In sketching the character of the subject of the following memoir, it is not our intention to bestow on him unmerited praise, but simply to bring to view those peculiar traits of character
which rendered him dear to his friends, terrible to the enemies of truth, and eminently useful to the world at large. Whatever is said, then, is not in the spirit of eulogy, but simply that his principles and practice may be duly made known and appreciated, and that he may yet speak, by these records, though his voice is hushed in the stillness of the tomb. We will give, therefore, partly in our own language, but mostly in the language of others, a few outlines of his history.
Henry Holcombe was the son of Grimes and Elizabeth Holcombe, and was born in Prince Edward county, Virginia, September 22, 1762. While he was yet a child, his father removed with his family to South Carolina, where, to use his own words, "at eleven years of age, he completed all the education he ever received from a living preceptor."
This fact is worthy of particular notice, when considered in connection with his intellectual endowments, and the extent of his acquisitions in after life. Even the poor and indifferent means of instruction within his reach were taken from him at a period too early to admit of a presumption that he could have derived much profit from their employment. Nature must, therefore, have endowed him with a mind rich in its own resources, and vigorous, even in its youth, else he could not have extended his researches as successfully as he did into the sublimest and deepest mysteries that can occupy the attention of a rational man. She was thus bountiful to him: she taught him to think, and led him, even in boyhood, to fix his thoughts on the noblest of her works. At an age when children, less favored by nature, are amused with toys and trinkets, he delighted to dwell on the grandeur and magnificence of those countless orbs with which she has gilded the immensity of space. His soul seems to have been placed, almost on the very day of its creation, far onward in that track which leads from truth to truth, from wonder to wonder, and from glory to glory, up to the throne of the great Jehovah.
This period of his youth was one of severe trial to our common country. She was just then emerging from a state of dependence on an empire which had lost sight of her own interest and that of humanity, in attempting to fasten chains on freemen, and in daring to require that the noble and the brave
should bow the knee at her behest. It was a period when the hearts of our fathers were sorely and severely tried. Their homes were deserted for the tented fields, and their wives and daughters left alone at their firesides, hoping and fearing; and at the domestic altar, praying for their triumphant return, yet dreading to hear the dismal tidings of their discomfiture and death. Our cities and villages were filled with hireling hordes, and throughout this portion of our beloved country nothing was heard but the loud alarm of war. It was at this period -- so interesting to our fathers, so interesting to us all -- that the lofty and independent spirit of Henry Holcombe first exhibited itself. He waited not for the arrival of manhood before he drew his sword, but entered promptly into the service of his country, determined, with every patriot of that day, to live free or die. His ardor and intrepidity, tempered as they were by that discretion and sound judgment, without which courage is unavailing and boldness becomes impetuous rashness, soon raised him to command. Here, as well as in every other station in which he was found in after life, he acquitted himself well, and gave the fullest proof that the trust reposed in him by his fellow-soldiers was not misplaced.
While an officer in the army he was led to those reflections, which inclined him to renounce the pomps and vanities of the world, and to seek for happiness in the calm contemplation of Bible truth. He had tasted of the cup of earthly pleasures, and found there was bitterness in it. He had pursued the track to which his natural propensities led him, and he became convinced that it would end in everlasting pain. He sought for a path which would conduct him to something more cheering in its aspects, more attractive in its nature, and he found that which leads up to heaven. He became a christian. In his twenty-second year, his attention was first turned to gospel ordinances. "In conversing with my father," says he, "he informed me that I was baptized in my infancy, and said I was a Presbyterian. Asking on what passages of Scripture the peculiar tenets of that denomination were founded, he took up the Bible and kindly endeavored to satisfy me on those points. But, to his painful disappointment, we could find nothing that seemed to me in favor of baptizing infants, nor for governing a
gospel church, otherwise than by the suffrages of its members To pass softly over this tender ground, the result of my serious and reiterated inquiries into the materials, ordinances and government of the apostolic churches was the full conviction, that to follow the dictates of my conscience I must be a Baptist; and not conferring with flesh and blood, I rode near twenty miles to propose myself as a candidate for admission into a Baptist church." Immediately after his baptism, he received a license according to its forms to proclaim to others the truths of which he had become so fully convinced himself. He entered upon the work of the ministry with zeal, and pursued it with an industrious and persevering earnestness which did not escape the notice of his christian brethren. He was soon invited by the church at Pike creek, South Carolina, to become their pastor; and after having preached to them several months as a licentiate, he was ordained on the 11th of September, 1785, and on the same day was called upon to baptize three young men, who had given evidence of a gracious change under his ministry. His labors at this time appear to have been blessed with almost unparalleled success. Multitudes were brought to inquire what they should do to be saved. Domestic altars sprang up in all directions among families who had hitherto gloried in impiety and infidelity.
