served it during the five years he was in Oxford. All these churches were in Mississippi.
In 1870 Dr. Gambrell began the practice of writing on some subject every day. He did this as a means of self-improvement, little dreaming that writing was to be so large a part of his life's work. He continued this habit as long as he lived. He did not offer many articles to the press at first, but faith¬fully wrote one every day.
In 1877 the Baptist Record was launched; he was asked to be the editor of the new paper, and accepted. In 1881 he moved the paper to Clinton, Mississippi, where Mississippi Baptist College is located. The Clinton Church elected him pastor. He was pastor of the church and editor of the paper, but also spent a good deal of time raising funds for the College. He was one of the main movers in the endowment campaign of 1889 for the College; and that campaign succeeded, although in it Dr. Gambrell spent his strength to utter exhaustion. He was one of the most prodigious toilers of his own or any other age.
Dr. Gambrell regarded temperance, good citizenship, education and good social conditions as by-products of the Gospel. He threw himself into the fight to drive liquor saloons from Mississippi when he was a young pastor and editor; and he never stopped the fight against the liquor traffic as long as he lived. He wrote and spoke and counselled and planned without ceasing, to stop the traffic. He did all this with wisdom, sanity and effectiveness. He believed in law and order under all circumstances and conditions.
In 1887 his brilliant son, Roderick Dhu Gambrell, was assassinated by the liquor crowd in Jackson, Mississippi. The trial resulted in a verdict of "not guilty" for the man accused of the crime. A mob collected to punish the acquitted man. Dr. Gambrell hurried to the scene, made a powerful plea to the mob to disperse; and saved the life of the man who had killed his own son.
In 1890 Dr. J. M. Frost of Virginia began advocating the organization of a Sunday School Board for the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Gambrell thought the movement immature, and opposed it. Mighty men lined up on both sides of the controversy. Finally, through much discussion on every phase of the subject, the giants came to agreement; and Drs. Frost and Gambrell wrote the report which was unanimously adopted by the Convention at Birmingham, Alabama, in May, 1891. Dr. Gambrell often said, "Baptists talk themselves together."
The Sunday School Board after it was launched never had a better friend than he was. He was one of the finest illustrations of genuine cooperation ever produced in any land or age. He steadfastly kept to the main track, and faithfully refused to allow his life to be consumed with incidental or secondary considerations.
He was not only a powerful advocate of the Sunday-school movement, but he was one of the first group of men in America to advocate the Baptist Young People's Union. He threw himself whole-heartedly into the effort to enlighten, enlist and develop the young people in Baptist churches. From Canada to Texas he raised his voice for them.
In 1893 the Trustees of Mercer University at Macon, Georgia, elected him President of that honored and important institution. He accepted the high office, and continued with the institution three years. He so conducted the affairs of the University that there was deep regret when he retired from its presidency. But that position was not God's will for him. He was to go to the great Southwest, to the largest state of the Union, and there to do the colos¬sal work of his life.
In 1896 the Baptist General Convention of Texas was harassed on every side by a group of critics who seemed determined either to make the Convention serve their ambitions and interests, or to destroy it.
The Corresponding Secretary had resigned, and the Convention had no official leader. At the first meeting of the Board of Directors all the members were in the utmost perplexity. There was no unanimity as to the choice of a leader. The Board held an all-night prayer meeting, and in the morning there was a strange and (from the human standpoint) unaccountable turning of all minds towards a man in Georgia who had not even been considered in connection with the office. He was elected unanimously, in what was many times declared by those present to be the most solemn hour of their lives. That man was James Bruton Gambrell.
On December 10, 1896, he announced his decision to accept. He was then fifty-five years, three months and twenty-five days old. He came to Texas and served as Corresponding Secretary until March 10, 1910, thirteen years and three months. It is not possible to convey in words to anyone who did not live in Texas through those years any adequate estimate of his marvelous leadership. He was misrepresented and maligned; his words were twisted and his motives assailed; he was the target of epithets and abuse; no trick of the demagogue was left unused to make him unpopular with the Baptist people. It all failed of its purpose.
