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Peter S. Gayle
Tennessee Pioneer Baptist Preacher

      Peter Smith Gayle was born in Charlotte County, Virginia, May 20, 1802; was married to Mary M. Pettus, March 27, 1823; and was baptized in his native county of Charlotte some time before his marriage, perhaps by Elder Abner Clopton. He moved to Tennessee in 1826, settling in Giles County, and was shortly afterwards ordained to the ministry. In the early thirties (about 1831 to '33) he was a pioneer minister and pastor in Nashville, predecessor of Dr. R. B. C. Howell, in the pastorate of the First Baptist Church. The church had suffered from the inroads of Campbellism, having lost the larger part of its membership and its house of worship. Elder Gayle rallied and banded together the faithful and elect few (some seven or eight) and built up the church to a membership of something like forty, and turned the work over to other hands. In 1836 he moved to Haywood County, in West Tennessee, taking charge of Russell Spring (now the Brownsville) Church. He was pastor of this and the Woodlawn Church, in the same county, for six or eight years, both of the churches prospering under his administration. In 1845 he moved to Denmark, Madison County, taking charge of the Jackson and Big Black (now Denmark) churches. In 1846 he became pastor of the First Church, Memphis, serving the church as pastor two years. The next three years he was pastor of Beale Street Church, a new interest just organized. He now moved to Madison County, Mississippi and took charge of Mound Bluff and Clinton churches, serving them efficiently till his death, which occurred June 8, 1853, at the age of 51. At the time of his death he was holding a meeting with the Clinton Church with great success, the church having already received for baptism some seventy five persons and he himself having baptized fourteen of the candidates the day before his death. He had been heard to say many times: "If it is the Lord's will for it to be so, I should like to die in the midst of a protracted meeting of great interest." So it was that his wish and prayer were answered. The Clinton and Madison Masonic Lodges published very complimentary resolutions in regard to Elder Gayle, making mention of him as a "useful member of society, as a distinguished and devoted minister, and as having spent a handsome fortune in the service of his divine Master, in building churches, paying ministers," etc.

      Elder Gayle was one of the originators of the first State Convention, organized at Mill Creek Church, Davidson County, 1833, and was the first president of the West Tennessee Convention. He was in the organization of the first Baptist education society in West Tennessee, formed at Brownsville, July 26, 1835, and became the agent of the same. In the agitations and divisions of churches and associations in the thirties and forties, over mission and anti-mission effort and anti-effort, questions, Elder Gayle was known as an "effort man," being a zealous advocate of missions and education, "performing more arduous labor and doing more for the Baptist cause, in the convention and throughout the state" than almost any other man. "He was above medium size, somewhat stooped in his shoulders, of pleasing address, usually wearing a smile, especially while preaching. His whole soul seemed to be absorbed in his Master's business, but his smile and manner seemed to say, "It is always pleasant to obey Jesus Christ." (J. H. B.)

      In 1838 Elder Gayle was requested by the Big Hatchie Association to, prepare a circular letter to be read before the body at the next annual meeting. The letter called forth a good deal of discussion and opposition, and was finally rejected. At that time there was considerable confusion, uncertainty and suspicion in the public mind. Campbellism was rife in many places, and Hyper-Calvanism (Hardshellism) everywhere. These were like Scylla and Charybdis, in avoiding one you were liable to make wreck on the other. So Elder Gayle, I take it, in seeking to refute the errors of his anti-mission brethren, was suspected by some of falling into the opposite error of Campbellism. The four propositions of his letter are interesting, whether we consider them entirely defensible or not: "First, that Jehovah intends to save sinners; second, that he works by means; third, that all the knowledge of man is received through the senses; fourth, that all the means used by God are exerted on man through the senses." He defended his position from the charge of being Campbellistic by saying that "Campbellism denies the doctrine of all Divine agency, other than that contained in the means alone, while his position declares God's truth and God's agency to be two things, the divine agency using and operating through the means (the Word of truth) to the accomplishment of the end, and without the Divine influence the means employed would never produce a single conversion." Living in an atmosphere of controversy, at a time when there was considerable excitement among Baptists over Boards, Conventions and Associations, Elder Gayle developed a penchant for polemical warfare, but his contention was always for Scriptural and New Testament practices. In an article in The Baptist (August, 1838), on the subject of a proposed "General Association" for the State, he stoutly opposed such an organization as a substitute for the State Convention till they had thoroughly tried out the convention idea. He urged his "brethren to be firm and zealous in their efforts to build up the Tennessee Baptist Convention, just as it was, without addition or diminution, as to its construction; also to foster three other societies, as nearly on the same plan as the Convention as possible: "A Tennessee Baptist Bible Society, a Tennessee Baptist Foreign Missionary Society Auxiliary to the Baptist Triennial Convention for Foreign Missions, and a Tennessee Baptist Education Society." But he advises to "move cautiously and to walk in the truth, and nothing but the truth"; and as to certain heretics who had given trouble to the Baptists he says, "it would be anything else to me, to say as little as possible on the subject, than a cheering hope and pleasing anticipation to be identified with them."

      Benedict, in the revision of his great history (1845), had Elder Gayle as his correspondent for the Big Hatchie Association. The Baptists seem to be getting more solidly together and moving more unitedly along Scriptural lines. Among other things in his communications it is gratifying to see this note of harmony and progress: "In 1844, at an extra meeting of the delegates from the churches of this and some of the neighboring Associations, the following questions were freely and fully discussed, and unanimously answered in the affirmative: '1. Ought each church to have her own bishop and deacons? 2. Ought the bishop to devote himself wholly to the duties of his office, and should the church sustain him in so doing? 3. Ought each church to assemble every Lord's day for public worship?" In ten years from 1835 there were added by baptism to this body upwards of twenty four hundred members."

      Elder Gayle had a fine family of eight children, two sons and six daughters. One of the daughters, Mrs. Fannie Gayle Job was a mother to the writer when as a boy preacher he was supply pastor of the Central Church, Memphis, during the summer of 1880. Perhaps all the family ere now are united on the "evergreen shore," where the voices of the glorified are tuned to "sing the song of Moses and the Lamb."


[J. J. Burnett, Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers, 1919, pp. 166-169, 1919. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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