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The Early Baptist Preachers
By Victor I. Masters, 1915
Baptist Missions in the South

      1. A horseback itinerant. He was a pioneer preacher. The population was nearly all rural in a comparatively new and untamed country. The infrequent city preacher constituted an exception, and his usefulness beyond his own church depended upon his understanding and adjusting himself to pioneer needs and conditions. To a considerable degree these pioneer conditions obtained in the South up to the middle of the last century. In sections of the West and in some Highland sections of the Old South territory they still exist. The early Baptist preacher of the South was a man of saddle bags, the bridle path, and the Bible. He was given to making itineraries to regions distant from his home, and when he did not his round of appointments at churches and preaching stations where preaching was had either once a month or less often, kept him much in the saddle. In fact, these men were almost the only element of society who travelled from one community to another in those days. They were influential beyond all other forces in binding the settlements together by the ties of sympathy and understanding.

      2. The wilderness wooed him. The wilderness seemed to woo many of these preachers, for in the wilderness dwelled unsaved men. No settlement was too remote or too rough for them to visit. Sometimes the preacher went overland with the emigrants

to wilds not yet settled, with the purpose of erecting a tabernacle for God along with the dwellings of newly cut logs. The unexplored wilds toward and setting sun seemed to beckon these men onward. and they went. They cheerfully faced dangers from Indians, swollen streams, wild animals, and the lawless human prowlers of trackless forests. In the primitive settlements they wrought, like Paul, with their own hands for a living during the week, that they might unpaid tell their fellow-pioneers of Christ on Saturdays and Sundays.

      3. His Bible. Largely the early Baptist preacher was a man of one book. An influential but small number of them enjoyed the advantages of scholastic and theological training. Not a few, like the elder Richard Furman, educated themselves mainly by a self-selected course of reading. But for the most part the men whose preaching a century ago made the South so largely Baptistic, had small scholastic training. They were students of the Bible and in a way which has never been surpassed since they knew how to preach experimental religion. They were much given to discussing Scripture texts among themselves and in the family circles where they visited. This added a flavor of piquancy and originality to their preaching, while at the same time it was of immeasurable value in teaching the people the word of God.

      4. Was he ignorant? "Ignorant" is not the word to describe the Baptist pioneer preachers of the South, even when they were unlearned men. Men who could whip the shrewd and powerful Established

Church in Virginia, who could go into the wildest backwoods communities, through the gospel bring the most unpromising sinners to their right minds, organize churches in an orderly New Testament way, and leave the community transformed into a new life and its face turned toward the light of God—such men may have been unpolished and not genteel in manner, and they may not have used cultivated speech, but they were not ignorant. Sometimes they blundered in the interpretation of a Scripture passage, but they made remarkably few blunders on what are called the cardinal doctrines of grace. Dr. James M. Pendleton, in the Jubilee Volume of Kentucky Baptists, tells of an early preacher, who, speaking from the text, "Save yourselves from this untoward generation," pronounced untoward "untowered," and proceeded to demonstrate to his audience that sinners have no tower of refuge and that if they would be saved they must flee from a generation that has no tower. His conclusion was scriptural, but not from that text. Some of the fanciful, "scholarly" interpretations of our day are as unwarranted and far more dangerous. He often spoke in a rhythmical sing-song cadence, but the substance of his speech was salvation by grace. The early preacher was usually unlearned, but not ignorant.

      5. His passion for souls. The pioneer preacher had a passion for preaching, a love for men's souls. Many of them left their homes and went to distant places to preach when they were sick and unable to go. No sacrifice of their own interests seemed too

great for them, if there was an appointment or a special call to preach at the other end of the wilderness journey. Dr. Riley says of these soldiers of Christ, in History of Baptists in Southern States: "The early Baptist ministry of the South has never been excelled in its unquenchable zeal in providing the destitute with the gospel. Hardy and heroic, these primitive preachers were the advance guard of Southern civilization. * * * They braved all dangers and endured every hardship in their determination to preach. Rarer exhibitions of missionary zeal were not illustrated even during the Apostolic Age."