On March 10, 1910, Dr. Gambrell retired from the Secretaryship to become editor of the Baptist Standard. He was sixty-nine years old, but vigorous in body, with remarkable recuperative ability. His mind was alert, receptive, and well poised. Those who had bought the Baptist Standard from the convention elected Robert H. Coleman as business manager, and Dr. Gambrell was given as assistant editor Dr. L. M. Waterman until 1912, and then Dr. E. C. Routh. As editor, he was thus free to study Baptist situations and social, educational and missionary conditions all over the world. He gave a large part of his time to the denominational work in Texas. Everywhere he was a most acceptable speaker. His quaint humor, profound philosophy expressed in homey language, Christian optimism and seasoned judgment, drew the people, gripped them, and directed them in advancing cooperation.
At the end of four years he was called again into the secretaryship and served two years. The Education Board had been merged with the Board of Directors, and the combined administrative work was heavy for a man of seventy-three years. He threw himself into it without reserve for two years, and then declined re-election.
The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at Fort Worth, Texas, had invited him in 1912 to the Chair of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology. He went in 1916 to the Seminary, and was connected with that institution for the rest of his life.
In 1917 the Southern Baptist Convention met in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Dr. Gambrell was elected President. Many of his friends knew that he did not claim to be skilled in the Parliamentary law, which governs the procedure of the Convention. But the scout to General Robert E. Lee's army had learned to meet occasions and now the man grown old was called upon to direct a large democratic body. He surprised and gratified the Convention by his rulings, and proved himself to be a masterly residing officer. He held the office for the traditional three years; and then the Convention was not willing to give him up. So at Washington, D. C., he was elected a fourth term, but declined election after that.
He had always been passionately devoted to the foreign missionary enterprise. Now he had time to acquaint himself with the struggles of different Baptist groups over the world. He wished to visit them and to have intimate fellowship with them.
In 1919 the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, appointed a committee of five to send a Fraternal Address to Baptists throughout the world. Dr. Gambrell was a member of that committee. The address sent out is a historic document which bears the marks of his wisdom.
Other distinguished members were E. Y. Mullins, Z. T. Cody, L. R. Scarborough and William Ellyson.
In July 1920 the London Conference of Baptists was held. It was composed of representatives of twenty-one countries, of which the United States was one. The Southern Baptist Convention was represented by Dr. J. B. Gambrell, Dr. E. Y. Mullins, Dr. J. F. Love, and Dr. Geo. W. Truett. It initiated a great relief fund to deal the practical distress in Europe, adopted a policy of missionary extension in the European continental countries, and elected Dr. Rushbrooke as Baptist Commissioner for Europe.*
Dr. Gambrell regarded the London Conference as the most far-reaching in significance of any meeting the Baptists ever held. After the close of that Conference, he and Dr. E. Y. Mullins visited their fellow-Baptists throughout England and throughout England and throughout fifteen European countries: France, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Ireland, Scotland, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
No two traveling companions were ever more congenial than were Drs. Gambrell and Mullins. They did not rush, but made the trop leisurely. Yet Dr. Gambrell's enthusiasm and keen interest in the people, caused him to exert himself more strenuously than was safe for him. He did not know that his heart was not strong.
In December they returned to the United States, to face immediately numerous calls to tell of Baptists in Europe. Dr. Gambrell accepted many invitations, and was going at his usual stride, to the delight of great audiences or conferences awaiting him everywhere. On February 23rd, 1921, he preached at Wichita Falls, Texas. The next morning he arrived in Fort Worth, and decided to walk uptown from the railroad station. The distance was short, and he liked to walk. On the way he felt weak and stopped to rest. He came home to Dallas and took to his bed. Physicians were called who made a thorough examination. They offered no hope for his recovery.
Henceforth, he stayed at home, except on Sunday, May 29, 1921, when he attended a service at the First Baptist Church, Dallas, to hear Dr. J. H. Rushbrooke of London, Commissioner of the Baptist World Alliance for Europe, preach. Dr. Gambrell said a few words introducing Dr. Rushbrooke, and was intensely interested in the service. This was his last public appearance. He returned home and gradually declined until the tenth of June, when the end came. It was the closing of a truly great and useful life, consecrated to all the Master loves. "And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever."
I cannot, as this article passes through my hands on its way to the press, refrain from inserting a footnote regarding this Conference. After the recommendation to appoint me had been unanimously adopted, Dr. Gambrell was the first to speak to me. He was seated close behind, and leaned over to whisper: "You must not refuse." The clear and unhesitating judgment of this strong man was an important factor in shaping my decision. - J.H.R.
[From the Biblical Recorder, August 17,1932 On-line edition. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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