From the few reminiscences which remain of the life and labor of Samuel Harris, he may be recognized as one of the most laborious and useful ministers of the last century. He was born January 12th, 1724, in the County of Hanover, Virginia, but in early life settled in Pittsylvania. Before his conversion to God, he not only maintained a reputable character, but occupied several prominent stations in society -- such as "church warden, sheriff, justice of the peace, burgess for the county, colonel of the militia, captain of Mayo Fort, and commissary for the fort and army." To fill these offices he was, without doubt, well qualified, not only by the kindness of his heart and his engaging manners, but by the possession of a vigorous and cultivated mind.
It was not until he had reached his thirty-fourth year that he became the subject of the Redeemer's kingdom. His serious impressions seem to have been occasioned by mingling with the pious, and reading the sacred Scripture. He had not been accustomed to hear the gospel preached by the Baptists, a sect of people who for some time had been exciting much attention by the simplicity and zeal with which they recommended the truth of God. In the perplexity and distress of his mind, Mr. Harris determined to be present at some of their meetings. It is said that when engaged in the army, in the discharge of his official duties, he providentially found an opportunity of hearing the gospel by Joseph and William Murphy, who had appointed a meeting at a house near Allen's Creek, on the road leading from Booker's Ferry, on Staunton, To Pittsylvania Court-house. As the people were collecting, Colonel Harriss rode up, splendidly attired in his military habit. What is to done here, gentlemen? said Harriss. Preaching, colonel. Who is to preach? The Murphy boys, sir. I believe I will stop and hear them. He dismounted. The house was small, and in one corner stood a loom, behind which the colonel seated himself. The Lord's eye was upon him, and the truth became effectual in deepening his convictions. Such was his agony of mind, that at the close of the meeting his
sword and other parts of his regimentals were found scattered around him.
Some time after this, he was introduced into the liberty of the children of God. His joy in realizing deliverance from the kingdom of darkness was of the most rapturous kind; and a fixed determination was formed to consecrate himself to the service of "Him who died for him, and rose again." Although, in view of the persecutions with which the Baptists were assailed, and his own elevation in society, there was strong temptation to neglect his duty, he nevertheless chose to suffer affliction with this despised people, and was, in 1758, baptized by Elder Daniel Marshall.
He commenced his ministerial course during the year succeeding his connection with the church. It was evident from the time of his conversion, that the Lord designed to make him extensively useful in building up his cause in Virginia. He made a relinquishment of his worldly honors, and gave himself wholly to the work of preaching the gospel. For seven or eight years his labors were mostly confined to Pittsylvania and the neighboring counties. It is remarkable that during this time he had not been authorized by the church, of which he was a member, to administer the ordinances. Although he filled the office of a ruling elder. Some peculiarity of sentiment relative to the ministerial office, was most probably the occasion of the delay, for while he preached the word and exercised the pastoral rule, he did not officiate in baptism and the Lord's supper.
In 1769 he was ordained, and began to administer the ordinances. Mr. James Ireland, who was afterwards so distinguished in the Baptist ministry of Virginia, was the first individual he baptized. Mr. Ireland thus refers to this circumstance: -- "He was a great favorite of the ministers in Virginia, and they had planned it among them that I should be the first person he baptized. He was considered a great men in the things of time and sense, but he shone more conspicuously as a luminary of the church. He was like another Paul among the churches. No man was like-minded with him. As the sun in his strength, he passed through the State, displaying the glory of his adorable Master, and spreading his light and heat to the consolation of thousands."