Having formed the conjugal relation in April, 1786, in the following June he baptized, among twenty-six professed believers, his wife, her only brother, and their mother. In the following August, his father, having renounced the world, together with his pœdo-Baptist prejudices, in the sixty-first year of his age, was one of seventeen baptized by Dr. Holcombe. Such encouragements as these only served to inspire him with increased ardor. Though he had as yet received no pecuniary reward for his clerical services, yet his fellow-citizens manifested their confidence in him by appointing him their representative in the Convention of South Carolina which approved the Constitution of the United States, and which was held in Charleston.
On his return from Charleston, he was invited to take the pastoral charge of the Baptist church at Euhaw, which he accepted, and on the 1st of February, 1791, arrived at the Euhaw.
He preached statedly at this place, May river and St. Helena. In 1795, on account of the sickliness of his family, he removed to Beaufort, though he still retained his previous pastoral connections. The inhabitants of Beaufort were at this time, with very few exceptions, strangers to true religion, and strongly prejudiced against Baptists. Baptism had never been administered anywhere in the vicinity. Yet, despite these prejudices, a neat and commodious Baptist meeting-house was erected, and very many, both men and women, were added to the church by baptism at the hands of Dr. Holcombe. Here he continued until 1799, when he removed to the city of Savannah, where a wider field of usefulness than any in which he had hitherto labored was opened before him.
In 1795, a house of worship was partially erected by a few Baptists in Savannah. The following year, as the house was merely inclosed, and as the Baptists had no minister to occupy it, they rented it to the Presbyterians, who had recently lost their house of worship by fire. A few months before the expiration of this term, in 1799, Dr. Holcombe received and accepted a call from the pew-holders of this building, to impart to them the gospel. The reception he met with was highly respectful, and his annual salary fixed at $2,000. His congregation was large and respectable, and the interests of religion, among the various denominations, appeared to revive by the blessing of God on the Word of His grace. Here we would remark, it is pleasing to notice the mutual surrender of sectarian feelings, by this christian Baptist pastor and this christian Presbyterian people. However, early in 1800 the Baptists conceived it their duty to form themselves into a church of their order. Accordingly Dr. Holcombe, with his wife and ten others, signed a pledge, in which they agreed to endeavor to keep house for the Lord, as soon as the necessary arrangements could be made.
On the 11th September following, he buried with Christ in baptism the first white person who had ever received that holy rite in Savannah, and on the 26th of November of the same year, they were regularly constituted into a church, of which Dr. Holcombe was chosen pastor. This "little one has become a thousand and this small people a great nation."
In this city, his whole soul seemed to be engaged in the work of doing good, and much under God did he accomplish. It may be well to state some of the means which he adopted to accomplish his benevolent designs: 1. In 1801, the "Savannah Female Asylum," (a society for supporting and educating helpless female orphans,) was formed in his parlor, under a constitution and by-laws drawn up by himself. This institution, from its formation to the present time, has been the favorite of all denominations; and individuals as well as bodies in both the civil and religious departments of the community, have vied with each other in supporting it.
2. He published "the Georgia Analytical Respository," a religious magazine, devoted to literature as well as religion.
3. About this time he published an address to the friends of religion in Georgia, on their duties in reference to civil government, in which he urged them to discard the idea that attention to affairs of State is incompatible with the christian profession. After showing why we should support civil goverent and how we should do it, he concludes by saying, "At all elections, let every one qualified to vote attend and do his duty, as in the presence of God, considering that incalculable benefits may be the result of it."
4. As a pastor, he was indefatigable in his labors, visiting from house to house, not only the members of his church but the people of his congregation, and enforcing his public discourses by private exhortations and prayers.
5. The execution of a man, for the comparatively small crime of stealing a gun, attracted his attention to the extreme severity of the penal code of Georgia. He was instrumental in rousing public attention to this subject, and may be regarded as the originator of our State penitentiary.
6. His opposition to Deists, theatrical entertainments, etc., was open and manly, and subjected him to dangers from which he was delivered only by the hand of Providence. Several attempts were made against him, among which were the following, which we give in his own words: "An attempt was made at night, to decoy me by a stratagem into an ambuscade; but, as an ever-watchful Providence would have it, without success. A well-dressed fellow, who assumed the style and
[page 190]manner of a gentleman, endeavored to get me out of my house after midnight, under the pretence of wanting me to perform a marriage ceremony. And had I not happened to hear the clock strike twelve, just before the knock at my door, I might have believed him in the assertion, that it was but a little past ten o'clock, and been led into the snare of my adversaries. He said his name was Clark, that the parties to be married were respectable strangers, had been disappointed in obtaining their marriage license sooner, had to sail next morning, were very desirous of being married by me, and that he would give me immediately a fee of fifty dollars. But, on peremptorily refusing, from an upper window, to come down stairs on any consideration at so unseasonable an hour, this Judas, who had before expressed himself with the greatest politeness, overwhelmed me with a torrent of the bitterest curses; and swore by his God, that if I opened my mouth to call the guard, he would break every window in my house. From this unsuccessful stratagem, they had recourse to violence. Returning, according to my well-known custom, about nine o'clock in the evening, from the meeting of a society of which I was a member, with a small son at each of my hands, a musket was snapped at my breast, and the fire rolled so near me, in throwing out my hand in the dark, I laid hold on a bayonet! But God being pleased, at this critical moment, to make my heart like adamant, I exerted a loud authoritative voice in a few interrogations, which so alarmed the two cowardly assassins, whom I perceived before me with fixed bayonets, that they sneaked away, as if expecting every moment to be seized, 'begging ten thousand pardons,' and, with tremulous voices, apologizing for their dastardly attempt on my life."