      6. His support. One of the most remarkable things in our early Baptist history is how God raised up a ministry, who, while they made their living with their own hands, converted the South to the Baptist faith in a measure not equalled [sic] by any other Christian body. Probably fewer than one Baptist preacher in fifty received a living support from his churches. Dr. Pendleton says that when, even as late as 1836, he was called to the pastorate of a church at a salary of $400, it was considered a wonder of wonders in all that section of Kentucky. Virginia Baptists, who did so much for the common weal, did not make an enviable record on pastoral support. Benedict, writing in 1813, quotes a Virginia minister as follows: "The support of preachers in Virginia is extremely precarious. By most it is viewed as an alms. I doubt whether there is one who is paid $300, and perhaps not ten get $150. Some of the most popular and laborious preachers

in the State work for a whole year without receiving a cent." A part of the intimate fireside talk of the early childhood home of the writer, was of the beloved grandfather-preacher, who declared that the entire receipts for a year from some of his churches in Anderson and Pickens Counties, South Carolina, would perhaps not more than pay for the shoes his horse wore out in his trips to serve them. The whole stipend from one church for a year was a pair of wool socks, knit and presented by a good woman.

      7. Self-support. David Benedict, in his History of the Baptist Denomination, gives a portrayal of the "temporal circumstances" of the Baptist preachers in 1813. He says that 500 Baptist churches had been organized by that time in territory which had been virgin wilderness at the close of the Revolution, and that the preachers who did it were men for the most part who immigrated to the new settlements, took up lands at cheap rates, cleared them and put them in cultivation, and thus secured the means of self-support. At that time he estimated that about twenty-five Baptist preachers in America were worth $20,000 or more in property, about sixty, $10,000; about four hundred and fifty, $5,000; two hundred to three hundred, nothing at all, and the rest some amount less than $5,000. A comparison with present conditions suggests that the early ministers were persons of more property than their latter-day successors. If it be desirable for a preacher to be poor, (and this seems to be the general opinion), yet the property of the early preachers was not to

their discredit. Driven to self-support, yet under the divine impulsion to preach, they seem to have used the only large opportunity which has ever come to Baptist preachers in this country to show that they could beat the average layman at business and yet give part of their time to looking after the layman's soul. In the older settlements some of the preachers taught school or practiced medicine as well as farmed.

      8. Causes of non-support. Both the preachers and the churches were responsible for the former not receiving a support for their work. On the preacher's side, was a great dislike or even fear of instructing the people in their duty concerning this matter; it was so easy for prejudiced and unjust persons to attribute his instruction to worldly self-interest. Accepting the situation, the preachers gave what time was necessary to self-support, and the lack of heart-wringing need on their part made it easy for the church member to keep his money in his pocket. So long as he could hear a monthly sermon, the early Baptist did not ordinarily think more preaching and pastoral work necessary. So long as the preacher had to get up only one new sermon a month, which he might preach in half a dozen separate communities, he could look after hogs and com and cattle for most of the week. After a century, our preachers still practically never instruct their people in the duty of pastoral support. They are not without responsibility for the beggarly stipend the average church still doles out to support the pastor.

      9. Reaction from the Establishment. Covetousness is common to every day, and needs no elucidation here in connection with the early non-support of Baptist preachers. Those pioneer Baptists were probably not at heart more covetous than their descendants

today, and they were more hospitable than their descendants. Aside from lack of training, for which the preachers must be given chief blame, there was a particular reason why those early forbears held the payment of preacher salaries in hearty dislike. It had not been long since they and their fathers had been compelled to pay a tax to keep up the Episcopal Church and its pleasure-loving and often contemptuous parsons. Fines and imprisonment had been their Baptist portion at the hands of this State Church party. The Baptist preachers themselves had led the fight to do away with this unjust tax and also to do away with taxation to support any church. In these circumstances, it was to be expected that the squeamish among the fathers would look upon a stated salary for a pastor as a child of the State Church imposition. They favored free will gifts to the pastor instead, and then mostly forgot to give them!

      10. Men worth knowing. Semple for Virginia and Benedict for the whole country set down in their books a century ago the stories of a number of Baptist preachers, and other writers and oral tradition have helped to preserve for our instruction an intimate view of the men who builded the foundations of our present Baptist life and strength. These stories have the spicy flavor of romance and many times its value. It is unfortunate that the record of these pioneer heroes is not more available, particularly for the young people. Acquaintance with them cannot but do much to inspire, to correct false perspective, and to develop patience with and a

comprehending understanding of the undeveloped and backward churches of our own time. They were leaders of men and did more than any other class to establish society in the commonwealths which make up the American nation. Let us take a look at just a few of them.

