Baptist History Homepage

William D. Nowlin
Baptist Minister and Historian
Baptist Biography, 1917
     A delightful clearness and strength of diction, deep, spiritual earnestness, abounding sympathy of heart, charm of person and address, with an unswerving loyalty to the truth, are the rare combination found in the Rev. William Dudley Nowlin. It is a combination realized in the consecration of talents of the highest order to the will of the Infinite - a work of grace, where there is something for grace to work with. A virile, titanic, richly endowed, and cultured character, as in the case of Saul of Tarsus, was sought out and "made a minister and witness" of Jesus, when the subject of this sketch yielded to influences that, without controversy, were of God.

     The story of how his ministry began illustrates the man. He had ambitions along other lines and had made some progress in a business career. Had there been no providential interruption of this plan of life, he would have been among our foremost business men of the country, but the interruption came - God having something better for him.

     He was the owner of a large drug business at the time he was literally thrust into the ministry by the church of which he was a member. He had not suggested it nor did he even know that such action was in contemplation when the church licensed him. The brethren who had known him from childhood voted the license without his consent. Of his own accord the pastor of the church which had now licensed the subject of this sketch made an appointment for him to preach at his church the next Sunday morning. This was Saturday and a busy day at the drug store, so that there was no opportunity to cancel the engagement, nor time to prepare for it until the store closed at a late hour. Devotion to duty being

one of Mr. Nowlin's ruling principles and since the pastor had made the appointment he decided to keep it and do his best. He felt that if he made a complete failure that it would convince the church, the Lord, and himself that he was not to preach and that he could go on with his own plans in satisfaction, but, alas, this did not happen.

     Unfortunately for these meditations, but fortunately for many an interest of the kingdom of God, he selected for his text Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God," and preached what the people still say was a great sermon of forty-five minutes.

     Shortly a country church called for his ordination and the church of which he was a member called a presbytery and set him apart to the full work of the ministry. This was done May 5th, 1892, by the First Baptist church, of Martin, Tennessee.

     William Dudley Nowlin was a child of grace and knew him whom he believed. From his sixteenth year, when he was baptized, he had loved and read the Bible and had loved and served its author. While he was in the drug business he wore out several Bibles reading and debating Bible doctrines. His drug store was headquarters for Bible discussions. But the store was disposed of and he launched out into the work of the ministry.

     He became pastor at Hickman, Kentucky, where he remained for three years, doing a. remarkably successful work, which was given up for a course in the Seminary at Louisville, Kentucky. The years 1895-98 were spent in the Seminary. During these years he was pastor of Parkland church in the city of Louisville. While he was in the Seminary one of our denominational leaders who was a trustee of the Seminary said: "Nowlin is the most promising man of the class," and some of his friends have declared since that "Nowlin has made good the prophecy." A call came from Nicholasville, Kentucky, which was accepted but which lasted but a little more than one year. From this pastorate he went to Lexington, the beautiful city of the Blue Grass, where as pastor of the Upper Street church he commanded large congregations and made his influence felt for salvation and denominational integrity; and

where he strengthened the church of which he was pastor, in members, in spirituality, and in ambition to achieve larger things for the Master. This pastorate lasted about six years. Before he left Lexington a lot was bought and the money raised for a new and larger building. Next, the subject of our sketch went to the Third Baptist church, Owensboro, Kentucky, one of the largest and most aggressive churches in the State. The auditorium of this church has a seating capacity of 2,700 and it was often taxed to its limits to hear this eloquent champion of the truth. The great Dr. T. T. Eaton said in an editorial in the Western Recorder: "Dr. W. D. Nowlin is preaching to more people one service with another than any man in the State, if not more than any man in the South." This pastorate lasted about five years. Other pastorates held were Mayfield, Kentucky, and Lakeland, Florida. In these places, as in all others, this faithful servant of Jesus made full proof of his ministry. Georgetown College honored him by conferring upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1904, just before he left Lexington for Owensboro.

     A feature of Dr. Nowlin's ministry to which attention must be paid is his success in building up Sunday-school attendance. When he went to Owensboro, the Sunday-school attendance was three hundred the first Sunday of his pastorate. Before he left he had reached one thousand three hundred and more in Sunday-school attendance. While at Lakeland, Florida, he had the largest Sunday-school in the State. At Deaderick Avenue, Knoxville, Tennessee, where he is now pastor, 1916, the attendance was five hundred and fifty-seven when he became pastor, but four months from that date there were one thousand eight hundred and forty-six present in Sunday-school.