His efforts to promote union and concentration of effort among all christians, and especially those of his own denomination, were worthy of the man, and were productive of good results. He was in the conference of Baptist ministers which agreed to found the Mount Enon Academy, (in 1804,) and adopted a constitution as a missionary society, called the General Committee, (in 1806,) and exerted his utmost powers to promote these objects. He selected the site, purchased the land, and was appointed the agent to collect funds to carry it on, in
which he was quite successful. He had the happiness to baptize many persons of distinction, among whom was Hon. Joseph Clay, an eminent civilian, and a Federal Judge of the District of Georgia.
During a preaching excursion in the up-country, while some two hundred miles from home, he delivered a discourse on a very warm day; and immediately afterwards drank freely of cold water. This brought him, in a moment, from perfect health to the borders of the grave. Though, for the time being, he obtained partial relief, yet he continued seriously indisposed; and, on his homeward journey, fainted in the pulpit at Mount Enon. Continuing to preach after he reached Savannah, he was taked dangerously ill of a violent fever, and was laid by about two months. In 1808, he again met the General Committee at Mount Enon, and the following year went to Augusta and aided in the ordination of Rev. William T. Brantly, Sr. His labors were too much for the state of his health, which continued very feeble, and brought another violent and protracted attack [attact] of sickness in 1810. After recovering, so far as to be able to attend the session of the Savannah River Association in the city, he resigned his charge of the Savannah church, and retired to Mount Enon.
Such a man could not be permitted to remain long in retirement. He was recalled to Beaufort -- soon after, invited to visit Boston, with a view to settlement -- and then called to the care of the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia; which last call he accepted, and made arrangements to remove thither.
On the 14th December, 1811, he embarked for Philadelphia, via New York, and after a stormy and dangerous passage, he arrived among his new charge the 1st January, 1812. With characteristic zeal he entered upon his labors in this important position, and was instrumental in doing much towards the advancement of the Redeemer's cause. Though in early life a soldier and an officer, he became an advocate of peace principles, and was at the head of a peace society. A volume was published by him, entitled "Primitive Theology;" a very good work, and teaches sound doctrine.
Like other great and good men, he had enemies -- perhaps from envy, if nothing else. These tried hard to make it appear
that Dr. Holcombe was opposed to the missionary cause. This will never be believed in Georgia, whose sons are now reaping the benefits of his pious and benevolent labors. His sermons and writings, his sacrifices and toils, and the whole course of his life, contradict and refute the slander. Hear his sentiments in his own words: "Let us, therefore, send the Word of Life, on the wings of our bounty, in all directions, to disperse the clouds of superstition and ignorance, until Pagans, Mahometans and Jews, with all merely nominal christians, shall see with us the salvation of God." The truth is, there was a difference of opinion between him and some prominent men in regard to important matters connected with the mission cause, and rather than wrangle and strive, Dr. Holcombe withdrew from the business, for the time being, for the sake of peace. But, to his latest day, the advancement of the Redeemer's kingdom was the object, of all others, nearest to his heart.
It was not as a writer, but as a public speaker, that Dr. Holcombe's talents were most availing. There was an indescribable something, not only in the matter, but in the manner of his preaching, which commanded and retained the attention, while he not only forced his words upon the ears, but his sentiments upon the hearts of his hearers. Without seeking the elegancies of composition, he rose to a surprising energy and ease of expression--gave forth his many thoughts in a clear, nervous diction, and when warmed with the subject, would lead his admiring audience the willing captives of his ardent rhetoric along with him to fasten on those transports with which genius and piety can supply the attentive mind.
On the 22d of May, 1824, after an illness of only one week, he took his departure hence, "to be with Christ, which is far better." When a respite from oppression in breathing gave liberty of utterance, such expressions as the following fell from his lips: "I am in good hands." "Oh, the sublime attainments of faith!" "It is all for the good of my soul." "Oh, the prospects of faith!" Just before he breathed his last, and after he had become speechless, a brother asked him if he felt comfortable and happy, and requested him, if he did, to raise his hand in token of it. He immediately raised his hand--that hand
with which he had so often pointed sinners to the Lamb of God--and then sank into the slumber of death.
The degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred on Mr. Holcombe before 1810, by Brown University. ===========
[J. H. Campbell, Georgia Baptists: Historical and Biographical, 1874, pp. 185-193. -- jrd]