      11. Jesse Mercer. This distinguished early Georgia preacher, after whom Mercer University was named, was a man of unusual parts, of whom Dr. Basil Manly said: "In his happy moments of preaching he would arouse and enchain the attention of reflecting men beyond any minister I have ever heard." But Jesse Mercer was both a self-educated man and the pastor of far-separated once-a-month country churches. His biographer tells that when a rain-swollen stream interposed between him and a preaching day at one of his churches, Mercer would strip the saddle from his horse, drive the animal across the torrent, and with saddle and saddle bags on his back search out for himself a crossing place on some log or fallen tree. Many churches were dependent on his pastoral care. He saw clearly but could not remedy the weakness of the once-a-month system, and declared that the churches could never be brought to matured strength under such a dissipated pastoral service. Would he not be astonished if he knew how little the mass of the churches have advanced beyond this inadequate practice at the end of another century?

      12. Shubal Stearns and Elnathan. Elnathan Davis was a young man who was a mocker. Elnathan heard that the venerable Shubal Stearns would

baptize one John Stewart at Sandy Creek Church in North Carolina on certain day, late in the eighteenth century. Now this Stewart was a very large man and Stearns was small. Elnathan opined there would be much mocking diversion for him and his cronies, if not a drowning. Therefore, with a dozen others, of his kind, he came to laugh when Stearns came to preach. Elnathan and his boon companions stood off on the edge of the throng, awaiting the baptism. Mr. Stearns had no sooner come among the crowd than Elnathan observed that some of the people began to tremble as if in a fit of the ague. Irreverent Elnathan began to feel of and examine them, to see if they were shamming. Then one man leaned on Elnathan's profane shoulder and wept bitterly. Perceiving that this penitent had wet with tears his new white coat, Elnathan pushed him off and ran to his comrades, who were sitting on a log. "Well, Elnathan," said one, "what do you think of these people?" Said Elnathan: "There is a trembling and crying spirit among them, but whether it be the spirit of God or the devil, I don't know; if it be the devil, the devil go with them, for I will never more venture myself among them." He stood awhile in that resolution, but the enchantment of Stearns' voice and eye drew him to the crowd once more. He had not been long there before the trembling seized him also. He attempted to withdraw, but his strength failing and his understanding being confounded, with many others he sank to the ground. When Elnathan came to himself he found nothing in him but dread and anxiety, bordering
on horror. He continued this way for some days and then found relief through faith in Christ. Immediately he began to preach, raw as he was. He moved to South Carolina and was long an honored pastor in the Saluda Association.

      13. Samuel Harriss. About the middle of the eighteenth century, at a small house by the side of the forest-embowered road in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, two unassuming Baptist preachers, Joseph and William Murphy, were preaching the gospel of salvation to the people who had gathered from their pioneer farms. Along the road journeyed horseback and alone a man of thirty years, resplendent in uniform and sword. This man was sheriff of the county, warden of the Episcopal church, justice of the peace, and county burgess. He was also colonel of militia, captain of Fort Mayo, and commissary for fort and army. But Samuel Harriss was full of a discontent he himself did not understand. Pressed by his gloom and drawn by the appealing echoes of sacred song from the house where the Baptists held their simple worship, Harriss slipped quietly into the house and modestly took a back seat where his military dress would not attract attention. But the Spirit of God found out the popular young officer and Episcopal church warden that day. His convictions became so deep, as he listened, that he placed his sword aside and went to the front to seek Christ. When the congregation rose from prayer, Col. Harriss was observed still on his knees. Some who went to his relief found him senseless. When he came to himself he smiled, and in an ecstacy of joy exclaimed,

"Glory, glory, glory!" He was later baptized by Rev. Daniel Marshall. Thus began the career of a Virginia Baptist preacher than whom perhaps no character in American religious history was ever more winsome and inspiring. In him were the love of a John, the modest helpfulness of a Barnabas, and the fearlessness of a Paul confronting his enemies. He was called the Baptist Boagernes of Virginia. He became almost a constant itinerant as a preacher. He preached to his former political associates and to the court, which, now that he was a Baptist preacher, had its former favored officer arrested and persecuted. He was as popular among his brethren as he had been among their enemies. Before his death Virginia Baptists came to call him the Apostle of Virginia and actually ordained him as such.

