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Sketches Of Tennessee's
Pioneer Baptist Preachers

James M. Pendleton

      Dr. J. M. Pendleton, preacher; theologian, author, and pioneer TEACHER of preachers, was a son of John and Frances J. Pendleton. He was born in Spottsylvania County, Virginia, November 20, 1811. He was named for the "greatly admired statesman," James Madison, who was then President of the United States. His mother was a Thompson, before her marriage, a daughter of Charles Thompson, of Virginia, a woman of good blood and breeding, of "excellence of character and amiable qualities." Both of his grandfathers were "natives of Virginia and of English descent." His paternal grandfather, Henry Pendleton, was a "freeholder" of Culpepper County, Virginia, and became a "soldier in the Revolutionary War." When James was one year old, his father, who had been teaching and selling goods, decided to "seek his fortune in what was then the new State of Kentucky," and taking his family with him, went "west." His destination was Christian County, Kentucky, where he settled down on a farm near the present town of Pembroke. Here young Pendleton was brought up to farm life, after the manner of the times, being "mill-boy" for the family till large enough for harder work on the farm, and, through the winter seasons, attending school. There was no school building in the neighborhood, but his father knew the art of teaching. Resuming, therefore, his "former vocation of teacher," the elder Pendleton gave land for a community school building, and the neighbors built the house. It was a "typical schoolhouse" of the pioneer days, built of "rough logs, chinked and daubed with red clay, parts of the logs cut out to let in the light, and panes of glass so adjusted as to keep out the cold; the floor was of dirt and the chimney had a fireplace six feet wide and four feet deep; the benches were made of slabs, and had no backs -- everything, it seemed, was so arranged as to keep the feet of the small children from reaching the floor." In this rude building, under the tuition of his father, James Pendleton got his start in his life-long pursuit of learning, made attainments in the knowledge of "spelling book" and "reader," and in due time reached "the rule of three" in arithmetic and learned something of "geography" and "grammar."

      For his early religious impressions he was indebted to his mother, who ever showed her concern for his spiritual welfare and talked to him often "about Christ and salvation," but not until he was fifteen years of age did he become really interested in religion. At this time he began in earnest to work out, in a legal and moral way, a "righteousness of his own," with the expectation of bringing God under obligation to save him on the ground of personal merit. But two years of unavailing struggle showed him the futility of his efforts, and left him still in spiritual darkness and unrest. In his search for light he chanced to get hold of a volume of sermons, by Samuel Davies, which he found in his father's library. The sermon which particularly attracted his attention was an exposition of I Corinthians 1:22-24, where Paul represents himself and others as "preaching Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to the called and saved, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." Something in the sermon gave him new light and a sense of peace. Elder John S. Willson, at this juncture, providentially becoming his spiritual guide, he was led in the way of salvation, and on the second Sunday of April, 1829, he related his "experience" of grace before Bethel Church, and was baptized, the Tuesday following, by Elder Willson, on a profession of his faith in Christ. In the warm glow of his "first love" he began to talk to sinners, tell his experience to penitents, pray in public, and exhort, on occasions. In February, 1830, his church "licensed" him to preach. The next two years he studied Latin grammar some, under an instructor in Russellville, taught school, and "accompanied different ministers on their preaching excursions." These preachers, Dr. Pendleton says, were not very "complimentary" in their remarks about his sermons. One of them said, "You certainly could do better if you would try." Another said, "You are scarcely earning your salt." The criticism of another was, "You say some pretty good things, but your preaching is neither adapted to comfort the saint nor alarm the sinner." But the last straw (suited to break the camel's back, but didn't) was a remark by a layman, "As God is omnipotent He, of course, can make a preacher of that young man." It is gratifying to know that young Pendleton survived these discouraging criticisms and made a preacher of rare ability. He was ordained at Hopkinsville, Kentucky, November 1, 1833, by a council composed of Reuben Ross, William Tandy, William C. Warfield and Robert Rutherford. He was pastor of Hopkinsville and Bethel churches for four years, dividing his time equally between the two churches. He became pastor of the Bowling Green Church the "first day of the year 1837 and continued there for twenty years, with the exception of a few months." His salary was $400 a year for all of his time. In January, 1857, he removed to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to teach theology to the preacher boys in Union University, and to become pastor of the church at that place. These positions he filled with efficiency and honor until the breaking out of the Civil War (1861), when the university was suspended. The following year he became pastor at Hamilton, Ohio, remaining there three years. In November, 1865, he became pastor of the Baptist church at Upland, Pennsylvania. This was the church of the wealthy and liberal Crozers, here was the seat of the Crozer Theological Seminary, and here was a great opportunity for a preacher and pastor of Dr. Pendleton's caliber. This was his greatest pastorate, continuing through a stretch of nearly eighteen years, in which he witnessed. under his preaching, great and wonderful revivals, baptizing at one time 200 converts, at another forty. He resigned this pastorate in June, 1883, having gone beyond his "three score and ten" years of life, and having safely passed the traditional, imaginary "dead-line" in the ministry.