The following extract, from the pen of Elder John Leland, will not here be out of place. At that time Mr. Leland lived in Virginia: "In August, 1786, I attended a meeting of the General Committee at Buckingham; after which I traveled southward to Pittsylvania, to visit the great man of God, Rev. Samuel Harriss. I had met Mr. Harriss before on the banks of James River, and accompanied him at his meetings through Goochland, Fluvanna, and Louisa, to Orange. At a meeting in Goochland, after preaching was over, Mr. Harriss went into the yard, and sat down in the shade, while the people were weeping in the meeting-house, and telling what God had done for them, in order to be baptized. A gentlewoman addressed Mr. Harriss as follows: 'Mr. Harriss, what do you think all this weeping is for? Are not all those tears like the tears of a crocodile? I believe I could cry as well as any of them, if I chose to act the hypocrite.' On this address, Mr. Harriss drew a dollar out of his pocket, and replied, 'Good woman, I will give you a dollar for a tear, and repeat it ten times;' but the woman shed no tears. In 1787 Colonel Harriss made me a visit, whose coming called out a vast crowd of ministers and people. His eyes -- his every motion was preaching; but after he had read his text, his mind was so dark that he could not preach; and of course the lot fell on me. From my house he went down to Spottsylvania, where the work of the Lord, like a mighty torrent, broke out under his ministry."
At this period he had become well known throughout Virginia. His journeying had extended to the more eastern and northern portions of the State; and wherever he went, the truth, in its simplicity, was dispensed. His success as an evangelist was most astonishing. The gospel, preached by him, was attended by the Spirit of God, and made effectual in the conversion of many souls. It is said that he had been allowed, with tokens of the Divine blessing, to preach Christ crucified in almost every part of Virginia, and in many parts of North Carolina. The estimation in which he was universally held, may be ascertained from the fact, that when the General Association decided that the apostolic office was designed by the head of the church to be perpetual, he was unanimously chosen to fill this office. This
unscriptural decision was made, and the appointment conferred in the year 1774. The office was retained by him but a few months. This circumstance is referred to simply for the purpose of showing how far, by his labors of love, he had gained the affections and confidence of his brethren.
Perhaps few men of the eighteenth century contributed more to extend the truth and ordinances of the New Testament than Samuel Harriss. He was in almost all respects well qualified to secure the attention of those who heard him. "His manners," says Mr. Semple, "were of the most winning sort. He scarcely ever went into a house without exhorting and praying for those he met there. As a doctrinal preacher, his talents were rather below mediocrity; unless at those times when he was highly favored from above, then he would sometimes display considerable ingenuity. His excellency consisted chiefly in addressing the heart; and perhaps even Whitefield did not surpass him in this respect. When animated himself, he seldom failed to animate his auditory."
The fact has been already alluded to, that his influence among the Baptists of Virginia was deservedly extensive. He was called to preside at most of the associations, and other meetings for business which he attended. In the struggles that took place between the Baptists and the established church, he was also honored to take a prominent part. He was not, however, required by his Master to sustain the same fiery persecutions which were endured by some of his brethren. His influence in society previously to his conversion, as well as his naturally fearless spirit, contributed much to his advantage.
It is not intimated that no trials were suffered, or sacrifices made, by this man of God. He gave up all for Christ. "Being in easy circumstances," says Mr. Semple, "when he become [sic] religious he devoted not only himself, but almost all his property, to religious objects. He had begun a large new dwelling-house, suitable to his former dignity, which, as soon as it was finished, he appropriated to the use of public worship, continuing to live in the old one. After maintaining his family in a very frugal manner, he distributed his surplus income to charitable purposes." Persecutions also were suffered. Among other things mentioned
by Mr. Semple, he states, "that he was once arrested and carried into court as a disturber of the peace. In court, a Captain Williams vehemently accused him as a vagabond, heretic, and a mover of sedition everywhere. Mr. Harriss made a defence. But the court ordered that he should not preach in the county again for the space of twelve months, or be committed to prison. The colonel told him that he lived two hundred miles from thence, and that it was not likely he should disturb them again in the course of one year. Upon this he was dismissed. From Culpepper he went into Fauquier, and preached at Carter's Run. From thence he crossed the Blue-Ridge, and preached in Shenandoah. On his return, he called at Captain Thomas Clanahan's, in the County of Culpepper, where there was a meeting. While certain young ministers were preaching, the word of God began to burn in Colonel Harriss's heart. When they finished, he arose and addressed the congregation: 'I partly promised the devil a few days past, at the court-house, that I would not preach in this county again in the term of a year. But the devil is a perfidious wretch, and covenants with him are not be kept; and therefore I will preach.' He preached a lively, animating sermon. The court disturbed him no more.