      14. Richard Furman. About 1815, Richard Furman of South Carolina, was returning through Washington from Philadelphia, where he had presided over the Triennial Baptist Convention as its first President. News of his distinction in arousing Carolina to oppose Cornwallis in the Revolution spread through official circles, and they lionized him and insisted on his preaching in the Congressional Hall. His diffidence overruled, this man for whose head Cornwallis had offered a thousand pounds found himself standing before the elite, the honorable, and the notable—the President, Cabinet, Ministers, Foreign Ambassadors, etc. In the midst of that crowded assembly, says the Christian Register, the clarion voice of Furman rang out, as it had once

done in the camps of his countrymen. He seemed to feel at home, as if among his High Hills of the Santee, where he first put the gospel trumpet to his lips. His text was characteristic: "And now why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized." He had great liberty and riveted the attention of the audience. The earnestness and candor with which he rebuked the nobles and rulers, were enough like Nehemiah of old and John the Baptist to startle his timeserving, conscience-stricken hearers. He paused in the last sentence of his peroration and surveying for an instant the scene before him, as he stood upon the climax of his appeal and while all was still as the grave, uttered with the utmost effort of his clear, stentorian voice, "And now why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized." At the word "arise," not a few of his august but electrified hearers did arise from their seats, as if alarmed at their past sinful sluggishness.

      15. Pioneer street preaching. It was on a Sunday in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 1836. Crudeness of the frontier stamped the young town. Rev. Z. N. Morrell, pioneer preacher, rode into the place on a mule, just arrived from far-away Tennessee. An election was in progress and crowds thronged the streets. Morrell tied his mule in a thicket near by, got on his knees, and asked God if he must preach to that crowd, and came out among the people. He got up on the foundation timbers of a house, the construction of which had started, selected a corner for a pulpit, held his watch up high in his hand, and shouted: "Oh-yes! Oh-yes! Oh-yes! Everybody

that wants to buy, without money and without price, come this way." The motley throng closed in about the speaker, and he commenced to sing the old hymn, "Am I a soldier of the cross?" By the time the song ended the whole population was in the crowd. He offered a prayer and sang another hymn amid profound silence. Astonishment, rather than reverence, was stamped on the red, white, and black faces which looked up at the preacher. Across the street a second story piazza filled with men and women. Some covered wagons and a carriage bringing in immigrants, drove up to the edge of the throng and stopped. In one of the "schooners" the eagle eye of the preacher recognized a friend and his family from Hardeman County, Tennessee, three of whose daughters he had baptized in the old State. Thrilled, Morrell took as his text Isaiah 35:1 "The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose." Never had the stalwart man of God received better attention. He had great liberty for an hour, and the faces of scores of the adventurous spirits there were suffused with tears, which were surprised from hearts, unaccustomed in that new land to the voice of love. When he ceased speaking, they pressed forward to grasp his hand. How wonderfully in Texas has the prophecy of that text been fulfilled!

      16. Thrills of the frontier. It was a Sunday night preaching service, in 1842, at a small school-house, four miles above Gonzales. The neighboring Indian tribes were in an ugly mood and had recently killed

a number of settlers. As Elder Morrell preached, armed men stood guard outside in the dark and others sat at the rear of the congregation with guns across their knees. The preacher spoke with power, the attention was intense, and there were earnest prayers for protection from the Indians. The congregation was dismissed. Before the people had gotten their teams hitched up, the report of a gunshot broke the silence, and then a shrill Indian whistle. The people proceeded homeward with much caution and in a body, as most of them lived in the same direction. Elder Morrell led the silent procession in his ox-cart, in which were his own and two other families. Other similar conveyances followed. The silence, broken only by the crunching wheels and the tugging beasts, became oppressive. Some one suggested that a song be sung to drive away the gloom. And then echoed out along the valley of the Gaudalupe the plaintive, rhythmic notes of an old song, which must have touched even the savage hearts of the lurking Indians—
"On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye,
To Canaan's fair and happy land,
Where ray possessions lie.

"Oh, sacred hope; oh, blissful hope,
By inspiration given,
The hope, when days and years are passed,
We all shall meet in heaven."

"I then thought," wrote the veteran, years later, "and I still think that amid the solemnities of that hour I heard music which was sweeter to my
soul than any other which ever fell upon my ears."

      17. Pioneer women. Even in so brief and inadequate a group of illustrations of the work and life of those early-day preachers, it would be improper not to utter a word of appreciation of the godly women who, either as wives of the preachers or as the friends and helpers of their good work, bore a noble and influential part in helping to Christianize the South. No sacrifice in loneliness, privation, or danger seemed too great for these pioneer women, if by enduring they could help forward the cause of righteousness. When the preacher was absent for weeks, the wife became both the provider and protector of the home. "Aunt" Chloe Holt was a noble-hearted and daring woman who lived near the South Fork of Cole's Creek in Mississippi, in 1795, when Rev. Richard Curtis, a prominent early-day preacher in Mississippi, was being threatened and persecuted by the Roman Catholic authorities at Natchez. Following the persistence of Curtis in preaching to the Mississippians, the persecution became so acute that his life was in jeopardy. Curtis was hiding in the swamp and the myrmidons of the hierarchy were searching for him. He was sorely in need of information about the spies and of supplies for the journey it had been decided he should make back to South Carolina. Not a person could be found willing to go to him with the necessary supplies, lest he should fall under the penalty of "aiding and abetting" the escape of the refugees. Aunt Chloe dressed herself in men's clothing, mounted a horse, went in search of Curtis, and found him.