      Going back some forty-five years, on March 13, 1838, Dr. Pendleton was married to Miss Catherine S. Garnett, daughter of Richard Garnett, of Glasgow, Kentucky. The happy couple, we are told, took their principal bridal tour on horseback, visiting friends in different places and going as far as Louisville. This was before the modern conveniences of "honeymoon" travel were extensively known in Kentucky. To this union were born seven children, two of them dying in infancy. A promising son, John M., between whom and his father were conscientious differences as to the war between the States, became a Confederate soldier, but was killed by a fragment of a shell before he ever fired a gun. This was a great grief to his father. His oldest daughter, Letitia, became the wife of Dr. James Waters, one of Tennessee's scholarly and able preachers. His second daughter, Fannie, was married to Prof. Leslie Waggoner, of Bethel College, Kentucky. His youngest daughter, Lila, was married to Mr. B. F. Proctor, a lawyer of Bowling Green, Kentucky. His only surviving son, Garnett. was educated at Rochester University, New York, graduating in 1875; took a law course in Philadelphia, and is now a prominent lawyer and Baptist in Chester, Pennsylvania.

      As a preacher Dr. Pendleton had an analytical mind, was clear in his statements, forcible in his thinking; was methodical, always following a prearranged, well-defined plan; was a model sermonizer. He was distinctly and eminently a doctrinal preacher and a teacher of the Word of God. He had a fertile brain and was a prolific writer. He was a constant writer for the denominational press and for local papers. He was the author of a number of books, pamphlets and tracts. His first book, "Three Reasons Why I Am a Baptist" (1853) was received with great favor by the denomination. Then followed "Sermons on Important Subjects," a "Church Manual," "The Atonement of Christ," " An Old Landmark Reset," "Christianity Susceptible of Legal Proof," "Church Discipline," "The Lord's Supper," "Christian Doctrines, a Compendium of Theology," "Brief Notes on the New Testament," etc. For several years he was one of the editors of the Tennessee Baptist, and for six years was one of the editors of the Southern Baptist Review. He was a painstaking but a very rapid writer, rarely, if ever, rewriting a paragraph or even a sentence. He wrote "Brief Notes on the New Testament" in exactly eight months. His last book, "Reminiscences of a Long Life," a book of more than 200 pages, was written "without notes," being reproduced from memory, in two months; he "began to write this on his seventy-ninth birthday, November 20, 1890, and finished it January 20, 1891."

      The writer has read most of Dr. Pendleton's published works, and with interest and profit, and so has many another preacher and layman in Tennessee and the Southland. His Church Manual is a standard among our churches. His "Notes" on the New Testament are found in the libraries of many of our preachers and Sunday school teachers. His ablest work, I dare say, is his "Christian Doctrines," a work that will never perish, "concise, yet comprehensive, simple, lucid, logical, Scriptural, "supplying a long-felt want in the curriculum of theological education and in the libraries of Christian households."

      Dr. Pendleton was a hard student, and systematic in all his work. As to physique and personal character he has been portrayed as of "medium height, well proportioned, firm of step as of convictions, a sincere friend, generous to every good cause according to his ability, unostentatious and affable with his friends, reserved among strangers, and cautious of his associations. His integrity of character and honesty of conviction were absolutely above suspicion, and were due to his abiding, unshaken trust in God" (J. W.).

      As a student and interpreter of Scripture it was his habit to rely more upon the original writings of the New Testament than upon versions or commentaries. He read the New Testament through in Greek twenty-seven times and more than once in Latin and French. The impact of his thinking upon American religious and political thought earned for him a national reputation.

      In the year 1865, Denison University, of Ohio, conferred upon him the honorary title of Doctor of Divinity.

      Dr. Pendleton had an ambition to be an "accomplished debater" -- and he was claiming nothing unjust, yielding to nothing unjust, his "grand supreme purpose being the establishment of truth." More than most men he had reason to be gratified in seeing, before he reached his journey's end, his ambition and efforts crowned with success.