"On one occasion, in Orange County, he was pulled down as he was preaching, and dragged about by the hair of the head, and sometimes by the leg. His friends rescued him. On another time, he was knocked down by a rude fellow while he as preaching. But he was not dismayed by these, or any other difficulties. To obtain his own consent to undertake a laudable enterprise, it was sufficient for him to know that it was possible. His faith was sufficient to throw mountains into the sea, if they stood in the way. He seems also never to have been appalled by the fear or the shame of man. He could confront the stoutest son of pride."
The views of Elder Harriss underwent a very material change in the latter part of his ministry, with reference to the obligation of the churches to support those who employ their time in preaching the gospel. For many years he not only entertained, but taught the sentiment, that no pastor or evangelist should expect remuneration for his services. This course was pursued in opposing
the support of the established church by legal taxation. But he lived to deplore the extreme to which he had allowed himself to go; an extreme as opposed to justice as it is to revelation. The following well-authenticated anecdotes exhibit most interestingly his changes of opinion on this subject: -- *
"He, with several others, officiated in the ordination of a young man living near the City of Richmond. This young man had a wife and two or three children dependent on his efforts for support; he was in moderate circumstances, but industrious and economical, and they were comfortable and happy. In the charge which was delivered by Elder Harriss, he took occasion to refer to the salaries of ministers, in allusion to the recent circumstances of the established religion in Virginia, and adjured the young brother to give his life to the work, trust to the Lord for support, but never to receive a cent for preaching; no never! The services closed, and the brethren separated. Some five or six years after this event, Elder Harriss and another brother, passing late in the evening, through this neighborhood, remembered the affectionate and talented young minister, wished to know how he did, and determined to spend the night at his house. They rode up to his residence, but as they approached, they observed that his fields were but half tilled, his fences dilapidated, and his farm nearly destroyed by the stock. His house and yard were in keeping with his other affairs. Everything had the appearance of neglect, and evidently all was hastening to ruin. They called. His wife came to the door. How changed! She did not now wear her former rosy and contented appearance, but was emaciated, pale, and care-worn. Brother _______ was not home; he was absent on a tour of preaching, and, said his companion, he is scarcely ever with us. They told her they had come to spend the night with the family. She remarked that nothing could give her greater pleasure than their company and conversation, but she had not in the house a meal to place before them. Well, said they, never mind that, feed our horses, we are not hungry; we can wait until morning, and stop for breakfast on our way. I am sorry, said[p. 37]
she, we have nothing on the farm we can give your horses, unless we cut down some green corn. How is this, said the venerable minister, does not Brother ______ provide for his family? He can not do it, said his wife weeping -- he preaches constantly, and you know when he was ordained you charged him never to receive anything for preaching; to which advice he has always strictly adhered. The ministers bade her farewell, and turned away from this scene of suffering and poverty with aching hearts. The teachings of the word of God rushed powerfully upon the mind of Elder Harriss, and he was oppressed with a view of the consequences of his unfaithfulness. The next day he met the congregation; he could no longer forbear, but nobly confessed his error before the assembled multitude; he that day preached on the duty of ministerial support, relating this event, and reminding them of the ease with which many of them who were living in affluence could relieve this distress."
On another occasion, when traveling in company with a brother in the ministry, at the same time deploring the influence he had exerted on his brethren who labored in word and doctrine, and especially on the churches; an influence which he saw was likely to be most injurious to the interests of religion. Such was the anguish of his mind, in reviewing his course, that he insisted on retiring to the forest and making it a subject of special prayers There, with strong crying and tears, he lifted up his confessions and petitions in the name of his ascended Redeemer.