     Dr. Nowlin has distinguished gifts as a parliamentarian which were recognized when he was elected moderator of the General Association of Kentucky Baptists, which office he held two years, the time limit. While he was in Florida he was vice-president of the State Convention and presided largely over two sessions. Dr. Nowlin is one of the few men who never loses his head, whether in discussion or presiding over a body. Quick wit and undisturbable

good humor, which are essential in a presiding officer, are guaranteed by our brother of Scotch-Irish blood. In the Southern Baptist Convention he is always drafted for the work of the boards and committees and is always given a Sunday preaching appointment during the Convention. Soul winning is one of the first things in the ministry of Dr. Nowlin.

     No one loves to do a kindly deed more than he. His helping hand reaches to all - even the worst of the worst. He loves to hope good things for the down and out, therefore he is diligent in following the Master's example in extending an uplifting hand. Nothing could make him so unhappy as a ministry barren of fruit. However, he has never suffered this embarrassment, for his ministry has been abundantly successful. Many of our leading pastors have called for Dr. Nowlin's services in evangelistic work and have found him very successful and satisfactory. The calls were so numerous and urgent upon our brother for evangelistic services that he gave up the pastorate for a time and did evangelistic work altogether for more than a year and a half. During this time the largest cities of the South and West availed themselves of the services of this stalwart of the faith, and meetings that were famous for results were reported. Dr. Nowlin, as an evangelist, is of the D. L. Moody and R. A. Torry type. He is not sensational, but draws from the Bible vast treasures of truth and from human life apt and striking illustrations which he drives home with tremendous force.

     Evangelistic and Chautauqua engagements brought Dr. Nowlin and the Lakeland church together. The church recognizing the unusual gifts of the preacher and lecturer and being pastorless extended to him a call. At this time the affairs of the Florida Baptist Witness were in confusion and Dr. Nowlin was asked to take it over. He became the owner and editor of the paper, doing this work in connection with his Lakeland pastorate. For years he had been a popular contributor to the denominational press. The Western Recorder, Baptist and Reflector, and other papers bore eloquent evidences of his eminent gifts as a writer. The Florida paper at once showed the touch of a master hand. Articles of rare

and permanent value began to appear, and the circulation of the paper, within a short time, was more than doubled. Dr. Nowlin believes that "it is just as easy to do a big thing as it is a small thing; in fact, easier, for the very bigness of the thing creates enthusiasm and lends momentum to the movement." "Plan your work and work your plan" is his motto.

     Dr. Nowlin is a Baptist who believes in and loves his denomination and one who never fails to stand for his faith. While he is both able and willing to defend his faith he is in no sense an ecclesiastical pugilist, yet the whole truth found utterance in his paper. This stirred up Pedo-Baptist adversaries, and not knowing their man, they swarmed out as numerous and as noisy as the locust in Egypt and then, when they discovered what they had struck, they swarmed back at a much livelier rate and kept quiet so long as he remained in the State. His removal from Florida was a distinct loss and was greatly deplored by the Baptist hosts at large who recognized in him their honored champion of the truth, capable of meeting every enemy, and a leader whom they could safely and proudly follow.

     As an orator Dr. Nowlin has few equals. His oratory is cyclonic in its sweep; his logic is invincible; his appeal is irresistible.

     At this writing, 1916, he is pastor of Deaderick Avenue church, Knoxville, Tennessee, the largest church in the State, where he is preaching to multitudes as one who has authority.

     The subject of this sketch was born in Weakley county, Tennessee, March the 10th, 1864. His father, William David Nowlin, was of Irish descent, while his mother, Caroline Glass, was of Scotch and English descent. He was reared on the farm. He was educated in Hickory Grove Academy, West Tennessee, the Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., and the University of Chicago.

     He was married November 10, 1887, to Mattie W. Wood, a woman of splendid education, good sense and piety, who is to him a great blessing.

     Dr. Nowlin is at this time in the prime of his splendid manhood and the vigor of his strength - doing the best preaching of his life.

[From Balus J. W. Graham, editor, Baptist Biography, Volume 1, 1917, pp. 278-282.

Baptist Biographies
Baptist History Homepage