She delivered to the preacher and his companions the supplies, gave them her blessing, and returned to her own lonely pioneer home. Usually the romantic element was not so prominent in the noble devotion of those early women, but their zeal was none the less real and potent. Less heralded than the work of the men, the pioneer wives and mothers bore equally with them the hardships of subduing the wilderness and did more than the men in setting up the institutions of religion to safeguard the home.

      18. Baptist debt to unsalaried preachers. Baptists owe an immense debt to the pioneer preachers, who preached practically at their own charges with a passion comparable to that of the Apostolic Age, who cheerfully endured persecution, and who found no wilderness path too lonely to traverse and no pioneer settlement too crude or remote for them to serve, who led and won the battle for religious liberty in America, and whose evangelistic zeal has never been excelled. These men were paid in appreciation and the joy of seeing souls born in the early churches, but not with money. Among the descendant churches and preachers the nobility and worth of these pioneers of the cross have not been fully realized. We have accorded words of honor to the pioneer prophet. Some have affected an air of excusatory apology for his idiosyncrasies, but we have not brought ourselves close enough to him to realize what a man he was, that he was in very truth the spiritual father of all our denomination has and is today, and that his unstinted

spiritual labors, out of which this great Baptist body was born, were performed at his own costs. To the noble part which these preachers played in bringing religious liberty in America the next two chapters will be devoted.

      19. All honor to them. All honor to these men. I respectfully invite the hearts of all who love the true, the noble, and the brave to consider these pioneer preachers. I especially summons Baptists to look upon these, their spiritual forbears, and to chasten their hearts in the exercise of reflecting upon the high moral worth of men, the quaintness and provincialism of some of whom there is danger that the superficial in our own relatively cosmopolitan day shall foolishly patronize, though they be unworthy to take off the shoes of such men. Macauley said that a people who do not honor the deeds of their worthy dead will do nothing worthy of being honored by their descendants. I affectionately invite our Baptist heart, and more especially the hearts of our young people, whose day of responsible leadership will be one step further removed than ours from the pioneers, to ponder much the heroism and moral worth of these spiritual ancestors. From the exercise we cannot but come back to the tasks of our own day with added strength and purpose. We cannot rightly understand either Baptist Missions in the South or the Baptist mission in the South till we understand them.


* There are a series of test questions at the end of chapter 2.

Test questions on chapter 2.

1. Describe the early Baptist preacher.
2. Tell of his fondness for the frontier places.
3. What of his education?
4. Give some evidences that he was not ignorant. Give an illustration of his wrong interpretation of texts.
5. What does Dr. Riley say of his passion for souls?
6. What of his salary? What does Dr. Pendleton say of a $400 salary in Kentucky in 1836? Quote Benedict on the support of early preachers in Virginia. Tell of the stipend of a pioneer preacher in South Carolina.
7. Give an estimate of the property owned by Baptist preachers in 1813. What does this indicate as to their business ability? How does it compare with their wealth now?
8. Name two causes of non-support.
9. What effect on pastoral support had the reaction from the Established Church?
10. Why were the early preachers well worth knowing?
11. Describe the work of Jesse Mercer in Georgia.
12. Tell the story of Shubal Stearns and Elnathan Davis.
13. Tell -of the conversion of Samuel Harriss in Virginia. What of his value as a preacher?
14. Tell of Richard Furman preaching before Congress.
15. Tell of Z. N. Morrell, of Tennessee, preaching on the streets of a pioneer Texas town.
16. Tell of Elder Morrell's night preaching in a pioneer school house and of the Indians.
17. Tell of the pioneer women and of Chloe Holt's brave deed to help Rev. Richard Curtis.
18. What is our Baptist debt to the early preachers? What of their dignity and worth?
19. Why should we honor their memory? What does Macauley say about honoring the deeds of the past?

[Victor I. Masters, Baptist Missions in the South, 1915, chapter 2, pp. 35-51. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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