Respecting the last moments of this servant of Jesus Christ but little is known. For some time before his death he was seized with an attack of paralysis, from which he never entirely recovered. Though on this account his labors were much interrupted, he still continued, to the extent of his ability, to recommend to all around him the service of his Master. He was not willing to be an idler in the vineyard of the Lord. At length, after having seen more than threescore years and ten, he tool departure from this scene of toil and pain, to receive a crown of life.
This sketch will be closed by one or two anecdotes, related by Elder Semple, with a few reflections from his pen: --
"When he first began to preach, his soul was so absorbed in the work, that it was difficult for him to attend to the duties of this life. A man owed him a sum of money, which he actually stood in need of, to defray the expenses of his family. He went to the man, and told him he would be very glad if he would discharge the debt he owed him. To which the man replied, he could not pay him the money. Harriss said, 'I want the money to buy wheat for my family. You have a good crop by you -- I had rather have wheat than money.' The man replied, 'I have other uses for my wheat.' Mr. Harriss left him, meditating, good God, said he to himself, what shall I do? Must I leave preaching to attend to a lawsuit? Perhaps a thousand souls will perish in the mean time for the want of hearing of Jesus. No! I will not! Well, what will you do for yourself? What? I will sue him at the court of heaven.
"Having resolved what to do, he turned aside into a wood, and fell upon his knees, and thus began to suit: 'O blessed Jesus! thou eternal God, thou knowest that I need the money which the man owes me, to supply the wants of my family; but he will not pay me without a lawsuit. Dear Jesus, shall I quit they cause, and leave the souls of men to perish? Or wilt thou, in mercy, open some other way of relief? In this prayer, Mr. H. found such tokens of Divine goodness, that, to use his own words, Jesus said unto him: ’Harriss! keep on preaching, and I will become security for the payment.'
"Mr. H. having his debt secured, thought it proper to give the debtor his discharge. Accordingly, he shortly after, passing by to a meeting, carried a receipt in full to the man's house, and gave it to his servant, desiring him to give it to his master. On his return by the house, after meeting, the man hailed him at his gate, and said, 'Mr. H. what did you mean by the receipt you sent this morning?' Mr. H. replied, 'I meant just as I wrote,' 'Well, but I have not paid you,' answered the debtor. Harriss said, 'True; and I know, also, that you said you never would, unless the money came at the end of an execution; but sir, I sued you in the court of heaven, and Jesus agreed to
pay me. I have therefore given you a discharge!' This operated so effectually upon the man’s conscience, that in a few days he prepared and sent to Mr. H. wheat enough to discharge the debt.
"Some of the Christian worldlings of the present day will say: Aye! But this will no do often. We answer: The principle is correct at all times, viz., to commit our grievances to our heavenly Father, and trust him for a full recompense. How differently do those brethren act, who, for the mere pelf of this world, not only go to law with the wicked, but with their own brethren! And sometimes, in order to gain their point, will strive to blast their reputation in open court! For the honor of religion, it must here be added, that these things have seldom (we wish we could say never) occurred among the Baptists.
"A criminal, who had been just pardoned at the gallows, once met him on the road and him his reprieve. Well, said he, and have you shown it to Jesus? No, Mr. Harriss, I want you to do that for me. The old man immediately descended from his horse in the road, and making the man also alight, they both kneeled down. Mr. H. put one hand on the man's head, and with the other held open the pardon. And thus, in behalf of the criminal, returned thanks for his reprieve, and prayed for him to obtain God's pardon also.
"Volumes might be filled with entertaining anecdotes respecting this venerable man." _________
* Extracted from The Baptist, published in Tennessee, Elder R. B. C. Howell, editor.
[From James B. Taylor, Virginia Baptist Ministers, 1859, pp. 31-39. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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