      Toward the evening of life his sky was overshadowed by a dark cloud of sorrow: His beloved companion lost her eyesight, becoming permanently and hopelessly blind. But "nothing in their later years was more touching or beautiful than the lover-like devotion of the old man to one who, though stricken with blindness and the infirmities of age, ever remained to him the bride and the love of his youth." On the occasion of the celebration of their golden wedding (in the Baptist church, Bowling Green, Kentucky, where formerly he had been pastor so long), at the close of an address, in which he had briefly surveyed the bright mountain peaks and dark valleys of their married life, he turned to his wife with these words, pathetic and strangely touching: "Now, dearest one, it is fitting that I speak a word to you. There is no earthly object so dear to my heart. You are not as you were fifty years ago tonight. Then, with elastic step, you walked with me to the marriage altar, and we pledged to each other our vows of loyalty and love. I do not recognize that elastic step now. Then your face was fresh and blooming; now the freshness and bloom are gone, and wrinkles have taken their place, while gray hairs adorn your head. Then, and forty-six years afterward, the expression of your mild blue eyes was always a benediction; now that expression is no longer seen, For blindness has taken the place of sight. But, with these changes in you, my love has not changed. Bodily affliction has not eclipsed the intellectual and spiritual excellences of your character. You are the same to me, and no kiss during half a century has been more deeply expressive of my love than the one I now give you."

      Incidentally I have mentioned the fact that Dr. Pendleton was one of the editors of the Tennessee Baptist. Dr. J. R. Graves had long published that paper in Nashville; in 1858 Drs. J. M. Pendleton and A. C. Dayton became joint editors with him. He was already engaged to supply two columns a week for the paper, was a correspondent for other papers, was pastor of the Murfreesboro church, was theological professor in Union University, and giving four hours a day besides in teaching other classes, and working on his farm for recreation. He differed with his friends, Graves and Dayton, materially and radically, in regard to the war, particularly on the doctrine of States' rights. When they found it impossible to adjust their differences they parted company, but parted as friends, Dr. Pendleton adhering to the Union, Drs. Graves and Dayton going with the Southern Confederacy. In justice to Dr. Pendleton it ought to be said, that he never was an "Abolitionist," meaning by that that slavery was in itself a sin to be abolished by force, regardless of consequences, but was an "Emancipationist," believing that slavery ought to be done way with gradually and justly, according to State Constitution and law.

      After a strenuous and successful life of nearly sixty years the ministry, rapidly succumbing to capillary bronchitis, on March 4, 1891, Dr. Pendleton, the battle-scarred veteran, closed eyes and peacefully and painlessly made his exit.

"Life so sweetly ceased to be,
It lapsed in immortality."

      His dying testimony was: "It is grace, grace, from first to last. My hope is just what it was sixty years ago, and I go into eternity with the one hope and plea, that Jesus Christ died in the place of sinners."

      Memorial services were held, March 6, in the Baptist church of Bowling Green, Kentucky. By request of the deceased, Dr. T. T. Eaton, the funerals of whose father and mother Dr. Pendleton had preached years before, delivered the funeral address. Dr. W. H. Whittsitt, an old-time student, paid a just tribute to the memory of his former instructor. Others took part, and the choir in plaintive notes gave expression to the mingled feelings of sorrow and hope in the bosoms of a vast concourse of friends gathered to do honor to the dead. His mortal remains were deposited in the Fairview cemetery, one mile from Bowling Green. The Philadelphia Conference of Baptist Ministers, of which Dr. Pendleton had been so long a member, placed on record its deep feeling of loss in the passing of a "great and good man," who had been a "pillar of strength, a column of beauty, in the conference and in the denomination." The Board of Trustees of the Crozer Theological Seminary memorialized their "late colleague" in resolutions of appreciation of his "eminent worth" as a Christian and a minister, making special mention of his "indefatigable devotion as a trustee" to the interests of the institution. Also a memorial service wad held in the Baptist church at Upland, Pennsylvania, where Dr. Pendleton had been pastor for nearly a score of years, Pastor Williams, his successor, paying him a beautiful and just tribute, weaving, of polished, beautiful and eloquent discourse, of true and tender sentiments, a "fitting chaplet to lay upon his grave."


[Taken from J .J. Burnett, Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers, 1919, pp. 400-408. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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